Samita ASBL

The meaning of paṇḍaka in light of the Vedic and Jain scriptures

(By Ayya Vimala)

Recently I met Venerable Akaliko in New York. He asked me my opinion regarding the translation of the word paṇḍaka, which will be used by Ajahn Brahmali in his translation of the Vinaya. From our discussion I realized I did not have enough background knowledge to make a justified suggestion as to the most appropriate translation and that my earlier stance on the matter might have been a bit too easily accepted from other authors1, who base their conclusions on meanings ascribed to the term in later commentaries.

It would seem that a paṇḍaka is not an indication of gender or sexual orientation but more a term denoting a person who exhibits strong lustful behavior that would of course be inappropriate in the Sangha.

These commentaries were laid down at a much later date in a vastly different social environment than that when the Vinaya was written and they would logically classify individuals based on their own circumstances at that time.

So I decided to do a little bit more research into the term and focus my research in three areas:
1. When was the term paṇḍaka inserted into the texts.
2. What was the social environment like at that time and how was gender viewed based on the Vedic and Jain scriptures.

I thank Venerable Akaliko for the useful remarks and feedback for this article.

The Paṇḍaka in Pāli Early Buddhist texts

According to the PTS dictionary, a paṇḍaka is a eunuch and according to all sources, this is indeed the most literal translation, derived from the Sanskrit paṇḍa, paṇḍah or paṇḍaka and also used in other languages like Prakrit and is possibly a loanword from Dravidian1. However, it seems that the actual meaning of the word is broader and all scholars are in agreement that there is a second meaning to the word. There are for instance also itthipaṇḍaka (female paṇḍaka) mentioned in the Vinaya (Bhikkhunikkhandhaka and Bhikkhu Saṅghādisesa 3 and 5) and this could not mean a ‘eunuch’.

The word is not found in any of the early Buddhist Suttas, nor does it appear in the pātimokkhas, the lists of rules for monastics. Next to the pāli Vinaya, it appears twice in the Aṅguttara Nikāya, but both of these only have parallels to the Vinaya or later texts. Other words that appear in the texts are ubhatovyañjanaka (hermaphrodite, a word that appears often in the Vinaya in the same context as paṇḍaka i.e. they are not allowed to ordain), napuṃsaka (lit. non-male) and vassavara (vara means a social class), but again, these words do not appear in the early suttas but appear in the Vedic or Jain texts 2. The word paṇḍaka also appears in the Sanskrit Divyāvadānam and the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya Khandhaka. I will come back to the meaning of the word napuṃsaka later in relation to the scriptures from other religions. Other scholars have written in detail about the appearance of these words in the Vinaya and later texts so I will not do that here13. It is just interesting to note that those seen as inter-sex ubhatovyañjanaka are apparentely not synomymous with paṇḍaka, at least not at the time that the Vinaya was laid down.

When we look at the textual evolution of the Vinaya, it seems likely that the Vinaya as we have it today is a product of the Second Council8 (ca. 70 years after the Buddha’s death). This suggests that the Vinaya texts of the Theravada school, as well as all other schools, were added well after the Buddha’s passing. This in contrast of the Suttas, which have seen a more moderate editorial involvement and seem to stem more directly from the Buddha. Considering that we do not see the word paṇḍaka appear in any of the early suttas, it is therefore safe to conclude that it is a later addition. Most notably, according to these texts, the paṇḍaka is not allowed to ordain. It would seem that this addition to the rules barring individuals from ordination has come about in a period after the Buddha’s death when greater patriarchal control was established, that has also affected the Bhikkhunī order8. It is also to be recognized that in the time after the Buddha’s passing, northern India saw some major changes in it’s political and social structure, which might have contributed to this movement towards more discrimination towards women and gender non-conforming individuals.

