Buddhism has 300 million followers around the world, mainly in Asia, who know by heart the story of how Buddha was born while his mother, Queen Mayadevi or Maya, was travelling towards her parents’ home in Rangram, located in Nepal’s Nawalparasi district, when she felt birth pains. Passing through Lumbini, she went into labour, bathed in a sacred pond and then walked 25 paces into a grove of trees to deliver her child. Buddhists believe that the baby sprang out and miraculously took seven steps. However, the dispute over where and how the Buddha was born over 2,500 years ago still hasn’t been solved. Researchers suggest that obscuring stories about Maya can help us untangle the misogynistic knots from Buddhism’s past.
It is known that the Buddha’s mother, died a week after childbirth. Although the narratives depict a blissful pregnancy, free of fatigue and pain, she was not so lucky after delivery. There appears to have been some cause for concern after her delivery, but it is unclear if this was due to bleeding, infection, or other complications. It is believed that Buddha was raised by Maya’s sister Mahapajapati, who was present during his birth.
Ancient paintings depict Mahapajapati holding Maya by her waist during labor which symbolizes the role of both mothers in Buddha’s life. Soon, after the death of her husband, Mahapajapati became a nun. When Buddha decided to leave his palace home for enlightenment, his second mother’s tears and wisdom sent him on his way.
But did Maya really die after giving birth to her precious baby? The three stories related below where she doesn’t really die in Lumbini’s Grove, but lives on in goddess form after her earthly death during childbirth. In the imagination of the early storytellers, her life carries forward in the celestial realms buoyed by the power of a mother’s love for her child. It’s worth a moment to pause and reflect on the significance of this to the Buddha narrative. Maya’s love for her son becomes the enduring, timeless love of motherhood, a theme as relevant then as it is today.
The first story is from Lalitavistara Chapter 17. It takes us to the period when Gautama is so weak that he collapses due to exhaustion. The celestial beings immediately inform Maya, who has become a goddess in the heaven, that her son is dying. On hearing the news, Maya leaves for the banks of the Nairanjana river where she finds him lying unconscious on the ground.
On seeing him, she sings, “When I gave birth to you, my son, in the Lumbini Grove, Without support, like a lion, you took seven steps on your own, You gazed in the four directions and said these beautiful words: “This is my last birth.” Those words will now never come to pass. To whom can I turn to for my son? To whom shall I cry out in my pain? Who will give life back to my only son, Who is barely alive?”
On hearing her song, Gautama awakes and asks who she is. Again she explains her relation with him by singing a song. “It is I your mother, O son, Who for 10 months Carried you in my womb like a diamond. It is I who now cry out in despair.”
Gautama consoles his mother and assures her that the prophecies about his superior destiny will be proven right. He advices her not to despair but rejoice because her son will soon become a fully awakened Buddha. Maya is reassured by his words, and she circumambulates him three times and sprinkles him with flower petals before returning to her heavenly abode.
Buddha and Maya reunite
In the next story, Buddha travels to the heaven to meet his mother, Maya. He has been tirelessly teaching dharma for almost 40 years and is nearing the end of his life. Buddha wishes to convert his mother to the dharma as an act of gratitude for giving birth to him. Buddha’s father, Suddhodana converted to Buddhism before his death. Many sources mention about Buddha’s three-month sojourn in Trayastrimsha heaven, the celestial realm where he met his mother, Maya.
According to the legend, Buddha reaches heaven and rests under a tree which is surrounded by many disciples. He gives a lengthy discourse wherein he relates stories of his birth and expresses the desire to see his mother again. A messenger relays the message to Maya directly. On hearing this, Maya’s breasts stream with milk. Overwhelmed with emotion, Maya responds by stating if it is her son, the liquid will reach his mouth directly. Miraculously, the fluid enters Buddha’s mouth from far. Buddha is reunited with his mother. Maya decides to cut the bonds of rebirth forever by ending the relationship with her son. Buddha preaches to her, “on the inevitability of separation, which heralds his impending parinirvana [nirvana after death]. When the time comes for him to depart, Maya is beset with sorrow.”
This depicts Maya’s love for her son and Buddha’s devotion for his mother. The story reveals that Maya attains realizations and is taught dharma in heaven in her son’s presence.
Maya at Her Son’s Parinirvana
The third story is the conclusion to Buddha’s parinirvana narrative. It is said that the last person who paid homage to Buddha’s body before cremation was his disciple Mahakasyapa. Buddha’s feet emerged from under the shroud so that the disciple could venerate them. However, the story also tells us that Maya was the last person to receive Buddha’s earthly blessing. According to Mahamayasutra, which was corroborated by a 7th-century Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang, a stupa in Kushinigar near the cremation site commemorates Maya’s visit with her son.
Maya receives the news in the heaven that her son has died. She faints with emotion at the coffin. She mournfully touches the robe, staff and the bowl that were near the coffin. At that time, the lid of the coffin opens, and Buddha sits up. Light rays burst in all directions. Maya and Buddha are reunited for the last time. Buddha praises Maya as a woman and a mother. He comforts her with his final teaching, ‘I beg you not to cry, as all these events conform to the dharma.’
Maya’s love for her son is thus unbroken right from the birth to his death. These stories are certainly mythic and symbolic and indicate how Buddha honored and revered his mother. Although she was never seen, her presence was felt throughout his life.
Maya’s love is one of the many stories that glorifies women in these ‘forgotten’ stories. Maya’s enduring love is just one of many themes that valorize females and the feminine in these “forgotten” stories.
Liberating them from indefinite quality can enable us to unwind misanthropic bunches from Buddhism’s past and offer new potential outcomes for weaving a new record of Buddhism’s commencement.