The Buddha and his stepmother

Prince Siddhartha with Mahaprajapati Gotami, Sarlis / Wikimedia Commons

The Buddha’s response to Mahaprajapati Gotami’s request to enter the Buddha Sasana forms one of the more controversial episodes in the Buddhist pantheon. The story, as told in countless narratives and chronicles, essentially makes his acceptance of a female Buddhist or Bhikkhuni order contingent on two things: his stepmother making the request twice, then traversing a distance of 150 miles with her followers in defiance of his response, and Ananda Thera’s pleas, which eventually convince the Buddha to change his mind.

The episode stands out prominently in the Buddha’s life, for at least two reasons. Firstly, it marks the first time he makes an explicit pronouncement on the role of women within the Buddhist clergy. Secondly, it takes his Chief Attendant to resolve a paradox embedded in that pronouncement: the Buddha rejects his stepmother’s request more than once, yet he isn’t necessarily opposed to the ordination of Buddhist nuns.

Ananda Thera’s question is very clear on this point: he doesn’t mention specific names, but rather asks whether, in general, women are “capable of realising the state of a stream-winner, never-returner, and an arahant, when they have gone forth from home to the homeless state.” Only after receiving a positive response to his question does Ananda bring up the issue of the Buddha’s stepmother: “If then, Lord, [women] are capable of attaining Saintship, since Mahaprajapati Gotami has been of great service to the Exalted One… it were well, Lord, that women should be given permission…”

In other words, the appeal to personal ties follows from a philosophical question: if women are allowed in, then why not accept Gotami’s request? I find this highly fascinating for two reasons. Firstly, Buddhist stories usually have the Buddha turn an encounter with a specific individual into a homily or a sermon: thus it is only upon engaging with Sunita that he makes a pronouncement on caste. Similarly, it is his encounter with Sigala that makes him expound his most significant sermon for the laity (the bourgeoisie?). The Dhammacakka Pavattana Sutra, his first discourse, can in one sense be viewed as a response to the need to convince his first five disciples, residing at Sarnath, of his attainment of Enlightenment. The encounter with his stepmother turns this on its head: it is his philosophical position on a doctrinal issue — in this case, the ordination of women — that resolves the personal encounter.

Secondly, unlike the bulk of the Buddha stories in the Pali and Sinhalese Chronicles, here he changes his mind over a dilemma concerning the Sasana. However, he doesn’t really confess or admit that he was wrong over the issue. Instead Ananda’s questioning compels him to remark that what holds true in general (women entering the Buddhist order) must hold true in the particular (Mahaprajapati Gotami and her followers entering the Buddhist order). Most crucially, the Buddha doesn’t reach this conclusion on his own: it takes Ananda Thera, his Chief Attendant no less, to help him make the proverbial leap.

To be sure, his encounter with Mahaprajapati Gotami is hardly the only episode where the Buddha revises his positions and opinions. There is at least one other occasion where he yields place to a layman: when his father, Suddhodhana, requests him to seek parental permission before ordaining children, and he agrees. This too is a response to a personal encounter: he converts his son, Rahula, without notifying the mother. What is unique about his encounter with his stepmother, however, is that it involves a doctrinal matter: that of allowing females into an order seen, until then, as a male preserve.

Having asked a number of ordinary Buddhists as to what they thought of this episode, I can only conclude that no one has any real answers to the question why the Buddha had to be led into an ideological impasse for him to agree to admit Buddhist nuns, the Bhikkhunis. The Buddha is generally acknowledged as farsighted, but also pragmatic. He is not one to revise his opinions over theological problems, even on the advice of his Chief Attendant. Indeed, after accommodating his stepmother’s request, he tells Ananda that the admission of nuns will go on to reduce the lifetime of the Dhamma from a thousand to five hundred years. This does not, however, belittle or downplay his accommodation of them.

How do these “ordinary Buddhists” I talked with perceive and resolve this problem? One of them admitted that he had been grappling with it all his life, and that since his Daham Pasal days he had been trying to find a satisfactory answer, to no avail. On the other hand, my mother, hardly the Daham Pasal going type, suggested that it shows that the Buddha, far from embodying an all-knowing ideal, had to rely on another person — his Chief Attendant — to reach a compromise over a difficult doctrinal issue. This is not an opinion shared by too many (bourgeois?) Buddhists, since it contradicts their view of the Buddha as infallible and beyond question, but it is shared by several ordinary laypeople I interviewed.

