“The Woman Who Raised the Buddha: The Extraordinary Life of Mahaprajapati” by Wendy Garling

The Woman Who Raised the Buddha: The Extraordinary Life of Mahaprajapati, Wendy Garling (Shambhala, March 2021) The Woman Who Raised the Buddha: The Extraordinary Life of Mahaprajapati, Wendy Garling (Shambhala, March 2021)

Behind or beside the great male spiritual leaders are great women, so we are told, although it is usually the case that their lives and deeds are often relegated to secondary importance by androcentric religious constructs put in place by those who come afterwards. For example, Jesus has two Marys (his mother and Magdalene), Muhammed has his principal wife Aisha bint Abu Bakr, and Buddha (Siddhartha) has Mahaprajapati. There are, however, many stories written about these women, and the often sparse historical records, if they exist at all, need to be fleshed out by these accounts, many of which, however, contain a great deal of  imaginative fiction as well as kernels of truth. They form what Garling herself  terms “a crazy quilt,” that is, numerous fragments based on what Tracy Cochran calls in her foreword “threads of instinct, intuition and common sense.” In the case of Mahaprajapati, we do not have even the kind of history which may be extracted, say, from the synoptic gospels, apocryphal writings (there is a Gospel of Mary Magdalene) or the various Islamic sources depicting Aisha as a scholar, judge and even military leader. 

Wendy Garling, a practicing Tibetan Buddhist with formal qualifications in Sanskrit language and literature, has already undertaken the raise the profile of women in early Buddhism in Stars at Dawn: Forgotten Stories of Women in the Buddha’s Life (2016). In her new book, The Woman Who Raised the Buddha, she has undertaken the daunting task of taking a massive amount of source material and extracting a much more complete, complex portrait of Mahaprajapati than has been hitherto available. Aside from a single poem attributed to Mahaprajapati herself in the Pali Therigatha, the collection of poems written by early Buddhist nuns, some of which may be dated to the sixth century BCE and some limited autobiographical material, Garling has little—if any—material that could be called historical. Her source material for Mahaprajapati instead comes from Indian, Korean, Burmese and Cambodian traditions, produced on the whole in quite different epochs and places from the events described.

What Garling has in front of her is a body of stories, many of which were written long after Mahaprajapati’s death and often by male writers seeking to make sure that the Buddha himself is always at the forefront. As Garling tells us, “the Buddhism we have today” is “still weighted heavily towards patriarchy, even misogyny,” but she maintains that it was nonetheless Buddha’s intention to forge “an equal fourfold community of lay and monastic women and men.” Given this, she must show that this was happening in spite of all the androcentric accounts of Buddhism’s spread and development, and to this end she presents a work from the Pali canon, the Khuddaka Nikaya, which contains the Therigatha and Theri-apadana, the latter described as “forty nuns’ first-person hagiographies testifying to their spiritual attainments over many lifetimes.” These sources, Garling says, reveal “the authenticity of women’s voices shining through the words and themes.” The result is the equivalent, perhaps, of Miri Rubin’s Mother of God: A History of the Virgin Mary (Harvard, 2009), in which she traces the development of Mary from her role in the Gospels as Jesus’s mother to her eventual global fame in her own right as an object of veneration second only to her son.


Leaving multiple incarnations aside, what we know of the historical Mahaprajapati (also called Gautami or Gotami) it is that she came from a noble family and was Siddhartha’s aunt, her elder sister Maya having died shortly after giving birth and entrusting her with the child by Suddhodana, king of the Sakyas, a northern Indian people dwelling partly in what is now Nepal. Mahaprajapati was also married to the king, and upon her sister’s death she became chief queen, hence her eponymous name or title; she is also known as Gotami, which was likely her personal name, although Mahaprajapati is the name by which she is usually addressed. She was born in about 500 BCE and is said to have lived to the age of a hundred and twenty, dying not long before her son the Buddha. She did, indeed, raise Siddhartha (as he was called before he became enlightened) and loved him dearly. As a Korean source cited by Garling put it, “His aunt greatly loved the Way,/ she brought him up without sparing any effort.” She became very distressed when he decided to leave his courtly life and family to seek enlightenment, the event known as the Great Departure. This left her so bereft that she became blind with weeping, so the story goes, her sight being restored only after her son returned from a twelve-year absence.

