[This story could be treated as an addendum to the main post-The Early Buddhist Women- stories]
The story of Visakha is the most delightful one among all the stories of the early Buddhist women.
Visakha was a person of great charm and independent spirit. She had certain poise and calm authority around her. She had a mind of her own and believed in her convictions. Though her family, on either side, was wealthy she ran a business of her own independently. She was known as an able manager and an effective communicator.
Visakha was the first female lay disciple of the Buddha and also the chief female lay benefactor of the Sangha. The Pubbarama monastery which she dedicated with love and reverence to the Sangha was one of the favorite places of stay of the Buddha in the later 25 years of his life.
She was well respected in the Sangha for her wisdom, generosity and for her managerial skills. She took charge of the Bhikkhuni Sangha (Order of the Nuns) and managed it efficiently. She was authorized to arbitrate the issues and disputes that arose among the nuns; and between nuns and monks.
The Pali Canon enumerates a number of discourses imparted to her by the Buddha, on a variety of subjects.
Visakha lived a long life. It is said she retained her poise, youthful charm; and sharp inquisitive mind even in her later years. Visakha is truly one of the most remarkable persons of the early Buddhist era.
1.1. It is said; the beautiful garden city of Savatthi (Snkt.Shravasthi) on the banks of the River Aciravati was the capital of the Kosala kingdom ruled by the king Pasenadi (Snkt.Prasenajit), an ardent disciple of the Buddha. The city of Savatthi occupied a significant position in the history of the early Buddhism.
1.2. The garden city of Savatthi, on its outskirts, had two major Buddhist monasteries: one was the Jetavana built in the Buddha’s service (thirty-one years after his Enlightenment) by the divot wealthy merchant Anathapindaka; and the other was the Pubbarama (Snkt. purva_rama, the eastern monastery), located to the east of Jetavana, and dedicated to the Sangha lovingly by Visakha the leading lay female disciple of the Buddha. In addition, Savatthi had another monastery, Rajakarama, built by king Pasenadi opposite the Jetavana.
1.3. The Master spent a greater part of his later years (25 vassas – rainy seasons or rains retreats) in Savatthi, dividing his time between Jetavana and Pubbarama, spending the day in one and the night in the other; or in whichever way it was convenient to him.It was in Savatthi; the Buddha dispensed a large number of his discourses and instructions; guided and helped large number of persons who came to him seeking remedy for their sorrows. (SNA.i.336)
2.1. As regards Pubbarama, the Canon records several important discourses (suttas or sutras) preached by Our Teacher while he was staying there. The better known among those suttas are:
The Aggañña-suttaṃ: It was imparted to two Brahmins Bharadvaja and Vasettha who desired to enter the Sangha as monks, when the Buddha was staying at the Pubbarama (Ekaṃ samayaṃ bhagavā sāvatthiyaṃ viharati pubbārāme migāramātupāsāde) . The sutta elucidated that caste and lineage cannot be equated with moral (shila) and chaste conduct (Dhamma); and righteousness was beyond such artificial limitations. Dhamma is universal and anyone from four castes can become a monk and attain enlightenment. (D N. 27)
On one occasion at Pubbarama the Buddha said ,”Him I call a Brahmana , who , in this world has transcended both ties-good and evil; who is sorrow-less and , being free from the taints of moral defilement, is pure”(Dhammapada- Verse 412)
yo ‘dha puññañ ca pāpañ ca ubho saṅgaṃ upaccagā / asokaṃ virajaṃ suddhaṃ tam ahaṃ brūmi brāhmaṇaṃ. // Dhp_412 /
The Utthana Sutta: It was imparted to practicing monks stressing the imperative need to be vigilant. The Teacher instructs “Rouse yourself..! Sit up..!Resolutely train to attain freedom and peace. Do not be careless; do not let weakness lead you astray. Go beyond any clinging. Do not waste your opportunity. (Sn.vv.331-4; SnA.i.336f)
On another occasion the Master declared that a Bhikkhu who though young devotes himself to Dhamma lights up the world as does the moon freed from the clouds. (Dhammapada Verse 382- 25 Bhikkhuvagga 107)
yo have daharo bhikkhu yuñjate Buddhasāsane / so ‘maṃ lokaṃ pabhāseti abbhā mutto va candimā.4 // Dhp_382 /
The Ariyapariyesana Sutta: It is rather a rare sort of sutta. For, it contains fleeting autobiographical glimpses of Our Teacher before he attained his goal. He mentions, in passing, how he too in his quest approached many teachers; how they could not lead to what he was searching for; and how he then went to the forests of the Uruvela country and practiced until he attained enlightenment. The Awakened-one also mentions how he was initially reluctant to go forth into the world preaching what he had found. The sutta then leads to the Buddha’s first sermon (pathama desana) addressed to five ascetics at the deer park of Isipattana on the outskirts of the ancient city of Varanasi. (M.i.160-75 and is repeated in the Vinaya and the Digha Nikāya).
