Viśākhā is often called the greatest female lay follower of the Buddha. She prompted the Buddha to give numerous teachings. She also donated generously to the Sangha (monastic order). Her crowning contribution was building a monastery called Migāramātupāsāda.
She is said to either die as a “stream-enterer” (a person who will definitely become enlightened, no matter how many life times it will take). Another account about her afterlife says that she would live for eons in happiness in one of the divine realms before achieving the final Liberation there and then.
Viśākhā appears in numerous Suttas of Theravadin Canon. From the modern feminist point of view, the content of these discourses reinforces patriarchal gender stereotypes. In particular, Viśākhā is portrayed as a caring Mother for her relatives, Bhikkhus (Buddhist monks and nuns), and other people.
However, considering the historical context, one cannot deny that Viśākhā played a major, maybe a deciding role in supporting the Buddha and his disciples, and thus, in preserving Dhamma (the Buddha’s teaching) for the future generations.
The Pali Canon, a collection of the earliest Buddhist texts and foundation of Theravada Buddhist teaching, does not spend much time on positive portrayal of women. All the more evident is the special position that Viśākhā occupies. She is of noble descent, immensely rich and beautiful. She is described as physically strong (she is reported to have stopped an elephant with her two fingers).
The Canon provides many anecdotes that illustrate Viśākhā’s keen intellect, common sense and wit. For example, in a Sherlock-like style, she was able to deduce where the Buddha’s monks were and what they were doing, using only incorrect accounts by her maid. The girl first mistook the monks for ascetics from a different religious school, because they were undressed, and then thought them gone, while they simply were resting in a cave. Viśākhā set the maid straight just using her deduction powers.
Viśākhā had an admirable belief in herself and courage to stand up to a challenge. Her Father-in-Law accused her of disrespect. Viśākhā had to present her case to eight men, who served as mediators, and whom the Father-in-Law secretly had asked to find Viśākhā guilty no matter what. Imagine – eight men plus a Father-in-Law, in a patriarchal society. I dread an interview panel of any size and gender distribution! Viśākhā was not fazed. She competently defended herself and was found to be in the right.
This incident eventually led to Viśākhā’s Father-in-Law, who was called Migāra, becoming the Buddha’s follower. As a result, another name for Viśākhā in the Buddhist tradition is Migāramātā – the Mother of Migāra. Thus an image of Viśākhā as a surrogate Great Mother, even to her own Father-in-Law, emerges.
In another Sutta, as the Viśākhā mourns for her granddaughter, the Buddha asked her how she would feel if she were a Mother to a whole city and every day someone of her children died. Not that Viśākhā did not have biological offspring. Her ten sons and ten daughters ensured that, according to the Suttas, at the time of her death at 120 years old, she had 84,020 descendants.
Yet that is not all. In one of the most famous Suttas about her, Viśākhā effectively acts like a caring Mother to the Buddhist monks and nuns. To follow the Buddha, Bhikkhus and Bhikkhunis “went forth into homelessness,” as the set phrase goes. Bound by rules of the monastic order, they could not own anything bar minimum clothing and a bowl. They could only eat the alms they had begged, and they had to eat before midday.
Realising what constraints it presents to the monks and nuns and how sometimes these constraints could be harmful to health or even life-threatening, Viśākhā asked the Buddha for a permission to support the order. She asked to provide, for as long as she lives, rain clothes, food for the visiting monks, food for those setting out on journey, food for the sick and for those who care for them, medicine, gruel, and bath clothes for Bhikkhunis.
Viśākhā was able to relate to the Buddha, applying her usual reason and clarity, the benefit of all these measures to the monastics. When asked by the Buddha what there was for her in it, Viśākhā answered in a way that I remember my Great Grandmother talked. My Great Grandmother often said that the greatest joy for her was to hear that we had received one of the many parcels she sent to us.
Viśākhā responded to the Buddha by saying that when she hears a report of this or that of the Buddha’s disciples attaining Nibbana, she would be happy in the knowing that there was her part in that. Viśākhā repeats to the Buddha one of his teaching on a sequence to attaining Enlightenment. On becoming glad, she says her mind will become happy, which will lead to tranquillity in the body, which will lead to pleasure. This will result in concentration of the mind, crucial for Enlightenment.
Thus, despite, or maybe because of Viśākhā’s numerous outstanding qualities, she acts as a quintessential surrogate Mother in a patriarchal society. She is strong, wise, almost omnipotent. Yet she chooses, instead of achieving, to facilitate the achievement of others. She finds satisfaction and even her spiritual path in that.
This leaves me emotionally unsatisfied. A great woman, a great person taking backstage like this.
At the same time, I am saying this in a world where Buddhism: first, exists, and second, has branched into numerous schools from which a follower can choose. If I don’t like one tradition, I’ll join another, a more feminist one.
At the time of Viśākhā, the establishment and survival of Buddhism was an open question. She made it possible, both with her intellect and with her funds, for Buddhism to be what it is today. Thus it can be said that Viśākhā has become a surrogate Mother of Buddhism.
Oxana Poberejnaia is a frame drummer, writer and an artist at http://poeticoxana.wordpress.com. She was an Officer of the University of Manchester Buddhist Society while studying for a PhD in Government, and had been involved in organising the Manchester Buddhist Convention. Oxana is exploring the Sacred Feminine through frame drumming, working with her menstrual cycle, frame drumming and shamanic journeying, while keeping the practice of Buddhist meditation. Her frame drum band can be found here.
 Ñāṇamoli Bhikkhu, The Life of the Buddha: According to the Pali Canon. Edition 3, Pariyatti Publishing, 2001, p. 152.
 Ibid. pp. 153-155.