Reiko Ohnuma offers a wide-ranging exploration of maternal imagery and discourse in pre-modern South Asian Buddhism, drawing on textual sources preserved in Pali and Sanskrit. She demonstrates that Buddhism in India had a complex and ambivalent relationship with mothers and motherhood-symbolically, affectively, and institutionally.
Symbolically, motherhood was a double-edged sword, sometimes extolled as the most appropriate symbol for buddhahood itself, and sometimes denigrated as the most paradigmatic manifestation possible of attachment and suffering. On an affective level, too, motherhood was viewed with the same ambivalence: in Buddhist literature, warm feelings of love and gratitude for the mother's nurturance and care frequently mingle with submerged feelings of hostility and resentment for the unbreakable obligations thus created, and positive images of self-sacrificing mothers are counterbalanced by horrific depictions of mothers who kill and devour. Institutionally, the formal definition of the Buddhist renunciant as one who has severed all familial ties seems to co-exist uneasily with an abundance of historical evidence demonstrating monks' and nuns' continuing concern for their mothers, as well as other familial entanglements.
Ohnuma's study provides critical insight into Buddhist depictions of maternal love and maternal grief, the role played by the Buddha's own mothers, Maya and Mahaprajapati, the use of pregnancy and gestation as metaphors for the attainment of enlightenment, the use of breastfeeding as a metaphor for the compassionate deeds of buddhas and bodhisattvas, and the relationship between Buddhism and motherhood as it actually existed in day-to-day life.