Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Child Abandonment and Homes for Unwed Mothers in Ancient India: Buddhist Sources

Academic journal article The Journal of the American Oriental Society

Child Abandonment and Homes for Unwed Mothers in Ancient India: Buddhist Sources

Article excerpt

Much is known about ordinary family life in ancient India, and about the rituals and practices that were expected to order life cycles, at least ideally and for those who belonged to classes whose routines were recorded or referred to in literature. In particular, child-bearing and associated practices receive focused attention in a variety of Indian literatures. Less is known, however, about the unusual, about borderline cases or things that societies generally seek to hide (perhaps above all, from themselves)--about what happens when things go wrong. Nevertheless, sources do occasionally indirectly provide information of interest. The two related cases examined here introduce some Buddhist evidence touching upon issues of family life beyond the normal social structures. Specifically, they concern what might happen when pregnant women lack the usual support networks of family, and what might be done with unwanted infants. In the first case I will introduce some Buddhist references that I believe suggest the existence of "homes for unwed mothers," places of refuge to which a pregnant but unprotected woman might flee. Less speculatively, Buddhist examples make clear that there existed established procedures for the abandonment of unwanted infants, designed to facilitate their discovery by others, as well as similarly stereotyped methods of less benevolent abandonment. While I will not suggest any necessary historical link between these two cases, that of the "home for unwed mothers" and child abandonment, there is a strong thematic affinity between them, since both concern what may happen when pregnancy and childbirth do not follow their normatively sanctioned and expected course. Obviously, not all the attitudes, institutions, and practices to which I make reference coexisted, nor were they necessarily shared by groups in different times and places. Rather than positing broad claims, the present paper seeks simply to draw attention to a range of ideas, institutions, and practices that may have been present, somewhere at some time, in ancient Indian society, (1) with the expectation that once such issues are raised, further relevant materials might be recognized.

While the evidence for the existence of formal procedures for child abandonment is considerably stronger than that for the existence of specifically tasked "homes for unwed mothers," it makes sense to begin with the latter from the perspective of the temporal sequence of the birth process. In this light, then, let us look first at a suggestive passage in the commentary to the Theravada Therigatha. This text begins its rendition of the tale of the nun Uppalavanna as follows: (2)

  savatthiyam kira annatarassa vanijassa bhariyaya paccusavelayam
  kucchiyam gabbho santhasi| sa tam na annasi | vanijo vibhataya
  rattiya sakatesu bhandam aropetva rajagaham uddissa gato | tassa
  gacchante kale gabbho vaddhetva paripakam agamasi | atha nam sassu
  evam aha | mama putto cirappavuttho tvan ca gabbhini papakam taya
  katan ti | sa tava puttato annam purisam na janami ti aha | tam sutva
  pi sassu asaddhanti tam gharato nikkaddhi | sa samikam gavesanti
  anukkamena rajagaham sampatta | tava-d-eva c'assa kammajavatesu
  calantesu maggasamipe annataram salam pavittaya gabbhavutthanam ahosi
  | sa suvannabimbasadisam puttam vijayitva anathasalayam sayapetva
  udakakiccattham bahi nikkhanta |

  The story is told that one morning an embryo was established in the
  womb of the wife of a certain merchant in the town of Savatthi,
  though she did not know it. At daybreak, the merchant loaded his
  wares in carts and set off in the direction of Rajagaha. As time went
  by, the embryo grew and reached maturity. Then her mother-in-law said
  to her, "My son has been away from home for a long time, and you are
  pregnant. You have done something wicked."

  She said, "I have known no man but your son."

  Even though she heard her say that, the mother-in-law, not believing
  her, threw her out of the house. … 
Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.