2.2. The Vighasa Jataka was also narrated at the Pubbarama. This Jataka tells the story of Bodhisattva in one of his past lives as Sakka (Shukra), when he assumed the form of a parrot in order to reform the ascetics who were about to go astray.(J No. 393)
2.3. It was here at the Pubbarama, the Buddha accorded permission for recitation of Patimokkha in his absence. It contained a set of 227 rules to be observed by the members of the Sangha. The rules pertained mainly to regulating the conduct of the Bhikkus towards one another and in regard to matters concerning the clothing, dwelling, furniture, and utilities etc that were held in common by the community.(Sp.i.187)
2.3. On one occasion while he was staying at the Pubbarama, the Buddha expressed his satisfaction with the way the Bhikkus there were progressing. The Buddha therefore announced that he would remain at the Pubbarama until the following full-moon of the fourth month when Kaumudi the White-Lilly would bloom (sometime in Oct-Nov, perhaps corresponding to Sharad Purnima). As its news spread, the monks in the surrounding regions moved to Pubbarama. On the night of the Kaumudi full-moon the Buddha seated in open amongst a vast congregation of enrapt monks and divot lay, addressed the Sangha. He praised those Bhikkhus for their good conduct (shila), their adherence to Dhamma practice and their attainments. The Teacher then spoke about Anapanasati– Mindfulness of Breathing- and his experiences with it. He imparted instructions on using breath (apana) as a focus for practicing mindfulness (sati) meditation. The Buddha stated that mindfulness of the breath, “developed and repeatedly practiced, is of great fruit, great benefit.” (Anapanasati Sutta-MN 118)
Pubbarama monastery, therefore, is frequently mentioned in the Buddhist texts.
2.4. How the Pubbarama monastery came into being, is a very interesting story. It is narrated in the Dhammapada Commentary (Vol. I, 384-420).
3. The early years
3.1. Visakha, bright and beautiful, was the daughter of Dhananjaya_Settthi and Sumana Devi who resided in the city of Bhaddiya in Anga, a province of the Magadha kingdom. Dhanajaya was the son of Chandapaduma and Mendaka_setthi a wealthy merchant and one of the five financiers or treasurers to the king of Magadha Bimbisara. The family lived a life of comfort and luxury.
[ Visakha’s younger sister was Sujata who later married Kala (?), son of Anathapindaka one of the leading benefactors of the Sangha and who constructed and dedicated in service to the Buddha the Jetavana monastery at Savatthi. Sujata was described as haughty, obstinate and harsh in speech; but, later reformed on listening to Buddha’s discourse (Sujata Jataka).]
3.1. When Visakha was about seven years old, the Buddha visited Bhaddiya with a large company of monks. Mendaka offered several gifts to the Sangha; and invited the Buddha and his monks to his mansion and offered hospitality for a fortnight. Visakha an active, inquisitive and a lively child played around the monks and the Buddha. She was always questioning about the things that the monks did and said; and about Dhamma. The Buddha was fond of the little girl.