So we have to look at the other texts of pre- and post-Buddhist times to find out the position and status of gender non-conforming people, etc. at the time of the Buddha and thereafter, and especially at the scriptures of two groups that existed prior to the Buddha’s awakening and teaching; the Brahmins (and their Vedas) and the Jains. We know that the Buddha had in-depth knowledge of these teachings and the social structure described therein as was accepted at that time.

The Vedas

Broadly speaking the Vedic literature (Aparavidya) can be categorised as the Vedas and the Vedangas. The Vedas are considered to be the oldest literary records of the world and is generally regarded as the period 1500 BC to 500 BC. The four types of Vedas are Rigveda, Yajurveda, Samaveda and Atharvaveda3.

In the Vedic literature the gender of the human being is divided into three categories according to prakriti or nature. They are pums-prakriti or male, stri-prakriti or female, and tritiya-prakriti or the third sex (Svetasvatara Upanisad)3 4. Third sex people are also classified under a larger social category known as the neutral gender or napuṃsaka, which basically means ‘not engaged in procreation’. Napuṃsaka are divided into five different categories, they are: children, the elderly, the impotent, the celibate, and the third sex. They were all considered to be sexually neutral by Vedic definition and were protected and believed to bring good luck and prosperity.

This non reproductive category played an integral role in the balance of human society and nature. Vedic literature underlined that everything in nature in corporate and has a purpose, role, value and reason for existence. In Vedic society each individual was considered to be an integral part of the whole society. In Vedic period third-gender citizens were not denied their basic rights. They had permission to keep their own societies and live together within marriage and engage in all means of livelihood with dignity. They were mostly invited to attend special occasions such as birth, marriage, and other religious ceremonies as their presence considered to be auspicious and good luck. Citizens of the third sex were given their own particular status in Vedic society. The Vedic literature indicates that there were no specific Vedic law which penalizes third gender people for their characteristic behaviour3.

The Vedic texts go into detail to describe the biological origin and astrology of third-sex individuals and all it’s variations3 4.

Indian linguist Patanjali’s work on Sanskrit grammar, the Mahabhaya (200 BC), states that Sanskrit’s three grammatical genders are derived from three natural genders. The earliest Tamil grammar, the Tolkappiyam (3rd century BC) also refers to hermaphrodites as a third “neuter” gender 4.

The class of transvestite singers, dancers and prostitutes known as ‘hijras’ are the contemporary representatives of the third sex of earlier times 9.

Another word that surfaces in the vedas is klība, the sexually defective man, who is defined as a man who is unable to procreate6.

The Jain Scriptures

According to the Tattvārtha-sūtra, all beings, with the exception of infernal beings, one-sensed beings and gods, possess one of three genders: female, male or third sex (napuṃsaka). These genders are produced by a specific ‘body-making karma’ that is attached to the soul of the being. According to the Jain scriptures, all beings are able to achieve spiritual liberation regardless of gender5.

The role of women in the Jain order has however been hotly debated and given that the Jains were investigating whether or not women could become mendicants, they were simultaniously concerned about what it meant to be a man, woman, or something else. It is for this reason that Jain literature constitutes perhaps the single richest source of knowledge of the third sex, as well as for speculations on sex and gender, to be found in India from the ancient to medieval periods6. For a detailed analysis of the Jain view on gender see Zwilling & Sweet “Like a City Ablaze” The Third Sex and the Creation of Sexuality in Jain Religious Literature.

The early Jain texts excluded paṇḍaka (as in the meaning of ‘eunuch’) from ordination because these are naked ascetics and a eunuch would no doubt stand out without clothing6. It is not unlikely that this was later adopted into the Buddhist Vinaya, so then a translation of the earliest meaning of ‘eunuch’ would indeed be what was meant by the compilers of this text. We have already established that this was not the Buddha himself and that this was included into the texts after the Buddha’s death. It would also seem logical from that perspective: the Buddha would see no need to exclude eunuchs from the order as the Buddhist monks were fully dressed.

