Prince Siddhartha with Mahaprajapati Gautami
Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī (Pali; Sanskrit Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī) was the step-mother and maternal aunt (mother's sister) of Buddha. In Buddhist tradition, she was the first woman to seek ordination for women, which she did from Gautama Buddha directly, and she became the first bhikkhuni (Buddhist nun).
Tradition says Maya and Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī were Koliyan princess and sisters of Suppabuddha. Mahāpajāpatī was both the Buddha's maternal aunt and adoptive mother, raising him after her sister Maya, the Buddha's birth mother, died. Mahāpajāpatī died at the age of 120.
"The story of the parinirvāṇa of Mahāprajāpatī Gautamī and her five hundred bhikṣuṇī companions was popular and widely transmitted and existed in multiple versions." It is recorded in the various surviving Vinaya traditions, including the Pāli Canon and Sarvastivada and Mulasarvastivada versions.
An eminent Therī, Mahāpajāpatī was born at Devadaha in the family of Suppabuddha as the younger sister of Māyā. Mahāpajāpatī was so called because, at her birth, augurs prophesied that she would have a large following. Both sisters married King Suddhodhana, leader of the Śākya. When Māyā died seven days after the birth of the Buddha, Pajāpati looked after the Buddha and nursed him. She raised the Buddha and had her own children, Siddhartha's half-brother Nanda and half-sister Nanda.
Ordination of the first woman
When King Suddhodhana, died, Mahapajapati Gotami decided to attain ordination. Mahapajapati Gotami went to the Buddha and asked to be ordained into the Sangha. The Buddha refused and went on to Vesāli. Undaunted, Gotami cut off her hair and donned yellow robes and with a large number of Sakyan ladies followed the Buddha to Vesāli on foot. Upon arrival, she repeated her request to be ordained. Ananda, one of the principal disciples and an attendant of the Buddha, met her and offered to intercede with the Buddha on her behalf.
Respectfully he questioned the Buddha, "Lord, are women capable of realising the various stages of sainthood as nuns?"
"They are, Ananda," said the Buddha.
"If that is so, Lord, then it would be good if women could be ordained as nuns," said Ananda, encouraged by the Buddha's reply.
"If, Ananda, Maha Pajapati Gotami would accept the Eight Conditions it would be regarded that she has been ordained already as a nun."
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