The Therigatha (“Verses of the Elder Nuns”) is a collection of short poems by and about the early enlightened women in Buddhism. These women were the theris (“senior ones”) among ordained Buddhist women. They bore that epithet due to their religious achievements. Most of the gatha (“poems”) in the anthology are the songs of their experiences. With some of its poems dating as early as the late 6th century BC, while the poems of the Therigatha are clearly nowhere near as old as the poetry of the Rig Veda, for example, which had been orally transmitted since the 2nd millennium BC, the poems in the Therigatha are still some of the early poetries of India.
As a collection, the Therigatha is also the first anthology of women’s literature in the world. Consisting of 494 poems, the Therigatha contains passages reaffirming the view that, in terms of spiritual attainment, women are equal men. It also contains verses that highlight the issues which were of particular relevance to women in ancient South Asian society at the time.
Included in the Therigatha are the verses of women who had lost their families and mothers whose child has died. Pañcasata Patacara, one of the leading women of the Buddha’s order of nuns, is credited as the author of a tender poem of a mother conquering her grief over the death of her son (Therigata VI.1). In the same theme is the story of Vasitthi the Madwoman (Therigata VI.2). Overwhelmed with grief after the death of her son, Vasitthi wandered alone, naked, destitute and mad with grief. She later met the Buddha and heard his teaching. She soon joined the order of nuns and, feeling that she finally “comprehended the grounds from which grief comes to play”, Vasitthi spent the remainder of her life blissfully spreading the Dhamma and, like Patacara, helping other women who were overcome by grief regain their sanity and deal with the pain of their loss.
Other poems include the story of Vimala, a former courtesan who became a nun (TherigataV.2), verses by the Buddha’s own stepmother, Mahapajapati Gotami (Therigata VI.6) who sings the praises of her stepson, and the unusual journey of Bhadda Kundalakesa, (Therigata V. 9) a daughter of the king’s treasurer who murdered her husband and sets out to live the life of an aesthetic.
The Spoilt Daughter of the Royal Treasurer
Bhadda Kundalakesa was born in Rajagaha, the capital city of the kingdom of Magadha ruled by the King Bimbisara (558 BC – 491 BC). Her father was a wealthy banker who also acted as one of the Bhandari (royal treasurer) to the King. Although, like other ancient Indian girls from wealthy families, Kundalakesa led a very sheltered life, she developed a high level of curiosity from a very young age and spent her childhood happily frustrating her elders with endless questions.
When she was born, Kundalakesa was a pretty little baby girl and soon after her birth her father’s fortune took an upswing. Her father therefore named her Bhadda (“auspicious”). As she grew up, Bhadda’s hair grew to be long, thick and glossy which earned her the nickname kundalakesa (“the one with curly hair”). Later in her life, Kundalakesa became better known by this nickname from her childhood, perhaps to distinguish her from another woman with the same name, Bhadda Kapilani, who was also a nun and a leading disciple of the Buddha
Kundalakesa’s parents doted on their pretty daughter. They pampered her and fulfilled her every wish. For her part, Kundalakesa’s was very passionate, intelligent, articulate and even argumentative. In short, she had all the qualities that would have made her unhappy at a time where girls and women were expected to be obedient, quiet and demure. And indeed Kundalakesa was unhappy. She argued with everyone, and even speaking back to her parents who were not sure what to make of their daughter’s difficult behaviour. Her sharp wit demanded more and more from her surroundings and she was never satisfied. She questioned every little decision made in her parents’ household and seemed unwilling to enjoy the many pleasures to which she had access.
One day, while pacing up and down a balcony of her parents’ house, Kundalakesa noticed a handsome young man forcibly led along the city street by the king’s guards. Although she was clever, she somewhat ignored the fact that there might have been a rather compelling reason why this young man was surrounded by the king’s guard and promptly fell in love with him. She went to her father and demanded that he brings the handsome youth to her.
Her father investigated the boy’s background and soon found that the name of the youth was Satthuka and he was a son of a purohith (priest). This somewhat promising information was quickly followed by the horrifying news that Satthuka was a notorious robber who was due to be executed shortly. Kundalakesa’s father rushed home and tried to dissuade his stubborn daughter from getting entangled to a criminal facing execution. He pleaded with Kundalakesa to choose a suitable boy.
However, Kundalakesa refused food and drink, and insisted on marrying the handsome robber awaiting his death. She even threatened to commit suicide if her demand was not met. Left with no option, her father bribed the prison warden to let the condemned criminal stage a jail-break. He then brought the criminal home, had him bathed in perfumed water, dressed him in fine silks and gifted him with jewels. The pleased Kundalakesa also wore her family’s jewels and dressed herself in her fineries to meet him. As soon as the wealthy Banker’s daughter and the handsome criminal meet, they held a lavish wedding ceremony. Kundalakesa’s helpless parents prayed that his new-found good fortune and her passionate love towards him would influence Suttuka to mend his ways.
