The Story of Bhadda Kundalakesa

Bhadda Kundalakesa was one of the historical Buddha‘s female disciples. Although she lived 25 centuries ago, many modern women can relate to her story, beginning with her terrible judgment in men.

Bhadda was the protected and pampered daughter of a wealthy family of Magadha, in what is now northern India. She was a lovely girl, but because of her headstrong nature her parents were having a hard time finding her a suitable husband.

One day, the teenage Bhadda looked out her window and saw a deliciously handsome man in the custody of soldiers. He was named Satthuka, and he was a thief being taken away to be executed. Somehow — one suspects an epic tantrum — she persuaded her father to redeem the fellow and have him freed and pardoned, if he agreed to marry Bhadda that very day.

Satthuka may have been handsome, but he was still a thief. Shortly after the wedding, Satthuka apparently decided a wife cramped his style, and he desired Bhadda’s jewelry more than Bhadda.

He told his bride he intended to make an offering to a certain mountain deity, and he asked her to accompany him. But when they reached the top of a high cliff, he told her the truth — he was done with her; he was going to push her off the cliff to her death and make off with her possessions.

But now the thief was out of luck. Bhadda pushed Satthuka off the cliff instead.

The Jain Ascetic

The stunned Bhadda, suddenly older and wiser, chose not to go back to her family. Instead, she wandered until she found a group of Jain nuns, and she joined them. The nuns practiced a form of extreme asceticism in the belief that causing themselves to suffer would burn off the effects of bad karma.

(Note that the Buddha directly refuted this Jain belief in the Devadaha Sutta of the Pali Sutta-pitaka, Majjhima Nikaya 101.)

The nuns strove to possess nothing, to desire nothing, and to burn away all passions through self-denial. Baddha gave herself to hardship. When she was ordained, her hair was pulled out by the roots. Her hair grew back thick and curly, however, which earned her the name Kundalakesa — “curly hair.”

The Debate

As time went on, Bhadda Kundalakesa found Jain teachings unsatisfying, and she sought out teachers from other traditions. She also studied Vedic scriptures. No longer the pampered daughter of wealthy parents, she discovered she had a keen intellect, and she learned how to use it.

After many years — and not unlike her distant dharma sister, Liu Tiemo — Bhadda Kundalakesa gained a reputation as a formidable debater. As she traveled from town to town, she invited debate challenges by sticking a rose-apple branch into a pile of sand. Anyone who dared could challenge her by trampling on the sand, but none could get the better of her.

One day she was near Anathapindika‘s monastery in Jeta Grove, where the disciple Sariputra was staying. Sariputra sent children to pick apart Bhadda Kundalakesa’s sand pile, and soon she found her way to Sariputra. The debate was on!

She asked question after question, and Sariputra answered her easily. Then it was his turn. What is the one? he asked. And she couldn’t answer. She lost.

Humbly, Bhadda Kundalakesa asked Sariputra to become her teacher. But he told her to find the Buddha instead. So it was that some time later, she approached the Buddha to be ordained. “Better than many volumes of knowledge is a single verse that brings peace,” he said.

Then Bhadda Kundalakesa was ordained a Buddhist nun, and she soon realized enlightenment. Her poetry is recorded in the in a section of the Pali Sutta-pitaka called the Therigatha, or Verses of the Elder Nuns, in the Khuddaka Nikaya.

[This is an article I wrote for the Buddhism section of About.com. However, since About.com has removed it from their servers, all rights revert to me.]

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