The traditional narrative of the Buddha’s life has gained popularity by walking through Siddhārtha Gautama’s difficult and humble transformation as a prince to a monk who attains enlightenment. Many approaches to the Buddha’s narrative however fail to consider Siddhārtha’s relationships with women in his family. These familial ties, which are deeply couched in South Asian culture, have indubitably shaped Siddhārtha journey to enlightenment. His journey, doctrinally what seems to be an individual journey separated from society, is intimately connected with the women of his family. More specifically, the Buddha’s ties with his foster-mother Mahāpajāpati, birth-mother Māya, and wife Yasodharā introduce a nuanced ambivalence towards women in the narrative. The Buddha is ultimately tied down to his cultural traditions and misogynistic view of women, yet these women are positive forces in the narrative who profoundly motivate him on his journey to enlightenment.
The Buddha’s relationship to Mahāpajāpati and his reluctance to create an order of nuns demonstrate how the Buddha was unable to drop his disdain for women even after enlightenment. In the version of the Mahāpajāpati/ordination story found in the Cullavagga section of the Pāli Vinaya of the Theravada school, Mahāpajāpati is claimed to have asked Siddhārtha “if women were allowed to go forth from the home to the homeless life under the doctrine and discipline proclaimed by the Tathāgata.” At the time, Mahāpajāpati had been widowed after the death of King Suddhodana and is asking the Buddha if women were able to be ordained. The Buddha dismisses her question and advises her not to set her mind on women being able to ordain themselves. During this time period, Buddhism was tempered with misogyny, which follows the Buddha’s comparison of women’s entrance into the Sangha as mildew attacking a field of rice and disease attacking a field of sugarcane. Ohnuma, a scholar of Buddhist traditions of South Asia, interprets that the establishment of the order of nuns was in fact not based on women’s spiritual capabilities, spiritual equality with men, or inherent right to pursue equivalent spiritual goals. Ānanda, one of the ten principal disciples of the Gautama Buddha, had to present Mahāpajāpati’s request to become ordained with two additional, separate arguments to convince the Buddha to establish an order of nuns. Firstly, that women are able spiritually capable of realizing all four fruits [Stream-Entering, Once-Returning, Non-Returning, and Arhatship]. Secondly, that “Mahāpajāpati Gautami was very helpful to the Blessed one – serving as his aunt, foster-mother, caregiver, and giver of milk, who breastfed the Blessed One after his mother had died.” Only then does the Buddha concede to allow women to renounce the world. Ohnuma supposes that through the Buddha’s interaction with Ānanda here, the establishment of an order of nuns was in fact based solely on the Buddha’s sense of responsibility to his mother. This theme of a son’s debt to his mother is a keystone part of Indian culture during this time period. Despite the Buddha being someone who renounced the world and all social ties, the tie to his mother could not be broken.
So what does this mean for Buddhists today? Does this elicit uncertainty for women practicing Buddhism? Maybe the Buddha did not believe that women could not attain enlightenment, both spiritually or socially. After all, the Buddha did concede to the creation of an order of nuns on the condition that bhikkhunis abide under eight strict rules, the Eight Garudhammas, which would subordinate them under male monks. The Buddha initially resisted creating an order of nuns, but then felt compelled to ordain his foster mother because she took care of him during his childhood. The Buddha struggled with an ambivalence towards how he should treat women. While the Buddha was unable to let go of his culture’s misogynistic views by establishing the order of female nuns to be lower to that of male monks, Mahāpajāpati significantly motivated that very decision to extend his reach of the dharma to women.
The fragmentary Bhikṣuṇī-Karmavācanā manuscript preserved in Sanskrit and deriving from the Mūlasarvāstivāda school offers a version of the Mahāpajāpati/ordination story that elaborates on the theme of the Buddha’s debt toward his mother. When Mahāpajāpati first asks the Buddha to allow women to be ordained, the Buddha answers that just Gautami alone should be permitted to be ordained, not that all women could be ordained. It was only after Ānanda’s intervention did the Buddha finally agree to allow women in general to renounce and ordain themselves. Why did the Buddha first decide that only Mahāpajāpati could be allowed to ordain? Did he not believe in the spiritual capabilities of women? Again Ohnuma hypothesizes that this is deeply intertwined with the theme of a son’s debt to his mother. The Buddha felt compelled to make an exception for his foster mother who raised and took care of him from birth. This is a significant event that should be considered in the Buddha’s narrative, as it represents his persistent ties to his mother in spite of the ideology of detachment.