Unfortunately, their prayers were not answered. Soon Satthuka started plotting ways to steal as much money and jewels as he could take from Kundalakesa. He especially coveted his wife’s elaborate set of wedding jewelry. To obtain these, he told Kundalakesa that he planned to make an offering to a mountain deity to show his gratitude for his escape from execution. He asked his wife get ready for a trip to the mountain top, dressing in her best clothes and wearing all her jewelry. Wishing to please her husband, Kundalakesa adorned herself with all of her jewels and accompanied her husband to the cliff.
When they arrived, Satthuka led Kundalakesa to the foot of a steep cliff. It was the robbers’ cliff over which condemned criminals were pushed to their death. At the foot of the cliff, Satthuka asked their attendants to stay back and, carrying the offerings, went up the cliff with Kundalakesa. Once they were on top of the cliff, holding Kundalakesa at knife-point, Satthuka snarled at her to hand over all her jewelry to him. He told her of her impending death as he planned to push her over the cliff and go to another city where he would spend the rest of his life living luxuriously.
Kundalakesa pleaded with him. She begged him to take all her jewelry and more if that was what he wanted, as long as he takes her with him wherever he goes. However, Satthuka told her bluntly that he was never interested in her or her love. He smugly reminded her it was she who came lustfully after him. He taunted her to stop making a fuss, part quietly with her jewelry, and get ready to die.
Understanding that he never loved her and would happily kill her if given the chance, Kundalakesa then said to him, ”you are my lord and master. Therefore, I willingly give up my life for you with a smile if my death brings you happiness. Just let me pay my final obeisance to you and pray to the gods that you would be my husband in my next life”. When Satthuka granted her wish, Kundalakesa, still wearing all her jewels, solemnly walked around him three times. In the final round, when she was directly behind him, Kundalakesa pushed Sattukha over the cliff to his death.
The Dissatisfied Jain Ascetic
After she pushed her husband over the cliff, something deep within Kundalakesa changed. Words such as husband, love, jewels and riches immediately sounded hollow to her, bereft of meaning and no longer worth pursuing. Standing on the cliff for a long time with no desire to return home to her parents and carry on living as if her whole belief system has not shifted, Kundalakesa pondered that there must be more to life than this and decided to set forth into the world to discover for herself the meaning of life and of all existence.
Kundalakesa started her journey immediately. As a sheltered woman with no knowledge on where she was to go, she wandered aimlessly. She later became a Jain ascetic and entered the Order of the Niganthas. She practiced extreme austerities and had her hair pulled out at the roots with the purpose of them never to grow again. However, her hair grew again in thick close curls (reminding us again of her childhood nickname kundalakesa, “the one with the curly hair”). Kundalakesa did not give up. She had her hair pulled out again and again as a form of penance. She also studied diligently and soon became proficient in Jain lore, gaining reputation as an excellent and a passionate debater in Jain philosophy and scriptural matters.
It was not long before she grew dissatisfied with Jainism. She left the order and roamed about the country alone as a wandering ascetic. Wandering over hills and dales, Kundalakesa went to wherever cities or villages that she heard were homes of learned persons. She would spend some time in that city or village, find those learned persons and challenged them to debate with her. For the next fifty years, she would wander from place to place debating one learned person after another.
As she entered a town or a city, Kundalakesa would make a simple sand pile at the centre of the city gate where everyone could see. She would then place a branch of jambu (rose apple) tree on top of the sand heap. She would ask the children in the village to watch the sand heap with and convey this message to anyone who asked, ”let him who dares join Kundalakesa in a debate trample on the jambu bough”. Kundalakesa would then retreat to her dwelling and return after a week. If the bough still stood in its place, she would leave the city and travel to a different city,
In her travels, she found herself in the city of Savatthi on the banks of the River Aciravati (now the Rapti River in Gonda district, Uttar Pradesh). The capital city of Kosala, Savatti was also the home of Pasenadi, the king of Kosala, who was an ardent disciple of the Buddha. Apart from the two major Buddhist monasteries, the Jethavana which was built for the Buddha by the wealthy merchant Anathapindaka and the Pubbarama which was dedicated by Visakha the leading lay female disciple of the Buddha, Savatthi also had Rajakarama, another more recent monastery commissioned by the King Pasenadi himself opposite the Jethavana.
On the day Kundalakesa arrived at the gates of Savatthi and erected her challenge insignia, the Jambu branch on top of a sand pile, a disciple of the Buddha, Sariputta, happened to be staying at the Jethavana monastery. When he heard of her arrival and challenge, he sent a couple of children to trample on the sand pile and throw out the branch that was on it, symbolising his acceptance of Kundalakesa’s challenge.
