Women in Buddhism: Questions & Answers


When Queen Maha Pajapati asked the Buddha to allow her to join the Order, why did he hesitate but give permission later on?



For those who are interested in the ordination of women, this is one of the most puzzling questions, which needs a great deal of contextual understanding.

When King Suddhodana, the Buddha’s royal father passed away, the duty of a wife to her husband was completed. It was the right time for Maha Pajapati to consider following the teaching and the practice of the Buddha seriously. But when she approached and asked for permission the Buddha simply said, “Please do not ask so.” The Tripitaka, which is the most important primary source, did not provide any reason for not allowing women to join the Order.

Many interpretations were given in later commentaries trying to explain the situation. This led also to common belief that the Buddha did not want to allow women to lead a religious life. This is not without basis. According to Indian social mores, to lead a religious life is not the path for women. Manudharma Sastra was very clear to spell out that salvation for a woman is possible only through bhakti (devotion) to her husband.

But Maha Pajapati was unshaken in her decision. After the Buddha had gone, she, along with 500 Sakiyanis (Sakyan women) from the royal court shaved their heads and donned the yellow robes. They followed him on foot until they arrived at Vesali where the Buddha resided. Upon arriving at the arama (residence) they did not ask to have an audience with the Buddha for fear of being rejected again. Ananda, the Buddha’s cousin and personal attendant, found them at the entrance covered with dust, with torn robes and bleeding feet. Many of them were miserable and in tears of desperation. He learned from them of their request and on their behalf approached the Buddha. Again, the Buddha forbade Ananda in the same manner, “Ananda, please do not ask so.

There are various reasons to be taken in consideration in attempting to understand the possible difficulties or obstacles which presented themselves in the mind of the Buddha.

First of all Maha Pajapati was a queen who, along with 500 ladies of the court, knew only the life of comfort. To lead a reclusive life allowing them only to sleep under the tree, or in the cave, would be too hard for them. Out of compassion the Buddha wanted them to think it over.

Furthermore, accepting a large group of women to be ordained all at once would immediately involve teachers to provide them both instruction and training. The Buddha also could not make himself constantly accessible for them. The Sangha was not ready with competent teachers to handle a large crowd of women. This proved to be a reality later on when women were already accepted to the Sangha. Monks who could teach the nuns must be not only learned but also require an appropriate attitude to help uplift women spiritually.

The Buddha already received criticism from outsiders for breaking up families by ordaining either the husbands or wives. When Maha Pajapati approached him with 500 Sakiyanis, definitely this would be a major cause of criticism. Particularly Sakyas did not marry people from other clans. By allowing 500 Sakiyanis to be ordained would definitely affect the social status quo. But it was revealed that these women’s husbands had already joined the Order. Thus, the criticism that accepting these women would break up their families became groundless.

The fact that these women followed him on foot to Vesali is a proof of their genuine commitment to lead religious lives and removed the doubt that their request might be out of momentary impulse.

These could have been some of the reasons behind the Buddha’s hesitation. The Buddha needed the time to examine both the pros and cons to their request.

Ananda also tried to understand the Buddha’s refusal. Is it because women are not capable of achieving spiritual enlightenment? If that is so, then ordination, a spiritual path is open only to men. To this, the Buddha made it clear that both men and women have equal potentiality to achieve spiritual enlightenment.

We have to mark this statement, as this is the first time in the history of religion that a religious leader declared openly that men and women are equal on spiritual grounds. Previously in the Hindu context, the Vedas, the most sacred religious texts, were available only to men. Buddhism has transcended race, nation, caste and gender differences to declare that the highest spiritual achievement transcends obstacles or discrimination of gender. With this important reason, the Buddha allowed women to join his Order.