Visâkhâ: A Woman Disciple of the Buddha
Theosophical Quarterly, April, 1930
Besides the supreme figure of the Buddha and the noble personalities of his leading disciples, a host of men and women are depicted in the Pali Buddhist Scriptures, and many of them are drawn with a lively sense of reality, and often with much genuine humour. We cannot say for certain that in each case the likeness is exact, but we can say that the portrait represents a figure in the mind of the artist; what he conceived to be a genuine type among his contemporaries.
It may be interesting to consider some of the women thus pictured by Buddhist chroniclers and elders, for in this way we may gain an insight into the view of these recorders, as to the character of an ideal woman, and also into the features and manner of living among women in general, in that remote world two and a half millenniums ago. Of even greater interest is the attitude of the Buddha himself toward women, with his willingness or unwillingness to accept them as disciples, members of his Order.
Among the many women who appear in the pages of the Buddhist writings one may begin with the queens and high ladies of the court of King Suddhodana, father of Prince Siddhartha, later known as the Buddha. Suddhodana ruled over the Sakyas, having his palace in the city of Kapilavastu, so called in honour of the ancient sage Kapila, to whom is attributed the transcendental teaching later made formal in the Sankhya system. Of the ladies of the court Queen Maya stands first. A very ancient book records that, when Queen Maya gave birth to her son, the angels sang, rejoicing. When an aged seer asked them why they rejoiced, the angels answered: “He that shall become the Buddha is born in the settlement of the Sakyas for the welfare and happiness of mankind. Therefore we are full of joy!” When the child was five days old he was named Siddhartha. Two days later his mother, Queen Maya, died, and Queen Maya’s sister, who was known as Maha Pajapati Gotami, “great consort belonging to the Gotama clan”, became his foster mother. When he was nineteen, Prince Siddhartha was married to his cousin, Princess Yasodhara. Ten years later their son Rahula was born, and not long after, Prince Siddhartha left his wife and son and made the great renunciation, which was the beginning of years of spiritual effort, at the end of which he became the Awakened One, the Buddha.
Some time after the Order was founded, the Buddha journeyed to Kapilavastu and paid a visit to his royal father. It is recorded that his teaching won the heartfelt adherence of the royal lady Maha Pajapati, who formed the desire of joining the Order which her foster son had established. Visiting him in the park where he was resting with his disciples, Maha Pajapati made obeisance to him, and, standing reverently at his side, begged him that he would permit women as well as men to make the great withdrawal, and to enter the Order founded by the thatâgata, following the teaching and discipline which he had given to the Order.
But, we are told, the Buddha was unwilling to grant her request, even when she pressed it on him a second and a third time. His foster mother was sorrowful and departed weeping. The Buddha on his part departed with his disciples and took up his abode with them in the forest at Vesali.
Maha Pajapati was not to be turned aside from her aspiration even by thrice repeated refusal. She took what steps were within her power to constitute herself a disciple, a member of the Order, donned the saffron-coloured robe, and with women companions of like mind, followed the Buddha on foot to Vesali. It is recorded that, coming to the Buddha’s abode, she stood outside the entrance weeping.
There the noble Ananda saw her, listened to the story of her aspiration, and undertook to plead her cause with his great Master. At first Ananda pleaded in vain, even though he repeated his plea three times. Then he bethought himself to try a flank movement. Therefore he asked his Master:
“Is it possible for women, Sire, if they make the great withdrawal, accepting the teaching and discipline of the thatâgata, to win the fruit of conversion, the fruit of returning only once to this world, the fruit of returning no more, the reward of Arhatship?”
The Buddha was compelled to admit that each one of these steps of spiritual attainment, even the noble consummation of Arhatship, was possible for women as well as for men.
Then Ananda, having established his position, made a personal appeal. He reminded the Buddha that the lady Maha Pajapati was the sister of Queen Maya; that she had been the Buddha’s foster mother; and, finally, he put his request once more, praying the Buddha to accept both Maha Pajapati and other like-minded women as members of the Order. The Buddha finally consented, but he made his consent conditional:
“If, Ananda, Maha Pajapati will accept eight stringent rules, she may be admitted to the Order.
“First, a woman disciple, even if she has been a disciple for a hundred years, shall salute, rise to meet, humbly entreat, and perform all dutiful offices for a male disciple, even though he were ordained that very day.
