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Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī (in Pali; Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī in Sanskrit) was the first woman to request ordination from the Buddha and to join the Saṅgha. She was both the Buddha's maternal aunt and adoptive mother, raising him after her sister, Queen Maya (Mahāmāyā), the Buddha's birth mother, died. Gautamī was born in Devadaha, the location of the present-day Devadaha town of Southern Nepal.
An eminent Therī, Mahāprajāpatī was born at Devadaha, in the family of Suppabuddha, as the younger sister of Mahāmāyā. Mahāprajāpatī was so called because, at her birth, augers prophesied that she would have a large following; Gotamī was her gotta (Gotra in Sanskrit) name (MA.i.1001; cp. AA.ii.774). She was predicted by sages to be the one who causes Buddha to allow women to join his holy order. Ap.ii.538 says her father was Añjana Sakka and her mother Sulakkhanā. Mhv.ii.18 says her father was Añjana and her mother Yasodharā. Dandapāni and Suppabuddha were her brothers; cp. Dpv. xviii.7f. At the birth of each sister, interpreters of bodily marks prophesied that the children would be cakkavattins (Cakravartin). Both sisters married King Śuddhodana, leader of the Śākya. When Mahāmāyā died, seven days after the birth of the Buddha, Pajāpati looked after the Buddha and nursed him. She was the mother of Nanda and Sundari Nanda, but it is said that she gave her own children to nurses and herself nursed the Buddha. She raised Buddha and had her own children, Siddhartha's step brother Nanda and step sister Sundari Nanda.
Ordination of the first woman
When her husband, Suddhodana, died, Pajāpatī decided to renounce the world. The Buddha was at Vesāli and she waited for an opportunity to ask permission of him. Pajāpatī was already a sotāpanna. She attained this eminence when the Buddha first visited his father's palace and preached the Mahādhammapāla Jātaka (DhA.i.97). She was predicted by sages to be the one who causes Buddha to allow women to join his holy order. Her opportunity came when the Buddha visited Kapilavatthu to settle the dispute between the Sākiyans and the Koliyans as to the right to take water from the river Rohinī. When the dispute had been settled, the Buddha preached the Kalahavivāda Sutta, and five hundred young Sākiyan men joined the Order. The Sakiyan wives, led by Pajāpatī, went to the Buddha and asked leave to also be ordained. The Buddha refused and went on to Vesāli. But Pajāpatī and her companions, nothing daunted, had barbers cut off their hair, and donning yellow robes, followed the Buddha to Vesāli on foot. They arrived with wounded feet at the Buddha's monastery and repeated their request to ordain as monastics. The Buddha again refused, But, Ananda interceded on their behalf and Buddha granted their request, subject to eight strict conditions. For details see Vin.ii.253ff.; also A.iv.274ff. There was some question, which arose later, as to the procedure of Pajāpatī's ordination, which was not formal. When the nuns discovered this some of them refused to hold the uposatha with her. But the Buddha declared that he himself had ordained her and that all was in order (DhA.iv.149). Her upasampada consisted in acquiescing in the eight conditions laid down for nuns (Sp.i.242).
After her ordination, Pajāpatī came to the Buddha and worshiped him. The Buddha preached to her and gave her a subject for meditation. With this topic she developed insight and soon after won arahantship, while her five hundred companions attained the same after listening to the Nandakovāda Sutta. Later, at an assembly of monks and nuns in Jetavana, the Buddha declared Pajāpatī "Chief of Those Who had Experience (rattaññūnam)" (A.i.25). Not long after, while at Vesāli, she realized that her life had come to an end. She was one hundred and twenty years old; she took leave of the Buddha, performed various miracles, and then died, her five hundred companions dying with her. It is said that the marvels which attended her cremation rites were second only to those of the Buddha.
In the time of Padumuttara Buddha Pajāpatī resolved to gain eminence. In that rebirth, she belonged to a clansman's family in Hamsavatī, and, hearing the Buddha assign the foremost place in experience to a certain nun, wished for similar recognition herself, doing many good deeds to that end. After many births she was born once more at Benares, forewoman among five hundred slave girls. When the rains drew near, five Paccekabuddhas came from to Isipatana seeking lodgings. Pajāpatī saw them after the Treasurer had refused them any assistance, and, after consultation with her fellow slaves, they persuaded their several husbands to erect five huts for the Paccekabuddhas during the rainy season and they provided them with all requisites. At the end of the rains they gave three robes to each Pacceka Buddha. After that she was born in a weaver's village near Benares, and again ministered, this time to five hundred Paccekabuddhas, sons of Padumavatī (ThigA.140ff.; AA.i.185f.; Ap.ii.529 43).
It is said that once Pajāpatī made a robe for the Buddha of wonderful material and marvelously elaborate. But when it came to be offered to the Buddha he refused it, and suggested it should be given to the Order as a whole. Pajāpatī was greatly disappointed, and Ananda intervened. But the Buddha explained that his suggestion was for the greater good of Pajāpatī, and also as an example to those who might wish to make similar gifts in the future. This was the occasion for the preaching of the Dakkhināvibhanga Sutta (M.iii.253ff.; MA.ii.1001ff.; this incident is referred to in the Milinda Panha p. 240). The Buddha had a great love for Pajāpatī, and when she lay ill, as there were no monks to visit her and preach to her - that being against the rule - the Buddha amended the rule and went himself to preach to her (Vin.iv.56).
Pajāpatī's name appears several times in the Jātakas. She was the mother monkey in the Cūla Nandiya Jātaka (J.ii.202), Candā in the Culla Dhammapāla (J.iii.182), and Bhikkhudāyikā (or Bhikkhudāsikā) daughter of Kiki, king of Benares (J.vi.481).
There is a story related of a nurse employed by Pajāpatī and born in Devadaha. She renounced the world with Pajāpatī, but for twenty five years was harassed by thoughts of lust till, at last, she heard Dhammadinnā preach. She then practiced meditation and became an arahant. ThigA.75f.
Therigatha - Verses of the Elder Nuns 
- Maha Pajapati (Gotami) Theri A Mother's Blessing Translated from the Pali by Andrew Olendzki
- IMMEDIATE FAMILY OF THE BUDDHA, 3. Mahapajapati Gotami by Radhika Abeysekera
- GREAT FEMALE DISCIPLES: 21. Sundari Nanda
- GREAT MALE DISCIPLES - Part B: 15. Nanda
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