3.2. It is said when the Buddha departed from Bhaddiya for Anguttarapa (another city in Anga province), Mendaka instructed his servants to follow the Buddha with abundant provisions, food and fresh milk; as also ghee and butter until the party reached its destination. (DhA.i.384)(Viii.i.243ff)
3.3. Later, at the request of Pasenadi of Kosala, Bimbisara the king of Magadha asked Dhananjaya to move over to Kosala and function as a financier – treasurer (Bhandari) to king of Kosala. Accordingly, Dhananjaya with his wife Sumana and daughter Visakha, shifted to Saketa in Kosala, located about seven leagues (yojanas) away from its capital city Savatthi.
(Some accounts mention that Dhananjaya founded Saketa)
4.1. Meanwhile in the city of Savatthi, a wealthy and a miserly merchant Migara was in search of a suitable bride for his son Punnavaddhana. The boy Punnavaddhana was, however, averse to marriage. It was not easy to convince him either. After much persuasion, Punnavaddhana agreed to the marriage but stipulated some tough conditions. He insisted the bride should be “an exquisite beauty who possessed the five maidenly attributes: beauty of hair, teeth, skin, youth and form. Her hair had to be glossy and thick, reaching down to her ankles. Her teeth had to be white and even like a row of pearls. Her skin had to be of golden hue, soft and flawless. She had to be in the peak of youth, about sixteen. She had to have a beautiful, feminine figure, not too fat and not too thin”.
4.2. Soon thereafter, the relieved Migara dispatched a pair of well-fed Brahmins with instructions to scout for a girl who answered the specifications stipulated by his son Punnavaddhana. The Brahmin pair roamed the Magadha and Kosala countries in search of a suitable girl who would make Punnavaddhana happy. They, however, could not spot the precious one.
4.3. Having given up their search and loitering in Kosala rather aimless, the Brahmins got busy cooking up a ruse to appease the “angry-old- bull “, the miserly and grumpy old Migara.
While they were so engaged, a sudden burst of storm caught them unaware. As they were running for shelter, they noticed, to their amazement, a young and a beautiful girl walking calmly, unhurriedly and gracefully through the storm towards a nearby shelter, just as her friends ran in all directions. The Brahmins quite impressed by the pretty girl’s poise and composure, went up to her and questioned why she did not run to the shelter, as her friends did, to avoid getting wet.
The fair maiden replied in her unhurried and measured voice, “It is not appropriate for a maiden in her fine clothes to run, just as it is not appropriate for a king in royal attire, a royal elephant dressed for the procession, or a serene monk in robes, to run.” Pleased with her reply, her calm bearing and her exquisite beauty, the Brahmins realized in a flash that their prayers were answered. They post-haste returned to Savatthi and reported to their master Migara about the amazing discovery they made of the most suitable bride for Punnavaddhana.
4.4. Migara then sent his messengers to Dhananjaya with a bouquet of flowers (malangulam) as a token of proposal seeking the hand of Visakha in marriage to his son Punnavaddhana. The proposal and its acceptance were later formalized by exchange of letters. It is said; since the wedding involved two wealthy and powerful financiers, Pasenadi the king of Kosala accompanied the wedding party as a mark of signal favor. At Saketa, the wedding was celebrated with great pomp and splendor.
4.5. Visakha entered Migara’s house with cart loads of dowry consisting money, gold, silver, various silks, ghee, as also rice- husked and winnowed. She brought with her suitable furniture, sets of vessels, retinue of personal attendants, milk- cows, bulls, oxen and a variety of farm equipments such as ploughs ploughshares etc. (DhA.i.397).
5.1. Visakha and Punnavaddhana lived happily in Migara’s house at Savasthi. Migara though wealthy was not a generous person. One afternoon, while Migara was taking his lunch in a golden bowl, a Buddhist monk came to his doorsteps seeking alms. Migara noticed the monk, but ignored him and continued with his lunch. Visakha who was watching the proceedings went up to the monk and requested him to leave by saying, “Pass on, Venerable Sir, my father-in-law eats stale food.”