“Second, a woman disciple shall not keep residence in a district where there are no male disciples.
“Third, at the new moon and at the full moon a woman disciple shall wait until the congregation of male disciples have appointed the day of fasting and until one of them comes to administer the admonition.
“Fourth, at the end of residence a woman disciple shall seek criticism from the congregation of the men and from the congregation of the women, as to what may have been seen, or heard, or suspected.
“Fifth, if a woman disciple incur grave sin, she shall undergo penance toward both the congregations.
“Sixth, a woman probationer, after she has spent two years in practice of the six rules, shall seek admission into the Order from both congregations.
“Seventh, a woman disciple shall not revile or abuse a male disciple in any way.
“Eighth, women disciples may not reprove male disciples officially, but male disciples may reprove women disciples officially.
“These rules shall be honoured, esteemed, revered and reverently obeyed; they must not be broken so long as life shall last.”
On these terms the lady Maha Pajapati was admitted to the Order, which, thereafter, included women as well as men. The words translated “male disciple” and “woman disciple” are Bhikku and Bhikkuni, literally meaning men and women who live by alms, but more especially used to indicate members of the Buddha’s Order.
There is another class of followers of the Buddha, likewise consisting of men and women, those who were called lay disciples, or, in Pali, Upâsaka, with the feminine Upâsikâ, derived from a Sanskrit word meaning “sitting near”, and, therefore, sitting at the feet of a teacher. There are many stories of pious lay disciples, both men and women, who devoutly followed the teaching of the Buddha without leaving the world or seeking admission to the Order. Among the women lay disciples the lady Visâkhâ stands first.
A large part of the interest of her story lies in the ideal of womanhood it presents, but it is also interesting as giving a picture of society in Eastern India twenty-five centuries ago, even if there be some exaggeration in the number of millions possessed by the wealthy “men of treasure,” who may well be thought of as bankers.
The father of Visâkhâ was a “man of treasure”, Dhananjaya by name, who was the son of the famous Mendaka, likewise a “man of treasure.” The father of Visâkhâ was an inhabitant of the city of Bhaddiya, and in Bhaddiya, Visâkhâ was born. Her mother was named Sumanâ, “well-minded”, while the name of the daughter is less clear; it may either mean “widely branching” in a sense which will later appear, or “well pruned,” a reference to the admirable fruit of discipline upon her character.
It happened that when Visâkhâ was seven years old, the Buddha journeyed eastward and visited the city in which her father dwelt. And we are told that in the city, besides Mendaka, the “man of treasure”, there were five other men of limitless wealth, or, as we should say, multimillionaires.
When Mendaka heard that the Buddha had come, he sent for his seven year old granddaughter, Visâkhâ, and bade her pay a visit to the Buddha, in a procession of five hundred chariots, with five hundred attendants and five hundred servants.
The little maid obeyed, but, because she knew well what was seemly, she did not proceed in her chariot to the place where the Master was, but, driving only as far as was seemly, she dismounted from her chariot, went forward on foot, and making obeisance, stood dutifully beside the Master. And the Master imparted to her the teachings of the Law of Righteousness, so that she was won to his teaching, and her five hundred maidens with her. Her grandfather, Mendaka, had come with her to the place where the Master was. He also was won by the teaching, and invited the Buddha and the members of the Order to be his guests at the first meal on the morrow, and for two weeks he supplied them liberally, after which the Master departed from Bhaddiya.
King Bimbisara and King Pasenadi were united by close ties, since Bimbisara had married the sister of Pasenadi, while Pasenadi had married the sister of Bimbisara. And one day the thought came to King Pasenadi that, whereas there were five men of great treasure, possessing many millions each, in the territory of Bimbisara, there were no such men of boundless wealth in the territory of Pasenadi himself. Therefore he determined to persuade king Bimbisara to transfer one of the men of great treasure to his dominions. After some objection, Bimbisara consented that Dhananjaya, father of the maiden Visâkhâ, should be thus transferred, and Dhananjaya himself agreed to the change of abode. So Dhananjaya made ready to depart with all his household when Pasenadi departed, to return to his city Savatthi. But before they reached the city, being yet seven leagues away, Dhananjaya, perceiving that the site was fair, and bethinking him that within the city there would be many people and little space, asked King Pasenadi to allow him to settle there, seven leagues from the city, and to build dwellings for his family and their attendants. And to this King Pasenadi assented.
