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Theragāthā and the Therīgāthā

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The Theragāthā and the Therīgāthā are two books in the Khuddaka Nikāya, the fifth part of the Sutta Piṭaka, the second division of the Tipiṭaka, the sacred scriptures of Buddhism. Thera is a title given to someone who has been a monk for more than ten years and means ‘elder.’ The equivalent title for a nun is therī. The word gāthā means ‘a verse.’ Both of these works contain poems composed by the Buddha’s disciples. There are 263 poems in the Theragāthā and 73 in the Therīgāthā, many of considerable literary merit. Some celebrate the joy of enlightenment, others the beauty of the forest and yet others praise the compassion of the Buddha. The Therīgāthā contains the earliest corpus of poetry from India composed by women.

 The Therigatha, often translated as Verses of the Elder Nuns (Pāli: theri elder (feminine) + gatha verse), is a Buddhist scripture, a collection of short poems supposedly recited by early members of the Buddhist sangha in India around 600 BC. In the Pali Canon of Theravada Buddhism, 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 earliest known collection of women's literature.

Despite its small size, the Therigatha is a very significant document in the study of early Buddhism. The Therigatha contains a number of passages that re-affirm the view that women are the equal of men in terms of spiritual attainment, as well as a number of verses that seem to address issues that might be of particular interest to women in 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 prostitute who became a nun (Thig V.2), a wealthy heiress who abandoned her life of pleasure (Thig VI.5), and even of the Buddha's own stepmother, Maha Pajapati (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 Bhikkhuni-samyutta.

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.

Elders Verses, trans. by K.R. Norman, Vol. I, 1990; Vol. II, 1991.

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