Mahā Pajāpatī Gotamī was the second of Suddhodana’s two wives.
When Siddhattha’s mother died, Mahā Pajāpatī Gotamī took the child and brought him up as if he was her own offspring.
After Siddhattha became the Buddha, Mahā Pajāpatī Gotamī approached him and asked if he would allow her and other women to renounce the world, thus becoming nuns.
The Buddha was reluctant to do this but Ānanda interceded on Gotamī’s behalf. He asked if women had the same spiritual potential as men and the Buddha replied:
‘Having gone forth from home into homelessness in the Dhamma and discipline women are able to realize all the states leading to enlightenment and enlightenment itself.’
Then Ānanda asked the Buddha to consider how kind and helpful his foster mother had been to him: ‘Lord, Mahā Pajāpatī Gotamī was of great help to you – she is your aunt, your foster mother, she gave you her milk and suckled you when your mother died.’
(Vin.II,254). Moved by these words, the Buddha decided to allow women to become nuns.
Why was the Buddha so reluctant to take this step?
At this time there were no monasteries as such; monks lived in the forest or in parks on the outskirts of towns and cities.
Although the position of women in Indian society was much higher than it later became, a lone woman still stood a good chance of being thought of as loose and could be open to harassment or worse.
The Buddha probably thought that having women living in forests posed too many difficulties.
As it happened, nuns generally earned respect and were able to establish viable communities and make significant contributions to the Dhamma.
The nun’s sangha died out in Theravadin countries around the 12th century but continued in China, Korea and Japan. See Gender.