Mahapajapati Gotami: The First Ordained Buddhist Woman

maha-headIn Buddhist tradition, Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī was the first woman to request the ordination of women in Buddhism, which she did from Gautama Buddha directly. Mahāpajāpatī is considered the first bhikkhuni or Buddhist nun.


Tradition says Maya, the Buddha’s birth mother, and Mahapajapati Gotami were sisters, Koliyan princesses, and the sisters of Suppabuddha. Mahapajapati was both the Buddha’s maternal aunt and adoptive mother, raising him after her sister Maya, the Buddha’s mother, died shortly after giving birth to Gautama Buddha.

Mahapajapati was born at Devadaha, into the family of Suppabuddha, and was the younger sister of Maya. Mahapajapati was so called because, at her birth, it was prophesied that she would have a large following. Both sisters married King Suddhodhana, leader of the Sakya. When Maya died seven days after the birth of the Buddha, Pajapati looked after the Buddha and nursed him. She raised the Buddha and had her own children, Siddhartha’s half-brother Nanda and half-sister (also called Nanda).

When her husband King Suddhodhana died, Mahapajapati determined to attain ordination for herself. She went directly to the Buddha and asked to be ordained into the Sangha. Buddha refused and travelled on to Vesali with his retinue of monks and followers.

Undaunted, Gotami cut off all her hair and donned the yellow robes of the monks, and together with a large number of Sakyan women devotees of the Buddha, followed the Buddha to Vesali on foot. Upon arrival there, she repeated her request to be ordained. Ananda, one of the Buddha’s principal disciples and an attendant of the Buddha, met with her and offered to intercede with the Buddha on her behalf.

“Respectfully Ananda 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.”

Upon hearing the Buddha’s words, Mahapajapati Gotami agreed to accept the Eight Conditions, or Garudhammas, and was accorded the status of the first bhikkhuni or female Buddhist monastic.

Although there has always been much scholarly discussion about the historical accuracy of the Mahpajapati Gotami story, one thing is certain: there is to this day much discussion and dispute concerning the validity of the Eight Garudhammas (Conditions) as passed down to us through the ages. If you are interested in finding our more about this topic there are numerous resources to explore on the subject, both in print and online.

However, there is no need for us to court controversy here, for we at Pajapati Foundation state without reservation that it is our wish to promote the equality of all women, be they lay person or nun, Buddhist or not —  and that particularly all women practicing within the Buddhist traditions be seen and treated as equals, with equal opportunity to obtain both novice and full ordination within all the Buddhist traditions.

Regarding full ordination for women in Tibetan Buddhism, (something which was never fully established in Tibet and is not currently available to women within that tradition), both the Dalai Lama and the 17th Gyalwa Karpama have stated that they support and are working towards the day when it will be possible for women to obtain full ordination within the Tibetan tradition. May that day come soon!

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“No matter how others see it, I feel this is something necessary. In order to uphold the Buddhist teachings it is necessary to have the fourfold community: fully ordained monks, fully ordained nuns, and both male and female lay precept holders. As the Buddha said, the fourfold community are the four pillars of the Buddhist teachings. This is the reason why I’m taking interest in this.”    – Ogyen Trinley Dorje, the 17th Gyalwa Karmapa