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The First Female Bhikkhuni: Mahapajapati Gotami

By Gaurav Manandhar at
Mahapajapati Gotami

The First Female Bhikkhuni: Mahapajapati Gotami

Mahapajapati Gotami was the step-mother and maternal aunt (mother's sister) of Buddha. She was known to be the first woman to seek ordination for women. It was not easy for her to become the ordained women since it wasn't practiced and the women were not in the equal position as men. She was very lucky that she received ordination directly from the Buddha and became the first female bhikkhuni.

Brief History of Mahapajapati Gotami

Maya, the Buddha's Mother, and Mahapajapati Gotami were sisters and were both Koliyan princes. They were sisters of Suppabuddha. At the time of her birth, augurs prophesied that she would have a large following. Hence she was named Mahapajapati Gotami. Both Maya and Mahapajapati Gotami married the leader of the Sakya, King Suddhodhana. When Maya died on the seven days after the birth of the Buddha, Mahapajapati Gotami looked after Siddhartha Gautam Buddha. She nursed him as well. She took care of the Buddha along with her own children.

Mahapajapati Gotami's Ordination

As King Suddhodhana passed away, Mahapajapati Gotami has despaired. Therefore she decided to took ordination under the Buddha. With this objective in mind, she visited the Buddha and asked to be ordained into the Sangha. But the Buddha refused her wish and he then set to Vesali. The words of the Buddha made her disappointed but her will was not discouraged. She then cut off her hair and donned yellow robes. She followed the path of the Buddha to Vesali on foot along with a large number of Sakyan ladies. When she arrived at Vesali, she again requested to be ordained, repeatedly. But the Buddha refused the proposal. Lastly, Ananda, one of the principal disciples and an attendant of the Buddha met her. He offered to intercede with the Buddha on her behalf. Mahapajapati Gotami accepted the offer of Ananda.

During the regular meet up with the Buddha, Ananda asked him respectfully, whether women are capable of realizing the various stages of sainthood as nuns or not? In reply, Buddha answered, obviously, they are capable of realizing the various stages of sainthood. Encouraged by the Buddha's reply, he didn't waste a time and again asked him, if that is the case, Lord, then it would be good if women could be ordained as nuns as well. The Buddha further replied, if women would accept the Eight Garudhammas, it would be regarded that she has been ordained already as a nun. He further added, if Mahapajapati Gotami also accepts the Eight Garudhammas and practices accordingly, it would be regarded that she was ordained as a nun. Listening to these answers, Ananda met Mahapajapati Gotami and shared everything that the Buddha had said. Mahapajapati Gotami agreed to accept the Eight Garudhammas and was accorded the status of the first bhikkhuni. Hence, after her other women also undergo full ordination to become nuns. The Buddha then announce the sangha for the women. It was after the five years after the establishment of the sangha for the bhikkhu.

As time passed by the process of becoming a bhikkhuni was also changed. Along with the acceptance of the Eight Garudhammas, the women have to go through four steps. The first step is to take the Five Precepts then to enter the pabbajja (monastic way of life). The third one is to become a Sramaneri (novitiate). The last and final one is to take the full vows of a bhikkhuni.

Mahapajapati Gotami's parinirvana

When Mahapajapati Gotami learned about the impending parinirvana of the Buddha, she went to meet the Buddha. She shared that she didn't wish to live without the Buddha and hence she wishes to leave the world before the Buddha. After saying this, she returned and along with her followers, he meditated until she achieved parinirvana. It was recorded that she was 120 yrs. old when she achieved parinirvana.

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