[This story could be treated as an addendum to the main post – The Early Buddhist Women- stories]
A. The Early Years
1.1. She was born Bhadda in Rajagaha the capital city of the kingdom of Magadha ruled by the King Bimbisara.Her father was a wealthy banker who also acted as one of the financiers and treasurers (Bhandari) to the King. She was a lovely looking little girl and her father’s fortune took an upswing since the day she was born. He therefore aptly named her Bhadda (Snkt. Bhadra), the auspicious one .The little girl had a mop of thick, glossy curly hair; and her parents fondly called her kundala-kesa (the one with curly hair).Later in her life, that pet name became a part of her formal name, perhaps to distinguish her from another Bhadda, also a nun. The latter was Bhadda Kapilani, the former wife of Maha Kassapa, the leading disciple of the Master.
1.2. Her parents doted on their beautiful daughter; pampered her and strived to fulfill her every wish. She was very intelligent, articulate and argumentative. She had a frivolous and a passionate nature; she would love a thing intensely but for a very short while and discard it quickly to pick up another favorite. She was rather snappish; and would go into frenzy if her wish was not met promptly.
1.3. Bhadda was headstrong and unhappy. She argued with everyone, even speaking back to her father, which somehow made him love and indulge her more. He wasn’t sure what to make of Bhadda’s difficult behavior. Her mind and wit were sharp. She was never satisfied; she questioned every household decision, and seemed unwilling to enjoy her many pleasures.
When she came of age, in order to protect her from herself, her parents placed her on the seventh floor of their mansion, attended by servants.
2.1. One day while pacing up and down her balcony, she noticed a young and a handsome person led along the city street by the King’s guards. She at once fell in love with him; and demanded of her father to get her that youth. Her father promptly enquired about the boy’s background; and was shocked to learn that he was Satthuka the son of the purohith (priest), notorious as a habitual offender and a robber. He was also horrified because Satthuka was due to be executed shortly. He therefore tried hard to drill some sense into Bhadda’s curly skull and dissuade her from getting involved with a criminal facing execution. He pleaded with Bhadda to forget that despicable one and choose a suitable boy.
2.2. Bhadda would not listen to her father, would not eat or drink; and insisted on marrying that robber awaiting his death. She screamed; she would commit suicide right then and there, if her desire was not met. The hapless father, left with no option, bribed the prison warden to let the condemned criminal Satthuka stage a jail-break. He brought Satthuka home, had him bathed in perfumed water, dressed in finest silks and suitably bejeweled. The pleased Bhadda decked in jewels and dressed in her fineries, waited on her new-found love; and promptly married him. The helpless parents hoped and prayed that Bhaddha’s love and his good fortune would influence Suttuka to mend his ways.
3.1. Sadly, their prayers were not answered. Satthuka was a criminal at heart and would never change. He started scheming and plotting ways, with alacrity, to decamp with money and jewels on which he could quickly lay hands. He coveted his wife’s elaborate set of wedding jewelry; and came up with a plan to steal it from her. He told Bhadda that he vowed to make an offering to a certain mountain deity if he escaped execution. It was time, he said, to keep that vow. He asked Bhadda to dress in all her finery, wear all her jewels and get ready for a trip to the mountain top. Wishing to please him and adorning herself with all her jewels, she mounted a chariot with Satthuka and drove to the cliff. By this ploy, Satthuka managed to take Bhadda away from her home.
3.2. After a long journey, Satthuka led Bhadda to the foot of a steep cliff with a sheer face. It was the robbers’ cliff from where the criminals condemned for execution were put to death by pushing them over the cliff. At the foot of the cliff, Satthuka asked the attendants to stay back and went up the cliff with Bhadda carrying the offerings to the mountain deity. Once atop the cliff, Satthuka brusquely asked Bhadda to hand him over all her jewelry; and informed her of her impending death as he planned to push her over the cliff and go to another city where a luxurious life awaited him. ‘You fool, do you fancy I have come here to make offering? I have come to get your ornaments.’
3.3. Bhadda pleaded that she loved him with all her life; he could take all her jewelry and more; and begged him to take her with him. Satthuka would have none of that; he told her bluntly he was never interested in her or her love. He reminded her it was after all she who came after him, in lust. He asked her to part with her jewelry without much fuss; and taunted her to get ready for a quick trip down the cliff by the shortest route.
