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Mahaprajapati Gautami Prajapati Buddhas Step Mother and Aunt

An insignificant second daughter, Prajapati not only became a queen but the first Buddhist nun, as well.

Princess Maya was beautiful and graceful; she was also groomed to be a perfect queen and wife to a ruler. Once wed to Suddhodhana Gautama, the ruler of the Shakya clan of Northern India/Southern Nepal, she was well loved by her husband and his people. She became pregnant and gave birth to their first son and heir Siddhartha, meaning he who achieved his goal.

Unfortunately, Queen Maya died very shortly after the boy was born leaving a grieving husband behind. As per tradition, Maya’s younger sister, Prajapati, had to abandon any hopes of following her own destiny and step in to fulfill her sister’s role both as a step-mother to Siddhartha and a wife to the king. After their marriage Mahaprajapati (Great Prajapati) bore two children for Suddhodhana, including Nanda, who became one of Siddhartha’s disciples.

After Siddhartha reached enlightenment he founded the sangha (monastic community) and the news of that had eventually reached his family. On one of his trips home his step-mother, Prajapati, pleaded with him to ordain her so that she may pursue liberation as well. But he refused her. After some time, his trusted disciple and cousin Ananda took up the cause of women with the Buddha.

Once Prajapati’s husband (Siddhartha’s father) died, however, she had no family or social duties left and she longed for a life of spiritual pursuits. She approached her step-son several times, following him and his disciples around. At last Prajapati (followed by several other noble women) showed up wearing simple robes and having shorn off her hair to beg the Buddha to accept her into the sangha. And he refused, once again.

It is said that Ananda tried to persuade him, reminding the Buddha of the notion of impermanence; nothing retains its properties forever. Ananda pointed out that women’s inferior intelligence and lack of self-discipline may not always remain a fact. The only way to know for sure whether there are some women worthy of becoming monastics is to test one of them. And to his mind, Prajapati was a noble candidate. Finally, the Buddha relented and determined that his step-mother was indeed intelligent and virtuous a perfect candidate for ordination.

Thus, she became the very first Buddhist nun. Soon after, many more followed, creating the order of bikkhunis (nuns), younger sisters to the bikkhus (monks). According to some Buddhist traditions Mahaprajapati achieved arhatship, having seen through the delusion of samsara. After that, she spent her time helping to alleviate the suffering of others and performing miracles. Other traditions say that she had several lives after that, all in the service of the Buddha and the Dharma.