Patacara was a notable female figure in Buddhism, described in the Pali Canon. Among the female disciples of Gautama Buddha, she was the foremost exponent of the Vinaya, the rules of monastic discipline. She lived during the 6th century BCE in what is now Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in India.
Patacara was described as the beautiful daughter of a very wealthy merchant of Savatthi, in the Kosala Kingdom. When she was sixteen years old, her parents locked her on the top floor of a seven-story tower and surrounded her with guards to prevent her from meeting any of the many young men who desired to meet her. Despite this, she was able to become involved in a love affair with one of her parents' servants. When her parents arranged her marriage to a young man of equal social standing, she decided to elope with her lover, who was from a lower social background. She disguised herself to escape from the tower, and the young couple went to live in a village far away. Her husband farmed, and the young wife had to do all the menial chores which formerly had been performed by her parents' servants.
When she became pregnant, Patacara begged her husband to take her to her parents' house to give birth there, as was the tradition. She justified this by saying that parents always have a love for their child, no matter what has happened. Patacara's husband refused, stating that her parents would surely torture or imprison him. Realizing that he would not accompany her, she decided to return unilaterally. When the husband found her gone, he followed her and tried to persuade her to return, without success. Before they could reach Savatthi, a baby son was born. As there was no more reason to go to Savatthi, they turned back and resumed their life in the village.
Patacara later became pregnant again. Again she requested her husband to take her home to her parents and again unilaterally took matters into her own hands and began the journey, taking her son with her. Her husband followed and was again unable to persuade her to turn back. An unseasonally heavy storm hit, with much thunder, lightning and rain. Just then her birth-pains started, and she asked her husband to construct some shelter. While chopping some saplings, a poisonous snake bit him and he died instantly. Meanwhile, Patacara gave birth to a second son. The next morning, she found her husband lying dead, his body rigid. Distraught, she blamed herself for his death.
Loss of family
She continued on her journey to Savatthi, but when she came to the river Aciravati, it was swollen due to heavy rain. Unable to wade across with both children, she left the older child on the shore and carried the baby across to the other shore, before returning to take the first son. When she was midway through her return, an eagle swooped on the baby and flew off. Hearing his mother's screaming, the elder son believed Patacara was calling him and entered the water. He was swept off by the strong current. Having lost her family, she continued towards the city, but was informed that her parents and brother had been killed after their house collapsed during the storm.
At that time the Buddha was staying at the Jetavana, Anathapindika's monastery. Patacara, after running through Savatthi naked and disconsolate, prostrated at the feet of the Buddha, describing her family tragedies. The Buddha explained this using Buddhist doctrines, and Patacara immediately understood the nature of impermanence. She thus became a sotapanna, the first stage of arahanthood, which she later achieved. The Buddha said that she was the foremost Keeper of the Vinaya amongst the Nuns, and thus the female counterpart of the monk Upali. Her interest in the "Rules of Conduct" of the monastic life was attributed to her reflections on her former indulgences.
Patacara was the beautiful daughter of a wealthy Savatthi merchant. When she came of age her parents arranged a marriage for her to a man of similar status and wealth. Patacara, however, was in love with one of the servants in her parents’ household. She decided to elope with her lover as she felt that it would be impossible for her to obtain the consent of her parents to marry a servant.
Dressing as a servant and carrying a pot of water on her head, Patacara fled with her lover. They set up house in a village at some distance from Savatthi. Her husband tilled the land and earned a meagre living. Patacara worked at pounding the rice, cooking and cleaning – duties that had formerly been performed by the servants in her parents’ home. Thus she led a difficult life, paying in this birth itself for the suffering she had caused her parents through her elopement.
After some time Patacara became pregnant with their first child. As was the custom she wanted to go back to her parents’ home for the delivery. At the appropriate time she requested her husband to take her back to her parents. He refused, as he was sure that they would have him tortured and killed for taking her away from them. Patacara then decided to go on her own. Telling her neighbours that she had gone to visit her parents, Patacara started walking towards Savatthi.
