Who can forget the story of the nun who gives her eyes to her most ardent suitor in order to fully dedicate herself to her Buddhist practice? It is this and 100 other Buddhist poems written by elder nuns in the Therīgāthā Pāli that Siddharth Singh, professor at Banaras Hindu University’s Pali and Buddhist Studies department, is currently translating for the first time to Hindi.

Professor Singh’s goal is to increase the awareness of the important role that women had in ancient Buddhism. Therīgāthā Pāli, frequently translated as Verses of the Elder Nuns, is a series of poems written by nuns as early as the 6th BCE. Professor Singh is also translating the accompanying commentary, Therīgāthā Atthakathā Pāli, written by Dhammapāla in the 7th CE, to give Hindi speakers a deeper understanding of the 101 poems found in the original text.

When asked about the translation project, Professor Singh says, “I consider it a good idea to draw the attention of Indian society toward this unique Buddhist text, which renders such creative and poetic utterances of the Buddha’s women disciples. The text illustrates how Buddhism was the only ancient Indian path that understood the immense potential of women and opened the door of liberation for them.”

In addition to showcasing the equality between men and women practioners, the poems gives a glimpse into what it was like to be a woman in ancient India. Verses include the story of a grieving mother who finds solace in Buddhism, the journey of an aging courtesan, and a blessing from Pajapati, Siddhartha Gautama’s maternal aunt.

“Indian society should be aware of the ancient and still relevant contribution of the Buddha’s teachings regarding gender justice and ancient Buddhism’s revolution, which believed in the common women’s potential, freedom and equality,” Professor Singh says in his Ashoka Grant application. “The women Buddhist masters of Therīgāthā show the path for the present generation and challenge the conspired walls of the tradition preventing the participation of women in various spheres of life.”

The project is expected to conclude with both translations at the end of 2020.