Mahaprajapati Gautami, Pioneer of the Women’s Movement in Buddhism

Mayura Saavi

The women’s movement is a subject not widely discussed in conservative countries like India. After the early 20th century, the present history of the first women’s movement of 1900 is known among today’s generation, which was against the disrespectful behavior that women in the ‘industry’    experienced. On March 8, International Women’s Day has been celebrated all over the world since the 1909 movement of the Socialist Party of America. Persian women also raised their voice against the atrocities on women throughout the wars  of the late 20th century.

In India too, in the modern era, 100 years ago, on March 8, Women’s Day began to be celebrated, but the Indian woman is unaware of when, how and who started the women’s movement in the context of India. Because in India, there was never any thought about this subject. There has been mention and worship of goddesses in India, about whom we have no proof of their birth, no evidence of their social and academic life. In whose stories, there are no voices of revolution for women. In the Vedic religion, scholars like Gargi and Maitreyi were not even widely publicized. They had raised voices not for all women, but for themselves, even which were immediately buried.

If any struggle for change in the social system is a movement; then in ancient India, the history of struggle to change the immediate social status of women, to give them equal rights as men, began with Queen Mahaprajapati Gautami, 2600 years ago, in Kapilvastu.

The first movement for women’s right to freedom, equality and education in ancient India is found in the creation of the Bhikkhuni Sangha in the Buddha era. Queen Mahamaya died seven days after giving birth to Siddharth. Before her death, Mahamaya had handed her newborn baby faithfully in the hands of sister Mahaprajapati and said, “I believe that you will love this child more than me.”

Mahaprajati is the one who raised Siddhartha as a sensitive being and a fundamentally feminist one. Raising a child is not something revolutionary but expected from every woman. Rather, it can be called as ‘her duty’ besides serving her husband, since the Indian society was affected by Brahmanism, whose culture and traditions had denied women all human rights.

Women did not have the right to read and write, the women remained confined to the boundaries of the family, husband and children. Slavery in the name of family responsibility was the main part of the social system. It was compulsory for her to get married, because if a girl is not married, she was considered as Vrishal (untouchable) and her entire family was ostracized. In such a heterogeneous social system, it seemed impossible for any woman to become free from this slavery which she has seen in a much glorified version to even acknowledge.There are mentions of how Siddharth respected all women. Even after becoming the enlightened one, he did not consider women secondary to men. It was this opportunity that Mahaprajapati Gautami expressed her wish to become a bhikkhuni (nun).

One might ask, “how being a sannyasi (monk) can fall under the category of revolution or counted as a movement?” In ancient times, committing to enlightenment was to gain knowledge. At that time, leaving home in search of truth or any such research was a medium of acquiring knowledge which according to Vedic tradition only Dwijs had a monopoly on.

In the later Vedic period this right was confined only to Dwij men. Shudras and women were denied this right. Tathagata Buddha let non savarna men in his Bhikkhu Sangha and challenged this asymmetric system of the established society. The Buddha responded: “Every bhikkhu’s caste or varna’s identity is eliminated by entering into the bhikkhu sangha, it is only bhikkhu, Just like different rivers lose their old personal identity when they meet in the ocean. The Bhikkhu Sangha is exactly like the ocean in which the various rivers come together and become one.”

It was not common for women to be monks even in the prevalent religions of that time. According to Vedic religion, Brahmin priests also had families. They did not leave homely life. After education in the holy life of Vanaprasthan, they would then enter the lay life of Grihasthashrama .

Few privileged varna girls could take education in their homes. Nevertheless, Buddhist literature mentions finding some ashrams  of Brahmin women, such as Saki’s and Padma’s ashram. As per the system of Vedic religion (four stages of life for a man), there is a provision of a Vanaprasthan Ashrama after the Grihasthashrama. Well, this had no connection with education. Brahmins and their wives used to live together in Vanaprasthashram

The concept of Buddha’s union looks completely different from this. To be a bhikkhu in the union of Buddha was directly related to education. The non-savarna women had nothing to do with either of these. The situation of Bahujan women was limited to the family only. Entering the Buddha’s union became a golden opportunity as it would allow them to re-honor Brahmacharya and knowledge. The problem arose in the sanghas when women wanted to become Bhikkhunis and earn respect for the same honor that was given to Brahmins and Bhikkhus (of all varnas) in the sangha.

