Sexual Desires: Buddha, Butler and Bodies

This is a conversation on the histories of desire in the Indian subcontinent, a conversation that is centuries old. We began thinking about subcontinental desires while reading aloud the poems by the therīs¹.  We were drawn in by theri  Siha’s poem who said that she had “…had no peace of mind” because she was tormented by her sexual desires (Hallisey 53) and by theri Nanduttara who writes about wanting to do her body a “favour/ with baths and massages?” (Hallisey 57). 

We came across Qurbatein’s Call for Papers for Issue 3, through the Queer Qrew, our college’s queer collective. Their Head had shared an Instagram post about Issue 3 and every word in the caption nudged us to pick up the Therīgāthā again. A professor encouraged us to engage with these songs during a course on ‘Women Philosophers,’ where we also discussed Judith Butler. We hence used some of Butler’s theorizations to explore the Buddhist understandings of the female body and sexuality. 

Simply put, the Therīgāthā (2015) is a collection of firsts, translated by Charles Hallisey; It is a collection of poems written by and about the experiences of the first Buddhist nuns. It is considered the world’s first anthology of women’s literature. Dhammapala, a sixth-century Buddhist commentator on the Therīgāthā, described these gāthās, or poems, as udāna ‒ “inspired utterances” in the Buddhist speech genre. The poems glorify individual transformation, focusing on the human journey, liberation, ways of living, and among other things, gender and sexuality (Hallisey vii-xxxii; Upadhayay).

“We decided to focus primarily on three of the poems.  The first one is by Siha, who was constantly overwhelmed by her compulsive desire for sex which took a toll on her body. Her  “mind was set free” (53) the very moment she hopelessly tried ending their own life. The second one is by Nanduttara who, troubled by her urge for sex, abandoned all worldly pleasure (57). The third poem is by Khema where she narrates how Mara, Lord of the Senses and Death, makes sexual advances to her and invites her towards him so that they can “enjoy each other” (79). But Khema rejects him while abiding by Buddha’s teachings  and replies back with,“what you take as pleasure is not for me” (79).

 From our very first reading we kept discovering the vilification of female sexual desire. For instance, desire for sex leaves Nanduttara “vexed,” (57) and Siha “pained,” (53) and Khema remembers her former pleasures as a “mental darkness” (79).  Moreover, Siha describes her state in desire as one that was “always disturbed”(53). This negative portrayal is further exemplified by the presence of God Mara in Khema’s verse. Mara is the Lord of Death and Senses including unskilful emotions like greed, hate and delusion, and appears in several Buddhist legends. He is most recognised for his role in disrupting the spiritual endeavours that led to the enlightenment of the Buddha. Mara, whose name means “destruction” embodies the passions that entrap and deceive. His suggestive invitation to Khema, “let’s enjoy each other” (79),  alludes to him being the embodiment of desire and lust as well (O’Brien). 

Thus, we became curious about Buddhist views on female sexuality. Diana Y. Paul studies the ambiguous notion of sexuality for women in Mahayana² literature. According to her, “women were bound to their bodies because of their ingrained sexual desires” (Paul 69). The feminine has a history of being connected to the weak, passive, and the  physical in many cultures across the world ‒ defined in relation to its opposite and more valued term in the dichotomous pairing: the strong, active, and mindful masculine (Hooper 43). Two cosmic structures—sacred and profane, metaphorically depicted as masculine and feminine—emerge in dualistic antagonism. This dualism is symbolized in early Buddhism by attributing sensuality and ignorance to the feminine and meditation and wisdom to the masculine. Thus, association with the feminine was seen as “spiritually polluting” (Paul 69).  Sexuality, here is seen as an attribute emerging from a sexed person in the form of their desire. Interestingly, one of the most prominent bases of sexuality studies until the 1980s was the ‘sex-desire nexus.’ As pointed out by Foucault in The History of Sexuality, this framework leads to a essentialist understanding of desire following from sexuality (particularly in the case of the female as shown above), making sex an abstract category that “regulates bodies in uniform ways” (Butler, “Revisiting Bodies 12). 

Moreover, the emphasis on sex, especially the scepticism towards it, leads to bodies being thought of and experienced in terms of sexual difference between the male and the female. This is made more evident by the ways of overcoming these desires according to Buddhism. Nanduttara attained “…peace of mind” when her “urge for sex was no more” (57). Khema proudly proclaims before Mara: “evil one, you are defeated, you are finished” because “my craving for sex has been rooted out” (79). This renunciation of sexual desire for spiritual enlightenment can be linked to the female body as well, which was considered inferior to the pure and perfect male body. In the context of the Bodhisattva, the idealized Buddhist practitioner, women were denied birth into the pure land unless they despised their female nature (Paul 64). Only despising their female nature would lead to their birth as a man into the pure land and finally towards spiritual enlightenment. While men too had to give up sexual and bodily needs to gain birth into the pure land, there were no specific vows for them to despise their own bodies (Paul 64).