Now it befell that in King Pasenadi’s city there was a man of treasure, Migara by name, whose son had just reached man’s estate. His mother admonished the young man that it was time for him to take a bride. At first he was unwilling, but at last, when they pressed upon him the duty of continuing the family, he unwillingly assented, saying that he would take only a maiden whose hair was beautiful, whose lips were beautiful, whose teeth were beautiful, whose skin was beautiful, and who possessed in addition the beauty of enduring youthfulness.
So the mother and father of the youth, undertaking to find for him a perfect maiden to be his bride, summoned many Brahmans, made them many and great presents, and sent them forth to search for her. And in due time these Brahmans found their way to the place where Dhananjaya had settled with his followers, his wealth, and his virtuous daughter, Visâkhâ. Each year there was held a festival, when maidens even of the highest rank were wont to go forth on foot to the river with their attendants, and the wealthy sons of the warrior clans, taking up their positions beside the road that led to the river, crowned with flowers the fair maidens of equal rank. So the maiden Visâkhâ came among them, with five hundred maidens, her attendants.
Suddenly there came a storm of rain, and the five hundred maidens of Visâkhâ immediately began to run towards a hall by the river, where they took refuge from the rain. But Visâkhâ did not run, but walked sedately toward the hall, even though her garments and ornaments were wet. As she approached, the Brahmans who had come in quest of a perfect maiden saw that she had beautiful hair, beautiful lips, beautiful skin and beauty of enduring youth. So, to make certain that she had also beautiful teeth, they spoke, so that she might hear:
“Our daughter is lazy; she will not take good care of her future husband!”
Hearing them, Visâkhâ asked what they had said, and her voice was sweet and resonant. When they repeated their words, she asked why they had said so. They answered that it was because she had lagged behind her attendants, so that her garments were wet with rain.
Visâkhâ answered: “Say not so, worthy Brahmans! Though I am a better runner than my attendants, yet I had a good reason for not running. For there are four who do not appear at their best while running: an anointed king in the court of his palace; the king’s elephant of state when richly caparisoned; a monk who has retired from the world; and, fourth, a woman, for men will ask why she rushes about like a man. And in addition, were a maiden to fall, and break a hand or a foot, it would be difficult for her parents to find her a husband. For these reasons I did not run!”
While she was talking, the Brahmans noted the beauty of her teeth. And when she was silent they set the gold wreath upon her head. Visâkhâ, knowing that it was a wreath of betrothal, asked concerning the family from whom it came. When she learned that the family which sought her in marriage was of equal rank with her own, she sent a message to her father that a chariot might be despatched to bring her home, since it was not seemly that, after she had received the wreath of betrothal, she should return home on foot. So her father, well pleased, sent chariots for Visâkhâ and her maidens. And the Brahmans accompanied Visâkhâ to where her father was.
He in his turn asked concerning the senders of the wreath of betrothal, and their riches. He was told their names, and that their wealth was forty tens of millions, and, learning that they were of equal rank and of great wealth, even though far less than he himself possessed, he was well pleased and gave his consent to the union. The Brahmans returned and reported that their quest of the perfect flower of maidenhood had been crowned with success. The father of the future bridegroom was deeply impressed, and sought and received from King Pasenadi permission to go to pay a visit to his future kin. And King Pasenadi himself, remembering that he had brought the prospective father-in-law of the young Punna-vadhana to his present home, determined that it would be a graceful and appropriate thing for himself to pay the man of treasure a royal visit.
Then follow several pages of description, in which the saintly and ascetic chroniclers of Pali scripture, who have renounced all the pomps and vanities of the world, let themselves go in a series of gorgeous descriptions which mere worldly historians might envy, but could not possibly surpass. Thus we are told that the bridegroom’s father, learning that King Pasenadi purposed to accompany him on his ceremonial visit, had not unnatural misgivings that the call on the hospitality of the man of treasure might be excessive, and very tactfully sent messengers to make inquiries. The return message came: “Let ten kings come if they wish!”