In Brahmin literature, there is a reference to Gargi and Yajnavalya’s debate, where Gargi is perceived as victorious, and the sage Yagnavalya threatens to smash Gargi’s head. This example tells us that accepting the superiority and wisdom of a woman was never in the Brahmanical mindset and still is not. For centuries, the Brahmin woman continued to live up to this system, but she could not dare to revolt.

We see a huge difference in the time of Buddha, when many Sakya women like Mahapajapati and Yashodhara challenged this system. Mahaprajapati Gautami, the mother of the Tathagata Buddha, regardless of how the society would react, took such a strong decision to leave homely life and become a bhikkhuni.

The women of the Kshatriyas were considered distinguished, but it was not easy for them to revolt against their loved ones to change society. Queen Mahapajapati Gautami did not ask for the right to enter the sangha only for herself but for the five hundred Sakya women who have decided to become bhikkhunis and lead different lives.

Being a bhikkhuni was really a big deal, as it was about being focused on learning as a student of the Dhamma and later becoming preachers and teachers to many, to men and women alike. In a society where women are not expected to have an opinion, accepting women to be teaching someone was something that would shake the whole patriarchal system. It would be difficult for the male egos to accept that women too are courageous, learned, and worthy to train others.

When Mahaprajapati asked Gautama to ordain her, Buddha kept quiet for a while and said, “Many women are ready to take admission in the Rajgriha, but I think that the appropriate time has not come. The conditions of the Sangh to accept women are not yet favorable.”

Mahaprajapati returned to the palace but through this dialogue, she knew the dilemma going on in Buddha’s mind. He had no objection to women becoming bhikkhunis, but was concerned about the reaction of the sangha and wider society.  Promoting women meant invoking male resentment along with shifts in the social order and a backlash. Due to this discriminatory mindset and imposed lower level to women, even the anti-social elements may threaten the bhikkhunis,and it does happen later.

After this contemplation by Mahaprajapati Gautami, a gathering of all the desirous women was held. She quoted Buddha, “Saddhamma Marg has all the goods. All have the capacity to attain consciousness, awakening and wisdom. Buddha also gave ordination to the  untouchables, then there was no reason to not to accept women.”

“Women are not inferior to men in any way.” She further says, “I would say that we should shave our heads, give up our best clothes and jewelry and wear robes. We walk barefoot to Vaishali, where we will request for Pravajja. Thus we will prove that we too are capable of living in simplicity and observance. We will also walk hundreds of miles and set a path. This is the only way left to enter the union.”

All the women agreed with Mahaprajapati’s views. They found their leader in her. Queen Yashodhara (Siddhartha’s wife) was a great admirer of Mahaprajapati and she too joined the union. As decided, all the Sakya women along with Mahaprajapati shaved their heads on their own, wore robes and discarded all the jewelry. All 500 women barefoot begin their way to Vaishali from Kapilvastu under the leadership of Mahaprajapati. Enduring hunger, thirst, cold-summer, rain and everything, bloated wounds, dust-laden body, clumps, they reached Vaishali, where Buddha resided then.

This was a huge historical victory over the existence of women in the history of ancient India. Mahaprajapati Gautami wanted to show not only to Buddha but to the whole world that women are not weak. Neither body nor mind. She can face every crisis. All of these women are truly admirable and inspiring. Their decision created a stir in the religious, educational and social fields. Mahaprajapati was eager to touch the heights of knowledge, to experience a life as a parivrajak which only the men had their monopoly on.

From where they started a struggle in the opposite direction of the established and prevailing social flows. Heading five hundred women by walking barefoot for miles, with shaved heads and wearing robes, Mahaprajapati Gautami brought that moment of decision to the Buddha to recognize her in the Union, She was all ready to enter the sangha, rather create a history by forming women’s wing in robes even before listening to any ‘yes’ from Gautama. That moment was the woman in the history of the world. It was the very first beginning of the rights movement.

Men from various varnas, races, classes were present in the sangha as monks. They came from the same society which opposed the freedom and equality of women. Mahaprajapati herself accepted as a call, gave a tremendous push to the anti-women mentality. Taking decisions on their own without the permission of men, she gave a challenge to traditional thinking. There may be a common perception that the mindset that is obsessed with age-old traditions and trends may not be changed at all, but those who take the initiative to change are called milestones. They are the greatest Sheroes (female heroes) of the century.

Our heartfelt gratitude to this revolutionary  who made the historic movement for women’s right to education successful.

One Reply to “Mahaprajapati Gautami, Pioneer of the Women’s Movement in Buddhism”

  1. Buddhabhushan D.Gopnarayan says: Reply

    Nomo buddhay ☸

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