"Not just bhikkhuni sangh, even bhikkhu sangh had disappeared from India. While the bhikkhu sangh has managed to revive itself, the bhikkhus are now saying that the women's order cannot be revived," Bhante Suniti tells me on a phone call.
Bhante Suniti, 59, received full ordination as a bhikkhuni (Buddhist nun) in 2013 while her sister and colleague Bhante Vijaya Maitriya, 55, was ordained in 2021. They are among only a hundred-odd women in India to have received upasampada, the higher ordination rite after which a novice becomes a nun.
Now they want to bring together other bhikkhunis and also train samaneris (novice nuns) into becoming more disciplined and more engaged with Buddhism so that they can spread the message of the Buddha and Dr BR Ambedkar among the laity.
As parts of these efforts, for this year's Dhamma Chakra Pravartan Din on Wednesday, 5 October, Bhante Suniti and Bhante Vijaya Maitriya have set up a photo exhibition at Deekshabhoomi to showcase the life and work of bhikkhunis from across India so that the larger society would take note of their existence and contributions.
Ambedkar's Conversion to Buddhism
After his engagement with the question of religion for many decades, Dr Ambedkar converted to Buddhism on 14 October 1956 on Vijayadashami with his six lakh followers at a venue in Nagpur that is now known as Deekshabhoomi. Since then, thousands of Ambedkarites gather at Deekshabhoomi every year on Vijayadashami in an event called Dhamma Chakra Pravartan Din.
While Buddhism flourished in South Asia and beyond in the post-Ashokan period, it almost vanished from the Indian soil in the second millennium of the common era. Naturally, the male monastic order (bhikkhu sangh) and female monastic order (bhikkhuni sangh) also disappeared.
Tamil social reformer and anti-caste activist Iyothee Thassar played an important role in reviving Buddhism in the southern parts of India but it was only after Ambedkar's conversion in 1956 that the number of Buddhists in India went up dramatically.
According to 2011 census, the population of Buddhists in the country was 84 lakh, out of which more than 65 lakh were from Maharashtra.
Bhante Suniti: From Law to Dhamma
Bhante Suniti and Bhante Vijaya Maitriya grew up in a Buddhist family. Their father had adopted Buddhism with Ambedkar in 1956, and later participated actively in the Ambedkarite movement.
Bhante Suniti shared an anecdote from her childhood. "Wherever there was any event, my father used to take me with him. When I was in the seventh standard, my father insisted that I learn and recite Dhammapada in English at one event. I received 250 rupees as a prize. My dad was very proud of the fact that I was studying in an English medium school," she said.
Bhante Suniti worked with Samata Sainik Dal in 1982-83 in Nagpur. Later she moved to Kalyan where she started working with her parents in the movement work. After she completed her law education, earning LLM in 1991, she started practising in courts in the Thane-Kalyan area before turning to the NGO sector.
She joined the Delhi-based organisation Marg in 2001, while in 2005, she moved to the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights (NCDHR) as national legal secretary. At the NCDHR, her work involved educating and training people about the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Act.
In 2006, she decided to renounce the life of a householder and become a samaneri. Bhante Suniti believes that the renunciation sharpened the focus of her work. "Dhamma and the law are one and the same. If you break the law, you are punished and that punishment is given by the State. Dhamma says that if you break the law, whether you are punished by the State or not, you receive punishment anyway," she told me.
Bhante Suniti received higher ordination, or upasampada, to become a bhikkhuni in 2013. She says that the 2013 event was historic because it was the first time (in modern times) that the Indian samaneris were ordained by Indian bhikkhunis.
"The Buddha was Indian. Buddhism originated here and spread to other parts. Then why should we have to call outsiders to ordain us? The women who had received upasampada in 1998 were senior bhikkhunis (theris) by 2013. I wanted to be ordained by Indian bhikkhunis and hence I took the lead in convincing the theris to act as uppajhya. I was given upasampada by Bhikkhuni Vishakha."– Bhante Suniti
The 1998 event that Bhante Suniti alludes to was historic too. It was at this event in Bodh Gaya that the Indian samaneris were ordained as bhikkhunis for the first time in modern times.
