Maha Pajapati Gotami was Siddhartha Gautama's aunt, and after his own mother died soon after childbirth, became his stepmother, raising him from infancy. According to legend, omens at her birth predicted that she would be responsible for getting the Buddha to allow women initiates. She and her sister were both born as the then-equivalent of aristocracy, in a territory bordering that of King Suddhodana, the Buddha's father. Some versions of the story say that the King married both sisters (which was not unheard of at the time), while others say that Pajapati simply accompanied her older sister Maya to the King's kingdom upon her own marriage.
In any case, after the Buddha attained enlightenment, he returned to his ancestral home, and many of his family became his followers. Both his son Rahula and Pajapati's son left home to follow the Buddha. An order of bhikkhus, or Buddhist monks, was established. This type of order was not unusual for the time, as young men often left home to study spiritually, as the Buddha himself had done. But no previous religious order in India had accepted women in an official way.
However, Pajapati, along with other women, were allowed to attend many of the Buddha's talks, and as she was the Buddha's mother and an elder of his clan she was well-respected among the throngs that came to receive his teachings. After her husband King Suddhodana died, she devoted herself entirely to Buddhist teachings, and developed a group of women followers. Eventually she decided that she wanted to renounce her worldly life, spending the remainder of her days as a nun. She went to the Buddha to ask him to initiate her and found an order of nuns.
The Buddha said no. Not much information is provided on his reasons for this, he simply said, "Don't set your heart on women being able to do this." Devastated, Pajapati prostrated herself and asked two more times. The Buddha refused both times. Pajapati returned home greatly disappointed. Then she and her women followers decided to take things into their own hands, in what may be one of the first all-female non-violent demonstrations in history. The 500 women shaved their heads, donned monastic robes, and marched 350 miles barefoot to the Buddha's location.
Ananda, one of the Buddha's senior disciples, was shocked to see them upon their arrival, and asked the Buddha if their wish might now be granted. The Buddha said no. So Ananda asked if it was because women could not attain enlightenment. The Buddha said that women could indeed attain enlightenment, thus suggesting that his prior refusal was due to social concerns, not spiritual limitations. At this point the Buddha reconsidered his decision, and decided to initiate the women, with eight conditions. These eight conditions all have to do with the nuns deferential treatment of male monks, and have often been a source of contention among Buddhist practitioners (especially in modern times.)
The story of Pajapati appears in several sources, but the primary source is a Pali Canon scripture called the Therigatha or Verses of the Elder Nuns. This scripture is a collection of poems written by the first Buddhist nuns, and is believed to be one of the first collections of writings by women. It reaffirms the view that women are the spiritual equals of men and can attain enlightenment - a view unheard of in every other religion written about at the time. It also contains verses on issues especially pertinent to women of the time, including the verses of a mother whose child has died, a former prostitute who became a nun, and a wealthy heiress who abandoned her life of pleasure.
Here is the first poem in the Therigatha, which was written by Pajapati herself:
Homage to you Buddha
best of all creatures
who set me and many
others free from pain.
All pain is understood
The cause, the craving
is dried up.
The Noble eight-fold way unfolds.
I have reached the state where everything stops.
I have been mother, son, father, brother, grandmother,
knowing nothing of the truth
I journeyed on.
But I have seen the Blessed one.
This is my last body and I will not go from birth to birth again.
Look at the disciples all together.
Their energy, their sincere effort
this is homage to Buddhas.
Maya gave birth to Gautama for the sake of us all.
She has driven back the pain of the sick and dying.
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