Topics in Kushan History Kushan History

Women in Kushan India

Epigraphic Evidence for the Status of Women

In 1961 Penguin published the Kama Sutra, the first time the book had gone on general sale in England. The volume is a wonderfully multilayered social history. The earliest layer is the Kama Sutra itself. On top of this is layered the decisions of the Victorian translators, who were so shocked by some sections that they simply edited them out of existence. Lastly the introduction contains the responses of a historian in 1960. Three layers, each expressing different views and each reacting to the views in the layers below. All three have something in common, they could all be used by a historian to write something about the 'History of Women', in Ancient India, Victorian England or the 1960's. And it is men, not women, who have produced all these layers. At no point in the process has a woman had any involvement in producing the texts.

Many historians are happy to use this sort of evidence for the study of women. In the process they have relegated women to a subordinate role in history, as wives and mothers of the men who made things happen. Since the 1960s pressure by feminist groups has made historians rethink the sort of history they write. The scope of historical studies has been broadened to include women's voice, and history has been richer for it. But to write this sort of history requires sources, sources that involve women in a way that the Kama Sutra does not. How can a women's voice be heard without sources that are produced by women. So historians have concentrated on recent centuries from which the diaries and writings of women have survived. Other centuries are simply ignored, as the problems of evidence are too intractable.

To redress the balance by writing a comprehensive history of women in the Kushan Empire would be an epic task but there is one source of evidence which could have a dramatic effect on the traditional view of Indian women's history. That source is the series of dated inscriptions that survive from the century between Kanishka's ascencion and the death of Vasudeva. Many of these inscriptions were commissioned by women, so they can tell us something useful about the lives of women in this period. But not all women, it is important to qualify the last statement. The inscriptions cover one century (about) of Kushan rule in India. They do not include the early, or late, periods of Kushan rule. And most of the inscriptions are from the region around Mathura. There are very few inscriptions from Gandhara or Bactria, in the north of the Kushan Empire. So the source is only useful for saying something about fairly wealthy, urban, Indian, second and third century women.

What inscriptions say about women

The purpose of most of the inscriptions is religious. Many are placed within monasteries, and were probably accompanied by valuable donations to the monks or nuns. Some contributions may have been in the form of food, or labour for monumental works. But all the inscriptions commemorate the actions of a particular patron, whether the patronage is directed to a religious or secular location.

Of the women who appear on the inscriptions there are two broad categories. The first consists of wives, mothers and daughters. These women are all described by their familial relations to someone else. Rarely this family relation is a woman but more often it is a husband or father. None of these women are described by their profession. This is a stark contrast with men, whose profession is usually used on inscriptions. The second broad group of women are those following a religious vocation. Nuns are commonly mentioned on inscriptions, making donations and instigating donations. These Nuns are divided between the two main religions, Jain and Buddhist. In both religions Nuns are further identified by their sect and teacher. In some cases quite lengthy lines of teachers are given. These two broad categories encompass all the women that are mentioned on the inscriptions.
Dedications by Women Dedications by Men Dedications by Monks Dedications by Nuns
Buddhist Inscriptions 11 7 8 15
Jain Inscriptions 31 3 4 2
Other Religious Inscriptions 7
Secular Inscriptions 2

These inscriptions imply two things. Firstly that women, or at least rich women, were extremely limited in their public role. Secondly, religion provided women with an opportunity to exercise their own authority. The two implications are in conflict. The women in the inscriptions are constantly identified in terms of men, and with the exception of Nuns do not hold any positions of authority or any profession. This is a sign of the male domination of the contemporary society. Yet women are disposing of large amounts of income, in the form of religious donations. Income which they do not seem to have earned.

The inscriptions also tell us something about the importance of women in attracting donations. Women form a majority of the religious figures that occur in the inscriptions. Most of these women are not making dedications themselves, instead they are listed as having instigated the donation of a secular figure. Two such inscriptions survive for a Jain preacher called Vasula. In 130 AD her female teacher, Sangamika, elicited a donation from a housewife called Kumaramitra. 71 years later, Vasula now in her eighties, elicited a donation from a second housewife (whose name is not known). Vasula probably succeeded in bringing a great many such donations to the Jain monastery near Mathura in her long lifetime. Vasula's activity was exceptional only in the length of her career. The inscriptions are filled with such women, like the Buddhist Nun Buddhamitra. These female members of religions were vital to monasteries in attracting donations.

