Monday, May 4, 2015

History of Women in Buddhism - Indonesia: Part 7

Ardhanārīśvarī Ken Dedes & Gender in Ancient Indonesian Buddhism

Ayyā Tathālokā Bhikkhunī

In this seventh post in our “History of Women in Buddhism - Indonesia” series, we continue to look at a topic about which questions have been raised in Part 6 - the subject of the compassionate manifestations of gender in Buddhism and its harmonious associations with Hinduism, in ancient Indonesian Buddhism. For, in Part 6, we encountered the Amoghapaśa form of the highly popular bodhisattva mahāsattva Avalokiteśvara (अवलोकितेश्वर), commonly known as Kwan Yin, 觀音, 觀世音 or 觀自在 菩薩摩诃萨埵 in Chinese, or Chenrezig, སྤྱན་རས་གཟིགས་ in Tibetan. This bodhisattva is well known not only in Mahāyāna Buddhism, but amidst the Theravāda Buddhists of Southeast Asia as well.

Originally, in India, Avalokiteśvara Bodhisattva is known for having appeared in male form, as also in Indonesia, Tibet, Sri Lanka and Korea, but then for later having appeared in female form as Kwan Yin in China, to many contemporary observers’ wonder and curiosity. How and why did s/he do so? And, was this orthodox and legit? I’ve been asked these questions more than a few times... 

In our last post, we saw how, in India, in the Amoghapāśa Sādhana meditation text authored by 12th century Kashmiri monk Sakyaśrībhadra and in the highly popular earlier Hevajra Tantra, Avalokiteśvara appeared with both male and female emanations, the two primary female emanations being Green Tārā who represented the manifestation of karuṇā—the compassion, and Bhrikuti who manifested the prajñā—the wisdom of the bodhisattva. Thus, when His Holiness the Dalai Lama--himself widely thought to be an incarnation of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara--speaks about appearing in female incarnation, or when the Gyalwang Karmapa says it would be no problem in Dharma for the Karmapa to appear as a woman, they may not actually be saying anything strange or unorthodox at all.  Actually, the very high level of bodhisattva that Avalokiteśvara is, is taught to be basically androgynous, and to be able to appear in any form, as needed--and to have no trouble at all with appearing in either male or female form.

At the end of our last post, we saw Avalokiteśvara popularly partnered with Green Tārā and Bhrikutī in Buddhism, and Śiva (Shiva) popularly partnered with Parvati in the co-contemporary Hinduism, in the context of non-dualism within manifest dualities and pluralities.

Image 1: Double exposure photo from the Surabaya, East Java opera Ken Dedes Wanita Dibalik Tahta ("Ken Dedes: The Women Behind the Throne")

In this 7th post, we take one step closer, and look at one 13th century living woman, Ken Dedes, the daughter of a Buddhist monk, who, in a way, represented all these, both the unity and the dualities. And how as such, she became the progenitor and founder of two dynasties and a transcendent legend, remembered and immortalized now in Indonesian Buddhist culture as the Prajñāpāramitā, the Perfection of Wisdom and Mother of All Buddhas herself.

I hope that this sharing of history or herstory or an embracing “our-story,” may give some clue as to a part of our Buddhist heritage of compassion--karunā, wisdom--prajñā and skilfull means--upāya, with regards gender, love for the world, and the Buddhist vision of humanity that shares in all these qualities.

Ardhanārīśvarī Ken Dedes & Gender in Ancient Indonesian Buddhism

Continued from Part 6

Image 2: Portrayal of Queen Ken Dedes

The union of Śiva & Parvati with which we ended Part 6, brings us to 1222 CE, and the legendary foundation of the Eastern Javanese Singhasari Dynasty that built the Candi Jago monument mentioned in the previous post.

The woman credited with giving birth to the dynasty was Ken Dedes, the daughter of Mpu Purwa, a renowned Buddhist monk. Kidnapped while her father was away practicing asceticism in the forest, she was married to a tyrannical despotic local governor (a small local territorial ruler and relative of the former king) and became pregnant. Being compassionate, she despaired of the way her husband ruled the people, and had thoughts that better could be done. When three months pregnant and on an outing, as she was stepping down from her conveyance, the wind blew up and opened her sarong, and in a flash, Ken Arok, a man in her husband’s employ, caught a glimpse of her pubic area which appeared to be shining radiant (rahim emasnya),[1] a sign imbued with powerful significance in ancient Javanese culture.

