Biographies of the Buddha all tell us that his mother’s name was Maya and that she died seven days after her son was born. But we know little more.
In the usual accounts Maya appears just long enough to give birth to the Buddha, unnaturally from her right side, after which she vanishes from the storyline altogether. We are not privy to the lamentation or grief we would expect at the loss of the Shakya clan’s queen, the king his wife, or the infant prince his mother.
As a mother and Buddhist laywoman, I find this portrayal of Maya disappointing but not surprising. Her cameo at her son’s nativity fits the reductionist, androcentric, and misogynistic treatment of women generally found in the Buddha’s biography (recall Siddhartha’s wife Yashodhara’s only mention—passively asleep, no less—as he leaves her for the forest life).
Related: Buddhism’s Second Class Citizens
Needless to say, role models for today’s Buddhist women are lacking in what is essentially Buddhism’s origin myth. (That this criticism applies to most areas of Buddhist literature is a bigger discussion.) How truly unfortunate that Buddhism got off on the wrong foot telling its own story by embedding passive, voiceless, marginalized depictions of women from the very beginning. In so many ways, the harmful effects continue to flow downstream to where we sit today.
For me, dissatisfaction with the status quo refocused into a challenge. I spent five years researching biographies of the Buddha originally from Pali and Sanskrit sources in search of women’s stories, holding out optimism that I would find some and that there might be stories supporting a more positive, inclusive view of women during the Buddha’s lifetime. Quite refreshingly, I found an abundance of “new” stories about women in the Buddha’s life. Many of these point to a more positive, wholesome view of the feminine and womanhood in early Buddhist cultures.
In particular, I learned a lot more about Maya, not only as a girl and bride, but as a queen and mother who doesn’t disappear from the narrative after dying during childbirth. Of note are 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.
Here are three of these stories:
Maya’s Anguish as Her Son Nears Death
The first story takes place during the period of Gautama’s fierce austerities, when he finally becomes so emaciated and weak that he collapses from exhaustion. Alarmed, celestial messengers make haste to inform Maya (as a goddess abiding in heaven) that her beloved son is dying.
Hearing the terrible news that her son is near death, Maya leaves immediately for the banks of the Nairanjana River, where she finds him cadaverous and unconscious on the ground. Choking with tears, she lovingly sings to him,
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 about my son?
To whom shall I cry out in my pain?
Who will give life back to my only son,
Who is barely alive?
Gautama awakes from his stupor, confused, and asks who she is. Again she sings to him,
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 now consoles his mother, assuring her that the prophecies surrounding his superior destiny would definitely come to pass. She should not despair, he says, but rejoice because soon her son will become a fully awakened Buddha. Reassured by his response, Maya circumambulates him three times sprinkling him with flower petals and returns to her heavenly abode. [Lalitavistara, chap. 17]
Maya Reunites with Her Son in Heaven
In this next story, the scenario flips, and we find the Buddha traveling to heaven to see his mother. He is near the end of his life and has been tirelessly teaching the dharma for more than 40 years. It’s on his (and every Buddha’s) bucket list to convert his mother to the dharma as an act of gratitude for giving him life. The Buddha’s father, Suddhodana, had already converted before he died. Many sources mention the Buddha’s three-month sojourn in Trayastrimsha heaven, one of several celestial realms in Buddhist cosmology, but the following story tells us about his meeting there with Maya:
The Buddha has arrived in heaven and is seated under a tree surrounded by a vast assembly of disciples. In a lengthy discourse, he relates stories of his birth and expresses the wish to see again the sublime face of his mother. A messenger swiftly relays this message to Maya, some distance away. Upon hearing her son’s words, milk streams from her breasts. Overwhelmed with emotion, she responds that if he is indeed her son, her milk will reach his mouth directly. And so, miraculously, her milk enters his mouth from afar. Maya declares she has not experienced such joy since the moment of his birth. Mother and son reunited, Maya takes refuge with the stated purpose of realizing awakening for herself. After eons as his mother nourishing him at her breast her goal now is to cut forever the bonds of rebirth, even as that means finally ending her relationship with her son. The Buddha gives her a teaching 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.
Here we are reminded not only of Maya’s love for her son, but also the Buddha’s devotion to his mother. But Maya also has agency here, seeking awakening for herself through her son’s profound teachings. This story further tells us that Maya so rapidly attained realizations that she too taught dharma in heaven, in the presence of her beloved son.
Maya at Her Son’s Parinirvana
A final story upends the usual conclusion to the Buddha’s parinirvana narrative. Traditionally we’re told that the last person to pay homage to the Buddha’s body prior to cremation was his disciple Mahakasyapa, and that the Buddha’s feet spontaneously emerged from beneath the shroud so that this disciple could venerate them. However, the following story tells us that Maya was the last person to receive the Buddha’s earthly blessing. The antiquity of this story from the Mahamayasutra is corroborated by the 7th-century Chinese pilgrim Xuanzang, who noted in his chronicles that there was a stupa in Kushinigar near the cremation site commemorating Maya’s final visit with her son.
Word reaches Maya in heaven that her son has died. Arriving swiftly at the coffin, she faints from emotion. Revived, she mournfully touches his robe, bowl, and staff lying nearby. At that moment the coffin’s lid miraculously opens, and the Buddha sits up. Brilliant light rays burst forth in all directions. Reunited for the last time, the Buddha praises Maya as a woman and a mother and comforts her with his final teaching: “I beg you not to cry, as all these events conform to the dharma.”
And so, Maya’s love for her son marked the bookends of his life, flowing unbroken from his birth to his death. However mythic or symbolic, these stories (and others) tell us that the Buddha always honored and revered his mother. While mostly unseen, her presence is felt throughout his life.
Maya’s enduring love is just one of many themes that valorizes women and the feminine in these “forgotten” stories. Freeing them from obscurity can help us untangle misogynistic knots from Buddhism’s past and offer new possibilities for weaving a fresh account of Buddhism’s inception.