Chapter X — Eleven Verses
Kīsā Gotamī has two of the most heart-rending stories in the Buddhist tradition associated with her name. The Commentary to this verse tells that when her young child had died, she refused to believe it was dead. After asking many people—in vain—for medicine that would revive the child, she was finally directed to the Buddha. When she told him her story, he offered to provide medicine for the child, but he would need some mustard seed — the cheapest Indian spice — obtained from a family in which no one had died. She went from house to house asking for mustard seed, and no one refused to give it to her. But when she asked if anyone had died in the family, the universal response was always, "Oh, yes, of course." After a while, the message sunk in: Death is universal. On abandoning the child's body to a charnel ground, she returned to the Buddha and asked to be ordained as a nun, and afterwards became an arahant.
The canonical verses associated with Kīsā Gotamī's name, however, tell a different story, which is identical to the story that the Commentary attributes to Paṭācārā: Pregnant with her second child, she was returning to her parents' home, along with her husband and young firstborn child, to give birth. Along the way, a great storm blew up, and she asked her husband to provide shelter for the family. As he was cutting grass and gathering sticks to build a shelter, a snake bit him and he died of the poison. Unsheltered, and wondering at her husband's long absence, Paṭācārā gave birth and had to spend the night sheltering both her children against the rain and wind with nothing more than her body. The next morning, she found her husband dead. Distraught, she decided to return to her parents' home. However, a river — swollen from the rain of the previous night — ran across her way. Unable to carry both children across the river in one trip, she left her first-born on the near bank and waded through the raging current carrying her baby. Placing the baby on the far bank, she turned back to fetch her first-born. A hawk, seeing the baby, took it for a piece of flesh, and swooped down on it. Seeing this, Paṭācārā raised her hands and tried to chase it away, but to no avail: The hawk picked up the baby and carried it off. Meanwhile, her first-born — seeing his mother raising her hands — took it for a signal to cross the river. Jumping into the raging current, he was carried off to his death. Overwhelmed with grief, Paṭācārā returned to her parents' home, only to learn that it had burned down from a lightning strike in the previous night's storm. Her parents and brother were at that moment being cremated on a single pyre. At this point, she went mad and began wandering around half-naked. Only on coming into the Buddha's presence did she recover her senses. He taught her the Dhamma, and eventually she ordained and became an arahant.
Why this story is attributed to Paṭācārā in the Commentary when it is obviously Kīsā Gotamī's in the Canon, is hard to tell. Some scholars have suggested that the tales in the Pāli commentaries were imported from other Buddhist traditions, such as the Mūlasarvāstivādin. Thus, the differences between the canonical verses and the commentarial tales stem from the fact that the different traditions attributed particular stories to different elder monks and nuns. For instance, the Pali Canon attributed the story of the woman whose family was destroyed in a single day to Kīsā Gotamī, while the tradition from which the Commentary drew attributed it to Paṭācārā. If that's the case, it's interesting to note how the commentators who adopted these tales nevertheless remained faithful to their Canon. Instead of trying to change the Pali to fit with the commentarial source on which they drew, they allowed the discrepancies between the two sources to stand: one of many instances in which the discrepancies between the Canon and the commentaries suggest that the monks who handed down the Pali Canon tried to keep it intact even when they didn't agree with it.
Later Theravādin texts have tried to cover over the discrepancies between Kīsā Gotamī's verses and the Commentary to those verses by insisting that the passage in the verses beginning, "Going along, about to give birth," and ending, "my husband dead, I reached the deathless," is actually Paṭācārā speaking, but this seems unlikely: Why would one arahant butt in on another one's tale?
At any rate, regardless of which story is Paṭācārā's, and which Kīsā Gotamī's, both speak to the universality of death, and the power of the path of practice: that in the midst of this human world with all its sorrows, there is still a way to find that which is free from grieving, aging, and illness: the deathless.
Having admirable friends
has been praised by the Sage
with reference to the world.
Associating with an admirable friend
even a fool
becomes wise.|| ||
People of integrity
should be associated with.
In that way discernment grows.
Associating with people of integrity
one would be released from all suffering and stress,
would know stress,
the origination of stress,
cessation and the eightfold path:
the four noble truths.
Stressful, painful, is the woman's state:
So says the tamer of tamable people.
Being a co-wife is painful.
Some, on giving birth once,
slit their throats.
Others, of delicate constitution,
In the midst of a breech-birth
both [mother and child] suffer destruction.
Going along, about to give birth,
I saw my husband dead.
Giving birth in the road,
I hadn't reached
my own home.
Two children deceased,
my husband dead in the road
My mother, father, and brother
were burning on a single pyre.
"Your family all gone, miserable,
you've suffered pain without measure.
Your tears have flowed
for many thousands of lives."
Then I saw,
in the midst of the charnel ground,
the muscles of sons being chewed.
With family killed,
despised by all,
my husband dead,
I reached the deathless.
I've developed this path,
going to the deathless.
Having realized unbinding,
I've gazed in the mirror of Dhamma.
I've extracted the arrow,
put down the burden,
done the task.
I, Kīsā Gotamī Therī,
my heart well released,
have said this.
 Reading passiɱ taɱ susāna-majjhe with the Thai edition.