Gautama Buddha laid down eight additional rules for female monks
Maha Prajapathi Gothami, finding no reason to remain in the Royal Palace after the death of King Suddhodhana, set out accompanied by five hundred Sakya and Koliya Royal women to seek permission from Gautama Buddha to enter the Bhikkuni Order. Having turned down the request thrice, it was on the fourth occasion when Prajapathi Gothami and her band of women arrived in saffron robes, wailing with heads shaven and soles bleeding due to having walked barefooted all the way to Vesali from Kapilavasthu that she accomplished her objective. The achievement was made possible through the determined intervention of Ananda Thera.
Why did Buddha hesitate to give ordination to women? He said “If Ananda, women had not entered from household life into houseless ones under the Doctrine and the Discipline announced by the Thathagatha, religion would endure 1000 years. If He accepted, Dhamma will disappear 500 years earlier.” The prophecy was made when Ananda Thera, moved by the earnestness of especially his mother Prajapathi Gothami, begged the Buddha to ordain them. When He ultimately granted it on a Binara Full Moon Poya Day, Buddha laid down eight additional rules or “Garu Dhamma” for the bhikkunis thus going beyond those imposed on monks. Most of these which pertain to interactions with the monks, set them hierarchically below monks, an act which may have been imposed as a disincentive for them to enter the Order.
"Buddha had already been criticised that with the establishment of the Bhikku Order, he had destroyed the family unit"
Buddha’s initial objections had been criticised with allegations of chauvinism on the part of the Buddha. But a deeper study reveal that the new turn of events may have been of great worry to the Buddha. Who would give these wondering women places to live? Maha Prajapathi was virtually His mother and she had been living in the comfort of a Royal Palace. Could she suddenly find herself living the life of a recluse?
In those early days, which was the seventh year since Buddha’s Enlightenment, there were not enough monasteries even for monks. Some therefore lived under trees, caves and in the most unimaginable places. And monks went from house to house with the begging bowl to collect alms. The collection could amount to just a handful of food and what would happen when five hundred women go out begging for alms?
Buddha had already been criticised that with the establishment of the Bhikku Order, He had destroyed the family unit. In ancient India, the family was a rigid institution. Women had never left home and lived a life of their own. However, He later learnt that husbands of most of these royal women had joined the Bhikku Order leaving behind their wives at home.
Buddha also needed to examine whether women were capable of achieving spiritual enlightenment. It was already open for men. To afford it to bhikkunis, competent teachers were needed to teach the Doctrine and to train them. The Sangha were not ready yet to handle such a large crowd of bhikkunis as not only should they teach but special skills were required to help uplift women spiritually. Later, with the development of propagation of Buddhism, educational and training programmes were established when trained bhikkus were assigned with the teaching and training tasks.
Doors were thus opened to women for spiritual nourishment when enlightenment was made possible for all human beings. With the forming of the Bhikkuni Order 7-8 years following the Bhikku Order, Buddha made it clear that both bhikkus and bhikkunis possessed equal potential to achieve spiritual enlightenment.
If not for the stern determination of Prajapathi Gothami however, Buddha, who was in two minds on the setting up of the Bhikkuni Order, may never have granted ordination to women. He was compassionate towards Prajapathi Gothami who was virtually his mother during his younger days and played a major role in His lay life by bringing Him up following the death of His mother Queen Maya. Prajapathi Gothami and Maya were daughters of the King of Koliya who were married to the Sakyan King Suddhodhana. Prajapathi Gothami bore him two children, Sundari Nanda and Nanda.
"Once ordained as a bhikkuni, Prajapathi Gothami had indulged in composing Therigatha like several others who were in her group"
She had already attained sotthapana – the first stage of Buddhist sainthood after listening to the Buddha who preached during His first visit to Kapilavasthu. With the passing away of Suddhodhana, she decided to leave the palace and pursue spiritual attainments.
Once ordained as a bhikkuni, Prajapathi Gothami had indulged in composing Therigatha like several others who were in her group. We have been able to get a glimpse of her thoughts through these and according to Andrew Olendzki’s translations, Prajapathi Gothami has stated in her Therigatha that she was the Buddha’s step mother and a Queen of the Sakyans. Her younger sister was Maya who was married to King Suddhodhana when Prajapathi Gothami was unable to conceive an heir.
Queen Maya died at childbirth and it was Prajapathi Gothami who raised Gautama as her own son (fulfilling a pledge made to her on her deathbed.) Therigatha have further revealed that after the Enlightenment, Prajapathi Gothami also left the Palace to become the first bhikkuni in the Order of Nuns.
The next stanza is of her spiritual achievement of being able to recollect past lives with which she proved the concept of rebirth. In her remembrance of Maya in the Therigatha, she has spoken of her beloved younger sister Maya who died without ever seeing the greatness of her son who became the Buddha.