Migara who overheard the remark was furious and demanded an explanation. Visakha, in her usual calm and measured voice, explained that he was eating the benefits of his past good deeds and he did nothing to ensure his continued prosperity. She told him, “you are eating stale fare”.
5.2. Migara was enraged and threatened to send her back to her parents. Visakha unruffled promptly ordered her servants to pack all her money, gold, jewelry etc and prepare for leaving to Saketa. Migara duly chastened, requested her to stay back. She agreed to that on condition that Migara changed his ways, invited the Buddha and his monks for their meal.
5.3. Migara invited the Buddha with his monks and arranged for rich food. But, he asked Visakha to entertain the guests and supervise the hospitality. Migara, from behind a curtain, listened to the Buddha’s sermon imparted at the end of the meal.
5.4. Visakha then prayed to the Buddha to grant her boons. She requested, as long as she lived, she be allowed to give robes for the rainy season to the bhikkhus; rice gruel to the bhikkhus daily; food to the monks entering Savatthi and to those leaving the city; diet and medicine to the sick bhikkhus; food for those attending the sick; and clothes to the bhikkhunis (nuns) to wear taking bath.(Vinaya 290-292)
“As from a collection of flowers many a garland can be made by an expert florist, so also, much good can be done (kattabbam kusalam bahum) with wealth, out of faith and generosity”.
yathāpi puppa-harāsimhā kayirā mālāguṇe bahū /evaṃ jātena maccena kattabbaṃ kusalaṃ bahuṃ. // Dhp_53 //
(Dhp .Verse 53)
6. How the Pubbarama came into being
Visakha supervising construction of Pubbarama
6.1. After that event, Visakha continued her acts of generosity to the Buddhist monks and to the Sangha. One day, while on a visit to Jetavana monastery where the Buddha then resided, she forgot to bring back home her priceless jeweled headdress and other jewels. She did not notice their absence for a couple of days and later gave them up as lost.
6.2. Then, one fine morning a couple of clean shaven Buddhist monks presented themselves at her doorsteps carrying basketful of jewels and enquired whether they belonged to her. Visakha recognized the jewels as hers and was happy to see them. She, however, refused to accept them; remarking it was not proper to take back an item that was left behind in the monastery. She asked the monks to retain the jewels with them. The monks, bemused, said the jewels were of no value to them and walked back to the monetary, empty handed, singing songs praising virtues of renunciation.
6.3. Thereafter, Visakha offered the jewels for sale, with the intention of donating the sale proceeds to the Sangha or using it for building a new monastery. But, she did not succeed in finding a buyer; because none could afford to buy the exquisite jewelled headdress. There was none in Savatthi rich enough to buy it.
6.4. That ornament of extraordinary beauty and immense value was named Mahalata; and it reached all the way down her long hair to her ankles. It was a wedding gift to Visakha from her parents. It appears, going by its description, one had to be strong to wear the ornament with comfort and to walk about freely.
In its construction were used four pint pots (nāli) of diamonds, eleven of pearls, twenty two of coral, thirty three of rubies, one thousand nikkhas of ruddy gold, and sufficient silver. The thread work was entirely of silver; the parure was fastened to the head and extended to the feet. In various places, seals of gold and dies of silver were attached to hold it in position. In the fabric itself was a peacock with five hundred feathers of gold in wing, a coral beak, and jewels for the eyes, the neck feathers and the tail. As the wearer walked the feathers moved, producing the sound of sweet music. (DbA.i.393ff. MA.i.471)
6.5. Having failed to find a buyer to her expensive ornament Visakha decided to buy it herself. She thereafter spent the money on building a new monastery to house the Buddha; and his retinue of monks and nuns. It was a magnificent two-storied structure built of wood and stone. Besides the prayer and conference halls, it had a number of rooms. The mansion like monastery was richly furnished and tastefully decorated. The work was completed in nine months. That monastery came to be known as Pubbarama (Purva_rama) or the Eastern monastery because it was located to the East of Jetavana.
