Buddha Shakyamuni with Mahaprajapati Gautami. From dhamma-stream.blogspot.com
The stories of a number of nuns (Skt. bhikshuni) in early Buddhism were written down in various parts of the Pali Buddhist scriptures, especially in the Therigatha, commonly translated as Verses of the Elder Nuns, composed about 600 BCE, and also in the Theri Apadana or The Great Deeds of the Elder Nuns, composed in 2nd-1st century BCE. The longest part of the Theri Apadana is the Gautami Apadana (The Great Deeds of Gautami), and tells the story of Mahaprajapati Gautami, the foster mother of prince Siddhartha and the first Buddhist nun.
The text was composed in 1st century BCE when, according to its translator, women had an essential role in Buddhism and nuns in particular made a vital contribution in the political, economic and social life of India. Nevertheless, the religious path of women largely differed from that of men. The necessity of role models, who reflected the feminine religious potential, emerged naturally and the biography of Gautami led the way in that respect.
The composition of The Great Deeds of Gautami follows the model of Mahaparanirvana Sutra, which describes the last day of the Buddha Shakyamuni’s life and the testament he left behind for future generations. Mahaprajapati’s spiritual path, achievements and Parinirvana are identical to those of Buddha Shakyamuni, yet nowhere in her biography can a direct comparison between her and the Buddha be found.
The fact that Buddha Shakyamuni attained enlightenment in a male body largely limits the spiritual development of women, at least in Theravada Buddhism. Such statements can be found in the Buddhist Pali Canon (Collection of Middle-Length Discourses and Gradual Collection of Sutta Pitaka). Contrary to it, The Great Deeds of Gautami professes the idea that women can follow the spiritual path till its completion and thus attain a state of consciousness, identical to that of the Buddha. In the Therigatha one of the first nuns, Soma, proclaims that femininity is not a hindrance on the way to the attainment of enlightenment, and her statement is based on the Buddhist doctrine of anatman or the absence of an individual self.
According to this concept, humans do not possess an unchangeable essence, they constantly change and do not have a genuine inherited existence. Thus, according to Buddhist philosophy, the idea that a feminine aspect can genuinely exist by itself is illusory. Therefore, at a fundamental level there is no distinction between the masculine and feminine aspects, since the nature of both is illusory and this fact can be realized by both men and women.
The Great Deeds of Gautami is a text that glorifies the achievements and limitless spiritual realization of the first Buddhist nun. Notwithstanding, the opinions on her spiritual accomplishment are not unanimous. Contradictory standpoints can be found in Buddhist Pali literature, which was compiled and canonized mainly by monks. The religious role of women in the Buddhist doctrine, and particularly in its institutionalized form, is constantly disputed and reformed. Hence it is not surprising that canonical texts contain polarized viewpoints mainly in regards to whether the spiritual potential of women and that of men are commensurable. For example, the accomplishment of supreme spiritual realization by nuns under the leadership of Gautami is reproached in Pali texts by monks, who do not encourage religious dedication of women.
Another issue, raised in the text, is whether women, who advance on the way to attaining the state of Buddhahood, do so thanks to a succession of lives as a Bodhisattva in a female body. As is the case of Gautami, numerous previous births are mentioned in which she had significant spiritual progress as a woman. Like her, many other women could develop on the way to achieving Buddhahood while having taken one or many births in a female body. Similarly, Buddha Shakyamuni and other enlightened monks mention numerous rebirths in a male body before their last reincarnation.
Gautami is a spiritual teacher, who embodies the ideal of perfect discipline and contemplation, fearless leadership, renouncing worldly pleasures, compassionate care for others and the supreme spiritual awakening. She is the feminine figure of Early Buddhism who approaches most closely the achievements of the Buddha, had an indispensable contribution towards the propagation of the spiritual heritage of her nephew and serves as a model for spiritual accomplishments by a woman.