But during the development of the Jain order, the terms became more confused. Although the Jain accepted the notion of the third gender from the existing Vedic culture, they had lenghty debates as to what this would mean. This discussion was fuelled by the fact that these were naked ascetics. The Jain radically rejected the Brahmanical idea of gender as indicated by the presence or absence of certain primary and secondary characteristics and instead revalorized the term veda, which refers to both biological sex and sexual feelings. What became important to the Jains was less the features or markers of gender, but rather the sexual behavior itself. This idea developed and by the fifth century, the Jains distinquished between biological sex and psychological gender and sexuality and each individual could have a different combination of each5.

It is also interesting to note that in the later Jain texts, napuṃsaka, in the meaning of the ‘third sex’, were said to have a libido higher than any man or woman. The simile given is that of the veda of women is compared to a dung fire, the veda of men to a forest fire and the veda of third-sex people as ‘a city ablaze’6. The napuṃsaka were also seen as a threat to the celibate monks, just like women.

In the early Jain scriptures, we see 3 classes of people who are not allowed to ordain, the paṇḍaka (in the meaning of ‘eunuch’), klība and vyādhita (ill person). In the later scriptures (Sthananga Sutra ca. 200 BC) there are more classes of persons barred from ordination6 10, but with the word paṇḍaka replaced by napuṃsaka. As it was no longer possible to determine this by seeing the person’s body, the candidate for ordination had to be questioned to determine if they were a ‘third-sex’ person or not. However, in the course of time, the ban against ordination of all third-sex persons was ameliorated to a very large extent. First, exceptions were made on an individual basis, later certain typs of third-sex people were considered fit for ordination, like for instance homosexuals.

The third sex, napuṃsakas, were an important consideration because there was a social stigma attached to them, especially when such people would ordain as monks in the Jain order. As Zwilling and Sweet6 explain, the fear was that the broader public would assume things wrongly of Jain mendicants if the napuṃsakas were ordained as monks or even if mendicants accepted alms from them. Thus, another reason why it was important to determine who was a part of the third sex was to enforce monastic conduct and public opinion.

Parallels between Buddhist and Jain scriptures

Summary of the various terms and their usage over time6:

Vedic (ca. 1500–600 BC) and early Jain scriptures:
paṇḍaka eunuch, impotent
tritiya-prakriti ‘third gender’ i.e. people who are eunuch, inter-sex or otherwise have different physical characteristics.
napuṃsaka persons not engaged in procreation, including third-gender people.

Jain scriptures (ca. 600–300 BC):
paṇḍaka eunuch
napuṃsaka ‘third gender’ i.e. people who are eunuch, inter-sex or otherwise have different physical characteristics.

Jain scriptures (ca. 300 BC–500 CE) :
napuṃsaka ‘third gender’ i.e. people who have either physical or psychological characteristics that would make them gender non-conforming. Later also said to have a much higher libido than others. The term paṇḍaka seems to have become synomymous with this.

There are many parallels to be found between the use of the term paṇḍaka in the Vinaya and subsequent commentaries and the term napuṃsaka used by the Jains. Over time however we see a shift in meaning and the terms seem to get blurred. The first shift is that the term napuṃsaka became to mean mainly those who were not gender-conform like inter-sex people and eunuchs. The Jains radically broke with the Vedic tradition and started defining napuṃsaka as all those who with different sexual feelings and behaviors like homosexuals.

In the early Jain scriptures, we see 3 classes of people who are not allowed to ordain of which the paṇḍaka (eunuch) is one while in the later scriptures (ca. 200 BC) there are more classes of persons barred from ordination, but with the word paṇḍaka replaced by napuṃsaka. With the new Jain idea that a napuṃsaka was no longer defined by physical appearance, it became necessary to question candidates for ordination. We see a similar trend in Buddhist scriptures; according to the PTS dictionary, the term paṇḍaka is indeed a eunuch and is not allowed to ordain according to the Vinaya. However, from various further references in the Commentaries, it is clear that the term paṇḍaka over time starts to refer to other gender non-conforming people, who would be referred to as napuṃsaka by the Jains. Also, as with the Jains, questioning of the candidate became necessary to determine suitability for ordination.

