Buddha’s female disciples

26 March,2023 06:27 AM IST |  Mumbai  |  Devdutt Pattanaik

Buddha was always accompanied by two male disciples Sariputta and Moggallana, and two female disciples, Uppalavanna and Khema

Illustration/Devdutt Pattanaik

It is important to remember that when Buddha established his monastic order the Sangha, he initially hesitated to include women. In traditional monastic orders, it is believed that the female anatomy does not enable women to follow the monastic path and it binds them to worldly passions, such as desire and vanity. However, when the Buddha saw his stepmother, weeping at the death of his father, he realised that suffering in men is no different from suffering of women, biology notwithstanding. Therefore, he created the Buddhist order of nuns.

Buddha was always accompanied by two male disciples Sariputta and Moggallana, and two female disciples, Uppalavanna and Khema. The two men were friends who had been friends even in their past lives and they were seeking a common spiritual teacher when they met the Buddha. Uppalavanna and Khema did not know each other. Upali was a commoner while Khema was a queen.

In one tradition, Uppalavanna was the beautiful daughter of a rich merchant who became a nun to avoid disappointing her many suitors. In another tradition, she was a married woman who discovered one day that her husband was having an affair with her mother, so she abandoned her husband and a newborn daughter and left the city. After many wanderings she married another man. But as the years passed, the man got bored of her and married a younger wife. To Uppalavanna*s horror, the younger wife turned out to be her own daughter, whom she had abandoned long ago. Horrified and disgusted by these two events, she abandoned her second husband and chose to become a concubine, unattached to a single man. But even this life did not give her pleasure and finally, she decided to become a nun of the Buddhist order.

Uppalavanna very quickly attained understanding of the Dhamma and also developed psychic powers. She used this form to take a male form and escape male gaze. But one day despite her powers, due to bad karma, she could not escape rape. The rapist went to hell. Monks were anxious about Uppalavanna*s role in the act, but the Buddha said it was not her fault as she did not give consent. Rules were formulated to prevent nuns from staying and travelling alone in the wild desolate places.

In another story, her psychic power helped Uppalavanna pass through a crowd of male monks and be the first to greet Buddha when he descended from the heaven of 33 gods. He had gone to heaven to share his discovery of the Dhamma with his mother, who had died seven days after his birth, and had been reborn as a god.

Khema was the wife of King Bimbisara, who was very influenced by Buddhism. Khema loved all the beautiful things in life and she was not interested in visiting a drab monastery or listening to the spiritual talks of the Buddha. So she never accompanied her husband when he went to meet the Buddha at his monasteries. But knowing that his wife loves beautiful things, the king got his bards to describe the beauty of the monastery to her. This enticed

Khema to go to Buddha*s monastery. She was not drawn to Buddha*s speech but to the very beautiful woman who stood beside him. But then, right before her eyes, the beautiful woman transformed into an old wrinkled hag who finally collapsed and died. This made Khema realise the impermanence of beautiful things and she became a nun.

The author writes and lectures on the relevance of mythology in modern times. Reach him at devdutt.pattanaik@mid-day.com

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