Welcome to Trailblazers, a special four-part series brought to you by All About Buddhism. Trailblazers revisits the forgotten contributions of a number of early Buddhist women who were crucial to the religion’s rise.
However, the author must share a word of caution before we begin our journey. These women lived over 2,500 years ago. Society’s views on sexuality, slavery, race, marriage and gender were very different than our views are today. Also, there are sometimes slight differences in the competing Buddhist canons that are preserved throughout Asia, but the central story is generally consistent.
That all said, we begin our journey in Kausambi, the capital city of the Vatsa Kingdom. This was one of the 16 great kingdoms of the Buddhist Era and it would serve as part of the brain trust of a fledgling new world religion.
We know a fair amount about what life was like in this kingdom thanks to its ruins. We know that Kausambi had running water drains, for example, because the remains are still there. It was a centre of trade and large crowds were likely managed by kettledrums.
Although Kausambi would stand about a century longer than Rome, it was not always a great capital and it was not originally Buddhist. In its earlier days, it was host to a slew of varying factions and faiths. The religion of Jainism was growing, and who knows what kind of kingdom might have been on the cards, but one pair of star-crossed lovers would soon change everything. According to Buddhist sources, the story goes like this...
A beautiful young girl named Samavati was born into a normal family and seemed to be having an otherwise all too mundane childhood. But then a terrible plague broke out and her otherwise happy family fled to Kausambi.
Taking shelter at His Majesty’s house of rest, an observant state official noticed that Samavati was taking less food than usual. First she took three servings of food. Then the next day only two. Then only one.
Upon doing some amateur detective work, he tragically discovered that the child had originally taken one serving of food for each of her family members. But then a parent succumbed to the plague, and then...
Heartbroken by her sad story, he adopted the destitute orphan. The state official happened to be the King’s personal Minister of Finance, and the girl grew up to be a profoundly beautiful young woman.
Years later, King Udena spotted Samavati from his balcony and Cupid’s arrow hit its mark. However, her adoptive father could not bear to part with her so, to keep the peace, Samavati agreed to become the third consort of this handsome King; contingent, that was, on him accepting her retinue of 500 ladies into his palace.
Queen Samavati was happy with her life at the Royal Court, but great discoveries were in store. One day, she heard her servant telling her the most amazing things and a pleasant confession led to Buddha.
The Buddhist canon records that the women could not leave the palace, so the kingdom’s Buddhist conversion hinged on what happened next. First, the Queen’s female servant memorised Buddha’s teachings verbatim and taught the ladies-in-waiting. Then, 500 Buddhist monks came to the palace every day to teach. Eventually, the Queen became instrumental in assisting the Order of Buddhist Nuns, and palace windows were installed so the women could communicate with the monks. (A novel idea at the time.)
Alas, not everyone was so thrilled with this giddy turn of events. By chance, the King’s second wife just so happened to have one seriously bad relationship with Buddha and her name was Magandiya. You see, Magandiya had offered to marry Buddha well before the King ever met Samavati. However, Buddha turned the proposal down because an Awakened One does not engage in marriage or sex.
Yet, no matter what anybody said, Magandiya refused to listen. She simply hated Buddha. And so treachery sprang afoot.
Magandiya tried to trademark Samavati and her ladies-at-court as treasonous jezebels. She bribed court pages and staged dirty tricks. She even had street bums and druggies follow Buddha around, branding Him a “denizen of hell” within plain view of the King.
Finally, Magandiya artfully framed Samavati in a remarkably believable attempt on King Udena’s life. The Samyutta Nikaya records that King Udena flew into an uncontrolled rage and was going to sentence Samavati with his bow and arrow, but then something magical happened. The arrow made a harmless U-turn, practically as though Samavati was surrounded by angels. Legend has it that this is when King Udena completed his unflinching conversion to Buddhism.
Magandiya’s treachery knew no ends. Nothing would stand in the way of her target, not even 500 innocent lives. Under the cover of night, Magandiya secretly arranged for her relatives to burn the entire women’s Royal Palace to the ground, and this time Magandiya finally hit her bullseye.
However, Magandiya's day of reckoning was drawing near. The fire was clearly no accident and the King was starting to put the pieces together. He quickly suspected Magandiya, but there was a problem. The King realised that Magandiya would never confess to the crime if a royal investigation was formally commissioned. Somehow, King Udena had to get Magandiya to confess to what she had done... and one day he had a clever idea
Within earshot of Magandiya, the King put on his best poker face and said, “Well, whoever did this must truly have loved me because that Queen tried to kill me many times.”
The King had already discerned that Samavati had never tried to kill him, but Magandiya underestimated his intelligence. Upon hearing the King say this, Magandiya ran to him and proudly confessed to the crime in earnest detail. Unsurprised, the King continued to feign ignorance and offered to reward all of Magandiya's family with a great royal ceremony.
In a moment of dark humour, some unscrupulous cheaters wanted to be in the King's good graces, so when they heard the news, they made the mistake of bribing court officials in order to attend the royal boon, pretending to be Magandiya's family. Little did they know that this was one occasion in which you did not want to be guests of honour.
Once gathered all in one place, the King had everyone arrested. He promptly confronted Magandiya. Enraged at her heinous crime, he ordered an ancient death penalty for her and everyone who claimed to be involved in the crime. Pleas for mercy were not entertained.
When Magandiya assassinated Queen Samavati, she yet again achieved nothing but the exact opposite of what she wanted. Instead of securing a confused and grieving King, she secured a Stone Age-style death sentence for both her and her family. Instead of stopping Buddhism’s rise in Kausambi, the women’s holocaust sparked a ring of spiritual fire that would serve not to destroy Buddhism, but to create Buddhism.
Queen Samavati and the royal women of Kausambi were crucial to Buddhism because they ultimately left behind the most utilitarian and tactile first-person notations of Buddha’s words that have survived into modern times. These notations are still used for teaching today and are available in English.
Moreover, Kausambi was a centre of trade. Kausambi stood as an epicentre of Buddhist thought for several generations to come, and had this not all occurred, then our understanding of Buddhism would have been greatly impaired.
The Vatsa Kingdom would eventually fall to the Avanti Kingdom. In time, the Avanti Kingdom would be obliterated by the White Huns of Central Asia.
Today, ruins are all that stands of what was once the mighty capital of Kausambi. But the contributions of the royal women of Queen Samavati’s retinue still touch every one of us in the modern Buddhist world today.
Editor’s Note: Queen Samavati’s personal attendant was named Khujjuttara. Her notes still exist in The Itivuttaka. Historical text marking the Queen’s assassination can be found in King Udena’s suttra in Chapter 7 of the Udana. Buddha’s rejection of Magandiya’s marriage proposal and conversation can still be found in the 835th verse of the Sutta Nipata. The historic records of Magandiya’s conviction and death penalty can be found in Vol. #28 of The Harvard Oriental Series – The Dhammapada Commentary: Translated by E.W. Burlingame. C. 1921.
All About Buddhism is a monthly column in The Phuket News where I take readers on my exotic journey into Thai Buddhism and debunk a number of myths about Buddhism. If you have any specific queries, or ideas for articles, please let us know. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, and I will do my best to accommodate your interests.