3.4. The quick witted Bhadda said to herself “Bhadda, you bad girl; it is the end of the road for you. It is now or never; do something fast and get rid of this miserable pest before he does it to you”. Then with doleful eyes she said meekly,” you are my lord and master; you are my love. If my death brings you happiness, I willingly give up my life for you with a smile; what more can I ask? Just let me pay my final obeisance to you and pray that you be my husband in my next birth too”. Satthuka graciously granted her wish. Then, Bhadda with all her jewels on solemnly went round him three times, falling on her knees, saluting him from each direction. In the final round when she was directly behind him she mustered all her strength and pushed Suttuka to his death, quickly, over theprecipice(cf. Dhammapada. vol. II, pp.217 f).
Another version of the story says that Bhadda asked,” grant me this one wish: let me, while wearing my jewels, embrace you.” He consented, saying: ‘Very well.’ She thereupon embraced him in front, and then, as if embracing him from the back, pushed him over the precipice. (Psalms of the sisters)
In any case, Suttuka the criminal condemned to death by a push over the precipice met the very end that the judge ordered. In fact Suttuka drove himself to his execution, his ordained end; you could even say it was his karma.
Woman, too, when swift to see, may prove as clever.
Not in every case is Man the wiser reckoned;
Woman, too, is clever, than she think but a second.
B. The Jain ascetic
4.1. After her escapade, something within Bhadda seemed to snap. The words like love, husband, the jewels and riches sounded hollow to her; seemed bereft of meaning and no longer worth pursuing. She pondered; there must be more to life than these things. She had also lost the desire to return home and carryon living as if nothing had happened to her and to her beliefs. She then decided to set forth into the world; and to discover for herself the meaning of life and of all existence.
4.2. She wandered aimless and adrift. Later she became a Jain ascetic and entered the Order of the Niganthas. She practiced extreme austerities; had her hair pulled out, at the roots, with a Palmyra comb. Her hair grew again in thick close curls (kundala kesa); and she had them pulled out again and again as a form of penance. She studied diligently and soon became proficient in Jain lore; and gained reputation as an excellent and a passionate debater in Jain philosophy and scriptural matters. None could equal her in debate.
4.3. It was not long before Bhadda grew a bit tired and dissatisfied with Jainism; and said to herself , “They know so far as they go and nothing beyond that”. She walked out of the Nigantha Order, roamed about the country alone as a wandering ascetic. She wandered over hills and dales; she went from city to city, village to village wherever there were learned persons. And, she challenged all to debate with her. Debating almost became her passion. Thus she wandered over ancient India for nearly fifty years.
With plucked hair, covered with mud,
Imagining flaws in the flawless
And seeing no flaws in what is flawed.”
– (Therigatha 107)
5.1. During the course of her ceaseless wandering, Bhadda came to the city of Savatthi (Snkt.Shravasthi) on the banks of the River Aciravati (now the Rapti River in Gonda district, UP). Savatti was the capital city of Kosala; and its king Pasenadi was an ardent disciple of the Buddha. The beautiful garden city of Savatthi had two major Buddhist monasteries: the Jethavana built in the Buddha’s service by the wealthy merchant Anathapindaka, and the Pubbarama dedicated lovingly by Visakha the leading lay female disciple of the Buddha. In addition, Savatthi had another monastery, Rajakarama, built by king Pasenadi opposite the Jethavana. The Master spent a greater part of his later years (25 rainy seasons) in these monasteries of Savatthi. It was in Savatthi, the Buddha dispensed a large number of his discourses and instructions. The city of Savatthi occupies a significant position in the history of the early Buddhism.
5.2. On the day Bhadda arrived at the gates of Savatthi and erected her challenge insignia, the Jambu branch, atop a sand pile, Sariputta the leading disciple of the Buddha was staying at the Jethavana monastery. When Sariputta heard of the arrival of Bhadda and of her planting the challenge, he sent a bunch of children to trample on the sand pile and throw out the Jambu (rose apple) branch stuck in its middle. That was Sariputta’s reponse, accepting the challenge thrown by Bhadda.
