Buddha and Jesus: Who Were They? (Part 1 – The Chosen Mothers)

To start off this series, I thought it reasonable to go to the beginning. Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha) and Jesus (the Christ) were both born. So, how similar were the births of these two spiritual teachers?

It is my objective in the proceeding few articles to point out the most non-controversial observations about the accounts of Siddhartha Gautama and Jesus of Nazareth. As you will discover, there are stark contrasts between the two stories. It will be crucial to understand these differences as we compare other aspects of the lives and teachings of these two spiritual teachers in later articles.

Today, we will bite off a single topic: the identity of the birth mothers of the Buddha and Jesus. Who were they, and how were they chosen?

The Chosen Mother of Siddhartha Gautama

In the land of Kapilavastu in Nepal, in the late 600’s BC, was a kingdom with a kind, just, generous king, named Suddhodana.[1] He was married to many queens, his favorite of whom was Maya.[2]

Queen Maya was beautiful and virtuous. However, she and the king remained childless for twenty years.[3]

Queen Maya had a dream that turned her fate. In the dream, an exotic young elephant—white as snow, with six tusks—appeared to her and entered her womb; then the gods appeared and sang glorious songs.[4] Afterward, she discovered she was with child.

Queen Maya called for the king, who experienced much turmoil entering into the Queen’s presence. The gods explained the king’s discomfort, announcing that “he who seeks supreme knowledge” had chosen to be born into his family. The buddha-to-be, approaching the end of his life in a parallel world (in another incarnated form), chose to be born into this family because of its “fame, good fortune and virtue,” and because Queen Maya was the noblest among women.[2]

When the queen told the king of the dream, she suggested that they call brahmans to interpret the dream. The brahmans, hearing the dream, rejoiced and announced that the royal couple would have a son, and he would be a buddha (a person who has achieved full enlightenment).[2, 6] The king and queen rejoiced at this news.

In celebration, the king gave gifts to the poor. Queen Maya was venerated, and she healed many sick people by her touch. The kingdom was showered with songs of gratitude and abundant happiness.[2]

The queen abounded so much in virtue that she had no earthly desires for physical intimacy with the king during her pregnancy.[5] She asked the king permission to live a life of abstinence, away from all ugliness and evil.[1] The king happily agreed, and she lived for a time in the “lofty reaches of the palace,” lounging on a perfumed couch strewn with flowers, attended by maidens.[1]

The Chosen Mother of Jesus

In the land of Israel, around the year 5 BC, when Israel was under Roman rule, a young Jewish virgin named Mary was pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a carpenter by profession. As per Jewish custom, the couple initiated a year-long betrothal period.

In the midst of this betrothal period, an angel visited Mary to announce that she would bear a son, Jesus, who would be called the Son of God and whose rule would never end.[7] The virgin was told that she would have this child when “the Holy Spirit” (the Eternal God) overshadowed her.[7]

The angel greeted Mary as “favored one”, assuring her that she had “found favor with God.” The biblical texts do not elaborate upon why God chose Mary to carry His incarnation, but there are reasons to infer that she was a virtuous woman.[7, 8]

When Joseph found out Mary was pregnant, he assumed she was unfaithful and decided to divorce her quietly; but an angel appears to him to let him know that she was pregnant by the Holy Spirit and that he need not divorce her.[9] Joseph kept his betrothal to Mary, and he abstained from sexual relations with Mary until after the child was born.[9] It is likely that Mary was ostracized by her community once her pregnancy became public knowledge, as pregnancy during the betrothal period would have implied that Mary was not a virgin as she so claimed.[10]

After finding out that she was pregnant, Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who was also with child. Elizabeth reported that the baby in her womb “leaped for joy” when Mary greeted her.[7] Elizabeth considered herself blessed to have been visited by the mother of her Lord.[7]

On Mary’s own account, she was not a person of nobility or riches. Mary praised God for choosing her—a woman of humble status—to deliver the child who would be the savior of her people. In her praise, she said, “For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave” (Luke 1:48). She considered herself to be highly blessed, and yet a commoner living in a humble state.

Summary

In summary, we have observed attributes of the Queen Maya, mother of the Buddha and Mary, the mother of the Christ. Queen Maya resided in palaces amongst beauty and riches. She was not a virgin; instead, she and her husband had been childless and then miraculously conceived after Maya’s supernatural dream. The announcement of the conception caused the entire kingdom to celebrate, and Queen Maya was honored by all. In contrast, Mary resided as a commoner, pledged to be married to a commoner. She lived in a humble abode. An angel announced that the Holy Spirit would cause her to be with child while she was yet a virgin. Although her cousin celebrated the news, Mary likely received dishonor from her Jewish community for becoming pregnant out of wedlock. As you can see, the differences between these two mothers are vast.

Next time, we will investigate the pre-ministry lives of the Buddha and Jesus.

References:

[1] There appear to be differing opinions on the date Gautama Buddha was born. One date offered is 623 BC; another is 546 BC; and there are other dates given as well. It is not my purpose here to pin down this detail from the primary literature, so I leave the date to estimation in my account.

[2] The Life of Buddha, Part One, Ch. 1, p.4-6. I cite this text carefully, as it is a compilation of Buddha’s life that has been edited for Western readership. I have encountered a few questionable discrepancies between the accounts given here and more widely accepted Buddhist tradition.

[3] This detail appears to be widely accepted in Buddhist tradition, but I have not found the primary reference. There are secondary references here, here, and here.

[4] The Life of Buddha, Part One, Ch. 2, p.8-11. This story is told in secondary sources, like here. Another account describes the story a bit differently. After the queen and king came together intimately, the queen had a dream. In the dream, four “world-guardians” carried Maya to a distant place, where she encounters the one who will be her child. He is near death in this other world, and he asks permission to enter Maya’s womb, to which she consents. After this dream, she discovers she is pregnant. See the source here.

[5] A clear reference for this is in the MAJJHIMA NIKĀYA III text here. Maya’s austerity is also alluded to on page 2 of the Fo-Sho-Hing-Tsan-King text here.

[6] Book One:  Siddharth Gautama—How a Bodhisatta Became the Buddha (Book One, Part I—From Birth to Parivraja), Section 3.

[7] The Gospel of Luke (in the Biblical canon), Ch. 1, verses 26-56.

[8] In the Catholic tradition, various qualities are attributed to Mary, including sinlessness, being ministered to by angels, and other supernatural occurrences. As such qualities are not pointed out in the Biblical canon, I will set these considerations aside for another time and suspend these qualities from my analysis.

[9] The Gospel of Matthew (in the Biblical canon), Ch. 1, verses 18-25.

[10] Although there is good evidence that Mary would have been shamed according to Jewish custom, not all scholars agree on this point. See examples of differing viewpoints spelled out in popular-level sources here and here.

IMAGE CREDITS:

Ekvira – Lord Budhha’s mother MAHAMAYA (Ek vira chi aai ) belonged to the Koli tribe.

By SUBHASHKAMBLE (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Mary, Mother of Jesus

https://pixabay.com/en/church-window-window-church-2217785/

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Author: Rachel Rasmussen

Rachel Rasmussen, M.S., is an entrepreneur and author of the book, Escaping the Ordinary Life. Her primary research centers on practical theology, spirituality, science, and issues that influence ordinary life. She lives with her husband and three kids in Azusa, CA.

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