[This story could be treated as an addendum to the main post –The Early Buddhist Women- stories]
1. Isidasi was the daughter of a wealthy merchant of high repute who lived in the regal city of Ujjain. She was his only daughter; and, was deeply loved and much pampered. She was lovely to look at; and, was intelligent, as also graceful. She was the darling of all at her home. When she came of age , a wealthy merchant residing in the city of Saketha sought her hand in marriage to his son. Isidasi’s parents were overjoyed at the proposal coming from the merchant of Saketha , who was regarded very highly in the community.
2. At her new home, Isidasi’s parents-in-law doted on her. Isidasi too loved them all; and in particular her handsome and gentle husband. Though there were plenty of servants at home, Isidasi took upon herself the household chores; and , attended to every need of her husband with love and devotion.
Though Isidasi was diligent and humble; meticulous and virtuous in serving her husband, he was not happy with her. For some reason, he just could not stand her sight.
“By myself I cooked the rice, By myself I washed the dishes. As a mother looks after her only son, So did I serve my husband.
I showed him devotion unsurpassed, I served him with a humble mind, I arose early, I was diligent, virtuous, And yet my husband hated me”. – (Therigatha 412-413)
Day and night I humbled myself to honor my in-laws. my training made me bow my head down at their feet.
When I saw my husband’s sisters and brothers I cringed and crept away to free my seat for them. I kept fresh-cooked food and drink and spiced pickles ready to serve their demands.
I woke early every morning to scrub my hands and feet before I crossed the threshold to beg my husband’s blessing.
Like a slave girl, I too combs and scented oils and my mirror to groom him.
I cooked his rice gruel, I washed his bowl, I waited on this husband like a mother dotting on her son.
Though I was diligent and humble, meticulous and virtuous in serving him, my husband despised me.
He , somehow, grew tired of Isidasi; and, asked his parents to send her back. Isidasi’s parents-in-law were devastated. They loved their daughter-in-law; and, did not want to lose her. Suspecting that there was a problem, which their son was hesitant to disclose to them, they questioned Isidasi. She answered truthfully:
“I have done nothing wrong, I have done him no harm, I have not spoken rudely to him. What have I done that my husband hates me? – (Therigatha 41)
When the old couple confronted their son, he admitted that Isidasi was blameless; and yet insisted that he just couldn’t bring himself to live with her. He, however, would not come forth with any reason for his unhappiness. He begged his parents.
“ ‘She does me no harm, But I will not stay in the house with Isidasi. I detest her..! Enough..!
He begged his parents/ Give me leave I must go away. Give me your leave, I must go away. I will not stay In this house with Isidasi.”
The parents-in-law were thrown into a dilemma; they did not want to lose a good daughter-in-law ; and, yet were more scared of losing their only son. They finally decided to send Isidasi back to her parents: ’ To keep our precious son , we sacrifice this goddess.’ They were certain that with her beauty and gentle manners, Isidasi would soon , easily , find another suitable husband.
“Rejected, overcome by suffering, They led me back to my father’s house. While appeasing our son, they exclaimed, We have lost the beautiful goddess of fortune”. – (Therigatha 419)
3. When Isidasi was returned, like a bad-coin, her parents were naturally aghast and perplexed too. Isidasi’s parents grieved over their daughter’s failed marriage for a while ; and, then accepting the inevitable began looking for another suitable boy. Before long, they found a wealthy young man who was so impressed by Isidasi’s beauty and conduct that he offered to marry her for half the usual bride- price. Isidasi lived with second husband for barely a month, serving him like a slave until he too sent her back. And, He too would not give a reason for his extreme dislike of his model and devoted wife.
Isidasi was devastated. This second rejection pierced her heart like a poisoned dart; and, hurt her grievously. She locked herself up in her room and wept silently over her fate. Yet, her father would not give up; he was determined to see his daughter happily married again. He was so desperate that he caught hold of an ascetic who came to his door steps begging for alms . He goaded the mendicant, “Be my daughter’s husband..! Throw away your robe and pot..!”
That poor wretch was tired of begging and sleeping under the open sky. The prospect of a beautiful wife and a life of luxury in a splendid mansion greatly appealed to him; and, he thanked all the gods he knew , for the mercy conferred upon him. He readily handed over his begging bowl and robes to Isidasi’s father; and , took Isidasi as his wife.
He hardly stayed for two weeks before he asked his father-in-law “Give me back my robe, the pot and the cup. I will be happy to beg for alms again”.
The beleaguered parents beseeched the ex-mendicant, “What wrong have we done? What have we neglected? Please tell us why you are punishing us. Quickly, name your every want..! ”
He just said “I only want to feed myself; I can do that anywhere. Come what may I will not stay in this house with Isidasi. Please give me back my bowl and the robe.”
He too would not say why he disliked Isidasi. The helpless and distressed parents threw at him his bowl and robes; and, promptly kicked him out of the house.
5. After the third marriage too ended in a disaster, for no fault of her, Isidasi decided there was no point in continuing to live this sort of life, unloved and unwanted. The shame and sorrow of three rejections were too hard for her to bear; and drove her to near suicide.
As she was planning for her death , a nun named Jinadatta came to their door-steps seeking alms. Isidasi was impressed by her serene and calm countenance; and pondered why she too could not become a nun. She invited the nun into the house, offered her seat and bowed at her feet. She served the nun fresh-cooked food and spiced pickles . After the nun was done with it, Isidasi queried, “Lady, I want to be a nun. Can you please help me?”
