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“Sumangala’s Mother,” is a story about the wife of a hats and shade-umbrella maker. She was a member of the earliest community of women followers of Shakyamuni Buddha. Allot of these women left accounts of their practice in poems, which were then collected in a volume known as the Therigatha. The boldness of the author of this poem, and all of the women who contributed to the writings of the Therigatha has helped pave the way for better lives of women, from the time it was written all the way to present day. This paper will look at this poem using feminist criticism. Also, it will define feminist criticism, show the struggle of women at the time the poem was written, and analyze the poem showing the role of women in literature.
First, feminist criticism examines gender politics in works and traces the subtle construction of masculinity and femininity, and their relative status, positioning, and marginalization’s within works (Delahoyde). Feminist criticism concerns itself with stereotypical representations of genders. It also may trace the history of relatively unknown or undervalued women writers, potentially earning them their rightful place within the literary ranks, and helps create an environment in which women’s creativity may be fully realized and appreciated. While researching this topic one will frequently hear the term “patriarchy” used among feminist critics, referring to traditional male-dominated society. “Marginalization” refers to being forced to the outskirts of what is considered socially and politically significant, and the female voice was traditionally marginalized, or discounted altogether.
At the time this poem was written (6th Century BCE) women had almost no rights. Although there were educated women, their position and status was usually very low. Women were not allowed to talk with men in public, and at one point even the Buddha even refused to admit women in the sangha (Green). In the long history of Buddhism, the female has frequently been perceived as a disturbing element and a source of disorientation. Although women were allowed to participant in the Sangha, a woman was not primarily defined by the tradition as a member of a community of individuals aspiring for spiritual attainment. Rather, she is seen firstly in terms of her female-ness, that is, as a symbol of sexuality:”Woman is conspicuously absent, or she appears in as much as she is an element of the Buddhist discourse on sexuality: not for herself, as individual, but as one pole of attraction or repulsion in a gendered male discourse about sex. Denied the role of a subject in this discourse, she is primarily the emblem of larger generative, karmic or social processes, with positive or negative stereological value” (Dharmachari).
The Therigatha, the ninth book of the Khuddaka Nikaya, consists of 73 poems with 522 stanzas in all, in which the early nuns (bhikkhunis) recount their struggles and accomplishments along the road to arahantship. Their stories are told with often heart-breaking honesty and beauty, revealing the deeply human side of these extraordinary women, and thus serve as inspiring reminders of our own potential to follow in their footsteps (Bullitt). One thing that is especially notable about the poems of the Therigatha is the way the women who composed them express a kind of joy and relief in the freedom they have found through the Buddha’s teachings. This freedom is often expressed in comparison with their former state as wives or daughters and is very present in “Sumangala’s Mother”. The women who authored this, and other writings like it, were champions of feminist cause for those times. Buddhism and feminism can be seen as particularly linked with each other. Both are concerned with emancipation, and with broadening ones self-view which would otherwise remain restricted.
In the end the boldness of these women for writing all of these poems and stories has had a direct effect on the lives of women, both past and present. Because the widespread education of women was not very common until the 19th century, the arena of literature was once largely male dominated. The role of women was more often to inspire rather than to create. Since then, the literary contributions of women have become increasingly important. More and more women have become storytellers, poets and prophets, the authors of dreams and ideas the voices to whom we listen. It has inspired women all around the world to realize there worth, and stand up for the rights of themselves and other women. Using feminist criticism has shown the struggles of women at the time of this poem. It has also allowed one to look at the role of women in literature, and see how these small contributions can have the greatest effect on the lives of women even centuries after they are written.
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