6.6. On the day Visakha dedicated the monastery to the Buddha, she was overjoyed. She sang and danced with immense delight.”Today is the day of fulfillment; my prayers are granted and I am truly blessed”. She ran like child in ecstasy, with her children and grandchildren around the monastery, many times. Her joy was infectious; even the Buddha was touched.(DhA.i.416f)
The ex-miser Migara too was touched. He requested his daughter-in-law to accept him as her son. He called her Migara_ mata (Mother of Migara).From that day the Pubbarama monastery also came to be known as Migara_matu_pasada (the mansion of Migara’s mother).
That was how the Pubbarama came into being.
7. Discourses imparted to Visakha
The Canon recounts number of discourses imparted to Visakha. They cover a range of interesting subjects.
7.1. Sometime after the completion of Pubbarama, Visakha took charge of managing the nuns’ section of the Sangha; and a number of nuns were housed in Pubbarama. One evening she faced a problem which she found it difficult to handle. While on her rounds, she was horrified to find some nuns fully drunk; dancing and singing crazy songs. When she asked the nuns to stop whatever they were doing, they did not listen to her. Instead, they asked her to join the party, get drunk and raise a toast to the Buddha.
The next day Visakha sought the Buddha’s counsel. Visakha bowed to him and asked, “Venerable sir, what is the origin of this custom of drinking an intoxicant, which destroys a person’s modesty and sense of shame?” The Buddha in response to her request dispensed the Kumbha Jataka, where a man found fermented fruit and water in the crevice of a tree and started to consume the fermented liquid to obtain a false feeling of well-being.
7.2. On one hot afternoon, Visakha visited Pubbarama where the Buddha was then staying. She was looking tired and distressed .The Master asked her “well now, Visakha, where are you coming from in the middle of this hot day?’ Visakha moaned that she was tired, annoyed and angry with the tax collectors, who were arbitrarily over charging duty on her goods; and her costs were going up unduly. The king Pasenadi too was not heeding to her plea. It was not fair, she said. She needed to confine her pain in someone who could comfort and offer her solace. That is the reason she came despite the burning hot sun. The Buddha then calmed her mind by singing – (Sabbaṃ paramasaṃ dukkhaṃ sabbaṃ issariyaṃ sukhaṃ,
Sādhāraṇe vihaññanti yogā hi duratikkamā)
Painful is all subjection,
Blissful is complete control.
People are troubled by common concerns,
Hard to escape are the bonds .
It is written, those words of the Buddha comforted Visakha.
7.3. On another occasion, Visakha asked the Buddha, what qualities in a woman would enable her to conquer this world and the next. The Buddha replied:
“She conquers this world by industry, care for her servants, love for her husband and by guarding his property. She conquers the other world by confidence, virtue, generosity and wisdom.”
7.4. On the sudden death of her granddaughter Sudatta, who was very dear to her, Visakha broken-hearted approached the Buddha in the middle of the day, in wet clothes and wet hair. Visakha was much afflicted with grief. The Buddha consoled her by imparting a sermon.
The Buddha asked her “Visakha, would you like to have as many children and grandchildren as there are people in Savatthi?”
“Yes, lord, I would like to have as many children and grandchildren as there are people in Savatthi.”
“But how many people in Savatthi die in the course of a day?”
“Sometimes ten people die in Savatthi in the course of a day, sometimes nine… eight… seven… six… five… four… three… two… Sometimes one person dies in Savatthi in the course of a day. Savatthi is never free from people dying.”
“So what do you think, Visakha: Would you ever be free from wet clothes and wet hair?”
“No, lord. Enough of my having as many children and grandchildren as there are people in Savatthi.”
“Visakha, those who have a hundred dear ones have a hundred sufferings. Those who have ninety dear ones have ninety sufferings. Those who have eighty… seventy… sixty… fifty… forty… thirty… twenty… ten… nine… eight… seven… six… five… four… three… two… Those who have one dear one have one suffering.
