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Nuns: An Overview


Although the word nun carries a specific, historically circumscribed meaning, especially in Catholic Christianity, it is also widely used to refer more generally to women ascetics and monastics in different religious traditions. In this overview, nuns are mainly considered phenomenologically as a specific group of religious persons who share certain characteristics across different religious traditions, cultures, and historical periods.

Meaning of the Word Nun

In its original Christian context, the term nun refers to a member of a religious order or a congregation of women living under the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. In Roman Catholic Canon Law, only those women living under so-called solemn vows are truly "nuns" (moniales ) in a full sense, whereas those under "simple vows" are called "sisters" (sorores ). However, this strict legal and linguistic distinction is little observed; the popular usage of the term nun has been widened to include both Christian women living in enclosed convents, as well as countless sisters devoted to charitable services, such as tending the sick, dying, poor, and imprisoned, in addition to providing education and helping others in many ways. From its more inclusive use in an originally Christian context, the meaning of nun has been further extended to religious traditions other than Christianity. The word is now loosely applied comparatively and cross-culturally to describe a wide range of diverse phenomena relating to women's pursuit of the religious life, indicating a path of renunciation and asceticism. The word nun can thus refer to different groups of religious women living under vowseither together in communityor as individual women ascetics and renunciates (sādhvīs ), as for example in Hinduism and Jainism.

Monasticism and Gender

The story of women's asceticism and monasticism represents an important part of the global history of religions, and of the larger story of women in religion, replete with numerous examples of heroic female choices and spiritual attainments. Until the recent arrival of women's and gender history, this story has been largely neglected or silently subsumed under the general history of monasticism, and for the most part described without specific attention to gender differences. It has also been tied up with male concepts of female spirituality, often defined in relation to the traditionally dominant gender roles that women, through becoming nuns, chose to resist or considerably modify. A growing number of detailed historical, textual, and tradition-specific studies of particular religious women or whole female religious communities is slowly building up a cumulative record of women ascetics and nuns. More research is needed, however, to complete the rich and diverse picture of women's active involvement inand experience ofasceticism and monasticism. The significant contribution of nuns to different religious communities, stretching over many centuries, has been minimally recovered so far. Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns through Two Millennia, by Jo Ann Kay McNamara (1996), is a comprehensive study of Christian nuns, but no comparable overview exists for Buddhist, Jaina, Hindu or Daoist nuns.

Motivation, Goal, and Shared Characteristics of Nuns

What is the attraction to the religious life of a nun or ascetic? In each religious tradition there exist maximalist and minimalist approaches to conform human life to a spiritual ideal and to put it into practice, both by the individual and by the community. Those who are attracted to ascetic idealswhether women or menfollow a strict understanding of their religious teachings, rites, and observances. Through voluntary choice, they pursue the embodiment of this spiritual ideal with great seriousness, sometimes with such rigor that it can lead to extremes and incite tensions, criticism and resistance. Thus all followers of a religious tradition fall into different categories, from the merely lax to the utterly committed, from laypeople to institutionalized office bearers to inspiring charismatics, who in turn may become critics and reformers.

Through the centuries women, like men, have experienced a strong calling to follow single-mindedly a more dedicated religious path in search of liberation (or moksha ), holiness, and perfection. They have also chosen selfless service to others through renunciation, meditation, prayer, fasting, and other ascetic practices. The purpose of following an ascetic life and becoming a nun is ultimately an other-worldly, transcendent goal, reachable only through profound personal transformation. The pursuit of such an arduous goal is difficult for all people, but it is doubly difficult for women because of their traditional family roles, the reproductive duties expected of them, and their subjection to male authority in patriarchal society. Because of the widely accepted division of gender roles and the assumed equation of mind and spirit with the male sphereand that of body and sexuality with the female spherewomen often had a great struggle to free themselves from traditional gender assumptions in order to pursue a religious path. The history of nuns in Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christianity provides plenty of evidence for this.

The motivations for pursuing such an unconventional pathone that requires a struggle against much social resistancemight be mixed. One motivation could be a genuine attraction to a spiritual ideal; another could be the alternative of trying to escape from the burden of marriage and sexuality, child-bearing, and family bonds for a young woman. For an older womana widow, for exampleit could be the choice of joining a like-minded religious community in order to complete her life in dedication to a religious ideal. Such mixed motivations are clearly evident from the study of women renunciates (Khandelwal, 2004), and nowhere are the mixed motives in the struggle for liberation more clearly expressed than in the famous songs of the Buddhist Therīgātha (Blackstone, 1998).

