Abstract: Tracing the History of Nuns in South Asia

by Prof. Dr. Peter Skilling

École française d’Extrême-Orient, Bangkok

The study of the history of Buddhist nuns (bhiksuni) in South Asia is not easy. From a very early period, the Buddhist monastic order (samgha) developed into several different ordination lineages – lines of transmission of bhiksu and bhiksuni status, all claiming to descend from Sakyamuni Buddha himself. With the passage of time these lineages became more and more distinct, and as a result there were several orders or communities of monks and nuns, spread over a vast and diverse area, from Nepal to Sri Lanka, from Gandhara to Eastern India. At least some of the nuns’ lineages were active in South Asia for nearly 1500 years. But there is no written narrative history of even one of the lineages; nor are there any histories of their male counterparts, the orders of monks.

How, then can we attempt to trace the history of nuns in South Asia? The most reliable sources we have are epigraphic records, inscriptions on stone or on metal. The earliest written records of ancient India – the inscriptions of King Asoka – contain the earliest historical mention of nuns. Asoka believed that for the Buddha’s teachings to flourish, all four ‘assemblies’ of Buddhism – monks, nuns, laymen, and laywomen – should live in harmony. It is clear that he saw nuns as an important religious and social body.

After the time of Asoka, we find inscriptions throughout South Asia which record donations to or by nuns, whether as individuals or as communities. The inscriptions give us some idea of the social and even economic status of nuns, of their religious roles and their aspirations. Inscriptions are social and often legal documents, and we must always bear in mind their specific historical contexts. Inscriptions attest to the presence of bhiksunis at certain times or certain places, but they do not furnish a continuous narrative history. The absence of inscriptions does not mean, ipso facto, an absence of nuns. This must be borne in mind when we ask one of the most difficult questions: when did the orders of nuns die out in India?

Other sources for the study of nuns’ orders in South Asia include the accounts of foreign travellers, most famously the monk-pilgrims who travelled from China to India in quest of the Dharma and of scriptures and relics. Buddhist monastic and narrative literature, and Indian literature in general, are both valuable sources, as codifications and expressions of norms, ideals, and mentalities related to nuns and monasticism. The present paper focus on inscriptions as primary sources for the history of Buddhist nuns.