Mother, Surrogate, Wife: They Knew Better

In honor of Women’s History Month 2024

They walked noiselessly, they spoke in silence, they loved abundantly, and they knew they would remain unheard and unseen, yet they knew better. Women in times and lives of Buddha were like women elsewhere, demure, and docile, yet intense, elegant, and thoughtful. One often wonders what it might have been like to hold a newborn of another and embrace and care for the child and dedicate one’s lifetime selflessly to his upbringing.

Mahaprajapati Gotami perhaps knew better.

She knew she could never be Maya, but she navigated the realm of motherhood with honor and dignity. She knew she had the strength that was required to nurture little Siddhartha, answer his innocent questions, feed his queries, love him unconditionally only to watch him walk away from everything that constituted his rightful inheritance. As a mother, was she worried? Was she sad? Was she distressed? Was she scared? She knew her innermost feelings were unmeasurable and hardest to express in light of what her son might be enduring, and she knew better.

As a child Yashodhara was feisty, she was curious, she was awestruck by the simplicity and innocence of her companion, Siddhartha. She felt the compulsive desire to protect him from the bullies and she felt it was rightful for her to pick his fights and navigate him to safety. He would ask and she would listen, with not much answers up her little sleeves. She knew sometimes listening was as important as speaking, silence filled many gaps and answered the unanswerable. She perhaps knew his purpose of life filtered beyond the glittering throne and the crown. The high walls could not contain him longer than necessary, yet she chose to hold his hands and walk the steps of wedded companionship. She laughed the hardest during their little escapades out of the palace walls and cried silently in pain as she watched him walk away while their newborn slept peacefully in his crib. She did not hold him back, she did not stop him.

Perhaps she knew better.

He found strength, he found answers, he found reasoning, and he found contentment and curiosity in their silence. So, when he walked away in the silence of the night to seek nirvana, perhaps he knew that they were also a part of his journey. While he wandered in the depth of the woods in his quest for Nirvana, his mother and his wife dwelled amongst the humans and carried on with their upended lives with the intensity and dignity that becomes of a woman.

They knew better.

While he found Nirvana, preached Dharma, a Sangha germinated. But the third jewel was only for men. Both Mahaprajapati and Yashodhara heard about him. He was now Buddha to the world. How were they to receive him if he returned? They waited for him behind the palace walls, anxiously but patiently. They knew they would find their answers in their lifetime.

They were women and they knew better.

And then the unthinkable happened. The Blessed One returned to Kapilavastu. He was glowing and shining, and his aura filled the palace. He’d done it. Siddhatha had returned as Buddha. But he was no longer a son that a mother had lost or a husband that a wife had lost or a father that a child had lost. He was Buddha. The chaos and the confusion of mind and heart reigned supreme. Mahaprajapati had raised Buddha, but she missed her son. While she rejoiced in his aura, her silence and her tears spoke volumes. She learnt to let go.

She knew she could not hold on to him any longer, he was bigger than her little world, she knew better.

Yashodhara was inundated with innocent questions that her son, Rahul, kept asking about Buddha, his father. Speechless Yashodhara could not find words to feed his curiosity. She held on to the little child that was reminiscent of her beloved. The one who had left was her husband, her partner, the father of her child. The one who had returned was Buddha, the enlightened one. He did not belong to her or her child. He had a purpose much larger than the palace, or her emotions could hold.

She was learning to let go.

When Rahul entered Sangha to experience the world and wisdom of Dharma that Buddha had sought, Yashodhara knew better, and she let go. In their shared experience of pain and loss, and their quiet acceptance of the present, Mahaprajapathi Gotami and Yashodhara found peace, and a release from pain, from suffering, and from the world as they knew. They found Nirvana. So, when they finally entered the Sangha as bhikkhunis, they learned that by letting go of their attachments, they would be making the world ever richer.

These women stand exemplary to women all around as we dedicate this month in celebration of those who hold half the sky. Let the profound realization sink that from women, Buddhas of this earth come into this world, by women are Buddhas of this earth raised, and through women do Buddhas of this earth find their purpose, lead, and guide us as we seek our strength in quiet contemplation.

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