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The forgotten women living in the time of Buddha part 4: Queen Khema

The forgotten women living in the time of Buddha part 4: Queen Khema

Queen Khema’s exact royal status is somewhat hazy in ancient Buddhist records. Some Southeast Asian records imply that she may have been of royal birth. Other sources sometimes describe her as a queen. And there are other re­cords which document her as a consort.

By Jason Jellison

Sunday 7 July 2019, 03:00PM

Artist: U Ba Kyi

Artist: U Ba Kyi

Regardless, Queen Khema was a young queen to King Bimbisara of the ancient kingdom of Magadha. However, unlike several queens that Trailblazers previously visited, Khema was not in­volved with King Bimbisara’s conversion to Buddhism. The King was already a Buddhist by the time Khema became his royal consort. Rather, it was King Bimbisara who wanted Khema to meet Buddha, and he would have to invent ideas never before seen in the ancient world in order to make it happen.

In her era, Khema was simply every­thing that a great king could want. She was vivacious, she was voluptuous, she was smart, she was beautiful, she was epic and, although nobody knew it yet, she was destined to leave her handprints on the heart of ancient Buddhism.

Khema was born in the Magadha Kingdom and caught King Bimbisara’s eye when she came of age. Profoundly beautiful, she became a consort to King Bimbisara shortly after she reached marriageable age.

Yet, while her elevated status and great beauty sparked large crowds, the canon suggests that Khema might not have been entirely ready for the life ahead of her. The young Queen was very attached to the pleasures of this world and she was leery of the austerity of Buddhism.

So, she refused to meet Buddha. Bemused that he could not motivate Queen Khema to meet Buddha, the be­fuddled King finally had an epiphany. He arranged for a concerto of elite royal musicians to play the most heavenly sounding melodies live at the Buddhist monastery where Buddha was staying.

In the ancient world, this was a mas­sive undertaking. As she gently strolled through the gardens, the Queen was drawn in by the music as well as the most beautiful smell of an uncountable array of fresh flowers. Still, Khema was somewhat sheepish as she made her way towards the sermon hall.

Upon seeing the young Queen, Bud­dha engaged in telepathy and projected an image of a profoundly beautiful woman in Khema’s sight. Khema was overawed by the facade of this woman’s beauty. She realised that she would never be so beautiful as this woman who stood directly before her. But then the woman began to rapidly age directly before Khema’s very eyes. The woman grew haggard, old, decrepit and prompt­ly died in a heap right at Khema’s feet.

Finally, the heap of bones vanished into the thin, telepathic air from which they came and Buddha appeared before Khema. As Buddha drew closer to her, He used His ‘Divine Eye’ to read Khe­ma’s mind. Then, Buddha said, “Khema, those enslaved by lust drift down the stream as a spider glides on a self-spun web. Having severed all of this, the wise wander elsewhere, indifferent to the pleasures they have renounced.”

In the heat of an epiphany, Khema was separated from the oppressive yoke of material things. She entered the flow of the living moment and instantly real­ised the highest insights of Buddhism.

Walking back to King Bimbisara, the shellshocked young Queen relinquished her royal titles and sought the King’s permission to ordain as a Buddhist nun. She traded in a life of luxury for little more than an ascetic’s robe.

Yet, Khema’s fame and abilities were only to grow. She would soon become one of Buddha’s most important early nuns and would draw many women into the Buddhist faith from all corners of the known world.

But as Khema amassed a large following, she also gained an enemy. Ancient Buddhists knew him as ‘Mara’; Western readers might know him better as ‘the Devil’.

One day, the Devil came to visit Khema. He was disguised as a power­fully attractive young nobleman. Yet, the ancient texts record that Khema felt no temptation and she strongly confronted the Devil. Turning his fallacies straight back upon the him, Khema’s immortal rebuke echoes across all time: “Know this, O evil one, thou art defeated!”

By the end of her life, Khema blazed a trail that many generations of future women would follow. She helped popu­larise a new world faith that would soon sweep through virtually all of Asia, and the former Queen is recorded as one of Buddhism’s most important early nuns.

In her time, Khema helped build a Buddhist India, and the ancient India that she helped build had relatively equal educational opportunities for women. Large crowds of fans would follow educated women and this phe­nomenon spewed over into other faiths of the time, like Jainism.

Alas, in roughly 10 centuries, the Buddhist India that Khema knew would fall. Other religions would displace Bud­dhism in India, and British colonialists would occupy India for a time, too.

The collapse of Buddhism was com­plete in India by the 12th century and women’s rights would significantly erode with its fall. Buddhism would not be reestablished in India until the 19th century.

Today, recommissioning the defunct Buddhist Order of Nuns remains hotly debated in Southeast Asia. Thailand’s Sangha Supreme Council opposes the idea on theological grounds, leaving only Buddhist monks officially recog­nised by the state.

However, new generations of Bud­dhist writers are making certain that these trailblazing women are not forgot­ten. Their stories are once again being retold for all the world to hear. The only real question is: Will all the world listen?

Editor’s Note: For further information about Khema’s life and times, consult the ancient Khema Sutra, The Dhamapada Commentary 24 (5) [vs. 347] or the Ja­takas # 354, 397, 501, 502, or 534. For a record of Khema’s confrontation with the devil, see the Therigatha # 139-144.

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, and I will do my best to accommodate your interests.


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