And splendid preparations were in fact made, the maiden Visâkhâ presiding over every detail of the arrangements, with a keen insight which was the reward of aspiration, not through one or two former lives, but “through a hundred thousand world-cycles”. The maiden made provision for every guest of whatever degree, so that none might say: “We came to Visâkhâ’s party, and got no reward, for we spent the whole time looking after our horses and elephants!”
In the same large way the monkish recorders describe the jewelry which her father had prepared for the future bride. There was a gorgeous headdress fashioned in the likeness of a peacock, the value of which, we are told, was ninety millions, and in addition the bride received five hundred and forty millions to provide perfumes. She was further supplied with immense herds of cattle, and, when the time came to provide her with personal attendants, the entire population volunteered enthusiastically to accompany her, so that it was necessary to beat them back with staves. Then comes the note of edification. The bride had earned all this munificence by her immense gifts to the followers of the Buddhas of old. All maidens who desired like rewards should be equally generous.
Then comes a touch of universal human nature. The peerless maiden Visâkhâ, accompanied by her retinue, and accompanying her future father-in-law, drew near to Savatthi, where she was to dwell. She was wearing her peacock head-dress, and the question arose in her mind, whether she should enter the city in a closed carriage or standing erect in a chariot. After duly pondering the problem, she decided thus:
“If I am in a covered carriage when I enter, no one will see my beautiful peacock head-dress!” Therefore she entered, standing erect in her chariot, and all the city admired. The ascetic recorders do not tell us for which of her former good works she was rewarded by this happy inspiration.
So Visâkhâ entered the home of her father-in-law and settled down most dutifully in her new life. It will be remembered that, when she was seven years old, she had paid a visit to the Buddha and had been won to his teaching, remaining ever thereafter a faithful Upâsikâ. Her father-in-law did not share her views, but adhered to the old school of Brahman ascetics, who are represented in the story as both jealous and abusive, advising the man of treasure to turn his heretical daughter-in-law out of doors. But, since the daughter-in-law had brought with her a large company of her own people and much wealth, it was not easy to send her forth.
There came an occasion, however, when the man of treasure turned against her. We are told that one morning he was regaling himself with porridge in a golden bowl, with honey added as a relish, his daughter-in-law standing dutifully by his side fanning him, when an elder, a follower of the Buddha, entered the house. The man of treasure saw his visitor, but remained as one who saw not, continuing to regale himself with porridge and honey.
Visâkhâ, for whom an elder, an honoured follower of her Master, was one to be held in reverence, skilfully expressed her sense of the situation, and rebuked the bad manners of her father-in-law:
“Pass on, venerable sir!” she said, “my father-in-law is eating stale fare!” The man of treasure was furious, and gave orders that she should be turned out of his house forthwith. But, since all the servants in the house were hers, the order fell flat, to the intense mortification of the man of treasure.
The situation which resulted finely reveals Visâkhâ’s firmness of character and at the same time her dutifulness and strong sense of discipline.
She did not give orders, as she might easily have done, that the offending father-in-law should be turned out of doors, but she took him somewhat severely to task, saying she was no wench picked up at a bathing-place, to be summarily turned out of doors. But she opened a way of conciliation, reminding her father-in-law that her grandfather had provided for just such an occasion, by sending with her eight worthy householders as trustees or assessors, to arbitrate any disputes; that might arise between the heiress and her new family. The man of treasure was somewhat mollified and had the eight assessors summoned. When they appeared, his feeling of hurt dignity blazed up again:
“This young woman,” he said, “when I was eating porridge in a golden bowl, said that I was eating unclean food! Condemn her and turn her out!” But the eight assessors, who recognized that their duty was to protect the interests of Visâkhâ, asked her to give her side of the story. Visâkhâ explained that her phrase concerning the eating of stale food was a symbolical way of saying that her father-in-law was consuming stale merit, earned in past lives, while he might have been earning new merit by courteously and generously entreating the Buddhist elder whom she revered.
This reminded Visâkhâ’s father-in-law of something that had puzzled him earlier, and, when the eight assessors gave their verdict in her favour, he put this question:
“When she was leaving home, Visâkhâ’s father laid ten admonitions upon her, which I happened to overhear without comprehending their meanmg. Let her now explain them!”
