Updated: May 18
Loss And Rebirth - The Story Of Paracara
Patacara lived in the 6th century BCE. She was the daughter, described as being very beautiful, of a wealthy merchant or banker. Growing up in a wealthy family we know two things: First, she was raised in luxury. Second, her marriage was arranged, probably from early in her life, to the son of a family within her caste. In some stories I read, he is said to have been a prince from a neighboring kingdom. So as Patacara (whose birth name was Roopwati) grew, her life was laid out before her. She would not have had many choices. She would have grown up not wanting for anything but expected to marry well and have babies, especially sons. She would have been educated in needlework, some cooking, and maybe a little reading and writing. Her job was to be a dutiful daughter, wife, mother, and to manage a household of her own someday.
Patacara became smitten with one of her parent’s household servants and runs away with him to live far away from her family. She became pregnant, and as that pregnancy came to term, she wanted to return to her family to give birth and be cared for by them, as was the custom. Her husband was said to be concerned about doing this. Perhaps he was concerned for his own life, or that Patacara’s family would not let her return home with him. Whatever his reasons, he kept putting the trip off, until one day, Patacara left on her own and started home without him. This was incredibly brave and incredibly dangerous for her. To be a woman traveling alone and heavily pregnant was almost certainly a recipe for disaster. As soon as her husband saw she was gone, he took off after her and caught up to her when she was almost halfway to her family home. There on the path, she went into labor and gave birth. Her husband must have done some convincing because they returned home to the house they shared together.
Time passed and Patacara became pregnant for a second time. Again, she wished to return to her mother and family to give birth and be cared for, again her husband procrastinated, and again she took her young child and set out on her own. Again, her husband discovered her missing and set out after her, catching up with her about halfway to her parents’ house. As her labor began, a violent storm developed. Rain fell in torrents. They were soon soaked, and Patacara’s husband knew he needed to build a temporary shelter quickly. As he hurriedly cut grasses and sticks to build the shelter, he was bitten by a snake and died. Not knowing what had happened, Patacara was left alone to give birth and shelter her two children with her own body to keep them safe. In the morning, she discovered his body. I can only imagine how she must have felt. Grief, fear, perhaps some anger, as well as the physical aftermath of giving birth. One of the stories I read said that she was so stricken (and probably exhausted) she didn’t move for a day and a night.
On the morning of the second day, she picked up her infant and young child and started the trip to her parents. She had nothing and no one to go back to. I can imagine in this moment, grief-stricken and with an infant and child, she must have longed for her mother. She pushed onward towards them and home. Along the way, Patacara knew she would have to cross a river. She had crossed rivers before and so knew the dangers but felt she could do it. She had to do it. She had to get home. When she got to the banks of the river her heart sank. It was swollen and rushing with the water from the storm. Patacara knew she couldn’t wade across with both children at the same time. She sat the older child on the river bank and headed across with the infant. Once safely to the other shore, she left the infant snuggled in grasses and leaves and started back across the river for the older child. She was terrified to leave the infant alone, but what could she do? She had to go back. She had just reached the halfway point when she saw a hawk fly overhead and turning, she saw the hawk pick up the screaming infant in its talons. Patacara screamed and splashed to try and scare the hawk into leaving the infant, to no avail. Meanwhile, her older child, thinking that at last, his mother was calling to him, stepped into the river. The rushing waters swept him away and he drowned.
At this point, my heart is aching for Patacara. So much loss in such a short space of time. Now both of her children and her husband were gone. Her world was gone. Her entire identity of being a wife and mother, shaped by time and culture, was gone. There was nothing for her to do but lay down and die too, or move forward, step by step and return to her family home. She continued on. Finally, she reached the outskirts of Savatthi, her girlhood home. It had been so long that Patacara had been gone. How was she to tell her family the story of where she had been and what had happened to her? As she came a little closer to town, she met a man traveling in the opposite direction and asked him about her family. He covered his face and said, “Ask me anything, but please don’t ask me about that family!”
“I have nothing else to ask,” she told the man. “There is nothing else I care about.”
The man looked up at her, shook his head, and said, “The rains came and did not stop. So much water, Your family’s house collapsed and fell on them. They are all dead and now burning on the pyre.’ He murmured his condolences and hurried on. The news she received was too much to bear. After all she had been through, all the loss, the storm, the exhaustion she fell into a deep depression. She wandered aimlessly until exhausted, she dropped and slept wherever she was. She walked and walked until she quite literally fell out of her clothes. Still, she walked in circles. Everywhere people pushed her away, turned away from her and some jeered.
One day, as she was wandering about, she found her way into Jeta Grove. Jeta Grove was a monastery donated to the Buddha in Uttar Pradesh. That day, Buddha was giving a talk and a crowd of people gathered to listen. As you might imagine, when they saw this naked, clearly disturbed woman, they sought to keep her away. The Buddha saw her though, and went to her, stepping in front of her. When she looked up and saw him he said, “Sister, recover your mind.” and she did.
At that moment she realized she was naked and a man gave her his outer robe.
The Buddha listened to her. He heard her hard story and felt her grief and despair. Then he told her that in her many lives, she had cried more tears for the dead than there is water in the ocean. He spoke to her of impermanence, the Four Truths, and the Noble Eightfold Path. When he finished, Patacara asked to be ordained as a nun. She and the Buddha went together to the nun's community and she was accepted as one of them. Finally, Patacara had found home.
She flourished under the care and teaching of the nuns and became the leader of one of the largest groups of nuns in her own right. I wonder if in these communities of women, for the first time these women found freedom. Freedom from depression and despair, freedom from societal norms of being a wife and mother. Perhaps some found freedom from abuse. Perhaps they even found freedom through creative expression. The Buddha cited her as the foremost keeper of the monastic rules for women. It is said she was so keenly interested in the rules of conduct because of the missteps she had made in her own life. From what is written about her, I believe she did this with a heart filled with compassion.
This is a story that has survived thousands of years. Patacara, the name given to her by the Buddha (meaning cloak-walker) has blessed countless generations of Buddhist women.
May we each be a blessing.
Statue of Patacara found here