When her husband returned from work and found that Patacara had left to see her parents he was distraught. Running after her he caught up with her and pleaded for her to return. At that time the birth pains started. Taking shelter under some bushes Patacara gave birth to a baby boy. At her husband’s insistence she turned back and returned to their home.
Some years later Patacara became pregnant with their second child. When the time for the child’s birth drew near, determined to have the baby with the support of her parents, she took her older son and walked towards Savatthi. She had walked half the distance when her husband caught up with her. Again he dissuaded her from going. But this time Patacara was determined to be with her parents.
They were travelling thus when they were overcome by a fierce rainstorm. Strong winds tore across the path, swaying the branches hither and thither, and torrents of rain poured down. In the midst of the storm Patacara’s birth pains started. She asked her husband to build a temporary shelter to shield them from the torrential rains and wind. He left to cut down some suitable branches to build a shelter. Patacara waited in vain for her husband’s return. Then, shielding her first-born as best she could, she gave birth to a second son. Patacara slept the night huddled under a bush, her body arched to shield her two sons from the storm.
The next morning she traced the steps of her husband to find his stiffened body. When cutting branches for a shelter he had disturbed a poisonous snake. Death had been painful but quick. Lamenting in sorrow, Patacara gathered her sons and continued to her parents’ home in Savatthi.
On the way they had to cross the swollen river Aciravati. The water was waist-high and the current strong. Patacara, exhausted by the storm and her recent ordeal of childbirth, knew that she could not carry both children. Leaving her older son on the bank she carried the newborn babe to the other side. Then she started back to fetch her first-born. She was half-way across when she saw a hawk swoop down to carry away the newborn who resembled a piece of red meat. Patacara screamed and waved her hands, hoping the hawk would drop her baby. The hawk ignored her cries, but her first-born, thinking that his mother was calling him, ran into the river only to be swept away by the swirling waters.
Patacara was broken with grief. She had lost her husband and two sons within one day. Numb with grief, her hair streaming, her clothes wet, a tear-stained Patacara approached Savatthi. There she met a city dweller and inquired as to the whereabouts of her parents. The stranger begged her not to ask about that family. "Inquire about any other but not that family," he said. But Patacara insisted. He then informed her that the previous night’s strong winds had blown over their house, killing both her parents and her brother. Then, pointing towards blue smoke that rose into the air, he said, "Look, that is the smoke from the funeral pyre of the three that died. They were cremated together."
Her grief too great to bear, Patacara lost her mind. Screaming in pain she ran about the town, her clothes torn, hair streaming, half-naked. The locals abused her and called her names for they were sure that she was mentally deranged. A grief-stricken, half-crazy Patacara approached the Jetavana monastery where the Buddha was residing. The townsfolk tried to stop her. But the Buddha, perceiving with his compassionate eye her inner wisdom, bade her enter. He then brought her back to mindfulness by His compassion and words. The Buddha said, "Regain your mindfulness, sister". It was as if a bucket of cold water had been thrown over her body. The words shook her very being and calmed her grief-stricken mind. Wrapping a cloak that someone had thrown to her around her person, Patacara told her tragic story to the Buddha.
The Buddha listened with compassion and patience, then told her not to be troubled any longer. "You have come to One who can help relieve your suffering. It is not only today that you have lost sons, husbands and parents, but throughout this infinite round of samsara you have lost sons and others dear to you." "You have, He said, shed more tears than the waters in the four oceans." As He went on speaking Patacara’s grief subsided. The Buddha then concluded with the following verse:
"The four oceans contain but a little water
Compared to all the tears we have shed
Smitten by sorrow, bewildered by pain
Why, O woman, are you still heedless?"
No sons are there for shelter
No father or related folk
For one seized by death
Kinsmen provide no shelter.
Having well understood this fact
The wise men well restrained by virtue
Quickly indeed should clear
The path going to Nibbana."