Pressed by her friends the assessors, Visâkhâ explained her father’s purpose. When he said to her, “The in-door fire is not to be taken out of doors”, he did not mean to withhold the fire of the hearth, but rather that, should she notice any shortcoming or fault in her home, whether in her mother-in-law, her father-in-law, or her husband, she should by no means speak of it abroad. In the same way the admonition that “Fire from without must not be brought indoors” meant that, should she hear criticism, whether by man or woman, of the members of her own household, she, must never repeat it at home. The admonition, “Give only to him who gives”, meant that she should lend only to those who would return what was lent. So, “Give not to him who does not give”, meant that one should not lend to those who do not return what is lent. But the saying, “Give both to him who gives, and to him who gives not”, had a more generous sense: relatives in want should be supplied, whether they could, or could not, make due return.
The remaining admonitions shed light on the family discipline and etiquette of that distant time and land, in certain respects sharply contrasted with “modern” views. Thus, “Sit fortunately!” meant that the young wife should rise in the presence of her mother-in-law, her father-in-law or her husband. “Eat fortunately!” in like manner meant that she must not eat until she had waited on them. “Sleep fortunately!” meant that all their needs must be attended to, before she herself sought rest. “Wait upon the fire!” meant that she should serve these members of her household as one tends the sacred fire. “Reverence the household divinities!” had a like meaning.
The assessors, pleased with so much effective humility, asked the man of treasure whether he still found fault with his daughter-in-law. When he replied that she was without fault, they asked him why, in that case, he had sought to have his daughter-in-law turned out of doors.
At this point, the story takes an unexpected turn. Visâkhâ, addressing her friendly assessors, says that it would have been quite wrong for her to leave her father-in-law’s house while under an imputation of wrong-doing. Now, however, that she had been completely exonerated, it was her firm intention to go. Therefore she gave orders that her carriages should be made ready.
Since Visâkhâ is represented to us as of uncommon wisdom and practical sense, we may, perhaps, infer that she foresaw what would result from her downright announcement: a profuse and abject apology from her offending father-in-law. She accepted the apology, but on her own terms: namely, that her adherence to the Buddha should be fully recognized. So we are not surprised when we learn that the man of treasure has decided to hear the Buddha’s preaching, though, as a matter of form, he asks permission to sit behind a curtain. The Buddha consents. The man of treasure listens and is converted, and, thereafter, the whole family sets an example of pious generosity. Then comes the monkish delight in a good story. We are told that the lady Visâkhâ lived to be a hundred and twenty years old, with never a gray hair among her dark tresses. She looked, indeed, like a girl of sixteen, and, when she went abroad in the midst of her numerous daughters and still more numerous granddaughters, the people asked, “Which of these is Visâkhâ?” The devout recorders add a point of perfection which would hardly occur to a modern scribe: “Moreover, she was as strong as five elephants!” Nor are they content with affirming the prowess of their heroine. They go on to prove it; and in doing this, they show once again their delight in a good story:
The king, we are told, had heard that Visâkhâ possessed the strength of five elephants, and resolved to put her to the test. So, as he was returning from the dwelling-place of the Buddha and the Order of disciples, whither he had gone to hearken to the teaching of the Law of Righteousness, he released an elephant against her. The elephant raised his trunk and advanced against Visâkhâ. She was accompanied by five hundred women. Of these, a part fled terrified, a part clung to her in fear. Visâkhâ asked the meaning of their perturbation.
“Noble lady!” they answered, “the king, desiring to put your strength to the test, has released an elephant against you!”
Visâkhâ, fixing her eyes upon the elephant, bethought her, “What cause is there for me to flee? It is only a question of how I shall lay hold on him. If, I grasp him too hard, I may kill him!” So, when the elephant had approached, she took his trunk between her finger and thumb and forced him backward. The elephant was unable to resist, or to keep his footing; he fell back on his haunches in the courtyard of the king. Thereupon the multitude cried aloud with joy, and Visâkhâ and her women went safely homeward.
It is related in conclusion that Visâkhâ bestowed largesse upon the Order, building for the disciples a noble dwelling of two stories, with five hundred chambers on each story. When the work was completed and the Buddha had graciously accepted it, the heart of Visâkhâ was full of song, and there was song upon her lips, for a prayer that she had made ages ago was thus fulfilled.