For those with no dear ones, there are no sufferings. They are free from sorrow, free from stain, free from lamentation, I tell you.”
The Buddha told her, “Just think whether you would be free from wet clothes and wet hair”.
Visakha said that she did not want so many children and grandchildren, because acquisition of more children and grandchildren would bring greater suffering.
Endearment begets sorrow, endearment begets fear. For him who is free from endearment there is no sorrow; how can there be fear for him? (Udana, 91-92).
Pemato jāyatī soko, pemato jāyatī bhayaṃ Pemato vippamuttassa, natthi soko kuto bhayaṃ?
8. 1. In appreciation of her wisdom, her ability and generosity to the Sangha, the Buddha declared that Visakha be his chief female lay benefactor. In addition to serving the Buddha and the Sangha, Visakha was authorized to arbitrate issues and disputes that arose among the nuns; and between nuns and monks. She was a well-respected person in the Sangha.
8.2. Visakha was a person of great charm and independent spirit.She had certain poise and calm authority around her. She led a long and healthy life; and lived for over a hundred years.
Visakha, it is written, retained her youthful charm and her sharp and inquisitive mind even in her later years.
I have always had great admiration and affection for the girl in Visakha. A great girl she was.
1. As mentioned at the end of the earlier stories, the society at the time of early Buddhism, despite its flaws, did provide space to women to participate in its social and commercial spheres.
They were respected for their wisdom and ability, as in the case of Visakha.
2. The girls were married after they came of age. Their consent was essential. Interestingly, in the Visakha story, the proposal from the groom’s side and its acceptance by the bride’s side was formalized by exchange of letters of agreements, as if the parties to the transaction were negotiating a business contract.
3. The women, at least the wealthy among them, were free to do pretty much what they liked. Some just walked out of their homes, roamed about the countryside without a care or fear, with a sort of bravado that bordered on recklessness. They were even free to walk out their marriage and take another husband.
Most of such women had their say in family matters; and, they decided on all internal matters. In that respect, I reckon, very little has changed in the Indian households.
Again, the parents were always very supportive of their daughters.
4 . In the case of Visakha, she was free to manage her resources; run her own business independently. Her business was apart from the family business managed by her husband and father-in-law. She was free to donate or gift away her money as she pleased.
She even had the nerve to browbeat her grumpy father-in-law when he threatened to dispatch her back to her parents. She could afford doing that .
Ruins of Pubbarama _ Asoka period
1. Anga: One of the sixteen Powers or Great Countries. It was to the east of Magadha, from which it was separated by the River Champa, and had as its capital city Champa, near the modern Bhagalpur. In the Buddha’s time it was a province of Magadha, whose king Bimbisara. The people of Anga and Magadha are generally mentioned together, so we may gather that by the Buddha’s time they had become one people.
3. Kosala: A country to the north-west of Magadha and next to Kasi. It is mentioned second in the list of sixteen Mahajanapadas. The river Sarayu divided Kosala into two parts, Uttara Kosala and Dakkhina Kosala. In the Buddha’s time it was a powerful kingdom ruled by Pasenadi. During his time Kasi was under the subjection of Kosala. At the time of the BuddhaSavatthi was the capital of Kosala. Next in importance was Saketa.
4. Savatthi: or Sravasti was one of the 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.
5.Saketa: A town in Kosala. It was regarded in the Buddha’s time as one of the six great cities of India, the others being Champa, Rajagaha, Savatthi, Kosambī and Varanasi. The distance from Saketa to Savatthi was seven leagues (yojanas).
A… Anguttara Nikaya; D… Digha Nikaya; Dhp.. Dhammapada; M.. Majjhima Nikaya; S… Samyutta Nikaya; Sn .. Sutta Nipata; Thag… Theragatha; Thig.. Therigatha; Pac… Pacittiya (Vinaya); J. Jataka; Ud. . Udana; Mil. .. Milindapañha; Jtm.. Jatakamala; Bu… BuddhavamsaDivy.. Divyavadana; Ap… Apadana.
References and Sources
Pictures are from Internet