Religions of South Asia, Vol 7, No 1-3 (2013)

Beware the Crocodile: Female and Male Nature in Aśvaghoṣa’s Saundarananda

Alice Collett
Issued Date: 8 Oct 2013


In chapter eight of his Saundarananda, Aśvaghoṣa launches into one of the fiercest attacks on women that can be found in early Buddhist literature. He evokes animal imagery and symbolism to demonstrate a manipulative and (sexually) aggressive nature for women, which he juxtaposes with a comparably weak will for men. He utilises similes of entrapment whereby violent, aggressive and poisonous animals, birds or reptiles (women) ensnare weaker creatures (men). For example, women are ‘hordes of crocodiles in a river,’ hawks that prey on pheasants, or snakes, whilst men are deer escaping hunters, birds enmeshed in a net or elephants trying to avoid crocodile infested waters. Whilst Aśvaghoṣa’s account of the sleeping harem women in the Buddhacarita has been cited by scholars of Buddhism and gender as representative of negative conceptualisations of women in ancient Indian Buddhist literature, the account in the Saundarananda, which is a far worse indictment of women, has received less attention. In this article, I will discuss Aśvaghoṣa’s attack on women centring on his use of animal imagery to portray male and female nature. In so doing, a central aim of the article is to give ownership of the Saundarananda and Buddhacarita back to Aśvaghoṣa, whose accounts have previously been taken to be representative of views on women in early Buddhism. Through comparative analysis, whilst demonstrating the views of one male author, an ex-Brahmin poet, I will highlight these in direct contrast to other texts from early Indian Buddhism, which rarely present women in the same light. Finally, I will look at Aśvaghoṣa the author, and attempt to discern his own pre-occupations and predilections.

Download Media

PDF (Price: £17.50 )

DOI: 10.1558/rosa.v7i1-3.60


Bautze, J. K. 1995. Early Indian Terracottas. Leiden: E. J. Brill.
Collett, A. 2006. ‘Buddhism and Gender: Reframing and Refocusing the Debate.’ Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 22(2): 55–84.
— 2009a. ‘Historico-Critical Hermeneutics in the Study of Women in Early Indian Buddhism.’ Numen 56: 91–117.
— 2009b. ‘Somā, the Learned Brahmin.’ Religions of South Asia 3(1): 93–109.
— 2011. ‘The Female Past in Early Indian Buddhism: The Shared Narrative of the Seven Sisters in the Therī-Apadāna.’ Religions of South Asia 5(1/2): 209–26.
— (ed.). 2013. Women in Early Indian Buddhism: Comparative Textual Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
— Forthcoming. Pāli Biographies of Buddhist Nuns.
Covill, L. 2007. Handsome Nanda (Saundarananda). New York: New York University Press and JJC Foundation.
— 2009. A Metaphorical Study of Saundarananda. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Dehejia, V. 2009. The Body Adorned: Dissolving Boundaries between the Sacred and Profane in India’s Art. New York: Columbia University Press.
Doniger O’Flaherty, W. 1980. Women, Androgens, and Other Mythical Beasts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Fitzgerald, James L., (ed.). 2004 The Mahābhārata, Volume 7: Book 11: The Book of the Women Book 12: The Book of Peace. Vol. 7. Chicago: University of Chicago Press,
Freiberger, O. 2009. ‘Negative Campaigning: Polemics against Brahmins in a Buddhist Sutta.’ Religions of South Asia 3(1): 61–76.
Gerow, E. 1971. A Glossary of Indian Figures of Speech. The Hague: Mouton & Co.
Goldman, R. (trans.). 2005. Ramayana, Book One, Boyhood, by Valmiki. New York: New York University Press and JJC Foundation.
Hiltebeitel, A. 2001. Rethinking the Mahābhārata: A Reader’s Guide to the Education of the Dharma King. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press.
Horner, I. B. (trans.). 2007. Cariyapiṭaka. The Minor Anthologies of the Pali Canon, Part III. Reprint 1975. Lancaster: The Pali Text Society.
Jamison, S. 2006. ‘Women “Between the Empires” and “Between the Lines”.’ In P. Olivelle (ed.), Between the Empires: Society in India 300 BCE to 400 CE: 191–214. New York: Oxford University Press.
Johnson. E. H. 1975. The Saundarananda of Aśvaghoṣa. Reprint 1928. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
— (trans.). 1998. The Buddhacarita or Acts of the Buddha. Reprint 1936. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.
Oldenburg, H., and R. Pischel (eds). 1999. The Thera- and Therīgāthā: Stanzas Ascribed to Elders of the Buddhist Order of Recluses. Reprint 1883. Oxford: The Pali Text Society.
Olivelle, P. (trans.). 1996. Dharmasūtras: The Law Codes of Ancient India. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
— (trans.). 1997. The Pañcatantra: The Book of India’s Folk Wisdom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
— (ed.). 2005. Manu’s Code of Law: A Critical Edition and Translation of the Mānava-Dharmaśāstra. New York: Oxford University Press.
— 2009. Life of the Buddha by Aśvaghoṣa. New York: New York University Press and JJC Foundation.
Patton, L. 2008. ‘R̥ṣis Imagined across Difference: Some Possibilities for the Study of Conceptual Metaphor in Early India.’ Journal of Hindu Studies 1(1/2): 49–76.
Pollock, S. (trans.). 2006. Ramayana, Book Three, The Forest, by Valmiki. New York: New York University Press and JJC Foundation.
— (trans.). 2008. Ramayana, Book Two: Ayodhya, by Valmiki. New York: New York University Press & JJC Foundation.
Powers, J. 2009. A Bull of a Man: Images of Masculinity, Sex, and the Body in Indian Buddhism. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Schopen, G. 1996. ‘The Suppression of Nuns and the Ritual Murder of their Special Dead in Two Buddhist Monastic Texts.’ Journal of Indian Philosophy 24(6): 563–92.
— 1997. Bones, Stones, and Buddhist Monks: Collected Papers on the Archaeology, Epigraphy, and Texts of Monastic Buddhism in India. Hawai’i: University of Hawai’i Press.
Snead, S. 1989. Animals in the Four Worlds: Sculptures from India. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Steinthal, P. (ed.). 1982. Udāna. Reprint 1885. Oxford: The Pali Text Society.
Wilmott, P. (trans.). 2006. Mahābhārata, Book Two: The Great Hall. New York: New York University Press.


  • There are currently no refbacks.

Equinox Publishing Ltd - 415 The Workstation 15 Paternoster Row, Sheffield, S1 2BX United Kingdom
Telephone: +44 (0)114 221-0285 - Email:

Privacy Policy