According to the Gotamī-apadāna and the Therīgāthā, Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī (Pāli, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī) was Siddhārtha Gautama's maternal aunt and foster mother. When Mahāprajāpatī was born, an astrologer predicted her leadership qualities and she was named Prajāpatī (Pāli, Pajāpatī), "leader of a large assembly." She and her sister Māyā were both married to Śuddhodana, the ruler of Kapilavastu. Māyā gave birth to a son who was named Siddhārtha and then died just seven days after his birth. After Māyā's death, Prajāpatī suckled the boy and raised him as her own child. Prajāpatī also gave birth to two children of her own, Nanda and Sundarīnandā.
Mahāprajāpatī is widely regarded as the first bhikṣuṇī and progenitor of the Buddhist order of nuns (Bhikṣuṇī SaṄgha). After Siddhārtha became "an awakened one" (a Buddha) and visited Kapilavastu, Mahāprajāpatī began to practice the dharma and achieved the stage of a stream enterer (śrotāpanna). According to tradition, she thrice requested the Buddha's permission to join the saṅgha, but was refused each time. Finally, she cut her hair, donned renunciant garb, and, accompanied by five hundred Śākyan noblewomen, walked to Vaiśālī where she once again sought admission to the order. This time, when Ānanda interceded on Mahāprajāpatī's behalf, the Buddha affirmed that women are indeed qualified to achieve the fruits of dharma (i.e., liberation), and granted her request.
The Buddha is said to have stipulated eight special rules (gurudharma) as the condition for Mahāprajāpatī's admission to the saṅgha. These rules, which later came to be applied to Buddhist nuns in general, make the Bhikṣuṇī Saṅgha dependent upon (and, to a certain extent, subordinate to) the Bhikṣu Saṅgha (order of monks) with regard to ordination, exhortation, admonishment, and reinstatement, thereby delimiting the nuns' independence.
In addition to being the first Buddhist nun and the leader of the Bhikṣuṇī Saṅgha from its origins, Mahāprajāpatī achieved higher spiritual attainments, including the six higher knowledges and supernormal powers. She often served as a trusted intermediary in communications between the bhikṣuṇīs and the Buddha. In the later part of her life, she reached the state of an arhat, as evidenced in her own verse, recorded in the Therīgāthā: "I have achieved the state where everything stops." Within the patriarchal social context of her time, Mahāprajāpatī became an exemplar of women's potential for leadership and spiritual attainment, and her achievements have inspired Buddhist women ever since.
Blackstone, Kathryn R. Women in the Footsteps of the Buddha: Struggle for Liberation in the Therīgāthā. Richmond, UK: Curzon Press, 1998.
Horner, Isaline Blew. Women under Primitive Buddhism: Laywomen and Almswomen. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1975.
Walters, Jonathan S. "The Buddha's Mother's Story." History of Religions 33 (1994): 350–379.
Walters, Jonathan S. "Gotamī's Story." In Buddhism in Practice, ed. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1995.
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