Women and Asceticism

A woman ascetic or nunthe terms are often used interchangeablycan be characterized as an ideal type of religious figure that exists in numerous variations and a wide variety of historical configurations. In terms of the shared characteristics of nuns, one can examine the similarity or dissimilarity of their vows across time and traditions, as well as whether such vows are the same in number and kind as those of men in the same religious tradition, or, on the contrary, whether they are considerably more numerous and different, as is the case in Buddhism. A person can look at the patterns and rhythms of the nuns' religious practices, their clothing, and and their food habitsespecially in terms of the use and renunciation of foodall of which imply different degrees of self-denial and widely varying attitudes towards the human body.

In the first volume of the Encyclopedia of Religion, Walter Kaelber defined asceticism as "a voluntary, sustained, and at least partially systematic program of self-discipline and self-denial in which immediate, sensual, or profane gratifications are renounced in order to attain a higher spiritual state or a more thorough absorption in the sacred" (1987, p. 1:441). However, this definition does not articulate the multi-dimensional aspects of asceticism nor its gender variations. Many women ascetics, like men, practice what has been called a "heroic asceticism," a term which groups together several practices of physical deprivation, such as bodily injuries and laceration of the flesh, sleep deprivation, fasting, and starvation. These practices can lead, in certain cases, to altered states of consciousness, ecstatic, mystical, and possession experiences. In the discussion of asceticism, however, most attention has been given to sexual renunciation, chastity, and virginity, especially in studies of Christian asceticism (Brown, 1988; Castelli, 1986). A "virginal asceticism" developed in the early Christian church before the organization of a more specialized monasticism, but it was often tied to a marked misogynism (Ruether, 1974).

Because women's bodies are considered impure in many religions, the ascetic ideal of controlling sexual and other physical needs was particularly attractive to women who sought sainthood and perfection. In withdrawing from the world by renouncing property, marriage, family bonds, and household responsibilities, women could assert their autonomy by removing themselvesto some extentfrom the patriarchal control of men (although most religious traditions rank monks above nuns who in status, attainment, and authority, usually remain subordinate to male renouncers). Through the renunciation of sexual activity, women also obtained control over their bodies and transcended traditional femaleness, becoming, so to speak, "honorary males." Because they were no longer valued for their reproductive sexuality and social function, these women gained a new, spiritual authority and power that was widely recognized among ascetics and mystics of different religious traditions.

In the Western tradition, the figure of the "virgin-ascetic" goes back to at least Roman antiquity (Brown, 1988; Cooper, 1996), whereas the Greek tradition is without a parallel notion of asceticism. The early Christian ascetics soon developed the monastic ideal. Originally intended as a solitary life pursued by the individual (monos = alone), this ideal soon took on a corporate character. Teachings, rules, leaders, and women's asceticism and monasticism developed along with, or even before, that of men. When the great monastic orders were later founded by men, a number of women's orders grew as well, maintaining a close connection withand dependence uponthe male orders. This occurred because the nuns were affiliated to the same rules and monastic constitutions, without separate developments of their own.

Strictly speaking, nuns are the cloistered women monastics of these ancient orders. But in post-Reformation Europe, from the sixteenth century onwards, a great number of entirely new, unenclosed female religious congregations and sisterhoods developed that were entirely independent from any existing order of men. These congregations and sisterhoods owed their foundation to original ideas and unusual, strong women dedicated to new spiritual, social, and educational ideals. Today these Christian sisters, whose many congregations were largely founded during the nineteenth century, are also referred to as nuns.

Nuns in Different Religions

In terms of origin, the earliest groups of nuns are perhaps found in Jainism, which knows of women renouncers since about the time of Mahāvīra (c. 490410 bce) around the fifth century bce, followed closely afterwards by Buddhist nuns. Although there seems to have been less reluctance among Jainas than on the Buddha's part to admit women on an equal basis from the start, Jaina nuns share with Buddhist nuns the requirement that they must follow additional and stricter rules than monks. The two major Jaina groups, the Śvetāmbaras and Digambaras, as well as several subsects, all possess distinct groups of nuns; in fact, among the Śvetāmbaras, nuns far outnumber the monks. In spite of more detailed recent case studies (Vallely, 2002; Shanta, 1985), much further research is needed to make the nuns' contribution to Jainism better known and understood.

More information, though far from sufficient, is available on Buddhist nuns, where there exist a great variety of monastic groups across the Buddhist world. Usually, but not always, the number of nuns is less than that of Buddhist monks, although this varies from country to country. In Taiwan, for example, there are two-thirds more nuns than monks. Korea also knows a large number of nuns whose work, like that of other nuns, has been little recorded in Buddhist texts, nor has it been much investigated by scholars. This is changing, however, because Buddhist women have organized themselves into a global network in order to promote closer collaboration and study of their own history and activities.

