Buddhist Women 1
Dr. Bimala Churn Law, Ph.D.
An account of some famous women who figure prominently in the early Buddhist texts is given in the following pages. The account will show that women were not a negligible factor in the ancient Buddhist community of India.
Abhirupananda was the daughter of a Sakya noble named Khemaka. She was called Nanda the Fair because of her great beauty and amiability. Her beloved kinsman, Carabhuta, died on the day on which she was to choose him from amongst her suitors. She had to leave the world against her will. Though she entered the order, she could not forget that she was beautiful. Fearing that, the Buddha would rebuke her, she used to avoid his presence. The Buddha knew that the time had come for her to acquire knowledge and asked Mahapajapati Gotami to bring all the bhikkhunis before him to receive instruction. Nanda sent a proxy for her. The Buddha said, "Let no one come by proxy." So, she was compelled to come to him. The Buddha by his supernatural power conjured up a beautiful woman, who became transformed into an old and fading figure. It had the desired effect, and Abhirupananda became an arhat. (Therigatha Commy., pp. 25-26.)
Jenti or Jenta was born in a princely family of the Licchavis at Vaisali. She won arhatship after hearing the Dharma preached by the Buddha. She developed the seven Sambojjhangas. (Ibid., p.27).
Citta was born at Rajagaha in the family of a leading burgess. One day when she was of age, she heard the master preach and believed in his doctrine. She was ordained by Mahapajapati Gotami. In her old age she climbed the vulture's peak and lived like a recluse. Her insight expanded and she won arhatship. (Ibid., p.33.)
Sukka was born at Rajagaha in the family of a rich householder. When she attained the years of discretion she believed in the Master's teaching and became a lay disciple. One day she heard Dharmadinna preach and was so greatly moved that she renounced the world and followed Dharmadinna. She performed all the exercises for acquiring insight and very soon attained arhatship with patisambhida. Thereupon she became a great preacher and was attended by 500 bhikkhus. One day, along with the other bhikkhunis, she went to the hermitage of the bhikkhunis and taught the Buddha's doctrine in such a way that everybody listened to her with rapt attention; even a tree-spirit was so much moved that it began to praise her. At this the people were excited and came to the sister and listened attentively. (Ibid., pp.57-61.)
Sela was born in the kingdom of Alavi, as the king's daughter. She was also known as Alavika. One day, while yet a maid, she went with the king and heard the Master preach. She became a believer and lay disciple. A few days after, she took orders and performed the exercises for insight. She subjugated the complexities of thought, word and deed and soon won arhatship. Thereafter she lived at Savatthi when the Buddha was there. She entered the Andhavana forest to meditate after finishing her midday meal. Mara once tried in vain to persuade her to choose the sensuous life (Ibid., p.61, f. Cf. Samyutta Nikaya, part 1, p.128).
Siha was born at Vesali as the daughter of General Siha's sister. She was named after her maternal uncle. When she grew up, she heard the Master teaching the Norm to her maternal uncle and became a believer. She was permitted by her parents to enter the order. For seven years she could not acquire insight as her mind was always inclined to objects of external charm. Then she intended to die. She took a noose, hung it round the bough of a tree and fastened it round her neck. Thus she succeeded in impelling her mind to insight which grew within and she won arhatahip. She then took off the rope from her neck and went back to her hermitage. (Ibid., pp.79-80).
Sundari Nanda was born in the royal family of the Sakyas. She was known as the beautiful Nanda. Thinking about the fact that her elder brother, her mother, her brother, her sister and her nephew had renounced the world, she too left it. Even after her renunciation, she was obsessed with the idea of her beauty and would not approach the Lord lest she should be reproached for her folly. The Lord taught her in the same way as he did in the case of Nanda the Fair. She listened to the Master's teaching and enjoyed the benefit of the fruition of the first stage of sanctification. He then instructed her saying, "Nanda, there is in this body not even the smallest essence. It is but a heap of bones covered with flesh and besmeared with blood under the shadow of decay and death." Afterwards she became an arhat. (Ibid., pp.80 f.; cf. Manora- thapurani, pp. 217-218).
Khema was born in the royal family of Sagala. She was very beautiful and her skin was like gold. She became the consort of Bimbisara. One day she heard that the Buddha was in the habit of speaking ill of beauty, since then she did not appear before the Buddha. The king was a chief supporter of the Buddha. He asked his court-poets to compose a song on the glories of the Veluvana hermitage and to sing the song very loudly so that the queen might hear it. The royal order was carried out. Khema heard of the beauty of the hermitage and with the king's consent she came to the Veluvana Vihara, where the Buddha was staying at that time. When she was led before the Buddha, the latter conjured up a woman in the form of a celestial nymph who stood fanning him with a palm leaf. Khema observed that this woman was more beautiful than her and she was ashamed of her own vanity. Sometime after she noticed again that the woman was passing from youth to middle age and then to old age, till with broken teeth, grey hair, and wrinkled skin, she fell on earth with her palm leaf. Then thought Khema; “my beautiful body will meet with the same fate as that of the nymph.” Then the Master, who knew her thoughts, said that persons subject to lust suffer from the result of their action, while those freed from all bondage forsake the world.