Image 3: English narrative ballet Hungkara Pradnya Paramita (Skt: Ahaṃkārā Prajñāpāramitā) of Ken Dedes with Ken Arok performance live onsite at the ancient Singasari Dynasty temple Candi Jago in Maleng, East Java

In awe, Ken Arok inquired with a brahmin about the meaning, who told him that such a sign surely meant the woman was an ardhanārīśwari; and that such a woman was a Strī Nareśwarī (“Lady Lord of Humanity”), who had the power to found a royal dynasty, with her husband becoming a rājādhirāja, a king of kings. Ardhanārīśvaras (Skt: अर्धनारीश्वर) or ardhanārīśwarīs are a long-standing and popular ritual deity form that contains both Śiva and Parvati, male and female, king and queen, god and goddess, together in one body. This form was known in Northwestern India to date back to the Kushan period of the 1st century CE. We know from statuary remains that the form was also popular in South Indian and Western Indian art in the 12th century, in the time directly preceding and leading into Ken Dedes' lifetime.

Image 4: Ancient form of Ardhanārīśwarī aka Ardhanārī from the Elephanta Caves off India’s west coast.  In this form, the body of the diety is portrayed as half-male and half-female, often with the viewer's right appearing female and the viewer's left appearing male, but sometimes the opposite.

Image 5: Contemporary painting of Ardhanārīśwarī, here illustrating “the relationship between Kundalini, Tantra and the sacred weaving, the 'Divine Marriage' and the role of the 'Divine Feminine',” to which is ascribed “power and potential of fertility, creation and re-creation.”

Overcome by a sense of destiny, Ken Arok killed Ken Dedes’ former husband,[2] married her, and a new dynasty was founded. Ken Dedes came to be known as a seminal figure in Javanese history, as she is considered not only the first queen/ruler of the Singasari dynasty, but the matriarchal ancestor from whom the next several centuries of Singasari and Majapahit rulers would descend,[3] out of which would emerge “Nusantara,” the “string of pearls” that is the modern Indonesian archipelago.

Image 6: Ascendent: Ken Dedes, Paramīśvarī of Singasari, ascends the throne of Tunggul Amatung, in a historical theatrical performance of producer Enny Sulistyowati’s “Ken Dedes — The Woman Behind the Throne,” intended to redefine feminism through the lens of local wisdom and to illustrate that feminist values are not only present among recent generations.

Due to her tremendous beauty, power, and strength, Ken Dedes was not only named as the founder of the Singhasari and Majapahit dynasties, but has been associated with one of the most famous Buddhist works of art in the world, which is thought to have been found at a temple dedicated to her, although the records of this are now lost. It is a statue portraiture which appears to radiate all of these qualities, the Javanese Prajñāpāramitā, rediscovered in 1818 CE in Singhasari territory.[4]

Image 7: “Ken Dedes: Birth of Singasari” 2007 Exhibition of the ancient Singasari (or Majapahit) Prajñāpāramitā image, now returned from the Netherlands to Indonesia and on display at the National Museum in Jakarta.
Image 8: Contemporary Indonesian image of
Ken Dedes portrayed as Prajñāpāramitā for sale.
Image 9: Contemporary Prajñāpāramitā image at
Ken Dedes Memorial Park, Singosari District
of Maleng City, East Java.

Festivals, operas, books and movies have all been made on her life in modern times; she is very much remembered, her life celebrated.

Image 10: “Festival of 1000 Ken Dedes,” Malang, East Java

Image 11: Participant in the Ken Dedes festival parade in Malang, East Java sits on lotus throne displaying Prajñāpāramitā mudra.

As a last note however, the dynasty that followed upon Singasari was not bereft of great Buddhist women leaders. Ken Dedes was not the only leading woman to display such qualities.  And she is not the woman who the Old Javanese historical chronicle, the Nagarakṛtāgama,[5] implies as the Prajñāpāramitā. In fact, the Prajñāpāramitā, in life, may not only have been an extremely eminent Buddhist woman leader, but also a bhikkhunī. It appears that the tradition of the ancient shaven-headed patchwork robe-wearing women ascetic renunciates had not yet disappeared from Indonesia. More on this to follow, in the next post.