-- (Dhammapada 268, 288, 289)
By the time the Buddha had finished His discourse Patacara was no longer the raving madwoman who had entered the monastery. She had penetrated the Truth of the impermanence of all conditioned things and attained the first stage of sainthood, Sotapanna. She then requested ordination as a nun. After entering the Noble Order of nuns, Patacara practised the Dhamma diligently. Her diligence soon bore fruit, as before long Patachara attained Arahanthship. She explains her experiences and her attainment as follows in the Therigatha:
"Ploughing the field with their ploughs
Sowing seeds upon the ground,
Maintaining their wives and children,
Young men acquire wealth.
Then why, when I am pure in virtue,
Practicing the Master’s Teaching
Have I not attained Nibbana
For I am neither lazy nor arrogant?
Having washed my feet
I reflected upon the waters.
When I saw the foot water flow
From the high ground down the slope.
My mind became concentrated
Like an excellent thoroughbred steed.
Having taken a lamp I entered my hut
I inspected the bed and sat on the couch.
Then, having taken a needle
I pulled down the wick
The liberation of the mind
Was like the quenching of the lamp."
-- (Therigatha 112-116)
Patacara had achieved her goal. With the quenching of the lamp, her mind, which was one pointed, attained liberation. Patacara was designated by the Buddha as the nun who was foremost in Vinaya (discipline rules for the monks and nuns). As a young girl Patacara had been undisciplined and frivolous. She had rebelled against the authority of her parents and reaped the misfortune of her rebellion. Thus it is not surprising that she valued the importance of discipline and became the nun foremost in the Vinaya.
Patacara was able to move from a frivolous girl to a saint so quickly because of her past life aspirations and training. At the time of the Padumuttara Buddha one hundred thousand world cycles ago, she had observed the Teacher assign to a nun the title of foremost in the discipline. She had been inspired by that nun and aspired to be the nun foremost in discipline under a future Buddha. The Buddha Padumuttara, seeing that Patacara had the merit and ability to fulfil her aspiration, had prophesied that she would be the nun foremost in discipline at the time of the Buddha Gotama. Patacara had been a nun under many subsequent Buddhas and the insight and wisdom she had acquired came to fruition under the Gotama Buddha.
Many nuns benefitted from Patacara’s instruction and training. The following are the grateful words of the nun Cunda, formerly a beggar, who obtained instruction from her.
"Because she had compassion for me
Patacara gave me the going forth (ordination)
Then she gave me an exhortation,
And enjoined me in the ultimate goal.
Having heard her word,
I followed her instruction;
The lady’s exhortation was not in vain,
I am now canker-free, with the triple knowledge."
-- (Therigatha 125-126)
The text also contained the unidentified writings of one who described the experiences of a group of 30 nuns who obtained instruction from Patacara.
Having heard her advice, Patacara’s instruction,
They cleaned their feet and sat down on one side.
Then, devoted to serenity of mind,
They practised the Buddha’s teaching.
In the first watch of the night,
They recollected their former births.
In the night’s middle watch,
They purified the divine eye.
In the last watch of the night,
They sundered the mass of darkness.
Having risen they worshipped her feet,
"Your instruction has been taken to heart.
As the thirty gods honour Indra,
The one unconquered in battle,
So shall we dwell honouring you.
We are cankerless, bearers of triple knowledge."
-- (Therigatha 119-121)
The writing clearly illustrates the gratitude of the nuns to the teacher whose instruction helped them to attain the unconditioned (Nibbana). In addition to honoring the Buddha they were exceedingly grateful to the one who taught them the Dhamma, and worshiped and honored their instructor. Just as the Buddha showed gratitude to the Bodhi Tree that gave Him shade and shelter, thus providing the environment He needed for mental concentration and enlightenment, His nuns and monks honored the teachers who helped them reach Nibbana.
Patacara, who had suffered greatly because of her undisciplined and inconsiderate behavior, devoted her life to teaching other young women monastic discipline and the benefits of a disciplined mind. She was respected as a great teacher and a compassionate nun who helped many women attain emancipation.