“From women…buddhas come into this world….”
“But when Queen Māyā saw the immense might
Of her son, like that of a seer divine,
She could not bear the delight it caused her;
So she departed to dwell in the divine realms.”
—excerpt from Buddhacarita on Queen Māyā’s death
“I tell you, monks, there are two people who are not easy to repay. Which two? Your mother and father. Even if you were to carry your mother on one shoulder and your father on the other shoulder for 100 years, and were to look after them by anointing, massaging, bathing, and rubbing their limbs, and they were to defecate and urinate right there [on your shoulders], you would not in that way pay or repay your parents. “
—Shakyamuni Buddha’s advice to monks on the importance of parents, in the Aṅguttaranikāya
“You who have been born from my womb so many times, have now rendered me a recompense. In one birth, from being a slave I became the wife of the king of Benares, but that exaltation was not equal to the privilege I now receive. From the time of Piyumatura [Buddha], during an [eon], you sought no other mother and I sought no other son. Now, my reward is received.”
–Buddha’s mother, Māyā speaking to the Buddha in the divine realms on him bringing her to arhatship after his ascent there
Today in India, the Buddha Purnima is celebrated on the full moon of the first day of Vaisakh month, to commemorate the birth anniversary of Shakaymuni Buddha (although the exact date of his birth is not clear). Traditionally, even though Buddha’s birth is remarkable and extremely auspicious for beings in this realms, the commemoration of the day is still androcentric, predominantly focused on Buddha but not so much attention is paid to his mother’s story (who it seems died shortly after his birth).
To counter-balance this biased male-centred history, for Buddha Purnima, I share some brief research on Buddha’s mother and his birth (which was originally posted in an article about Lhabab Duchen). This post uses some recent research by Wendy Garling (2021) as well as a brief article by Kim Gutschow (2016), Death of the Buddha’s Mother.
May this post that remembers the birth of Buddha, by also remembering his mother Māyā, help us to recall and remember the value and importance of biological mothers in our own lives, without whom we would not be born or alive today.
Music? Namostu Gautama by Sudhir Phadke, Maa by Aamir Khan and Darsheel Safary, and The Sweetest Gift by Sade.
Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 5th May 2023.
The general invisibility of the Buddha’s mother in male-composed Buddhist textual accounts
“Her beauty sparkles like a nugget of pure gold.
She has perfumed curls like the large black bee.
Eyes like lotus petals, teeth like stars in the heavens.”
— description of Queen Māyā from the Lalitavistara Sūtra
Queen Māyā‘s death due to childbirth – joy or fatigue?
But Queen Māyā, does not live much longer. Kutschow (in The Death of the Buddha’s Mother, 2016) cites how the Buddhacarita describes Māyā ’s death after the return to Kapilavastu in a brief, elliptical stanza:
“But when queen Māyā saw the immense might
Of her son, like that of a seer divine,
She could not bear the delight it caused her;
So she departed to dwell in heaven.”
Here, the Buddhacarita offers a possible motive for Maya’s death: that Maya chose death over the unbearable joy that her son’s spiritual power would bring her. Modern scholars imply that Maya preferred death to seeing her son renounce home to become a monk. However, this interpretation seems odd, given the universal experience most mothers have of children growing up and leaving home, which rarely drives them—especially those as enlightened as Maya—to suicide. If Maya’s temperament is indeed such that she is full of benevolence and devotion and is free from all envy, jealousy, intrigue, fault, and deceit, why would she choose death over seeing her son become a Buddha? Later textual sources inform us that Maya heard the Buddha’s teachings in Tushita Heaven, yet it is unclear why Maya would prefer to hear her son’s teachings after her death rather than live to see her son become a Buddha. The lack of mention of Maya’s funeral rites suggests a silencing of an unfortunate event rather than one preordained by an omniscient Buddha, as the later Lalitavistara would have us believe. As Vishvapani Blomfield notes, the brief mention of Maya’s death “strikes a dissonant note, as if an uncomfortable but important fact has somehow survived within the litany of marvels.”