Her father shocked again, pleaded with Isidasi,” My child, if you wish, you may follow the Buddha way by giving food and drinks to holy men and Brahman priests. Please stay at home. We have no strength left to see you suffer more.”
6. Isidasi begged and pleaded in tears for her father’s permission to enter the Order of Nuns. He was speechless and he hesitated. Isidasi burst out saying “I am going to die unless you let me become a mendicant nun.”
Then she revealed something totally unexpected, “I must destroy the evil I did when I was sixteen. Giridasa, the son of a wealthy merchant charmed by my maiden fresh youth took me as his wife. He then already had another wife who was moral and virtuous, in love with her husband. I sowed discord in their marriage. That sin and the sins of my seven former lives made three husbands scorn me, though I served them like a slave. I have to end all this now. Please let me go.”
…Another wife he had, A virtuous dame of parts and repute, Enamored of her mate, And thus I brought Discard and enmity within that house .– (Thig.446)
The unfortunate father could not bear to see the suffering in his beloved daughter’s eyes. He agreed to her request ; and, let her join the Order. He blessed her to attain her peace and Nibbana.
“Then my father said to me , Attain enlightenment and the supreme state, Gain Nibbana which the Best of Men , Has Himself already realized”. – (Therigatha 432)
7. After she entered the Order, Isidasi worked diligently and was exemplary as a nun. Very soon she attained higher knowledge, understood the cycles of karma and got rid of the causes for her sorrow and suffering.
Deepavamsa, the ancient chronicle; and a source of history and legends of the early Buddhism, mentions Isidasi (Isidasika) as being an eminent Theri and a leader of the Order of the Bhikkhunis. (Deepavasa: 18.9)
The story of Isidasi is narrated in about forty-seven verses in the Theri-gatha (vv 400-447). It covers her present life as also her past seven lives.
In the Theri-gatha, Isidasi narrates her story when she was staying in the Bhikkhuni Sangha at Pataliputra, in company of another nun, Bodhi. Both the nuns were described as “possessed of virtue, delighting in meditation and study, having great learning, with defilements shaken off “.
One evening, seated happily on the sand -bed along the Ganga, Bodhi asked, “You are lovely, noble Isidasi; your youth has not yet faded. What was the flaw that you had seen that led you to pursue renunciation.”(Therigatha 40.3).
In response to that query Isidasi narrates her story in her present birth as also in her seven previous births.
There are a few unusual features in the story.
Ujjain and Pataliputra, where Isidasi lived are not the places that commonly appear in the Canon. Further, Isidasi’s first acquaintance with a nun was Jinadatta, who probably was a Jain nun. Some scholars therefore surmise Isidasi , initially , might have had a stint with Jainism, before she entered the Buddhist Order of Nuns. Such crossovers from one sect to the other were perhaps not unusual
1. I cannot help wondering whether something is missing or is left unsaid in the Isidasi story. None of her husbands gives out why he was totally unhappy with Isidasi and was desperate to be rid of her . I suspect there was more to the story but was edited out, for whatever reason.
2. Isidasi attributes all her miseries to the sins she committed in her past seven births; it is the Kamma, she exclaimed. According to Buddhist belief, kamma is that inexorable impersonal force by which beings are bound to the ever-rolling wheel of samsara. Kamma would prolong ones bondage to the wheel of samsara : “Long is samsara for fools who do not know true Dhamma” (Dhp 60).
Kamma was not a new concept introduced by Buddhism. It was an age-old faith, but Buddhism made it very central to its doctrine and elucidated it particularly in relation to the eradication of “ignorance,” the root cause of all suffering and anguish. It said, each is responsible for his own samsara — not his mother or his father or brother or sister, or his friends and acquaintances. So it is he himself who will experience the ripening of the deed he himself did.
The Kamma concept provided a basis for rationalizing ones misfortunes and successes in life. It brought into one’s life sense accountability and a will to take responsibility to ones actions, instead of self-pity and blaming others for all the wrong things in life. The present life was also viewed as an opportunity to correct oneself and to wriggle out of the snares of misfortunes. It held out a hope, a promise of a better future in this or in the next birth.
In the case of Isidasi too, the Kamma concept worked as a cleansing agent. In the sense, her understanding of the kamma as an on-going process prevented her sorrows, disappointments, betrayals and sheer helplessness turning into bitterness, disgust or hatred. Instead, it helped her focus inwards and find the root of her sorrows and eradicate it. More importantly, in her present life, it preserved her sanity. Else, I fear, she might have ended her days as a lonely, bitter-old-lunatic woman.
3. It appears, separation of married couple was accepted in that society as a fact of life. The husband and wife parted ways for a variety of reasons; and all which might not have been quite rational. Needless to say, the woman always suffered more.
There was perhaps no formal process put in place for decreeing a divorce. The separated couples just parted their ways, each seeking his/her happiness elsewhere.
The separated woman was free to marry again; and no stigma attached to her.In the case of Isidasi too, her parents-in-law (through her marriage to the youth at Saketha) sympathized with Isidasi’s lot and reluctantly sent her back with the hope that she might find another suitable boy and lead a happy married life. The parents also took initiative in finding a new husband for such a daughter.
Since monogamy was not mandatory, the remarriage brought in its wake a fresh set of problems; the annoying presence of other wife/wives, all competing for love and attention of their common husband. The women thrust into such overcrowded marriages were often left gasping for a little more space, peace and freedom.
4. The girl-child was not discriminated against. The parents doted on and pampered their little daughters; and tried to fulfill their every wish. Even in their old age, the parents did their best to protect the interests and happiness of their daughters.