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Women In Buddhism Part 1: Maya

Maya Dreams of the White Elephant

Maya Dreams of the White Elephant

Women in Buddhism Part 1: Maya

Last week a reader posted a question on the blog beneath the ‚ÄúBuddha Boy‚Äù post. She asked whether or not it was possible for a Bodhisattva to be a woman. It was an innocent enough question, but ended up with me explaining how sexist the ancient East was. Another reader added that there were indeed powerful women in Buddhism. I then countered that by stating that at least in the ‚Äúmythology‚Äù of Buddhism there were strong women, but for the most part, nuns and lay-women were rarely, if ever, treated seriousness of male monks. I’m all for Buddhism, but I see no reason to look at history through glasses that are too rosy; there are skeletons in every closet, and sexism may be one of Buddhisms.

The situation is nowhere near resolved even in modern times. Here in the West, some of the most influential Buddhist writers and teachers are women, and that’s great, but in the East, the typical nun is still a second-class Buddhist. There’s not much we in the West can do about it (is there?), but we can at least look back over the famous women of Buddhism. So over the next few days, I’ll be introducing some historical female Buddhist figures, and then we’ll finish up with a couple of modern-day female Bodhisattvas.

Read the comments that led to this topic:


The first woman we’ll talk about was in fact the first woman involved in the life of Buddha: his mother. She is known by various names, Maya, Mahamaya, Mahadeva and Gytrulma. She was a Queen, the wife of King Suddhodana, and the sister of Mahapajapati, who we’ll discuss later.

Quote from “Daily buddhism,” :

Around 2500 years ago, King Shuddodana Gautama of the Shakya clan ruled in northern India. He built a great castle and ruled his people well. One night, his wife, Queen Maya, had a strange dream wherein she saw a white elephant enter her womb through the side of her chest. She soon found that she was indeed pregnant. The people of the kingdom were thrilled that there would soon be a royal heir.

Planning to have the child at her parent’s home, Maya traveled there before the birth. On April 8th, on the way to Queen Maya’s ancestral home, she stopped to rest in a garden. Reaching for a blossoming branch in the garden, she suddenly, painlessly, had the child. Unfortunately, a few days later, Queen Maya died.

She named the baby Siddhartha, which means, “He who accomplished the goals.”

The name Maya means “Great Illusion,” and the idea that all of reality is a great illusion is an important Buddhist concept.

There’s not too much more to say about Maya, other than she was supposedly chosen by the gods to deliver the great savior of the world. She had visions and there were various miracles that occurred when he was born. She must have been special to have been chosen.


There are groups who claim that Maya had a virgin birth, but that belief is not widespread. There are many other similarities between the birth of Buddha and Jesus, but that’s for another time.

There are also scholars who connect the name Maya to the goddess Maia from Greek mythology, especially since that Maia had a son named Budh. There may or may not actually be a connection between the two stories, but bear in mind that Buddhism pre-dates much of Graeco-Roman culture, and there was significant trade with the East, even in those days. “Borrowing” of myths and stories went on all the time, and I’m not sure that it’s possible to rule out a connection.

Above: Painting from

6 comments to Women In Buddhism Part 1: Maya

  • I have often seen a statue in Buddhist Temples in my country ( India) . Who is she ? Mother Tara or someone else. Though I have asked the temple authorities but no one clearly knows about her .

  • I’m not sure. That picture COULD be her, it even has elephants. As far as I can remember, the elephants in Maya’s story are always white. The elephants in your picture are red. Maybe that’s somethig the artist chose to change, maybe it’s someone else.

    Does anyone else here recognize the picture?

  • I posted your picture on Twitter and someone suggested that it may be Saraswati (Sarasvati) the Hindu goddess of music and literature.

  • Especially around Lumbini in Nepal the Hindu population does not accept the Buddhist Maya as Gautama Boeddha’s mother. They indeed have a plethora of different names of Hindu godesses that should replace the name Maya, and even the name Maya is interpreted as a designation for Hindu godesses such as Saraswati and so on.
    The Lumbini park has a tree under which – it is said – Maya gave birth. Under the tree they dug out a miniature temple for one of the Hindu godesses and maintain that she is the mother of Buddha. Don’t forget that according to Hindu philosophy Buddha is an emanation of god Vishnu.

  • Oh absolutely; I was just introducing the Buddhist “version” of Maya. The Buddhist version stands alone, but many of the “Buddha Stories” are expansions on older Hindu stories and beliefs.

  • Just passing through.
    A friend of mine has a site you may enjoy:

    Take care,