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MAHAPAJAPATI GOTAMI (6th Century BCE)


Mahapajapati Gotami was Buddha’s aunt and brought him up after his mother Mahamaya died bearing him. She also persuaded the Buddha to allow women to be initiated as bhikkhunis, or nuns of the Buddhist order.

Mahapajapati was the daughter of Suppabuddha of the Shakyan village of Devadaha. She and her sister Mahamaya were married together to King Suddhodana, and after the death of her sister she became the chief queen. She had two children of her own, Sunanda and Nandasundari, to look after, besides Siddhartha. The story of how the young prince of Kapilavastu left home in search of enlightenment, and meditated till he attained it at the age of 35, is well known. He then became the Buddha, dedicated to spreading his message among mankind. He admitted disciples as bhikkhus, or mendicant monks, and by making them members of the sangha.

After King Suddhodana’s death and a civil war, which left many women of Kapilavastu widows, Mahapajapati along with five hundred such women, with cropped hair and yellow robes, arrived at Vaishali asking to be initiated into the sangha, but the Buddha refused.

Mahapajapati requested Ananda, the favourite disciple of Buddha and a senior bhikku, to plead their case. On the third petitioning, Buddha agreed and permitted women to become Buddhist bhikkhunis. After her ordination Mahapajapati became an active worker for the sangha. It is said that she lived to the age of 120, and was recognised as a rattannunam, or jewel soul. The Therigatha attributes many gathas to her.
 
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