Buddhist literature has given us many extraordinary figures who have proven to possess considerable, enduring appeal. Exceptional even by these high standards is Bhaddā Kuṇḍalakesā, as she is author, protagonist, or inspirer of some of the world’s earliest poetry by women, of a great epic dedicated to her and of popular songs and movies that are still played in the twenty-first century. The nun Bhaddā was a direct disciple of the Buddha and came to be known for her quick wit, the type of ordination she received, her prowess as debater, and the speed at which she gained awakening once taught by the Buddha.
There is little that we know with certainty about the historical Bhaddā. This is because a great deal of the material we have cannot be ascertained to be historically accurate or is likely to be legendary. Irrespective of the degree of accuracy of our sources, Bhaddā as a literary character is highly interesting for a number of reasons, including ethical questions in connection with an incident of selfdefense killing and the way this killing is depicted and commented upon in the story; the portrayal of women in the religions and literatures of Asia; and the ways the character develops and changes over the centuries. Furthermore, Bhaddā’s is a good story, a tale of love, deceit, drama, death, penance and final redemption, with a plot containing elements of a Bildungsroman.
Bhaddā’s story has been retold a number of times in traditional and modern sources. Some authors have provided translations or brief commentaries, for instance in connection with her initiation into the Saṅgha and in the context of current discussions about reviving full ordination for Buddhist nuns, or in connection with the great Tamil epic Kuṇṭalakēci that unfortunately only survives in fragments. However, there has been very little scholarship that has gone beyond simply restating or summarizing her life and very little, if any, analysis. This article fills this lacuna by providing an analysis of Bhaddā’s story based on the Verses of Therīs (Therīgāthā) and Wish Fulfiller (Manorathapūraṇī) as well as with reference to several other sources.