Contradictory ideas about women and what it means to be female cluster around the figure of the Buddha's mother, Queen Māyā. Having died seven days after giving birth to the Buddha, in texts she is alternately the good, dead mother, so familiar in folktales from around the world, 2 and a lightning rod for male fears about female sexuality and pollution. The Mahāvastu, hereinafter the MV, 3 explains that the mothers of all buddhas, of the past and of the future, die seven days after giving birth because it is inappropriate for them ever to have sex again. 4 It adds that the Buddha is not polluted by the foul matter of the womb, but remains pure while in the womb because his body is rubbed with perfume and washed clean. 5 The LV tells us that while in his mother's womb the Buddha was enclosed in a jeweled casket (ratnavyūha) to protect him from its pollution (Plate 2). 6 In contrast to these negative textual statements about the pollution of all female bodies, including Queen Māyā's, her iconography positively represents female sexuality and celebrates its auspicious powers of fecundity. Of even further interest, although Queen Māyā is only briefly treated in the Buddha's biographies, in part because she died so soon after his birth, she is pervasive in Buddhist iconography. This suggests that her image carried additional meanings that went beyond her individuality as a particular historical character. In the same way that images of the Buddha represent both the historical Buddha and the state of enlightenment, so, too, images of Queen Māyā represent her historical individuality and the auspicious fecundity of human and divine females.
In South Asia fertile women are believed to possess part of the sacred powers of creation and are thus defined as auspicious (magalam),