In response to what many may see as the Buddha’s inborn prejudice against women — sexism, plain and simple — a leading Buddhist monk-writer has this to say.

“In making these comments, which may not generally be very palatable to womankind, the Buddha was not in any way making a wholesale condemnation of women but was only reckoning with the weaknesses of their sex.” (Venerable Narada Thera, “The Buddha and His Teachings”, Fourth Edition, 1988, Chapter 9, Page 156)

Narada Thera, however, is touching only one aspect to this controversy here. This aspect has been covered by a number of scholars, most prominently by Uma Chakravarti, who in an insightful essay (“Buddhism as a Discourse of Dissent: Class and Gender”) remarks that while the Buddha, in his volte-face over the question of female ordination, reveals his recognition, even acceptance, of women’s potential for salvation, by laying down eight rules, and making a rather pessimistic prediction about the Dhamma, he reflects the prejudices of his day and age, where women were expected to play a subservient role to men.

Although Chakravarti doesn’t discuss it, the Buddha’s encounter with his former consort, Yashodhara Devi, tells us much about the times he hailed from. Bhikkhu Narada’s account tells us that Yashodhara, upon hearing that he had returned to Kapilavaththu, does not visit him herself, hoping that “the noble Lord Himself will come to my presence.”

When this eventually does happen — he enters her chamber and takes a seat — she goes to great lengths to reverence him, ordering her courtiers to wear yellow garments. When Siddhartha Gautama’s father Suddhodana informs his son of the extraordinary lengths to which she has gone to greet him, the Buddha merely replies, “not only in this last birth, O King, but in a previous birth, too, she protected me and was devoted and faithful to me.” He then goes on to relate the Candakinnara Jatakaya, in effect reiterating and re-emphasising values like loyalty and faithfulness that are seen as “becoming” of women.

Chakravarti’s argument is frankly disconcerting, but it is the most accurate from those that tackle this issue which I have read so far. While other scholars, like Kumari Jayawardena, trace Buddhist nationalism’s hostility to women, and to female activism, to the Buddhist Revival of the 19th century, in which a culturally conservative (petty) bourgeoise took the lead, Chakravarti traces it to the Buddhist Chronicles that relate the Buddha’s life, as it was lived or supposed to have been lived, themselves. My only critique of Chakravarti’s approach is that she makes no attempt to relate those Chronicles — many of which, after all, would have been written after the Tatagatha’s passing away — to the context of their times.

Of course, can hardly blame or single out the Buddha for these problems. Even Marx can be accused of certain misjudgements. In any case, the India of the Buddha’s time accepted gender and class oppositions. Moreover, it wasn’t just on issues concerning women where he was, to put it mildly, ambivalent. Even on the thorny issue of caste, he didn’t adopt a straightforward position: while he did condemn Brahmin caste structures, he also added that “by deed is one born a Brahmin”, thereby distancing himself from the kind of political critique of caste pioneered by, inter alia, Ambedkar. I suppose one can make the same case for liberation theologists: Christ, after all, did implore to render unto Caesar’s the things that were Caesar’s, a position liberation theologists would hardly adopt today.

This aspect, as I mentioned earlier, has been covered. I am more interested in its doctrinal and philosophical dimensions. For the first and probably only time in his life, the Buddha is admitting to a theoretical lapse without really admitting to it. Perhaps to make up for his shortfall, the Buddha justifies his earlier position by attributing the decline of Buddhism — from a millennium to half a millennium — to the very gender he admits into the order. Even if that is not, if we take Narada Thera’s word for it, a “wholesale condemnation of women”, we must admit that between the Buddha’s rejection of Gotami’s request, his acceptance after Ananda’s intervention, and his sober prognosis following his acceptance, there would have been an intellectual leap. I believe this issue needs to be investigated, more deeply.

Uditha Devapriya is an international relations analyst, independent researcher, and columnist who can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Sri Lankan. History fanatic. Movie addict. Book lover.

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Uditha Devapriya

Uditha Devapriya

Sri Lankan. History fanatic. Movie addict. Book lover.