ABSTRACT

As Diana Paul has noted in Women in Buddhism: Images of the Feminine in the Mahāyāna Tradition (1985), there is a wide range of attitudes expressed towards women in Mahāyāna sūtra literature. One of the more positive literary images of a woman is found in the Śrīmālādevī-siṃhanāda-sūtra, wherein we find queen Śrīmālā portrayed as a Buddhist heroine and powerful Dharma teacher. 1 However, I would suggest that, taken as a whole, there is an even more affirm-ative depiction of Buddhist women found in the Gaṇḍavyūha. Although the Gaṇḍavyūha is unquestionably an androcentric text (the hero, the most important good friends, and all buddhas and bodhisattvas mentioned by this title are gendered male), women characters appear to play a more significant and positive role in this sūtra than any other Mahāyāna text. Of Sudhana’s 53 encounters, 21 are with female friends, which occupy approximately 51 per cent of the total text. Sudhana’s visit to Gopā, the wife of the Buddha, is the second-longest section (only the Maitreya section is longer) and constitutes 8.9 per cent of the story. Sudhana’s meetings with ten goddesses constitute about 30 per cent of the entire narrative. Moreover, the eight night goddesses relate a number of embedded narratives in the form of avadānas about their past lives to our hero, which provide further information about the sūtra’s construction of gender.