5.3. Following the acceptance of her challenge Bhadda marched confidently into Jethavana accompanied by a large number of her admirers and onlookers. She asked Sariputta a number of questions, all of which he answered until she fell silent. Then Sariputta questioned her. And, his first question was “What is the One?” She remained silent, unable to discern the Buddhist’s intent. She pondered, surely he did not mean “God” or “Brahman” or “the Infinite”; But then what else could it be? She debated within herself whether the answer could be “nutriment” because all beings are sustained by food; or whether it could be “the one thing that is true for everyone”? But Bhadda, however, chose to remain silent and not answer the question. Technically, she had lost the contest.
But, Bhadda realized in a flash, she had stumbled upon what she had been searching in last fifty years of her wandering life.Here was someone who had found what she had been looking. She asked Sariputta to be her teacher.
D. Her ordination
6.1. Sariputta led Bhadda to the Master who quickly discerned the maturity of her attainments. The Buddha expounded the Dhamma at the Mount Gridhrakuta (Vulture Peak); and preached her a short discourse saying that it was better to know one single stanza that brings calm and peace than knowing thousand verses of no merit.
by hearing which one is at peace. (Dhammapada 101)
It is said; at the end of this sermon Bhadda attained the state of the Arhant instantly, perhaps because her intellect and emotions had been trained for long years.
6.2. The Buddha himself ordained her with the words: “Come, Bhadda,” and that was her ordination. She entered the Order of Nuns as one who was already an arahant; this was unusual. She was also the only nun to be ordained by Shakyamuni calling her by name. Agreat importance is, therefore, attached to Bhadda and her attainments.
6.3. Bhadda speaks of her experience: “Going out from my daytime resting-place on Mt. Grjhakuta, I saw the stainless Buddha, attended by the order of bhikkhus. Having bent the knee, having paid homage to him, I stood with cupped hands face to face with him. ‘Come, Bhadda,’ he said to me; that was my ordination.”
6.4. The Buddha declared that Bhadda Kundalakesa was foremost among the nuns in understanding the Dhamma quickly. Bhadda was assigned a chief position among the Bhikkhunis as one possessing great wit and wisdom. She travelled far and wide preaching the Dhamma, using her debating skills.
6.5. In the Theri- gatha (Thig.vss.107-11), Bhadda speaks of her experiences wandering in Anga, Magadha, Kasi and Kosala; and living on alms. She also speaks of her enlightenment
I traveled before in a single cloth; With shaven head, covered in dust; Thinking of faults in the faultless; While in the faulty seeing no faults
“Free from defilements, for fifty years; I travelled in Anga and Magadha. Among the Vajjis in Kasi and Kosala ; I ate the alms food of the land.
E. The Issues
1. Again, the girl child was loved and pampered. The strong willed girls had their way.
2. I am amazed at the bravado bordering on recklessness of the women of that era. The spirited ones walked out the house and wandered freely in the world for long periods without a care or fear.
3. In matters of intellectual debates and doctrinal matters the women were respected for their wisdom and attainments. There appeared to be no discrimination. None could equal Bhadda in the debating skills and knowledge of scriptures.
4. It appears the monastic Orders of the Jains and Bhuddhists were yet to stabilize. The seekers switched from one sect to the other, according to their inclinations.
5. Unlike in other religions, The Buddhist Order of Nuns did not place a premium on the state of virginity of the women entering the Sangha. A vast number of its inmates had been mothers and wives; and, a few had been courtesans. The Master himself was once a husband and father. This again was an assertion of the Buddha-faith that the road to enlightenment is not blocked by the state of the body and its condition.
Savatthi or Sravasti was one of the cities of six large cities of ancient India. The city located in the fertile Ganga valley was the capital of the Kosala kingdom. The ruins of Savatthi are in the Gonda district of UP state.
Rajagaha or Rajagriha was the first capital of the Kingdom of Magadha which a couple of centuries later evolved into the Maurya Empire. It is identified with the present Rajgir in Patna district of Bihar, located near the ancient ruins of Nalanda.
Vulture’s Peak or Gridhrakuta Hill is a few kilometers to south of the town of Rajgir.
References and Sources
Buddhist Women’s Stories
Bhadda Kuṇḍalakesa, the ex-Jain.