Garling (2021) adds to that, the lack of emotion in the accounts of her death too:
“Missing from nativity accounts, both Pali and Sanskrit, is any emotional response to Māyā’s death. She was, after all, a beloved and generous queen to a large population in addition to being the Buddha’s birth mother. Most narratives simply note the fact of her death, some adding a brief, if inadequate, explanation, such as she died of joy at having such a marvelous son, or her body could never again be sullied by sex. Understandably it was a tough call for the early bards and storytellers, since Māyā’s postpartum death was clearly linked to the Bodhisattva’s birth. That she died as a consequence of childbirth is acknowledged in the Abhinishkramanasutra.”
Personally, I think such interpretations that she died due to the childbirth and physical weakness make her and the Buddha sound more worldly. However, considering the enormous merit of giving birth to Buddha, and her pronouncements that she had given birth to him many times so that she herself could attain arhatship, lends more weight to a reading that she did in fact die out of having accomplished her task and at great joy!
However it is clear that there are few accounts of details about her death:
“The legends all stall after Māyā’s death. Where and how did she die? What happened next? What about a funeral? We don’t find satisfactory answers in the literature. The narratives fall into silence or fragmented, murky contradictions at this point in the timeline where Māyā simply vanishes after giving birth. With scant evidence to the contrary, the premise here is that she died in Lumbini’s Grove, never to return home with her son to palace life in Kapilavastu.”
Gutschow (2016) also explains the absence of accounts of Māyā’’s death
“The early textual silence around Māyā’’s death and funerary rites may reflect a Brahmanic aversion to death pollution. Yet this is at odds with an early Buddhist focus on death as a means of teaching the impermanence and emptiness of all things, including the self. Further, a central Buddhist doctrine known as dependent origination is grounded in the fundamental connection between birth and death that shapes human existence and that is perpetuated by an ignorance that Buddhist practice is supposed to dispel. So why does Maya’s death play such a small role in the Buddha’s own life and teachings? Many modern commentators, who have subjected almost every detail of the Buddha’s biography to scrutiny, seem all too willing to dismiss Maya’s death as a necessary but uninteresting footnote to the Buddha’s mythical birth. As such, they miss an opportunity to explore what Māyā’’s death can teach us.
Whether or not the Buddha’s mother actually died after childbirth is less important than the insights that her death may provide. Given the paucity of textual and archaeological evidence for the Buddha’s life, we will never know whether Māyā’s really died in childbirth; the first biographies of the Buddha were only committed to print at least four centuries after his death. Asking whether or not Māyā really died shortly after giving birth to the Buddha is about as useful as asking whether or not the lore of an elephant piercing Māyā’s side at conception is true. Yet the descriptions of Māyā’s pregnancy, delivery, and death may shed some light on the contradictory awe and revulsion that early Buddhist and Brahmanic authors felt toward birth and the female body.”
For an article on the diminishment, revulsion and censorship of women’s biological bodies, functions and features, see my article on THE ‘CENSORED’ TARA: POWERFUL PASSION VS PRUDISH PURITY. Depictions of women in Buddhist art and literature and the sexual objectification, denigration and censorship of women’s biology and nakedness.
Wendy Garling (2021): The Woman Who Raised the Buddha: The Extraordinary Life of Mahaprajapati (Shambhala Publications).
Kim Gutschow (2016), The Death of Buddha’s Mother. Harvard Divinity Review.
Reiko Ohnuma, (2006). Debt to the Mother: A Neglected Aspect of the Founding of the Buddhist Nuns’ Order,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 74, no. 4 (2006): 861–901.
Reiko Ohnuma (2012). Ties That Bind: Maternal Imagery and Discourse in Indian Buddhism (Oxford University Press.
Vanessa Sasson, The Birth of Moses and the Buddha (Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2007).
Jonathan Walters, “A Voice from the Silence: The Buddha’s Mother’s Story,” History of Religions 33, no. 4 (1994): 358–79.
“Maya’s Disappearing Act: Motherhood in Early Buddhist Literature,” in Family in Buddhism, Liz Wilson, ed. (State University of NY Press, 2013)
4 thoughts on “Happy Buddha Purnima/Birthday: Remembering Buddha’s Mother Queen Māyā”
Happy Buddha Purnima! Thank you for sharing this wonderful wisdom! This made me cry. His Mother’s overwhelming generosity in giving birth to such a spiritually powerful being should be noted. She literally gave her life to the cause! This is the compassionate act of a Bodhisattva. 🙏🌺
So nice and meaningful that you
brought to table Buddha words
about remembering our parents
In world where ,, All is about me,,