Her greatest achievement, however, would come after Siddhartha’s return. This was persuading the rather reluctant Buddha to permit the ordination of five hundred devout Sakya women whose husbands had already taken monastic vows. These women wished to become nuns, asking Mahaprajapati to speak for them, as they would be left in the equivalent of widowhood. And here it’s where the different accounts can cause difficulties for Garling or any scholar, for that matter, who wants, as we have seen above, to depict Buddha as being inclusive, or at least not misogynistic. But what exactly was Buddha’s response to his aunt’s request? Well, if you look at, say, the Pali canon, Buddha says flatly “I do not wish to permit women to go forth.” In other sources, however, he says that women should continue their devotions as lay people. “Be pure, chaste, and live virtuously,” he tells Mahaprajapati, “and you will find a lasting reward, blessings, and happiness.” Another compromise offered by him suggests that women should shave their heads and “put on monastic robes”, after which they should stay at home and behave like nuns (without being ordained) rather than actually leaving and wandering about with a begging bowl like he himself had done. Furthermore, he tells them in another account, “Buddhas of ancient times all did not permit women to go forth.” These compromises seem to suggest, as Garling tells us, that Buddha was not opposed to female ordination per se, but to women becoming homeless, a state of affairs he perhaps thought they might not be strong enough to endure. In addition to this, he seems to have thought that ordination should proceed slowly, and that if done too quickly it would incite opposition. In other words, it was a matter of timing rather than anything else, but whatever the case was, Mahaprajapati would have her work cut out implementing her desire to have Buddhist women achieve spiritual equality with men. That she did succeed in the end is a tribute to her persuasiveness and sincerity.

However, true to the androcentricity of much of the written evidence, Mahaprajapati “largely disappears from the narratives” after she effects the ordination of Buddhist nuns. At the same time, as Garling notes “history—even more so herstory [sic]—generally esteems Mahaprajapati’s incomparable role” in accomplishing that feat. The rest of her story is—well, more stories from various traditions, and some autobiographical writing, which consists of 189 verses included in the Theri-apadana, later to be “celebrated as a popular and widely-transmitted performance piece” by Buddhists in various parts of Asia. It would seem that like the Virgin Mary, Mahaprajapati was being held up by future generations as an example of what an enlightened woman (or man, for that matter) should be like. Her parinirvana (release from rebirth after attaining enlightenment on earth) is discussed in the final chapter, and there is a short epilogue describing how various Buddhist schools have interpreted her story. As Buddha himself was said to have stated in her eulogy,


Know this, O monks, she was most wise,
with wisdom vast and wide.
She was a nun of great renown,
a master of great powers.


Garling’s book is certainly based on wide-ranging scholarship and meticulous research, as her eight-page bibliography readily demonstrates. Yet this is not an academic tome that needs to be plowed through by students of Buddhism. Garling writes engagingly, her clear and direct style demonstrating not just an engagement with her subject, but a real passion to get Mahaprajapti’s story out. Some more scholarly readers might take issue with her occasional interpolations or her own “versions” of stories or authorial accounts, especially in the Prologue, based on speculation, but this is a novelistic technique that many readers will find attractive, as it can, if used skillfully, actually make the subject more three-dimensional. It was used, for example, by Peter Ackroyd (himself a novelist) in his well-received biography of Dickens, where the latter is depicted in his study and thinking about what he was writing, something Dickens probably did do, and Ackroyd’s description rings true enough. Garling achieves the same effect, but it’s something about which I always have reservations, as I do about neologisms like “herstory”. Another minor point—Garling sometimes conflates accounts, as in her summary of the translation of  Mahaprajapati’s apadana, but as a scholar herself she likely knows what she is about, and anyway non-specialist readers have no choice but to participate. Otherwise, I highly recommend this pioneering account of a remarkable woman’s life and legacy, not least because it introduces us to some remarkably moving and instructive stories, succeeding admirably in shifting its subject from relative marginalisation to a central role, in which she certainly belongs. As Buddha’s companion Ananda puts it,


Her destination now is reached;
her name alone remains.
Even the Buddha, who has five eyes,
cannot see where she went.

John Butler recently retired as Associate Professor of Humanities at the University College of the North in The Pas, Manitoba, Canada, and has taught at universities in Canada, Nigeria and Japan. He specializes in early modern travel-literature (especially Asian travel) and seventeenth-century intellectual history. His books include an edition of Sir Thomas Herbert’s Travels in Africa, Persia and Asia the Great (2012) and most recently an edition of Sir Paul Rycaut's Present State of the Ottoman Empire (1667) and a book of essays, Off the Beaten Track: Essays on Unknown Travel Writers.