When the Master had finished speaking, Khema, according to the commentary, attained arhatship while according to the Apadana, she was established in the fruition of the first stage of sanctification and, with the king's permission, entered the order before she became an arhat. Thereafter she made a name for her insight and was ranked foremost amongst the bhikkhunis possessing great wisdom. In vain Mara tried to tempt her with sensuous ideas. (Ibid., pp. 126 f.; cf. Manorathapurani, p.205; cf. Anguttara, n. 1, p.25).
Anopama was the daughter of a banker named Majjha living in Saketa. She was of unique beauty. She was courted by many sons of bankers, higher officers of the State, but she thought that there was no happiness in household life. She went to the Master and heard his teachings. Her intelligence matured. She strove hard for insight and was established in the third fruition. On the seventh day thereafter she attained arhatship. (Ibid., pp.138-139.)
Rohini was born at Vesali in the house of a very prosperous Brahman. When grown up she went to the Master and heard him preach the doctrine. She obtained sotapattiphalam. She converted her parents to Buddha's faith and got permission from them to entered the order. She performed the exercises for acquiring insight and very soon attained arhatship (Ibid., pp.214 f.)
Subha was the daughter of a certain goldsmith of Rajagaha. She was very beautiful and was therefore called Subha. When grown up she saw the Master and believed in his doctrine. The Master saw the maturity of her moral faculties and taught her the Dharma. She was afterwards established in the fruition of the first stage of sanctification. Thereafter she entered the order under Mahapajapafi Gotami. She strove hard for insight and in course of time she won arhatship. (Ibid., pp.236 f.).
Tissa was born at Kapilavastu among the Sakyas. She renounced the world with Mahapajapati Gotami and became spiritually so developed that she attained arhatship. (Ibid., pp.11-13)
Sumedha, daughter of King Konca of Mantavati, was averse to the pleasures of senses from her childhood. She renounced the world hearing the doctrine of the Buddha from the bhikkhunis. Very soon she acquired insight and attained arhatship (Ibid., 272 f.)
Visakha was the daughter of Sumanadevi, wife of Dhananjayasetthi, son of Mundakasetthi. Her abode was at Bhaddiyanagara in the kingdom of Anga. When she was seven years old, the Buddha with the bhikkhu sangha went to Bhaddiyanagara. Sumanadevi was one of the advisers of the king. Visakha with 500 female companions and 500 chariots received the Buddha, who gave instructions to her according to her nature and she obtained the fruit of Stream Entry. The Buddha was invited to Visakha's house. Visakha who was endowed with five kinds of beauty was married to Punnavaddhana of Savatthi. The presents sent by the citizens of Savatthi for her, were distributed by her among the citizens with great courtesy. She made the citizens her own relatives. She refused to salute the naked heretics who were worshipped by her father-in-law. Her father-in-law was converted to Buddhism through her efforts. Once Visakha invited the bhikkhus and her father-in-law on hearing the sermon obtained the fruit of Stream Entry (D.C., I, 384 f.)
On the death of her grandchild, who was very dear to her, Visakha went to see the Buddha with clothes and hair wet with grief. The Buddha asked her whether she would be satisfied if all the people of Savatthi became her sons and grandsons. She replied in the affirmative. The Master asked her how many people met with their death at Savatthi. Visakha said from one to ten. The Buddha told her, " Just think, would you ever be free from wet clothes and wet hair"? Visakha understood and said that she did not want so many sons and grandsons, because acquisition of more sons and grandsons would bring greater suffering (Udana, 91-92).
Visakha, mother of Migara, was the foremost of the female supporters of the Buddha (A.N., 1, p. 26). Once on a sabbath day she went to the Buddha while the latter was in her monastery named Pubbarama. Buddha instructed Visakha thus, "There were three kinds of uposatha and the ariya uposatha is the best of the uposathas. The Master then said that in order to observe ariya uposatha one should meditate on the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. Rules of training must be unbroken and fully observed. One should also meditate on the qualities of the gods. One should follow Arhats who follow precepts throughout their lives. By observing ariya uposatha one may obtain great happiness and may be reborn in one of the heavens commencing from the Catumaharajika to the Paranimmittavasavatti and enjoy great celestial happiness there (A.N., I, 205-215). Visakha was further instructed by the Buddha thus, "Dependence on others is suffering, independence brings happiness". (Udana, p.18).
