Was Queen Khema infertile? What did ancient people do all day?

We all know the story of Khema Theri, Buddha’s wisest female disciple, female counterpart to Sariputta. Her husband, King Bimbisara, was a devout follower of the Buddha and a stream enterer and often pushed his wife to go see the Buddha with him, but she refused, because she was aware that she was vain and infatuated with her own youthful beauty and knew that the Buddha wouldn’t approve of that. Khema really loved beauty and beautiful things, so her husband hired poets to sing about the beauty of the Bamboo grove monastery the Buddha stayed in, so he convinced her to go. While the Buddha was giving a dharma talk, with his psychic powers, he created a vision for Khema of a beautiful young girl fanning him, a girl much more beautiful than her. (I personally don’t entirely believe that, because I think wisdom makes you more attractive :kissing_heart:). In the vision Khema saw the girl slowly age and age, go from a young girl, to a mature woman, to an old withered woman having lost all her beauty, until she eventually fell dead next to the Buddha. That day Khema became an arahant, - a rare feat in the suttas for someone who was still a layperson - spiritually surpassing her husband who was only a stream enterer, and she requested his permission to ordain (which was granted).

I have a couple question about this.

  1. First, did Khema have any children or dependents when she went forth? I know Ambapali had a son named Jivaka who became a physician, but I assume she ordained after her son had grown up, because no mother would want to leave her child. If she didn’t, then why? Wasn’t it obligatory back in the day in Indian society for women to have children, wasn’t being infertile or childless extremely taboo in all ancient societies? If she didn’t have children or dependents, them the only explanation seems to be that she couldn’t have them, that for whatever reason she hadn’t managed to get pregnant. What do the people in this forum think about this? Is it a reasonable explanation?
  2. What did all these wealthy women like Khema, Samavati, Patacara before she run away, etc do all day if they had maids taking care of the household chores and women back then didn’t have to work. I know there where women who were weavers and that Ambapali was a courtesan so I assume she was practicing singing and dancing all day and she also catered to her clients various lusts. I assume Khujjutata had chores to do and errands to run since she was someone else slave. But what did the wealthy women do? Did they lay in perfumed beds all day admiring their own beauty in a golden mirror and have their maids braid their hair? Did they consume mindless entertainment like how Prince Sidarttha had a thing for dancing girls and music before he abandoned lay life?
  3. And by the way, what did the men do all day back in the day, what did the Buddha do, did he watch sexy young girls dance in skimpy outfits and eat the finest foods while sitting under an umbrella and wearing his expensive panties from Benares? Did he do any work?

I’d love to know your thoughts on my questions and I’m sorry if these sound a lot like the questions the Buddha really didn’t like to answer, I am simply a very curious mind. I hope you’re having a good day.

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I don’t think this gives any answers to your specific questions (children, how people spent time) but you may enjoy if you are not familiar:


As far as I know it is the only translation of the commentary to the “Foremost” section of the AN where the Buddha lists off disciples’ highest quality.

For the story of Jīvaka’s birth, you can find it in the Vinaya here. It might be kind of shocking, though. [CW: child abandonment]

Crazy Rich Asian does give a glimpse into the life of the super rich and what they do all day when they don’t need to work or do housechores.

Maybe in the ancient times, it’s the same thing, just less technology.

Anyway, not important to the path.

Possibly, as royalty, her offspring’s needs would be tended to by servants. You write that no mother would want to leave their child … don’t be so sure. After all, who was it we all know of well that left their child in search of the holy life?

As for what the royalty do all day. Well … they’re property and land owners; so they deal in property ownership … which has its own host of duties (I’m imagining).

But; there would be meals to look forward too …? Servants to reprimand? Dinner parties? Executions … and then … add mindless entertainment … and you’ve got yourself a full day in store. Not to mention all of the money you’d be spending.

“Time is money” - but spending money means spending time spending money … correct :crazy_face:

Excellent questions!

First up, what you’ve presented here is the commentarial story, which (IMHO) is a later legend without any basis in her actual life.

What we know of her from the early texts is disappointingly slim. In a few places she is extolled as one of the great bhikkhunis, but of her words we have only six verses in the Therigatha (Thig 6.3) and one discussion with Pasenadi (SN 44.1). Any consideration of her life must start there.

Of her personal, rather than Dhamma, qualities, from the Therigatha we learn:

  • she went forth while young and beautiful
  • before ordaining she practiced Vedic fire worship

From SN 44.1 we learn:

  • she, like many bhikkhunis, wandered from place to place
  • she had a certain renown as a teacher and practictioner
  • she had no problem engaging in a high level discussion with a king
  • she was a creative teacher, as she adopts similes from the suttas but rephrases them in a unique way

That’s about it, I’m afraid.

Now in terms of her background, if you’re interested to pursue that further, I would suggest looking into the accounts found in Tibetan and Chinese traditions, and comparing with the Pali commentaries, etc. Often we find that, for all the embellishments, there are common elements in the legends, and these might point to a common core.

Obviously childlessness would be undesirable for a wife, but it seems to have been widely accepted that women could go forth and remain childless.

Women managed the household, the duties of which are spelled out (AN 8.49). Thus the Buddha said a woman’s ultimate goal is “authority” (AN 6.52), in support of which a husband was expected to honor his wife in five ways (DN 31):

by treating her with honor, by not looking down on her, by not being unfaithful, by relinquishing authority to her, and by presenting her with adornments.

With the exception of the world’s oldest profession, it is rare to see women at that time earning a salary. But that, of course, does not mean that they did not work.

I assume you mean before he went forth! As a member of the aristocracy, the Buddha would have been instructed in many of the fields relevant to rulership. Later texts spell this out in often implausible detail, but the basic idea is sound. He would have learned the arts of war, of management; he would probably have had lessons from the family priest (purohita) on the duties of righteous ruler, and so on. That doesn’t mean there was no hands-on work; when he was a child, he said his father was away working, which the tradition explains as plowing, perhaps ceremonially. But the day to day work would have been management of the estates and properties. we also see the Sakyans engaged in civic responsibilities, discussing matters in the town hall.

Obviously they did spend a not inconsiderable time enjoying themselves, why not? Otherwise, what’s the point of wealth and power? Even as the Buddha he encouraged wage earners to spend a reasonable portion of their income to make themselves and their families happy.


Thank you a lot for answering my questions Bhante!

Obviously childlessness would be undesirable for a wife, but it seems to have been widely accepted that women could go forth and remain childless.

Yeah, I understand that, though why was she childless to begin with? The only explanation for why she went for is that she was either childess or she left her children to pursue the path, and I tend to gravitate towards the first option.

You said that women did work back in ancient India, by managing household duties. Did the wealthy women do the same though? Didn’t they have maids and servants doing all that stuff for them?

Greetings from the land of mousaka and thank you for answering my questions and being so informative <3

Someone has to manage them.

Also, there would have been unending social/emotional obligations to deal with.

It’s normal to be curious about things like this, but we just don’t have information, even from the commentaries, about the details of people’s biographies. Personally I feel like it’s pointless to try and speculate about things like this. We will never get answers and we may even end up constructing wrong or harmful theories.

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