Now let us explore the tensions Siddhārtha faced in his relationship with his wife Yasodharā. In traditional Buddhist narratives, Siddhārtha immediately abandons his family and renounces himself after witnessing the four sights: old age, sickness, death, and an ascetic. In an alternative tradition found in the Discipline [Vinaya] of the Mūlasarvāstivādins and corroborative sources, the Siddhārtha returns home to make love to his wife before leaving. In this version, Rāhula, Siddhārtha’s and Yasodharā’s son, has not yet been born. The Vinaya stated “that the prince Śākyamuni (another name for Siddhārtha Gautama) was ‘not a man’ and that he wandered forth without ‘paying attention’ to … his wives, and thinking ‘let me now “pay attention” to Yasodharā,’ he did so, and Yasodharā became pregnant.” Instead of turning away from the sensual pleasures of sex and abandoning his social, familial ties, Siddhārtha felt the need to fulfill his finally duties as a man and a prince, by engendering a son. This sense of a male duty is also reflected today in Buddhist ordination traditions. A prerequisite for ordination to the monkhood is that candidates cannot be “lacking in maleness.” By worrying about having a son, it is likely that Siddhārtha was in fact unsettled about his identity both as a prince and as a man. At the cathartic time of the bodhisattva’s great departure, he was in fact still grounded by this cultural sense of duty. Furthermore, Siddhārtha promises Yasodharā that he would take her along with him beside her in bed the night before he embarks on his journey to enlightenment. The Buddha abandons her the next day, so many interpret this as a promise to take his wife along him not physically, but spiritually on the path to Nibbāna. With this in mind, Yasodharā represents a positive role played by women in the narrative – she pushes the Buddha to attain some sort of wisdom and enlightenment when he leaves her and Rāhula behind to begin his spiritual journey in the forest. The Buddha’s drive to becoming a samma sambuddha 1 was motivated not only by his will and effort in practice but also by his final promise he made to his wife Yasodharā.
In addition, the relationship the Buddha has with both his mothers Mahāpajāpati and Māya, his birth mother creates a significant tension the Buddha experiences after his enlightenment. There is an uneven dichotomy between Māya and Mahāpajāpati. Māya is the virtuous, good mother who fulfilled her function by giving birth in a clean, pleasant manner (Siddhartha was born through her side rather than through the vagina, which is deemed culturally impure), then dies 7 days after. By dying right after giving birth, Māya does not leave any lingering debt to her son Siddhartha. As opposed to Mahāpajāpati, who is characterized as problematic in the sense that she lingers with the Buddha by nourishing and taking care of him. With this in mind, let us revisit the Mahāpajāpati/ordination story we have analyzed before. After asking permission from the Buddha (with the help of Ānanda), Mahāpajāpati becomes a leader of the order of the nuns. Many of the women she leads seem to “have been former members of the Buddha’s harem who were abandoned by him when he renounced the world or women whose husbands had left them to be ordained as buddhist monks – in other words, similarly leftover” women. Furthermore, this theme of being left behind is especially apparent when Mahāpajāpati, and a group of five hundred bhikkhuni, followed the Buddha several hundred miles by foot after the Buddha refused to ordain the women. Even this acceptance of ordination is conditional on women subjugating themselves to male monks under the Eight Garudhammas. This opposes starkly with the Buddha’s interactions with Māya, the “good” mother. In the Dhammapada, it is told that the Buddha went up to the heavens to preach the Abhidharma Pitaka to Māya (who has been reborn there as a deity). In some versions of the Dhammapada, Māya lovingly “breastfeeds [the] Buddha at the very same time as he lovingly teachers her the dharma.” This interaction with Māya is depicted in a wholly positive manner, whereas the Buddha’s interactions with Mahāpajāpati was somewhat dismissive, or what Ohnuma describes Mahāpajāpati as being “leftover.” It is also significant that the Buddha went up to the realm of the deities to teach the Abhidharma, which is said to be a higher and more concentrated form of the Buddhist dharma. On the other end of the scale, Mahāpajāpati is given an inferior order of nuns. The difference between how the Buddha treats Mahāpajāpati and Māya lies in the cultural importance of birth mothers and how their sons are indebted to them for life. Siddhārtha was reluctant to ordain his foster mother but put in great efforts to teach his birth mother the dharma.
Again however, in spite of the cultural misogyny at the time, the Buddha’s special treatment towards Māya highlights an ambivalence towards women. In spite of the ideology of detachment, even the Buddha was unable to renounce his ties to his birth mother in his journey to enlightenment.
Throughout the narrative, the duty as a husband/man and the debt to mother themes clearly motivate the Buddha’s interactions with others spreading the dharma and with the women in his family. These should not be left out in narrative because they indeed shed light on significant aspects of the Buddha’s enlightenment. That the Buddha could not let go of his familial ties, relationships which carry symbolic weight in South and Southeast Asian cultures. So what does this mean? This stresses the importance of narratives over doctrines, as they expose the social complexities of religion and allow us to understand religious traditions to their deepest contexts. In addition, the ideology of detachment is nuanced as the family never disappears from the Buddha’s life. Finally, this can cause people to reconsider their views on the journey of the Buddha and raises questions especially for women who want to practice Buddhism.
1 An enlightened being that is referred to as Buddha, one who has reached nibbāna on his own efforts and is able to teach it skillfully to others. Opposed to paccekabuddha, an enlightened being who is unable to teach the Dhamma.
Ohnuma, Reiko. Debt to the Mother: Journal of the American Academy of Religion 74.4. 2006
Strong, John S. The Buddha: A Short Biography. Oxford: Oneworld, 2001.