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Maha Pajapati Gotami and her quest to gain spiritual freedom

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It is the full moon day of September. Today we commemorate the arising of the Bhikkhuņī order in the world. Over 2600 years ago, during the 5th year of Buddha-hood the Bhikkhuņī order arose in the world.   


Queen Maha Pajapati, the foster mother to the Buddha along with 500 Sākyan ladies shaved their heads and wearing yellow robes, carrying bowl and robes walked from Kapilavastu to Visala, the gabled hall where the Buddha resided.   


This is the only recorded historical walk undertaken by women to gain their spiritual freedom. 

 
The Buddha with his clairvoyant vision understood the commitment of these women, all destined to become Arahants, having fulfilled their aspirations for eons in samsāra. The Buddha gave permission for the going-forth from home to homelessness in pabbajjā.   


It took about two weeks for the walk. People on either side of the road were amazed. They cried and offered their chariots, but were refused.   


Nobody protested or tried to interrupt their walk asking for ordination. Therefore the Buddha was convinced of the social acceptance of the Bhikkhuņī Order, hence granted permission.   


The status of women of that era was very low due to the Brahminic view which considered women of belonging to the lowest caste‘kshudra’.   


They were given away as child brides and co-wives of the older men who were educated in the vedas. Women were uneducated and stupid. Living under the same roof, fighting for toys, ignorant, having babies of their own, being children themselves. Society despised them.   


Ordination of Maha Pajapati


The ancient canonical commentary to the pātimokkha, the suttavibhanga refers to three kinds of ordination for women.   


1)Ehi Bhikkhuņī Ordination. ‘come Bhikkhuņīs’ given by the Buddha himself.   
2) Tīņisaraņa-gamanaordination. Taking refuge of the Buddha, Dhamma and the Sangha.   
3) Ordination by united dual community. Samaggiubhato sangha. By a formal act, fit to stand (tānāraha) by añatti declaration which comes as the 4th after three proclamations of the motion. ñatticatutthenakammena.   


NB.There is no mention of atthagarudhamma ordination in the suttavibhanga.   
Pls see the Bhikkhuņī Vinaya by Bhikkhuņī Kusuma (her PhD research now in print)   
Chullavagga which was compiled hundred years after the passing away of the Buddha refers to eight garudhamma as ordination for MahāPajāpati.   


It is a serious contradiction found in the later vinaya commentary chullavagga and not found in the ancient suttavibhanga.   


The 500 Sākyan women who accompanied MahāPajāpati were ordained by monks alone by ‘tinisaranagamana’.   
There were no Bhikkhuņīs in the world, so attavācika ordination did not exist.   

 

The Buddha with his clairvoyant vision understood the commitment of these women, all destined to become Arahants, having fulfilled their aspirations for eons in samsāra. The Buddha gave permission for the going-forth from home to homelessness in pabbajjā


How was Maha Pajapati ordained?


The 500 women who were ordained by monks brought a serious allegation on MahāPajāpati. They said ‘Lady, you are not ordained. Only we were ordained by monks according to the vinaya rules of the Buddha’.   


If MahāPajāpati was ordained by accepting the eight garudharma why did she not say so? Instead she took them all before the Buddha to confirm her ordination (ref. Chullavagga Pin2Ee.217). Buddha confirmed her ordination.   
According to the ancient suttavibhanga, there were only two possible forms of ordination for women. Mainly ehibhikkhuņī ordination and tinisaranagamana ordination. 


The 500 ladies already said that Maha Pajapati was not ordained by the monks. Then we have to conclude that she was ordained by ehibhikkhuņī ordination.   


Suttavibhanga refers to ‘ehibhikkhuņī tibhikkhuņī’ English translation she is ordained by the Buddha saying ‘come bhikkhuņī’. (Vin4 Ee214,4-13 ed. By H. Oldenberg).   


Maha Pajapati Theri Gatha


Oh Buddha, the invincible winner who rescued me and others, I worship you with clasped hands.   
I have understood all suffering and eradicated the cause greed tanha.   
The eight-fold path and Nibbana I contacted with wisdom.   


I have been drifting in the ocean of samsāra, rudderless without any help to guide me.   
Sometimes I was a mother, or a son, or a father, or a brother, or a grandmother in past samsāra.   
I saw the Buddha with wisdom and put an end to re-birth.   


Continuous strong effort enjoying the bliss of Nibbana, of excellent virtue are these disciples of the Buddha.   
For the benefit of many, Mahamaya gave birth to the Gothama Buddha.   
To overcome old-age, sickness and death of suffering beings.   
So said MahāPajāpati Gotamī prior to her passing away at the age 120 years, in Therigatha. 

 
Maha Pajapati Theri Apadana


Maha Pajapati and the 500 Theris all Arahants go before the Buddha to take leave of him to enter into Parinibbāna. She said ‘O Lord, I have entreated you again and again for going forth pabbajjā for women. If there is any fault, forgive me O Lord’.   


‘How can I ever forgive you when you have never done any wrong? You are the very epitome of goodness. What can I say to you who is poised for final Nibbana’?   


Then she said, ‘I have achieved the four analytical knowledges catupatisambhidā. The eight liberations attavimokkha. Six supernormal powers cha abhiññā and lived up to the word of the Buddha.   


Then the Buddha invited the Ven MahāPajāpati to perform miracles to placate the wrong views that ignorant people hold against women.   


Whereupon Bhikkhuni Gothami pays reverence to the Buddha, springs up to the air and performs many miracles. Eg: she became one and many and became one again. Passed through rocks, sank in earth as if in water... walked on water as if on earth...flew seated across the air like a bird, Mount Mahameru was the handle, the very earth was the umbrella. For taking it she walked across the sky... covered the earth in smoke... covered the earth in flames... touched the sun and moon with her fingertips... it rained torrentially... she assumed the form of a universal monarch... a mythical bird... she became an elephant, a roaring lion, swept across the sky and disappeared and appeared again as normally and declared ‘O Great Sage, it is me, your foster mother who is performing at your bidding and worshipping at your feet’.   


Theri Apadana is many descriptions of iddhi witnessed by the thronged multitude in awe inspiring amazement.   
‘O Great Sage, we are fully competent in performing miracles. We possess the divine eye, the divine ear, read others thoughts, recall past births, our cankers have faded away. O Lord, we have practiced loving kindness. Your permission is solicited by us to pass-away to final Nibbana’.   


Apadana describes many other miracles. They all fell at the feet of the Buddha and walked away. The Buddha, Bhikkhus and the vast multitude walked behind them. It is the first and last occasion when the Buddha walks behind another.   


The earth shook and flowers rained. Their cremation excelled even the cremation of the Buddha because it was attended by the Buddha and the chief disciples. 


This article is a paper submitted to the magazine in India for Ven. Seevali Thera   

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