Mahaprajapati Gautami was the foster-mother, step-mother, and maternal aunt (mother’s sister) of the Buddha. In the 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).
Maya and Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī were Koliyan princess and sisters of Suppabuddha. Mahāpajāpatī was both the Buddha’s maternal aunt and adoptive mother. She raised Buddha after her sister Maya died. Mahaprajapati 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 written in the various surviving Vinaya traditions, including the Pāli Canon and Sarvastivada and Mulasarvastivada versions.
A famous Therī, Mahāpajāpatī was born at Devadaha in the family of Suppabuddha as the younger sister of Māyā. Mahāpajāpatī was the so-called because, at her birth, augurs predicted 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 Bodhisatta (the “Buddha-to-be”), Pajāpati looked after the Bodhisatta and nursed him. She raised the Buddha and had her 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.
Gotami cut off her hair and dressed in yellow robes and with many Sakyan ladies visited 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 intervene with the Buddha on her behalf.
Respectfully he questioned the Buddha, “Lord, are women capable of realizing 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.”
Gotami agreed to accept the Eight Garudhammas and was accorded the status of the first bhikkhuni. After women had to undergo full ordination to become nuns.