Interestingly, all the 28 women who received upasampada at this event hailed from Maharashtra and were followers of Dr Ambedkar.
Bhikkhuni Vishakha, who died in February this year, was one of them. She had been ordained as samaneri way back in 1967 but had to wait till 1998 to receive upasampada as bhikkhuni. There is a reason for her long wait.
For a samaneri to be ordained as a bhikkhuni, there needs to be a quorum of bhikkhus as well as bhikkhunis. (In the ordination of male disciples, bhikkhunis don't play any role.) Since the bhikkhuni sangha had ceased to exist in India, there were no bhikkhunis to preside over the ordination. The bhikkhuni sangh had disappeared from Sri Lanka, Thailand and Myanmar as well – the countries that follow Theravada school of Buddhism.
Many Maharashtrian bhikkhus too follow Theravada and are of the opinion that since Theravadin bhikkhunis do not exist, the bhikkhuni sangh cannot be revived. They refused to acknowledge the Bodh Gaya ordination on the grounds that it was a Mahayana event.
"India is a patriarchal country. The male domination that we see in other religions, people are trying to enforce the same in Buddhism too. Men feel that women should not become equal to us. If a woman is ordained as a bhikkhuni, she becomes an equal to a bhikkhu and they don't want to give that position to them. That is why this opposition."– Bhante Vijaya Maitriya
However, despite male opposition, the number of bhikkhunis has gradually increased in the last three decades – in India as well as other Theravada countries such as Sri Lanka and Thailand. Most bhikkhunis in India hail from Maharashtra.
Breaking With Tradition
In the Buddhist tradition, bhikkhuni sangh is considered subordinate to the bhikkhu sangh. In the ordination of men – either as samaner or bhikkhu – bhikkhuni sangh plays no role.
However, in a move that clearly challenges patriarchy, Rajratna Ambedkar, who is the great grand-nephew of Babasaheb Ambedkar and current president of the Buddhist Society of India, was, on Tuesday, 4 October, ordained by the bhikkhuni sangh at Deekshabhoomi. Bhante Suniti served as preceptor at this event.
Bhante Vijaya Maitriya tells the story of her ordination, "I became a samaneri in 2013. The reason I got ordained was because I wanted to show that women too can take on the robes of a samaneri, even temporarily."
She stated that bhikkhus organise short duration dhamma camps for boys during vacation, for which the boys take on samaner robes and after the camp is over, they return home to their older life. "Why should this option not be available for women?" she asked.
Bhante Vijaya Maitriya was ordained as a bhikkhuni last year. The two sisters are now fighting for a wider recognition and respect for all Indian bhikkhunis. Bhante Vijaya Maitriya recently released her new book in Hindi titled Bhikkhuni Sangh ka Itihas, which, as the title suggests, is a history of the bhikkhuni sangh. She has authored eight books so far on topics such as Buddhism, history and caste.
While fighting patriarchy within Buddhism is high on the sisters' agenda, they are also committed to fighting social ills within society in general.
They have visited many places across the country in the last two decades conducting training sessions and organising camps. They have trained samaneris, conducted educational camps for children, and given dhamma sermons to inmates.
While they preach dhamma, they also include anti-caste, Ambedkarite thought in their discourses. For example, they organise camps dedicated to just studying and discussing Ambedkar's most famous text, Annihilation of Caste.
They now run an organisation called Mahaprajapati Gautami Educational Foundation, which has a base in Nagpur. The name of the organisation is a nod to the Buddha's foster mother Mahaprajapati Gautami, who was the first woman to be ordained as a bhikkhuni.
"Our revolution is a revolution of thoughts. We don't need to pick up weapons for that," says Bhante Vijaya Maitriya.