Of all the Buddha’s great disciples, male or female, Mahapajapati Gotami, the Buddha’s maternal aunt and stepmother, is the only one whom legend describes as a counterpart to the Tathagatha himself. As an elderly woman she became a zealous follower, attained enlightenment after hearing just a brief discourse on Dharma and the Vinaya (the code of monastic discipline), and founded the first order of Buddhist nuns.
She was the sister of his biological mother Maya and both of them were married to King Suddhodhana, the Buddha’s father. It has been later said that once Maya died a few days later after giving birth to the Buddha– known in that life as Siddhartha, Mahapajapati took the role of being a mother. Gotami became the Buddha’s care giver, devoting all of her time and affection making sure he would grow up with everything he needed from a mother.
Gotami ‘s story of being ordained has had several interpretations throughout the years and has been researched by several scholars.
The most common of them all consists of her asking the Buddha to allow women to be ordained or an order of nuns to which he consistently says no three times. To demonstrate her perseverance, she decides to take on a mystical journey of enlightenment. She shaved her head bald like that of a monk, wore robes, and walked several miles to the Buddha’s next destination. What was unusual was that she had a large crowd of women who followed her, this symbolizes her natural leadership qualities. Not to mention that her name means “leader of a great assembly”.
Gotami’s Contributions and Recognitions
Mahapajapati Gotami’s major accomplishment in the Buddhist tradition was to have been the first woman to be ordained into the monastic life, as well as having reached enlightenment, Nirvana, and becoming a Buddha herself — a Buddha is an enlightened one. What makes her so significant is the fact that she was the first and only known woman to be directly ordained by the Buddha himself under The Eight Conditions, which were rules that stated that women who choose to be part of this spiritual journey will be of lower “standing” amongst the monks and will have to show them respect at all times.
Gotami became the gateway for the spread of nuns in Buddhism. Mahapajapati proved to the world that women also had the same or equal capabilities as men to attain enlightenment, the highest known position in Buddhism. Not to mention that women were viewed as inferior beings during the time this impacting event took place. This comes to show that Mahapajapati broke that cycle, and made way for women to be seen as leaders, along with equality.