Seeing this, Kundalakesa marched confidently into Jethavana accompanied by a large number of her admirers and onlookers. She asked Sariputta questions after questions, but he answered them all until she fell silent. Then it was Sariputta’s turn to question her. His first question to her was short and simple, “What is the One?” Kundalakesa remained silent as she pondered. Surely this man did not mean “the One” as “God” or “Brahman” or “the Infinite”. It must have been something less obvious. But what else could it be? Kundalakesa silently debated with herself whether the answer could be “nutriment”, as all beings are sustained by food, or whether “the One” is “the one thing that is true for everyone”. But as she stayed silent for a long period of time, she lost the contest. Kundalakesa did not mind this, however. She realized that she had found in Sariputta what she had been searching in the last fifty years of her wandering life. She asked Sariputta to be her teacher.
Sariputta gently refused Kundalakesa’s request, but he led her to his master, the Buddha himself, who quickly discerned the maturity of her attainments. At the time, the Buddha was teaching the Dhamma at the Mount Gridhrakuta (Vulture Peak) and, seeing her, he preached a short discourse saying that it was better to know one single stanza that brings peace than knowing thousand verses of no merit.
By the end of this short sermon, perhaps due to her own fifty years of training her emotions and intellect, Kundalakesa attained the state of the Arhant. The Buddha himself then ordained her with the words, “Come, Bhadda,” and those simple words were her ordination.
The Buddha then declared Bhadda Kundalakesa to be foremost among the nuns in understanding the Dhamma and one possessing great wit and wisdom. He assigned her a chief position among the Bhikkhunis. Finally finding her bliss, for the rest of her life Kundalakesa travelled far and wide preaching the Dhamma, using her debating skills and passion which were such a hindrance earlier in her life.
The Nun who Broke the Rules
Among the Buddha’s foremost bhikkhunis, Kundalakesa has the distinction of being the only one to have been initiated into the order of Jain nuns before her meeting with the Buddha. Her choice to leave the order parallels her life with that of Siddhartha-Gautama who himself also rejected severe asceticism and sought a middle way through the cultivation of wisdom. The image of the lone figure of Kundalakesa walking through a vast Indian landscape only to stop briefly in different towns and villages challenges our basic assumptions of ancient Indian women. Although the extent of her independence was more of an exception than the rule at the time, in the early days of the Buddhist monastic order, bhikkhunis were still permitted the freedom of wandering unaccompanied. Still, men of the time insisted viewed female ascetics as women in need of protection and felt obligated to step in as their guardians. This would have represented a clash between the role of a wandering ascetic and the traditional role of a wife, and it would have hindered the bhikkhunis’ movements and travels.
Any difficulties that Kundalakesa may have experienced on the basis of her gender were never mentioned in ancient sources despite her insistence in adopting asceticism, a primarily male dominated role. Instead, she was lauded as a keen debater who challenged wise spiritual teachers in her search for knowledge. But by debating these spiritual teachers, Kundalakesa would have broken a rule. The seventh Gurudharma rule states that a nun is to refrain from admonishing a monk in any way. This reinforces the image of a subservient, inferior woman being prohibited from the same privileges as men. However, Kundalakesa was not the only bhikkhuni who ruined this image. Bhikkunis such as Dhammadinna also debated with bhiksus on equal terms and showed her superiority in knowledge and understanding.
After the Buddha called on her, Kundalakesa was sent to the order of nuns where she received formal ordination. If this was the case, then Kundalakesa would have been guilty of the third parajika (literally translated as “defeat”) of the Buddhist monastic order which prohibits the intentional deprivation of human life (murder). By pushing her husband of a cliff, Kundalakesa had intentionally caused his death. Although we could argue that she committed the murder in self-defence, there is no clause in the Buddhist cannon that stipulates self-defence as a justifiable excuse for murder. Nevertheless, if Kundalakesa were to receive a punishment for this, her punishment would depend on the discretion of the Buddha. But since her ordination by the bhikkhuni order was never recorded, we cannot determine if this discussion ever occurred.
As Kundalakesa was ordained into an early monastic order that was not yet well established at the time, her exceptional nature and colorful backstory of romance and adventure would have undoubtedly inspired future generations of bhiksus and bhikkhunis while providing legitimacy for the institution. Although the historical validity of these stories are questionable, they still provide us with a glimpse into the prevalent social attitudes and religious ideals at the time of the early order.
One can also argue that Kundalakesa’s rule-breaking is overshadowed by her mastery. The concept of mastery is important across Buddhist traditions as masters are vital to Buddhist traditions and their practices because they would be the ones looked upon by aspirants for guidance and inspiration. Masters also act as holders of the lineage who transmit what they have learned to the next generation of monks and nuns. They are standard-bearers of skillful behavior, and guides for the path to enlightenment. A master is determined by various attributes such as their attainments, their understanding of the doctrines, their ethical standards, and by how seamlessly they have embodied their realizations. The bhikkhunis mentioned in the Therigatha fulfil all the criteria for Buddhist mastery.
As elder nuns, these women, including Kundalakesa herself, maintained the monastic rules, lived within the female community and, however diverse their backgrounds, practiced the dhamma together. Their mastery is designated to them either by the Buddha himself, by their disciples, or by their reputation for possessing “powers beyond that possessed by normal people”. Of course, each of them would have had great wisdom which could only be born of their embodied experience as women living at the time of the Buddha.