The Jain, in later scriptures, saw the napuṃsaka as having excessive libidinousness and a threat to the celibate life of monastics. We also see this in the development of the Buddhist texts as noted at the start of this article, many scholars believe that the term paṇḍaka has to do with individuals with a high libido and therefore unfit for ordination in a celibate order.

Another parallel development that we can see in the Jain texts is that in the course of time, the ban against ordination of third-sex persons became more relaxed and certain types were again accepted. The same we see in later Pali commentaries where certain types of paṇḍaka were no longer excluded from ordination1 7 11.


It is clear from the Brahmanical and Jain scriptures that three genders were recognized in (pre-)Buddhist times and these were an integral and accepted part of society. There are many similarities and parallels to be drawn between the developments in the Jain and Buddhist monastic orders. The most notable difference between the two orders was the fact that Jain monastics, at least in the beginning, did not wear any clothes and therefore gender, especially the physical aspects thereof and the public opinion were of major concerns.

It seems however that with the growth of the monastic order among the Jains (and probably also among the Buddhist mendicants, especially after the Buddha passed away and the order found itself without leadership), fears started arising as to the livelyhood of the order if the third-sex individuals were allowed to ordain. A similar development we have seen in the discussion on the place of Bhikkhunis after the parinibbāna of the Buddha. Just like the Jains were discussing the role of women, as as a consequence also the role of the third gender people, as mendicants in the Sangha, a parallel development happened within Buddhist circles.

To come back to the initial question as to what the best translation is for the word paṇḍaka, there are then various possibilites based on the above discussion.
1. eunuch
2. third gender
3. sexually lustful person

As Kelvin Wong point out: “Unless we have done a thorough study of India sexual behaviours and attitudes during the Buddha’s time, it will be quite difficult to ascertain what the term paṇḍaka really meant.”11 With the above discussion I have tried to make a start of such a study to show that the term has shifted in meaning over time and considering the redactional processes that the Vinaya might have been subjected to, the term might have been used with different meanings in different contexts.

If we go from the premise that Bhikkhu Sujato’s stance on the Vinaya8 is correct and that the Vinaya as we have it today is a product stemming from the Second Council and that the word paṇḍaka was inserted at this time, we have to take into consideration that the Jain understanding of this word at that time was ‘eunuch’, while they had a different word napuṃsaka for the group of ‘third sex’ persons, at that time only denoting those with physical characteristics that made them not conform. Also at that time, the Jain scriptures only barred a paṇḍaka from ordination and not a napuṃsaka. It seems not unlikely that due to the pressures of public opinion, the Jain ideas of keeping paṇḍaka from ordaining were adopted into the Vinaya. However, if we use the translation ‘eunuch’ we are left with the dilemma on how to translate a itthipaṇḍaka.

If we would use the term ‘third gender’ as in the meaning ascribed to it by the Brahmanical and Jain cultures at the time of the Buddha, we would effectively put the terms paṇḍaka and napuṃsaka as synomyms. Although it appears that these terms became indeed used as synomymous over time, based on the above analysis, I do not believe they were in the time of the Buddha or at least up to the Second Council. We would also be left with the problem that inter-sex people are denoted with a different word (ubhatovyañjanaka) in the Vinaya. Moreover, Pārājika 1 tells the story of a monk who changes sex, so clearly a transgender by our standards, but he is simply admitted into the Bhikkhunī order and not seen as a paṇḍaka. Considering the appearence of the term itthipaṇḍaka in the texts and other references where it seems that a paṇḍaka is a not a eunuch, it is not unlikely that later editorial changes to the Vinaya have also brought in the term in the meaning it had then, namely of a ‘third gender’.

