A spiritual quest to understand ageing, sickness and death – suffering – marked the beginning of a philosophical tradition that continues to influence people more than 2,500 years later.

Siddhartha, who the world would go on to recognise as Gautama Buddha, was born on a full-moon night. His astrological charts indicated fame, but also, a disposition to asceticism. His worried father, head of the Shakya clan, filled his life with luxuries and merriment, hoping to keep him away from despair and darkness that could trigger a move to his ascetic side. That we today celebrate the full-moon night of the summer month of Baisakh as Buddha Purnima, indicates the sad defeat of a father against the destiny his son decided for himself.

The three instances of seeing sick, old and dead beings spurred Siddhartha to join what was an established philosophical tradition of the ancient Indian sub-continent – to set out on personal journeys to seek teachings and practices that would answer the only question that seemed to matter: the ultimate truth of reality. For Siddhartha, though, the search was always through the prism of the nature of suffering; the mystery of the seeming inevitability of coming across, in life, sickness, misery and death.

Understanding suffering

The Buddhist canon contains many references to the ways in which the Buddha, or those around him exemplified the Buddhist approach to suffering. Some of the best-known stories involve women in various roles, and come from what is now thought of as a book written by the first Buddhist women.

The Therigatha, literally “verses of old women”, is a collection of 73 poems written by Buddhist nuns over a 300-year period. “Theri” refers to elderly women, though author Susan Murcott, in The First Buddhist Women: Translations and Commentary on the Therigatha, argues that it refers to distinguished women (nuns) of wisdom and character, and not merely elderly nuns. It is said that the poems were passed down orally in Magadhi for a few hundred years, before being compiled together in Pali in 1st century BCE.

The poems are renditions of stories, situations and emotions that seem remarkably extant. Depression, loss, marriage, motherhood, betrayal, menopause, death – all feature as causes of suffering, which are then overcome with Buddhist teachings.

One of the first poems in the book is by the first Buddhist nun, Pajapati Gotami. After Siddhartha’s birth mother, Maya, passed away shortly after giving birth, it was her sister, Pajapati who brought him up. Years later, a much older Pajapati who, by then, was without worldly obligations, fought her way into being accepted in the sangha (community of monks) as a nun. With her were hundreds of women who had lost their families – first in wars, and then to Buddhism, when the men renounced war and became monks. Her reluctant foster son allowed her to practice the Buddhist dharma (duty) as a nun provided Pajapat and her band of women accept eight conditions that firmly placed the nuns below the monks.

A quest for change

It is interesting to note that while the Buddha agreed that women were as worthy as men when it came to achieving the ultimate state of enlightenment, yet, perhaps given the societal realities of the time, he was clearly uncomfortable with the idea of nuns being given equal authority as monks.

However, Pajapati was a formidable woman and with time, questioned some of the conditions she had previously agreed to. At the heart of her challenge lay a deeply democratic and egalitarian impulse that seems surprisingly “modern”. The challenge, unfortunately for her, did not move the Tathagata (another name for the Buddha), and the inferior status accorded to women in the sangha continued.

Later, Pajapati gained enlightenment, becoming the first Buddhist woman to do so. At the ripe old age of 120, as she lay dying, she sent out a request to the Buddha – she wanted to see him before passing away.

Despite his own stipulation that under no circumstance was a monk to visit a nun – even if the nun was sick – Gautama Buddha couldn’t refuse this last request from Pajapati. And so, in her death, the first female dharma follower helped bring about some change – as the rule then stood altered. The story goes that just before her death, the Buddha requested her to perform miracles – to convince other men that women could indeed achieve nirvana.

One of the verses ascribed to her in the Therigatha speaks of her sister Maya as being the woman who is in a way responsible for the act of suffering being removed from the lives of people:

Truly for the sake of many,
Maya bore Gotama.
She thrust away the mass of pain
Of those struck by sickness and death.

Accepting death

Another notable piece of writing comes from Kisa Gotami, Siddhartha’s cousin, who loses her sanity when her baby boy dies. She goes from place to place, dead baby in her hands, pleading for the little boy to be revived. Eventually, someone asks her to meet the Buddha. The Buddha greets her with great kindness, and asks her to bring him one mustard seed from a house that has not seen death. Once she does that, he promises, he will bring her child back to life.

However, since there is no house that has not seen death, the mustard seed remains elusive. But in this process, Kisa understands the omnipresence of death; and that life and death are one cycle, and one cannot come without the other.

Kisa finally buries her baby, becomes a bhikkuni (female monastic), and joins the dharma. In the Therigatha, she says:

The arrow is out.
I have put my burden down.
What has to be done has been done.

Sister Kisagotami
With a free mind
Has said this.

Elsewhere, she says:

I have finished with the death of my child,
And men belong to that past.
I don’t grieve.
I don’t cry.
I’m not afraid of you, friend.

The love of pleasure is destroyed.
The great dark is torn apart
And Death,
You too are destroyed.

— Samyutta Nikaya, the third division of the Sutta Pitaka, a collection of suttas, or discourses, attributed to the Buddha and some of his closest disciples

The wisdom to understand suffering, gain mastery over it, and even more importantly, to lose the fear of it, is perhaps Gautama Buddha’s most enduring legacy to the world.

Aparna Sanyal is a National Award-winning non-fiction filmmaker. Her latest films include One Mustard Seed, on death and dying and The Monks Who Won the Grammy. This article is part of Saha Sutra on www.sahapedia.org, an open online resource on the arts, cultures and heritage of India.