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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 enlightened 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.[1] According to Thanissaro Bhikkhu, the Therigatha is the "earliest extant text depicting women’s spiritual experiences." in Theravada Buddhism.[2]

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.[3]

Overview of the textEdit

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.[4] It consists of 494 verses; while the summaries attribute these verses to 101 different nuns, only 73 identifiable speakers appear in the text.[3] Like the Theragatha, it is organized into chapters that are loosely based on the number of verses in each poem.[5]

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.[3]

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.[5][3] 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.[5]

A section of the Paramathadippani, a commentary attributed to Dhammapala, provides details about the Therigatha.[3]


Mahapajapati, first Buddhist nun and Buddha's stepmother ordains

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).


  • Psalms of the Sisters, tr C. A. F. Rhys Davids, 1909; reprinted in Psalms of the Early Buddhists, Pali Text Society[1], 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.

  • 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)
  • Songs of the Elder Sisters, a selection of 14 poems from the Therigatha translated into verse by Francis Booth (2009), digital edition (Kindle).
  • 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.
  • Poems of the Elders, An Anthology from the Theragatha and Therigatha, translated by Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff) (2015)
  • Therigatha: Canti spirituali delle monache buddhiste con il commento Paramatthadipani di Dhammapala, traduzione di Antonella Serena Comba, Lulu (2016), 513 pages, ISBN 9781326047399.
  • Therīgāthā: Book of Verses of Elder Bhikkhunis, Translated by Sāmaṇera Mahinda (Anagarika Mahendra), Bilingual Pali-English Second Edition 2022, Dhamma Publishers, Roslindale MA; ISBN 9780999078143.

Online in EnglishEdit

Related worksEdit

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 "Linked Discourses of the Nuns".[7]

A number of the nuns whose verses are found in the Therigatha also have verses in the book of the Khuddaka Nikāya known as the Apadāna, often called the Biographical Stories in English. The Theri Apadāna contains verses from 40 Buddhist nuns recounting their past life deeds.[7] Furthermore, there are also two extant Avadāna texts from the Mūla-Sarvāstivādin tradition: the Avadānasataka (surviving in Sanskrit, Tibetan and Chinese) and the Karmasataka (only survives in Tibetan).[7]

There is also a Pali language commentary on the Therigatha by the medieval Theravada monk Dhammapāla. A translation by William Pruitt (1998) has been published by the Pali Text Society as Commentary on the Verses of the Theris: Therigatha-atthakatha : Paramatthadipani VI.[7]

Furthermore, there is a Theravada commentary on the Aṅguttara Nikāya which provides detailed histories of the disciples of the Buddha, including their past lives and their deeds. A section of this text, the Etadagga-vagga commentary, provides extensive background to 13 outstanding nuns which are also named in the Therigatha.[7] These biographies have been translated by Ānandajoti Bhikkhu.[8]

Modern worksEdit

One modern study of the text is Kathryn R. Blackstone's Women in the Footsteps of the Buddha: Struggle for Liberation in the Therigatha (1998).

Vijitha Rajapakse has written an analysis of the feminist, religious and philosophical themes of the Therigatha in The Therīgāthā A Revaluation (2000).

Kyung Peggy Kim Meill has also written a study of the social background of the women in the text called Diversity in the Women of the Therīgāthā (2020).

A recent collection of original poems inspired by the Therigatha by the poet Matty Weingast has peen published by Shambhala Publications as The First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns. It is described as a "contemporary and radical adaptation" in the book's back cover and the author admits that they are "not literal translations".[9]

At least one reviewer has described it as a "translation", even though he expresses qualms about how much of the original is obscured by the adaptation of the poet.[9] Another reviewer, Liz Wilson, describes the language as "fresh" and "bold". However, Wilson points out that while in some cases "he has produced a poem that follows the language of the original closely, in other cases, the poem is more of a trans-creation than a translation."[10]

Buddhist monks and nuns have also provided more serious critiques of this work. The Buddhist nun Ayya Sudhamma has the described the book as misleading and as bearing only a "superficial connection" to the originals.[11] Bhikkhu Akaliko, in an extensive review of the book, concludes that it is "a disrespectful cultural appropriation" which erases the voices of the ancient Buddhist nuns and replaces them with the voice of the author who distorts the Buddhist teachings of the original.[12]

Vietnamese American author An Tran characterizes Weingast's translation as possibly self-serving, and a fantasy antithetical to the Buddhist world of the original: "Weingast’s poems bear little to no resemblance to the poems of the Elder Nuns. They often strip away concepts like rebirth, karma, and spiritual attainments, replacing these key Buddhist doctrines with distortions derived from Buddhist modernism, the post-colonial revisionist movement originating in the 19th century, which sought to re-imagine Buddhism in the guise of rationalist philosophy and romantic humanism (a more appealing approach in the West)."[13]


  1. ^ Hallisey, Charles (2015). Therigatha: Poems of the First Buddhist Women. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. pp. x. ISBN 9780674427730.
  2. ^ Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff) (2015) Poems of the Elders, p. 3.
  3. ^ a b c d e Von Hinüber, Oskar (1997). A Handbook of Pali Literature. New Delhi: Munishiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd. pp. 51–54. ISBN 81-215-0778-2.
  4. ^ George-Thérèse Dickenson (Summer 1992). "The First Buddhist Women: Translations and Commentary on the Therigatha". Tricycle.
  5. ^ a b c Norman, Kenneth Roy (1983). Pali Literature. Wiesbaden: Otto Harrassowitz. pp. 75–77. ISBN 3-447-02285-X.
  6. ^ "Theri (500s–200s BCE)". Other women's voices. Archived from the original on 2011-08-14.
  7. ^ a b c d e Skilling, Peter. Eṣā agrā. Images of Nuns in (Mūla-)Sarvāstivādin Literature. Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, Volume 24, Number 2 2001,
  8. ^ Ānandajoti Bhikkhu (translator, 2015). The stories about the Foremost Elder Nuns
  9. ^ a b Butler, John (2020). "Review of "The First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns" by Matty Weingast". Retrieved January 26, 2021.
  10. ^ Liz Wilson (2020) The First Free Women: Poems of the Early Buddhist Nuns, Religion, DOI: 10.1080/0048721X.2020.1826866
  11. ^ Bodhipaksa, and Ayya Sudhamma (2021). "Translations that Annihilate". Retrieved January 21, 2021.
  12. ^ Bhikkhu, Akaliko (2021). "A Buddhist Literary Scandal; the Curious Case of 'The First Free Women'". Retrieved January 26, 2021.
  13. ^ An Tran. "How a Poetry Collection Masquerading as Buddhist Scripture Nearly Duped the Literary World". Literary Hub. Retrieved 5 February 2021.