Mahapajapati (fl. 570 BCE)

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Mahapajapati (fl. 570 bce)

Indian nun who was aunt and foster mother to Prince Siddhartha Gautama, also known as the Buddha . Name variations: Mahaprajapati; Mahaprajapati Gautami; Gautami Mahapajapati. Flourished around 570 bce in Nepal, near the Indian border; younger sister of Maya; married Suddhodana or Suddhodanaa (who was also married to her sister Maya); aunt and foster mother to Prince Siddhartha Gautama or Gautami, also known as the Buddha (c. 563–483 bce).

During the 45 years between the Buddha's enlightenment and his death, he traveled and preached in central India, staying primarily in Magadha and Kausala. He won many converts to the religion and established a community of monks, nuns and laity to live and teach his message. Mahapajapati, Buddha's aunt and foster mother (his own mother Maya had died seven days after his birth), expressed her desire to become a nun. At first the Buddha refused her request but later reluctantly agreed after Ananda, his beloved disciple, interceded. To govern the relations between monks and nuns and to prevent sexual activity, the Buddha established stringent restrictions concerning the interactions between them. In addition to the already existing rules (Vinaya) for the community of monks, eight weighty rules were added that made the nuns subordinate to the order of monks. Despite such restrictions, many able nuns were active during the lifetime of the Buddha. Considering the very limited options for women at the time, the community of Buddhist nuns afforded some women the opportunity to exercise a considerable amount of control over their lives.