There is also no evidence in the inscriptions for separate orders of men and women. Female Nuns such as Buddhamitra were taught by male monks as regularly as they are taught by women. And the same institutions indicate male and female teachers in inscriptions. The strict division of orders by sex, which was so important in Western Europe because it split the useful religious work of men from the use of Nunneries as dumping grounds for dangerous or inconvenient women, simply is not present in the inscriptions. Instead there is evidence that points to a large scale involvement of women in the history of Indian religion.

The traditional view of Indian women

There is some literature on the status of women in Ancient India. Much of this is concerned with the supposed loss of rights that women suffered in the prehistoric period. Or with the status of women in recent history. Historians who have looked at the status of women in the early centuries of Indian history have based their work on literary sources, mostly from the Gupta Empire, and their conclusions have been painted in the rather broad strokes of the sources. Jeannine Auboyer, who wrote a book on Daily Life in Ancient India, assumed that the status and life of women was the same across all of India and remained unaltered from the second century BC under Asoka to the coming of the Muslims in the seventh century AD. The obvious problem with this approach is that it ignores the constant influx of foreign people and ideas, as well as the possibility of regional or temporal variation.

This traditional view of women assumes that they were fulfilled only in marriage and the bearing of children. It relegates Indian women to a purely domestic role, and suggests that they had no role in the public arena. Even in the home the traditional view suggests that women were closely supervised by their husbands. The husband was expected to control the income and expenditure of the household. This is in stark contrast to the inscriptions which indicate that women, rather than men were disposing of the income.

The traditional view is equally disparaging of women in religion. Dutt states that Buddhist Nuns were more limited in their role and were supervised by the monks. This attitude is backed by the silence of social historians. The traditional view simply assumes that religious matters were the province of men, and that women would play a minor role both in numbers and importance. This traditional view finds support in many Buddhist tales where Nuns are seen as being disadvantaged in their quest for enlightenment.

Such views are not simply a reflection of the sources, they also serve a purpose in the modern world. By presenting the history of women in India as a uniform picture of subservience they help to justify the patriarchal system of modern India. A single passage from Richard Champions introduction to the Kama Sutra illustrates this:

'Unlike her Western sisters, she [Indian Women] knows her natural place in the scheme of things, and is contented in her knowing, in the performance of her functions, and in doing in the household (and for society as a whole) only what a woman can do.'


The traditional view and the inscriptions produce two conflicting conclusions. To reconcile these it is important to recognise the very different sorts of evidence that they are based on. The traditional view is condition mostly by literary sources from the Gupta period, written by men. Some of this literature, like the Kama Sutra may originate slightly earlier in the Kushan period but even they have been edited and filtered during the Gupta period. In contrast the inscriptions cluster around a single city, Mathura, and provide evidence only for a very limited group of women. Under these circumstances it is not surprising that the two sources provide different pictures of women.

There is some Buddhist material which supports a stronger position for women in Buddhism. Vasabandhu, one of the great Gupta writers on Buddhism, states in his Abhidharmakasa (ch.4 v.13-15) that there are eight or four classifications of practising monastic discipline, depending in whether men are classified with or separately from women. Such a dispute indicates that in some places or times women were accorded a status equal to men. It is this area of dispute into which the inscriptions fit.

The traditional view assumes that women are simply subordinate to men. In general terms this is true. Indian society in Kushan times is very patriarchal. But it would be better to think of women's roles varying in different spheres of activity. In the sphere of rulership and administration women have no place, and there are no female officials mentioned in the inscriptions. Nor are there any women mentioned in the professional sphere of activity. In these spheres women have no part to play. They are relegated to the domestic sphere. However, in the religious sphere there is no clear domination by men or women. Both men and women have a role in religion, though Vasabandhu shows that the extent of this role can be disputed. In this religious sphere women have the opportunity to negotiate new boundaries, where the power relationships are less clear cut.

It is this sort of negotiation that can be seen in the inscriptions. Women are gaining control of the religious sphere both by asserting their right to act as patrons and also by proving their worth in attracting the patronage of other women. This gives this small group of wealthy women an important voice, both in their own lives and the history of two major religions, Judaism and Buddhism.

The Nun Buddhamitra The Fourth Buddhist Council Bibliography

One century is a little inaccurate. Some of the inscriptions belong to the kings Vasishka, Kanishka II and Kanishka III. They belong to the century after Vasudeva, though they are numbered as if they were part of the period between Kanishka and Vasudeva. This does not affect the whole issue as no chronological argument is made.
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