Part 16 Mahaprajapati is Admitted to the Community

Mahaprajapati was musing. She knew the vanity of this world. She wanted to flee the palace, to flee Kapilavastu, and lead a life of holiness. “How happy is the Master! How happy are the disciples!” she thought. “Why can I not do as they do? Why can I not live as they live? But they oppose women. We are not admitted to the community, and I must remain in this mournful city, to me deserted; I must remain in this mournful palace, empty in my sight!” She grieved. She laid aside her costly robes; she gave her jewels to her handmaidens, and she was humble before all creatures. One day, she said to herself: “The Master is kind; he will take pity on me. I shall go to him, and perhaps he will be willing to receive me into the community.” The Master was in a wood, near Kapilavastu. Mahaprajapati went to him, and in a timid voice, she said: “Master, only you and your disciples can be really happy. Yet I, too, like you and those who accompany you, wish to walk in the path of salvation. May the favor be granted to me, to enter the community, O Blessed One.”

The Master remained silent. She continued: “My palace is cheerless and dreary. The city is wrapped in darkness. The embroidered veils weigh heavily upon my brow; the diadems, the bracelets and the necklaces hurt me. I must walk in the path of salvation. Many earnest women, many women of great piety, are ready to follow me. May the favor be granted women to enter the community, O Blessed One.” The Master remained silent. Mahaprajapati, her eyes full of tears, returned to her gloomy palace. But she would not accept defeat. She resolved to seek the Master once again and plead with him. He was then in the great wood, near Vaisali. Mahaprajapati cut off her hair, and putting on a reddish-colored robe made of a coarse material, she set out for Vaisali. She made the trip on foot; she never once complained of weariness. Covered with dust, she finally arrived at the hall where the Buddha was meditating. But she did not dare to enter; she stood outside the door, with tears in her eyes.

Ananda happened to pass by. He saw her and asked: “O queen, why have you come here, dressed in this manner? Why are you standing before the Master’s door?” “I dare not enter his presence. Three times, already, he has denied my plea, and that which he has thrice refused, I have come to ask him again: that the favor be granted me, that the favor be granted women, to enter the community.” “I shall intercede for you, O queen,” said Ananda. He entered the hall. He saw the Master, and he said to him: “Blessed One, Mahaprajapati, our revered queen, is standing before your door. She dares not appear before you; she is afraid you will again turn a deaf ear to her plea. Yet it is not the plea of a foolish woman, Blessed One. Would it mean so much to you to grant it? The queen was a mother to you, once; she was always kind to you; surely she deserves to be heard. Why should you not receive women into the community? There are women of great piety, women with the saintly courage to keep in the path of holiness.”

“Ananda,” said the Master, “do not ask me to permit women to enter the community.” Ananda left. The queen was waiting for him. “What did the Master say,” she asked, anxiously. “He denies your plea. But do not lose hope.” The following day, Ananda again went to the Blessed One. “Mahaprajapati has not left the wood,” said he. “She is thinking of the happy days of her youth. Maya was then alive; Maya, the most beautiful of all women; Maya, to whom a son would be born. Maya’s sister was a noble woman: she knew nothing of envy: she loved this child, even before it came into the world. And when it was born, to bring joy to all creatures, Queen Maya died. Mahaprajapati was kind to the motherless boy: he seemed so frail. She protected him from harm; she gave him devoted nurses; she shielded him from the influence of evil servants; she lavished her care and her tenderness upon him. He grew older, and still she would not leave him. She anticipated his least wishes; she worshipped him. And he attained the happiest fortune; he is the giant tree that shelters the wise; and now, when she would seek a humble place in his shadow, she is refused the peace and rest to which she aspires. O Master, be not unjust; receive Mahaprajapati into the community.”

The Master pondered; then he gravely spoke these words: “Listen, Ananda. Go to Mahaprajapati and tell her that I am willing to receive her into the community, but that she must conform to certain very strict rules. These are the observances I shall require of the women in the community: a nun, even if she has been a nun for a hundred years, must rise in the presence of a monk and show him every mark of deep respect, even though he has been a monk for only a day; the nuns must go to the monks for a public confession of their transgressions and for instruction in the sacred word; nuns guilty of a grave offense must submit to a fitting punishment, for fifteen days, in front of the whole community of monks and nuns; before nuns are admitted to the community, their constancy and their virtue must be tried for a period of two years; the nuns will not be allowed to exhort the monks, but the monks will be allowed to exhort the nuns. These are the observances which, in addition to the observances already known to the monks, will be required of all the nuns.” Mahaprajapati joyfully promised to observe these rules. She entered the community, and within a few months, many women had followed her example.


Mahaprajapati: The younger sister of Mahamaya. King Suddhodana married both the sisters, and when Mahamaya died, seven days after the birth of the Buddha, Mahaprajapati looked after the Buddha and nursed him. The Buddha was at Vesali when Suddhodana died, and she decided to renounce the world, asking for his permission. The Buddha refused. But she had her hair cut off, and donning yellow robes, followed the Buddha to Vesali on foot, arriving with wounded feet at his monastery. The Buddha again refused, but Ananda interceded on her behalf and her request was granted, subject to strict conditions.

Ananda: One of the principal disciples of the Buddha. He was a first cousin of the Buddha and was deeply attached to him. His father was Amitodana, brother of Suddhodana. Ananda entered the Order together with other princes such as Bhaddiya, Anuruddha, Bhagu, Kimbila and Devadatta, and was ordained by the Buddha himself. During the first twenty years after the Enlightenment, the Buddha did not have the same personal attendants all the time. From time to time various monks looked after him. We are told that the Buddha was not particularly pleased with any of them. At the end of twenty years, at an assembly of the monks, the Buddha declared that he was advanced in years and desired to have somebody as his permanent attendant. All the great disciples offered their services, but were rejected by the Buddha. Ananda alone was left; he sat in silence. When asked why he did not offer himself, his reply was that the Buddha knew best whom to choose. The Buddha offered Ananda the post. Thenceforth, for twenty-five years Ananda waited upon the Buddha, following him like a shadow, bringing him water and toothpick, washing his feet, accompanying him everywhere, sweeping his cell and so forth.

Image Attribution: The image above, sourced from Wikimedia Commons, shows a picture of Prince Siddhartha with his maternal aunt and foster mother Queen Mahaprajapati Gotami. It is based on an old lithographic painting by Maligawage Sarlis (Sri Lanka), clicked and uploaded to Wikimedia Commons by MediaJet.