I feel it is incorrect to use the translation that is proposed by various authors1 11 i.e. that of a person with strong lustful behavior as this seems to be a much later understanding of the terms. Such a translation would be suitable for some of the commentaries but not the Vinaya. This translation also seems to be incorrect if we look at all the references in the Vinaya showing libidinous activity describing heterosexual acts (see f.i. Pārājika 1). But the perpetrators of those acts are not classified as paṇḍakas so the word clearly has a different meaning there.

The implications of a translation

In choosing a translation it is important to note that we are dealing here with historical facts and developments and not spiritual truths. As with everything pertaining to the Dhamma-Vinaya, we have to look at the underlying meanings and intentions so as to separate the Buddha’s teachings from later developments and historical and socio-cultural context and therefore discussions like the above are of paramount importance.

We now live in a vastly different socio-cultural society where gender norms are very different and also public opinion on these matters is shifting. But we still use the Vinaya as our focus and guidelines for practice and how we interpret the Vinaya can impact the lives of certain groups of people in a real sense. There is no reason why gender non-conform people should not ordain nowadays and I have stated my reasons thereof in my article Changing Gender, Changing Buddhists.

Because of the danger of a too literal reading of the Vinaya, I feel that any translation of the word paṇḍaka is problematic, not in the least because the meaning of the word has shifted over time, therewith making a single english translation difficult.

If we translate it as ‘eunuch’, we would exclude eunuchs from ordination. In the time that the ban on ordination of eunuchs for Jain monks i.e. naked ascetics, was laid down, it was out of a concern that the physical defects of such a person were very visible and would no doubt have an influence on public perception. This is not a concern we need to worry about in our modern day and I see no reason why eunuchs should be excluded.

The translation of ‘third gender’ is problematic because it would exclude all those with different physical appearance from ordination, it being inter-sex persons, transpersons, eunuchs, etc. as well as possibly transvestites and others who have what the Vedic texts call ‘secondary characteristics’ of another gender than their birth-sex. Again, I see no reason why such persons would not be able to practice the Buddha’s teachings and therefore ordain in our modern day and age where public perception is vastly different.

The last proposed translation of people with excessive libidinousness would only be helpful in today’s society if this is linked to cis-gendered people as well. However, I feel that considering the historical evidence from the Jain texts, there is a danger that in practice such a translation will be linked exclusively to gender non-conforming people. I feel that such discriminatory views should be quashed as this view by the Jains is no doubt a perpetuation of the idea that sex for third-sex people is somehow unnatural and such a view is very harmful.

So considering the ambiguities and shifting meanings of the term paṇḍaka and the serious implications that any single translation thereof can bring for future candidates seeking ordination, I would prefer to leave the term untranslated.


1. Bomhard, Allan R., The Two Meanings of the Pāḷi Term paṇḍaka
Florence SC, 2016

2. Wisdom Library:

3. Vasumathi, Dr. T & Geethanjali, M., Transgender Identity As Hidden in Vedic Literature And Society
International Journal of Humanities and Social Science Invention (IJHSSI)
ISSN (Online): 2319 – 7722, ISSN (Print): 2319 – 7714, Volume 7 Issue 01, January. 2018, PP.62-65

4. Michelraj, M., Historical Evolution of Transgender Community in India
Asian Review of Social Sciences, 2015

5. Sexual differences in Jainism

6. Zwilling, Leonard and Sweet, Michael J., “Like a City Ablaze” The Third Sex and the Creation of Sexuality in Jain Religious Literature
Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 6, 1196, no. 3, pp. 359-384

7. Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu, The Buddhist Monastic Code II
Second edition 1996. Valley Center, CA: Mettā Forest Monastery.

8. Sujato Bhikkhu, Bhikkhuni Vinaya Studies
Santipada, 2007

9. Nanda, Serena, Neither Man nor Woman, The Hijras of India
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York
Wadsworth Publishing Company, 1999

Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute, vol. 16, no. 1/4, 1954, pp. 140.

11. Wong, Kelvin, Homosexuality and the original meaning of Pandaka
Singapore, August 3, 2005

12. Nissarano, Ajahn, On Pandakas