All posts in the "History of Women in Buddhism - Indonesia" series: 
Part 4: International Buddhist Networking, Bhikkhunīs and Women’s Leadership in the 5th-7th Century Indonesian South Seas
Part 5: The Mystery Story of Devi Kili Suci ~ the 11th Century Vanishing Crown Princess Bhikkhunī Hermit & Her Selomangleng Goa Cave
Part 6: Bhrikutī & the Appearance of New Non-Bhikkhunī Forms of Women’s Asceticism in Buddhism
Part 7: Ardhanāriśvārī Ken Dedes & Gender in Ancient Indian Buddhism

Part 8: Gāyatrī Rājapatni: Queen, Bhikkhunī & the Prajñāpāramitā
Part 9: Tomé Pires Witness & the Beguines, change comes to the roles of women in religion in Indonesia
Part 10: Shedding Light on the Bhikkhunīs & the Great Founding Women of Borobudur (Sakyadhita Conference Presentation)

Image Credit: 
Image 1: courtesy of Risyal Photo, web: https://risyalphoto.wordpress.com/2013/04/10/ken-dedes/
Image 2: Photo courtesy of: Adisuryanti in Photomorphosis, web: http://shadowness.com/adisuryanta/indonesian-kendedes
Image 3: Photo courtesy of Surya Images, web: http://www.suryaonline.co/images/pentas-sendratari-di-candi-jago/#.VUgwmZTF_UI
Image 4: courtesy of Ricardo Martins via Wikipedia Commons, web: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ardhanari@_Elephanta_Caves.jpg
Image 5: courtesy of , web: http://www.transpersonal.com.au/kundalini/divine-marriage.htm.
Image 6: courtesy of The Jakarta Post, web: http://www.thejakartapost.com/news/2013/02/06/the-tricky-beauty-ken-dedes.html.
Image 7: courtesy of Mirelsa at Deviant Art, web: http://mirelsa.deviantart.com/art/Ken-Dedes-Poster-75756809.
Image 8: courtesy of Surabaya Indonetwork, web: http://surabaya.indonetwork.co.id/Mojopahit_Art/2902179/arca-ken-dedes.htm
Image 9: courtesy of Ahrentis on Deviant Art, web: http://ahrentis.deviantart.com/art/Kendedes-134412206.
Image 10: courtesy of DHEA Elvita’s, web: https://blogger.googleusercontent.com/img/b/R29vZ2xl/AVvXsEjeOafSD3hL2gMURavD_HbgGHSB2NrlBQFXPTDtuSn0Joa-0t79hsUdZAIQs1pOgON9kacTdyOolIUt0M8KUA6yvtVhzzQn1f7ynhT6Tr0MV7s3nHGb2DRfPx_BuM_BPR8nndasEvOVii8/s1600/kendedes6.jpg.
Image 11: courtesy of: Newstime 007, web: https://newstime007.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/img_2003.jpg.

[1] See Barbara Watson Andaya’s The Flaming Womb for more on this theme.
[2] At that time the law of the land was such that if anyone was able to kill a king, they had right to the throne. This action however is said to have cursed the next several generations of male kings to death by kris--the sword-.
[3] See: Violence and Serenity (69)
[4]The statuary image of Prajñāpāramitā from Candi Jago: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Prajnaparamita#mediaviewer/File:Prajnaparamita_Java_Side_Detail.JPG. Together with many others, the statue was taken to the Netherlands. It has now been returned to  Indonesia where it has been placed in the National Museum in Jakarta.
[5]Also spelled Nagarakretagama (Wikipedia) and Kakawin Nagarakertagama (Balinese Digital Library) and Nāgarakṛtāgama (Encylopædia Britannica). Alternate title: Desawarnana, Desawarñana or Desavarnana.
article last edited: 5 May 2015

Ayyā Tathālokā Bhikkhuī (sans diacritics Ayya Tathaaloka)

Ven. Tathālokā Bhikkhunī is an American-born Theravada bikkhunī, Buddhist monastic scholar and teacher. She is the co-founder of the non-profit NGO Dhammadharini (Women Upholding the Dhamma), the North American Bhikkhuni Association and Aranya Bodhi Hermitage, as well as a senior monastic advisor to Sakyadhita USA and the Alliance for Bhikkhunis. She was a recipient of the 2006 Outstanding Women in Buddhism Award and a presenting scholar at the 2007 International Congress on Buddhist Women's Role in the Sangha on her special areas of scholarship: Bhikkhuni Sangha History and Bhikkhuni Vinaya.  Ayyā Tathālokā served as preceptor for the historically significant bhikkhuni ordinations held in Western Australia and in Northern California between 2009 and 2014. She is currently working with the Dhammadharini support foundation to establish a permanent monastery/vihara for the Dhammadharini Bhikkhuni Sangha in Northern California north of the San Francisco Bay Area (see dhammadharini.net).

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