Therefore, we can see a socially instituted gender asymmetry between the masculine and the feminine. As shown by the quoted verses, gender, and especially when it comes to the female body, is “a relation, indeed, a set of relations, and not an individual attribute” (Butler, Gender Trouble 13). Often, the feminine tends to be identified as the ‘other’ to the masculine. The masculine gender tends to be conferred as a universal personhood. While men are praised as being bearers of “a body-transcendent universal personhood,” (Butler, Gender Trouble 14) women tend to be defined in terms of their sex in relation to them. After all, Khema was “freed from all suffering by doing what the Buddha taught” and by describing Buddha as the “best of all men” (79).

 There is a  great emphasis on the female body ‒ on both its state under sexual desires as well as its regulation. For Siha, her “mind bent on excitement” had made her body “thin, pallid, and wan” (53). Describing the “many vows” she had undertaken, Nanduttara mentions how she had “shaved half my head.” (57). Refrain is present throughout these poems – both about and of the therīs’ bodies. On top of the descriptions of their bodies’ conditions under sexual desire, we see them repeat highly gendered acts either to assert their femininity or as seeming attempts to overcome it. Nanduttara talks both about her erstwhile fascination with “jewellery and finery” (57), as well as of the vowed shaving of her head. Such ritualistic expressions are not only repetitive, but also relational as the ‘other’ to the masculine society they are situated in. This recurring emphasis on the body is due to the role it plays in ‘performativity.’ Several thinkers, who are  precursors to Butler’s theories of performativity, point to this. Erving Goffman, through his The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life, introduced the concept of social performance to sociology (Lloyd 11), describing the self as a result of their performances to others (Goffman 31). West and Zimmerman built on this idea, and considered the interactional nature of gender performance to be an “inescapable feature of daily social interaction” (Lloyd 14), describing gender as a “socially scripted dramatisation of idealised gender displays” (West and Zimmerman 130) This results in all gender performances being subjected to assessment. Acts, gestures, and behaviours tend to be identifiable as masculine or feminine because they reiterate “fleshly” gestures and movements that “historically have come to signify femininity” or masculinity (LLoyd 10). Thus, one of the major ways in which one performs their gender is based in how they conduct their bodies (Nayak and Kehily 467), with sex and gender becoming notions that “bodies are compelled to approximate” (Butler, Gender Trouble 186). Performances that conform to norms of masculinity and femininity are legitimized in institutional arrangements, while the ‘inappropriate’ ones are “called to account” (Lloyd 15) and in the case of the theris, through “bodily forms of regulation” (Nayak and Kehily 468).

The three chosen poems are replete with the patriarchal repression of female sexuality through its stigmatisation visible in lines by Siha who laments, “Is it better to hang than to live this low life?” (53). Nanduttara, for instance, offers vivid descriptions of “her initiatives for sensual gratification” (Chakraborty 162). She states: 

 Vexed as I was by the urge for sex, 

 I would do this body a favour

 with baths and messages, 

 and delight in jewellery and finery (57)

 Moreover, the resistances to desire are often associated with notions of decay and decomposition, exemplified by the state of Siha, whose body is left in ashen suffering by her distracted desire and compulsion for sex (53). However negative a portrayal, the importance given to the desires of the body show that it has not been trivialized (Chakraborty 162).

Kaustav Chakraborty rightly considers the contemporary significance of the Therīgāthā to be an emergence of a feminine spirituality. This lies in the “ambidextrous narrativizing of the female body” (161) and desire. Their ambidexterity is derived from their repeated use of metaphors of female desire and body, which provide an “antithetical outlook regarding the carnal drives of womanhood” (161). Sona, another theri, declares that she “gave birth to ten sons with this body” (63). In a poem addressing her son at the time of her enlightenment, Sumangala’s mother acknowledges the immense power and hold that the demands of the body have on individuals rather than trivializing them (252).  She describes it as something she had to destroy to become free:

As I destroyed anger and the passion for sex,

I was reminded of the sound of bamboo being split,

I got to the foot a tree and think, “Ah, happiness,‘

and from within that happiness, I begin to meditate (21).

Thus in these poems, resistance to these desires is strengthened with repeated themes of stigmatization, which, through repression and opposition, as mentioned by Sumangala’s mother, acknowledge women’s active agency in the form of an “anger and the passion for sex” (21). The theris hum about their bodies with grace and authority – engaging in a feminist revolt using the very notions of domesticity, metaphors related to the female body and desire that would be used to denigrate them, to, antithetically, combat the same (Chakraborty 161).

