It was a time in which newly minted Buddhist monarchies could profoundly improve the lives of every man, woman and child within their borders. As Buddhism swept through ancient India, millions of royal subjects watched their lives dramatically improve.
Poverty was sharply reduced and wealth inequality was slashed. Healthcare and food became readily available for all. Women’s rights expanded and women directly oversaw charitable projects that popularised the faith.
Yet, our ancient texts also recount the tales of some kings who simply could not hit the mark without substantial feminine encouragement. In these cases, independent women often rose to fill a leadership vacuum after they met Buddha. The story of Ambapali is a story that recalls how one unofficial queen would rise up to provide calm in an unstable male republic.
Ambapali was a girl of unknown parentage who was discovered in a mango grove. Traditional texts suggest that she was abandoned there at birth. More colourful legends suggest that she was divinely incarnated there.
Regardless, all parties agree that she was found under a mango tree by a royal gardener. ‘Ambapali’ roughly translates to ‘mango girl’ and the texts say that Ambapali was discovered in Vaishali, which was the capital of the Licchavi Republic.
The Licchavi Republic was a powerful stronghold amongst ancient India. Very few records of their government have survived the passage of time, but the Buddhist Jatakas #149 and #301 suggest that the Licchavi Republic was a primitive democracy governed by about 7,700 tribal leaders. These men are sometimes colloquially called ‘princes’ in the ancient texts as democratic terminology was unknown to ancient writers.
The Licchavi Republic was male-dominated in the extreme and this misogyny eventually became the centrepiece of Ambapali’s life. Ambapali became profoundly beautiful in her early teens and this led to fierce competition among the tribal princes.
Fighting over a woman could spark a war, so a rule was installed throughout the Licchavi Republic which decreed that the most beautiful woman throughout the land would be appointed to a position that this author has dubbed ‘state courtesan’.
The state courtesan served a term of seven years and was an equal companion to all of the Licchavi princes. This idea might be offensive to modern sensibilities, but it seemed perfectly rational to the ancient mind.
Within ancient India, Ambapali grew to be viewed as something of an independent woman and she was lauded for her extreme generosity. She became a hero to the poor even before she met Buddha, and she would be unofficially sainted when she later became a Buddhist nun.
Ambapali was so profoundly beautiful that statues bearing her likeness still exist today. Her celebrity status was also enhanced by a vast fortune that she shrewdly amassed from the fees which the Licchavi princes paid in remuneration for her companionship.
Yet, Ambapali did not become a hero to the ancient world simply by being beautiful and wealthy. Rather, she became one of the ancient world’s most enduring icons because of her generosity and perseverance.
She commissioned great acts of welfare for the benefit of the less fortunate. Additionally, although her position within the Licchavi Republic was clearly that of a woman in chains she never once sought revenge against her oppressors and frequently converted India’s warring kings into ‘cooler heads’ simply by outsmarting them.
After she met Buddha, Ambapali would become one of the biggest lynchpins within the rise of early Buddhism across northern India. As a confidant of Buddha Himself and as a Buddhist nun-in-waiting, she sparked a competition amongst numerous Licchavi princes who wanted to try and stay within Buddha’s good graces; bearing critical effects for the early Buddhist world.
The 16 great Buddhist kingdoms struggled to form a large empire whilst Buddha was still alive because their monarchs were routinely feuding amongst themselves. However, as these kings sought out Ambapali’s beauty, they began to rule their subjects far more kindly.
When Ambapali met Buddha, she gave up her life as a state courtesan and became one of Buddhism’s most esteemed nuns. The Licchavi Republic itself would soon crumble, but Buddhism itself would build a powerful new world faith out of the ashes.
In her finest hour, Ambapali’s actions ended wars and contributed to the overthrow of chauvinistic rulers, as well as the dissolution of brutal regimes. In The Terigatha, she left behind some of the most poignant poetry on ageing that Buddhism has to offer.
Ambapali’s legend has found itself perpetually reincarnated amongst all future generations because she was supposed to remain little more than an object of men’s desire, yet she rocketed through every glass ceiling that was placed within her path.
She rose to become more affluent than kings, yet ultimately gave all her money away to the poor. She lit up the world with her goodness and proved that any woman could become a Buddhist nun – even a woman of the night.
Ambapali represented a new age in ancient India that is important for us to understand today. Some 2,600 years ago, Buddhism allowed women to get an equal education for one of the first times in human history. The age of Ambapali was an entirely novel era in which well-educated, independent women could command great crowds and bow men under the yoke of truth.
Ancient Buddhist nuns were very well-educated women and they have just as many fingerprints upon the bricks of Buddhism as men do if you know where to look. Today, there are at least 250 million female Buddhists in the world and many of these women are reenergising the very roots which trailblazing women like Ambapali planted 2,600 years ago.
Editor’s Note: Ambapali (occasionally called Amrapali) is a resurging pop culture hero in modern India. However, the veracity of her legend is up to every reader to determine for themselves. Many Buddhist texts concerning her are fragmented and they conflict with the surviving texts from non-Buddhist religions of her time.
The only text that survived in full recording Ambapali’s meeting with Buddha is the Chinese Ekotarra Agama. For details pertaining to Licchavi-style democracy, see the Buddhist Ekapanna and Cullakalings Jatakas.
For a more complete accounting of Ambapali’s life, see The Legend of Amrapali by Anurag Anand or watch the Bollywood movies entitled Amrapali, copyrighted in 1945 and 1966 respectively.
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.