In Hinduism, the ancient Vedas know of some solitary women seekers and ascetics, and the Sanskrit language possesses a female equivalent to the male renouncer: there is the sādhvī as well as the sādhu, the sanyāsin as well as the sanyāsīs. But due to the prohibition on women and non-Brahmans to study Vedic texts or perform Vedic rites, women were effectively barred from taking vows to pursue renunciation (sanyāsa ), except as members of unorthodox sects. Thus there are no female Hindu monastic orders until the modern foundation of the Śrī Śāradā Maha in 1954 as a parallel to the Ramakrishna Order (Sinclair-Brull, 1997). In the past, individual male sanyāsins may occasionally have accepted female monastic disciples, and individual women ascetics may sometimes have become gurus, but these remained exceptions, whereas women gurus have grown much more prominent during the twentieth century. Past female ascetics usually did not take monastic vows but lived away from home, in holy cities such as Vārāasī, either alone or in groups, retaining lay status so that no organized order of Hindu women nuns existed in earlier times (Ohja, 1981, 1984). However, in spite of the growing interest in the comparative study of female ascetics and nuns, the phenomenon of women renouncers in the Hindu tradition remains too little researched; only a few studies of the varieties of contemporary Hindu female ascetics exist (Khandelwal, 2004; Denton, 1991).

Less information is available on Daoist nuns, whose study is also in its initial stages. Although women have had a notable presence in Daoism, it was originally not a monastic religion, and nuns only appeared during the seventh to ninth centuries ce, when some women from the Chinese court chose the path of renunciation. Women's religious establishments flourished during medieval times, whereas few women's monasteries exist in China today. In some cases, however, nuns are known to hold positions of authority (Levering, 1990; Cahill, 1993).

More is known about Christian nuns than nuns of any other religion. In the contemporary world, Christian nuns far outnumber monks and priests (some years ago the ratio was three to one). Although long neglected in historiographical accounts and studies of Christian monasticism, in the late twentieth century many sources about women ascetics, individual nuns, and whole communities of sisterhoodswhether in early Christianity, the medieval church, or the post-Reformation churchwere discovered and closely studied. From what is known so far, earlier groups of Christian nuns possessed several characteristics not found elsewhere, and with few equivalents in contemporary Christianity. There existed the cultivation of a close spiritual companionship between male and female ascetics (known as syneisactism ), which was not based on sexual or family ties. It was based, rather, on the common pursuit of a spiritual goal, the use of family language and familial metaphors for the monastic community of women and men (Krawiec, 2002), and, for many centuries, the presence of double monasteries where communities of nuns and monks lived togetherthough in separate groupsand where the overall authority for the entire monastery was sometimes given to a woman abbess.


The comparative phenomenological study of nuns remains relatively undeveloped. Yet it offers a large field for scholarly investigation that can yield exceptionally rich historical and empirical data for more nuanced theoretical reflections on questions of spiritual authority, autonomy, power, monastic lineage, hierarchy, equality, and community in the growing area of gender studies in religion. It is up to younger scholars to perceive this great research potential and seize the opportunity to obtain a more detailed picture about the global history of women ascetics and nuns.

See Also

Asceticism; Gender and Religion, articles on Gender and Hinduism, Gender and Jainism; Guru; Human Body, article on Human Bodies, Religion, and Gender; Menstruation; Monasticism, articles on Buddhist Monasticism, Christian Monasticism; Mysticism; Prayer; Sādhus and Sādhvīs; Spirit Possession, article on Women and Possession; Virginity.


Blackstone, Kathryn R. Women in the Footsteps of the Buddha. Struggle for Liberation in the Therīgātha. Richmond, U.K., 1998. A detailed study of the songs of the early Buddhist nuns that vividly express their motivation in seeking renunciation, and the obstacles in obtaining it.

Brown, Peter. The Body and Society: Men, Women, and Sexual Renunciation in Early Christianity. New York and Chichester, U.K., 1988. A classic study by now, this magisterial survey closely examines the understanding of sexuality and sexual renunciation in early Christianity among both men and women.

Cahill, Suzanne E. Transcendence and Divine Passion: The Queen Mother of the West in Medieval China. Stanford, Calif., 1993. Provides information on the development of Daoist nuns in medieval China.