Visakha once blamed the bhikkhus for not allowing her grandson to be ordained during the lent, as owing to this delay her grandson's mind was changed. (Vinaya Pitaka, 1, 153.) She once went to the Buddha and invited him together with the bhikkhus to take food at her house the next morning. Heavy rains fell on the following morning and the bhikkhus, as they had no bathing costumes, bathed themselves naked. Visakha came to know this fact from her maid servant who was sent to call the bhikkhus. The Buddha together with the bhikkhus came to her house. She fed the Buddha, and the bhikkhus satisfactorily. After they had finished their meal, Visakha prayed to the Buddha for the following boons:--As long as she lived, she would give garments for the rainy season to the bhikkhus, food to the guests and food to those going abroad, diet to the sick bhikkhus, food to the sick-- nurses, medicine for the sick bhikkhus, rice gruel to the bhikkhus daily and bathing garments to the bhikkhunis (V.P., vol. 1, pp.290-292). From this fact it is evident that Visakha introduced bathing garments for the bhikkhunis. It was Visakha who offered to the Buddha a napkin which he accepted. (V.P., 1, 296).
We are further informed that Visakha, as soon as she heard of the arrival of the quarreling Kosambian bhikkhus, approached the Buddha to take his advice as to how she should deal with them. The Buddha advised her to offer charities to the two parties of the quarreling Kosambian monks, (V.P.,1, 356). Visakha prepared a golden water-pot for the Buddha. A samanera named Sumana brought water in that pot for the Buddha from Anotatta lake. (D.C., IV, P.135) She offered a water pot and a broom to the Buddha, which he accepted and also instructed the bhikkhus to use them. Once she went to the Buddha and offered a palm-leaf fan, which he accepted (V.P., II, 129-130). Visakha was so very kind to the bhikkhus that she built a mansion for them, The bhikkhus at first hesitated to use it, but afterwards asked for Buddha's permission which was granted. (V.P., II, 169).
Visakha once went to the hermitage of Khadiravaniyarevata, but she found it to be in the midst of thorns and not fit for human habitation. (D.C., II, 194-195). Visakha was an important personage, because among the Bhikkhus if there were any matter for reference, it was referred to her, as we find in the case of Kundadhanathera who used to walk about with a woman behind him. (D.C.,111, 54-55.) In the family of Visakha young girls used to serve the Bhikkhus by making arrangements for their food, etc. (D.C., III, 161). Visakha's son's daughter named Datta, who was entrusted with the care of the Bhikkhu sangha, died in her absence. Visakha was very much afflicted with grief. The Buddha, consoled her (D.C., III, pp.278-279).
Visakha was one day going to the city garden wearing all sorts of rich ornaments amongst which may be mentioned mahalata, an ornament of extraordinary beauty and of immense value. (Cf. Dharmapada Commy., I, 412.) On the way she thought why should she go to the city garden like a mere girl; it was better that she should go to the Vihara and listen to the discourses of the Buddha. Moved by the thought, she went to the Lord, put off her ornament, mahalata and gave it to her maid-servant to keep it and return it when she came out of the Vihara. Thereafter she listened to the noble discourses of the Buddha. On coming out of the Vihara, she asked for her ornament. The maid-servant said that she had left it in the Vihara. Both of them returned to the Vihara and found it. Visakha offered it to the Lord, and under his directions built a Vihara with the sale proceeds of the ornament, which amounted to nine crores and a lakh. Visakha offered to her maid-servant all the merit that accrued for constructing the Vihara. The latter approved of her charity and died shortly afterwards. (Vimanavatthu Commy., pp.187-189.)
Anula was the queen of the king of Ceylon. Surrounded by five hundred girls, she bowed to the senior monks and honoured them to her heart's content. Thera Mahinda preached Dharma to them. Preta stories, Vimana stories and Saccasamyutta were narrated to them. When they heard the most excellent portion of the doctrine, princess Anula and her five hundred attendants attained Stream Entry. She became a believer in the Buddha, Dharma and the Sangha. With her five hundred attendants she received the Pabbajja ordination from Sanghamitta Mahatheri. (Dipavamsa, p.68; cf. Mahavamsa, Geiger's Text, pp. 108, 155.)
Gopika was a Sakya princess. She was pleased with the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. She used to observe precepts fully, became disgusted with female life and meditated in order to become a man. (Digha N., II, 271.)
Canda came of a Brahman family. She earned her living by begging from door to door. One day she came to the spot where Patacara had just finished her meal. The bhikkhuni saw her hungry and gave her some food to eat. She ate the food and took her seat on one side. She then listened to the discourse of the Theri and renounced the world. She practised hard to attain insight. Her knowledge matured and her determination was strong. Hence she succeeded in attaining arhatship with patisambhida (Th. Commy., pp. 120-121.)