Butler views gender performances to be impersonations that offer possibilities of resistance. As social impersonations, gender performances involve the repetition of movements, actions, and gestures that are recognised by society.  Butler builds on this argument in Bodies that Matter, presenting “performativity as citationality” (Butler, Bodies that Matter, 13). Gender acts are not “freely chosen,” “singular,” or “deliberate;” they are constrained and repetitive ‒ they reiterate, or cite, prior actions that embody gender norms (Butler, Bodies that Matter, 13, 225, 94). Thus, gender performance cannot be understood entirely in terms of dramatics because the acts the subject performs in themselves pre-date the actor. Still, one can engage in political challenges to gender norms through, as Butler states in Gender Trouble, “a radical proliferation of gender” (189). Even reiterative performances can be made theatrical and resistant by miming, rendering them hyperbolic, or by their ‘humming,’ as done by the therīs. Such gestures become significant because they offer opportunities for agential change – to “work the weakness in the norm” (Butler, Bodies that Matter 237). Even while engaging in metaphors of cleansing such as shaving of their heads, the theris do not belittle the female body ‒ they provide resistance to the taboos imposed upon them. They assert the feminine with their recurring use of “I”, the female voice. They link the physical and the spiritual ‒ highlighting “the feminine mystical sensuality of asserting the physical senses” (Chakraborty 167) through which, Siha’s “mind was set free.” (53) Therefore, the Therīgāthā can be seen as a “counter-strategic reinscription of the otherized femininity” (Chakraborty 161). Once the tabooed notions of impurity around their bodies were combated, the Buddhist nuns started focussing on nurturing their inner selves over the “materiality of the corporeal obsession” (Chakraborty 161).

Thus, and as shown by the Buddhist nuns, “The task is not whether to repeat, but how to repeat” (Butler, Gender Trouble 189). For Nanduttara, for instance, “the urge for sex was no more” once she “saw the body as it was” (57). Therefore, as stated by Shraddha Upadhayay, “these women discuss their struggles in giving up their sexual lives, which not only brought them pain but also added to their circle of karma. The humaneness of the feminine pursuit to nibbana or liberation is endearing” (Upadhayay). 


¹Referred to as “senior ones”, the therīs were ordained Buddhist women, who bore this title as a result of their religious accomplishments (Hallisey vii).

² Mahayana and Hinayana are two sects of Buddhism. Mahayana is the dominant Buddhist tradition, meaning “greater vehicle” in Sanskrit. It believes in Buddha’s divinity. This sect regards Gautama Buddha as a celestial entity, assisting his disciples in attaining Nirvana. Hinayana, which means “smaller vehicle,” rejected Buddha’s divinity and saw him as a regular man who gained nirvana. This sect advocates personal salvation through self-discipline and meditation.

Butler, Judith.“Revisiting Bodies and Pleasures.” Theory, Culture & Society, 1999,  vol. 16 no. 2, 11–20. 

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. Routledge, 1999.

Butler, Judith. Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex. Routledge, 1993.

Chakraborty, Kaustav “Radical Grace: Hymning of ‘Womanhood’ in Therigatha.” Feminist Theology,  2018, vol. 26.  no. 2, 160–170.

Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. University of Edinburgh Social Sciences Research Centre, 1956.

Hallisey, Charles, translator. Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women. Harvard University Press, 2015.

Lloyd, Moya S. “Performativity and Performance”. Figshare. 2019,

Nayak, Anoop, and Mary Jane Kehily. “Gender Undone: Subversion, Regulation and Embodiment in the Work of Judith Butler.” British Journal of Sociology of Education, vol. 27, no. 4, 2006, pp. 459–72.

O’Brien, Barbara. “The Demon Mara, Who Challenged the Buddha.” Learn Religions, 14 July 2018,

Paul, Diana Y. “Buddhist Attitudes toward Women’s Bodies.” Buddhist-Christian Studies, vol. 1, 1981, pp. 63–71.

Upadhayay, Shraddha. “Therigatha: The First Writings Of Our Ancestresses | Feminism in India.” Feminism In India, 15 October 2020,

West, Candace, and Don H. Zimmerman. “Doing Gender.” Gender and Society, vol. 1, no. 2, 1987, pp. 125–51. 

Yashit (he/they) is a third-year English and Sociology student at Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts. As a cultural studies and performing arts enthusiast and the co-head of ICBV (It Could Be Verse), their college’s Literature Club, they enjoy engaging with the intersections of literature, theatre, film, and media with critical categories like gender and religion.

Naina (she/her) is a second-year student from Symbiosis School of Liberal Arts majoring in Business Studies with minors in Economics and Film Studies. She would like to explore how the economy of a country and the film industry are inherently interconnected and how the former affects the latter.