Castelli, Elizabeth. "Virginity and Its Meaning for Women in Early Christianity." Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 2, no. 1 (1986): 6188. An informative and extensively referenced article on the roots of asceticism and the idea of virginity in the early Christian church.

Cooper, Kate. The Virgin and the Bride: Idealized Womanhood in Late Antiquity. Cambridge, Mass. and London, 1996. In discussing the options available to women in late antiquity, this book investigates the tensions that existed between the Christian ideals of virginity and marriage during the rise of asceticism.

Denton, Lynn Teskey. "Varieties of Hindu Female Asceticism." In Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women, edited by Julia Leslie. London, 1991. Compares the values of the woman-as-householder with those of the ascetic, and discusses different forms of Hindu asceticism open to women.

Kaelber, Walter O. "Asceticism." In Encyclopedia of Religion, vol. 1, edited by Mircea Eliade, pp. 441445. New York, 1987.

Khandlewal, Meena. Women in Ochre Robes: Gendering Hindu Renunciation. Albany, N.Y., 2004. A fascinating account of the lives of contemporary sanyāsīs describing their daily lives in ashrams, their dress, food, conversation, service, ritual, and devotion. Contrary to the assumption that renunciation transcends gender, arguments are provided that renunciation can underscore the importance of gender.

Krawiec, Rebecca. Shenoute and the Women of the White Monastery: Egyptian Monasticism in Late Antiquity. Oxford, 2002. Using Coptic sources, this fascinating study of one of the most important Egyptian monasteries of the fourth and fifth century with several thousand monks and nuns shows how a community of vibrant ascetic women was chafing under the leadership of a stern and irascible man, the abbot Shenoute. Negotiations over food, clothing, and other everyday matters within a large, mixed community reveal important issues of monastic authority, of the intersection of power and gender, and of women's role in the monastic family.

Levering, Miriam. "Women, Religion and the State in the People's Republic of China." In Today's Woman in World Religions, edited by Arvind Sharma. Albany, N.Y., 1994. Contains information on Daoist women practitioners in contemporary China.

McNamara, Jo Ann Kay. Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns through Two Millennia. Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1996. Hailed as a groundbreaking work, this history of Christian nuns shows the great variety of women religious, including scholars, mystics, artists, political activists, teachers, and healers. Although women had to struggle against the male church hierarchy and larger forces of social and cultural change, the book provides rich evidence that monastic communities gave women a space that allowed them to evolve spiritually, intellectually, and emotionally.

Ojha, Catherine. "Female Asceticism in Hinduism: Its Tradition and Present Condition." Man in India 61, no. 3 (1981): 254285. An early study of Hindu female ascetics, with some discussion of their past history and present situation, in contrast to the life and duties of most Hindu women.

Ojha, Catherine. "Condition féminine et renoncement au monde dans l'Hindouisme. Les communautés monastiques de femmes à Benares." Bulletin de l'École Française d'Extrême-Orient 73 (1984): 197221. A further development of Ojha's 1981 essay on female renunciation cited above, this article mentions about one hundred women ascetics (as compared to 1,200 men) in Benares, living either alone or in a monastic community, of which three are closely examined here.

Ruether, Rosemary Radford. "Misogynism and Virginal Feminism in the Fathers of the Church." In Religion and Sexism: Images of Woman in the Jewish and Christian Tradition, edited by Rosemary Radford Ruether. New York, 1974. Discusses early Christian attitudes towards virginity and women's asceticism.

Shanta, N. La voie Jaina: Histoire, spiritualité, vie des ascètes pèlerines de l'Inde. Paris, 1985. Translated by Mary Rogers as The Unknown Pilgrims: The Voice of the Sadhvis: The History, Spirituality and Life of the Jaina Women Ascetics. Delhi, India, 1997. A wide-ranging, pioneering study of women ascetics in Jainism based on classical texts and contemporary fieldwork.

Sinclair-Brull, Wendy. Female Ascetics. Hierarchy and Purity in an Indian Religious Movement. Richmond, U.K., 1997. Discusses the nature of Hindu asceticism with reference to the modern foundation of a monastic order for women, the Śrī Śāradā Maha, parallel to the Ramakrishna Order. Based on fieldwork at a branch of the Śrī Śāradā Maha in Kerala, the author focuses especially on the dynamics of purity and hierarchy operating among the sanyāsinis, and between them and the surrounding village communities.

Vallely, Anne. Guardians of the Transcendent: An Ethnography of a Jain Ascetic Community. Toronto, Canada, 2002. Based on fieldwork in Rajasthan, this study provides many insights into the lives of the women ascetics of a particular Jaina sect, the Terāpanthī.

Ursula King (2005)

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