Gutta came of a Brahman family at Savatthi. In her youth household life became repugnant to her. She obtained her parents' consent and entered the order under Mahapajapati Gotami. Thereafter she could not for sometime control her mind from external interests. Then the Master gave her suitable instructions, and she attained arhatship together with patisambhida. (Th. Commy., pp. 157-159.)
Vijaya came of a certain clansmen's family of Rajagaha. She was a friend of Khema. When she heard that Khema, a king's consort, had renounced the world, she went to Khema, who taught her the Norm and ordained her. Very soon she won insight and after a short time attained arhatship with analytical knowledge. (Th. Commy, pp.159-160.) Mara came, to tempt her by saying, "You are young and beautiful, I am also young and beautiful, let us enjoy ourselves with music." She replied, "I find no delight in rupa, sadda, gandha, etc. and I don't like soft-touch. I hate very much my rotten body that is easily destructible. My ignorance is dispelled." Then Mara left her. (S.N., 1, pp. 130-131).
Cala, Upacala and Sisupacala were born in Magadha at the village of Nalaka as the children of a Brahmani named Surupasari. They were younger sisters of Sariputta. When they heard that their brother had left the world for the order, they too renounced the world and striving hard, attained arhatship. In vain, Mara tried to stir up sensual desires in them. (Th. Commy., 162-163; cf. S.N., Pt. I, PP. 132-134).
Uppalavanna came of a banker's family at Savatthi. Her skin was of the colour of the heart (gabbha) of the blue lotus. Hence she was called Uppalavanna. Many princes and banker's sons wanted to marry her. But she renounced the world, went to the bhikkhunis and was ordained. Thereafter one day she lighted a lamp, and by continually contemplating on the flame of the lamp, she gradually obtained arhatship with adhinna and patisambhida. (Th. Commy., 182 ff.) She was assigned a chief place among those who had the gift of iddhi. (Manorathapurani, p.207 ff.; Anguttara N., I, 25).
The Samyutta Nikaya tells us that Theri Uppalavanna went to the Andhavana forest to meditate. There she sat at the foot of the Sala tree. Mara came to her and said to her, "You are sitting at the foot of a fully blossomed Sala tree, are you not afraid of the wicked?" She replied, "I do not care for the wicked. I do not care for you." Mara left her. (Pt. 1, pp. 131-132). After defeating Mara, Uppalavanna was molested by her maternal uncle's son Ananda, who was enamoured of her beauty and who wanted to marry her. Although Uppalavanna had become a bhikkhuni, Ananda could not give up the desire of marrying her. Once Ananda concealed himself in the room of the Theri under her bedstead in her absence. When the Theri returned home and lay herself down on the bedstead, Ananda suddenly came out and committed rape on her. The Theri informed the bhikkhunis of this fact, and the bhikkhunis brought this to the notice of the Buddha, who prohibited the bhikkhunis from living in forests. (D.C., II, 48-51.) Uppalavanna Theri acquired the power of performing a miracle by coming in to the presence of the Buddha to worship him with the pomp and grandeur of an individual monarch, being surrounded by a retinue extending over 36,000 yojanas and this miracle was visible to an assembly extending over twelve yojanas. (D.C., III, P.211.)
Sumangalamata came of a poor family of Savatthi. She was married to a basket maker. She acquired great merit. One day while reflecting on all she had suffered, she was much affected and her insight quickening, she attained arhatship with analytical knowledge. (Th. Commy., 28-30.)
Punna or Punnika acquired great merit in her previous birth, but owing to her pride she could not root out the klesas (sins). She was born of a domestic slave at Savatthi in the household of Anathapindika, the banker. She obtained the fruit of Stream Entry after hearing the Sihanada Suttanta. Afterwards Anathapindika gave her freedom because she defeated in debate a Brahman named Udakasuddhika. Punna renounced worldly life and entered the order. She practised insight and very soon attained arhatship with patisambhida. (Th. Commy., pp. 199 f.).
Sundari was born at Benares as the daughter of Sujata, a Brahman. On her brother's death, her father became overwhelmed with grief. With the advice of Theri Vasitthi her father renounced the world, met the Buddha at Mithila, entered the order and in course of time attained arhatship. Sundari heard of her father's renouncing the world. She sacrificed all her wealth and pleasures of all kinds. She secured her mother's consent to leave the world. She then entered the order and striving hard she attained arhatship with patisambhida (Th. Commy., 228 f.).
Vimala was born at Vesali as the daughter of a public woman. One day when advanced in years, she was attracted by venerable Mahamoggallana who was going about for alms. She went to his house to entice him. Mahamoggallana rebuked her. She was ashamed and became a believer and lay sister. Sometime affer she entered the order and very soon attained arhatship. (Th. Commy., 76-77.)