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The Therigatha (Therīgāthā), often translated as Verses of the Elder Nuns (Pāli: therī elder (feminine) + gāthā verses), is a Buddhist text, a collection of short poems of early women who were elder nuns (having experienced 10 Vassa or monsoon periods). The poems date from a three hundred year period, with some dated as early as the late 6th century BCE. In the Pāli Canon, the Therigatha is classified as part of the Khuddaka Nikaya, the collection of short books in the Sutta Pitaka. It consists of 73 poems organized into 16 chapters. It is the companion text to the Theragatha, verses attributed to senior monks.
It is the earliest known collection of women's literature composed in India.
The poems in Therigatha were composed orally in the Magadhi language and were passed on orally until about 80 B.C.E., when they were written down in Pali. It consists of 494 verses; while the summaries attribute these verses to 101 different nuns, only 73 identifiable speakers appear in the text. Like the Theragatha, it is organized into chapters that are loosely based on the number of verses in each poem. While each poem in the Theragatha has an identified speaker, several of the Therigatha texts are anonymous, or are connected with the story of a nun but not spoken to or by her—in one case, no nun seems to be present, but instead the verse is spoken by a woman trying to talk her husband out of becoming a monk. More so than the Theragatha, there seems to have been uncertainty between different recensions about which verses were attributable to which nuns—some verses appear in the Apadana attributed to different speakers. Longer poems later in the collection appear in the Arya metre, abandoned relatively early in Pali literature, but include other features indicative of later composition, including explanations of karmic connections more typical of later texts like the Petavatthu and Apadana. A section of the Paramathadippani, a commentary attributed to Dhammapala, provides details about the Therigatha.
Despite small size, the Therigatha is a very significant document in the study of early Buddhism as well as the earliest-known collection of women's literature. The Therigatha contains a passages reaffirming the view that women are the equal of men in terms of spiritual attainment as well as verses that address issues of particular interest to women in ancient South Asian society. Included in the Therigatha are the verses of a mother whose child has died (Thig VI.1 and VI.2), a former sex worker who became a nun (Thig V.2), a wealthy heiress who abandoned her life of pleasure (Thig VI.5) and even verses by the Buddha's own aunt and stepmother, Mahapajapati Gotami (Thig VI.6). An additional collection of scriptures concerning the role and abilities of women in the early Sangha is found in the fifth division of the Samyutta Nikaya, known as the Bhikkhunī-Saṃyutta "Nun's discourse".
A number of the nuns whose verses are found in the Therigatha also have verses in the book of the Khuddaka Nikaya known as the Apadāna, often called the Biographical Stories in English. The majority of these have been translated into the English language.
- Psalms of the Sisters, tr C. A. F. Rhys Davids, 1909; reprinted in Psalms of the Early Buddhists, Pali Text Society, Bristol; verse translation
- Elders' Verses, tr K. R. Norman, volume II, 1971, Pali Text Society, Bristol
The two translations have been reprinted in one paperback volume under the title Poems of Early Buddhist Nuns, without Mr Norman's notes, but including extracts from the commentary translated by Mrs Rhys Davids.
- Verses of the Elder Bhikkhunis, translated by Anagarika Mahendra, 2017, Dhamma Publishers, Roslindale MA; ISBN 9780999078105.
- Songs of the Elder Sisters, a selection of 14 poems from the Therigatha translated into verse by Francis Booth, 2009, digital edition (Kindle).
- The First Buddhist Women: Translations and Commentaries on the Therigatha. translated by Susan Murcott. Parallax Press. 1991. ISBN 978-0-938077-42-8.CS1 maint: others (link)
- Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women, translated by Charles Hallisey, Murty Classical Library of India, Harvard University Press (January 2015), hardcover, 336 pages, ISBN 9780674427730.
- Therigatha: Canti spirituali delle monache buddhiste con il commento Paramatthadipani di Dhammapala, traduzione di Antonella Serena Comba, Lulu (November 2016), 513 pages, ISBN 9781326047399.
- Verses of the Senior Nuns, translated by Bhikkhu Sujato and Jessica Walton, 2019, SuttaCentral.
A new translation of Dhammapala's commentary has been published by the Pali Text Society:
- Commentary on the Verses of the Theris: Therigatha-atthakatha : Paramatthadipani VI, translated by William Pruitt, Oxford: The Pali Text Society, 1998, 443 pages, ISBN 9780860133636
Online in English
- Therigatha translation by Bhikkhu Sujato
- Therigatha Verses of the Elder Nuns Anthology of selected passages by Thanissaro Bhikkhu
- Psalms of the Early Buddhists: I. Psalms of the Sisters, London: Pali Text Society, 1909. Caroline A. F. Rhys Davids' 1909 translation of the complete Therigatha. "The 73 songs are organized by length; each is prefaced by Dhammapala's commentary of the 400s CE. The appendix gives translations of 10 songs by theri from another source, the Bhikkhuni-samyutta, apparently contemporary with the Therigatha. Note especially the second section of Rhys Davids' introduction, in which she discusses the lives and beliefs of the theri, and from which you can link to songs that deal with specific themes, e.g., freedom, peace."
- Hallisey, Charles (2015). Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. pp. x. ISBN 9780674427730.
- Von Hinüber, Oskar (1997). A Handbook of Pali Literature. New Delhi: Munishiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd. pp. 51–54. ISBN 81-215-0778-2.
- George-Thérèse Dickenson (Summer 1992). "The First Buddhist Women: Translations and Commentary on the Therigatha". Tricycle.
- Norman, Kenneth Roy (1983). Pali Literature. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz. pp. 75–77. ISBN 3-447-02285-X.
- "Theri (500s–200s BCE)". Other women's voices. Archived from the original on 2011-08-14.