The conversion of a courtesan is a popular motif in Buddhist literature, 1 one that provides dramatic impact. The presence of a beautiful courtesan demonstrates the Buddha's utter indifference to the sexual charms of women, since a rich and successful courtesan will be the most attractive of women. 2 This suggests to the male audience that they, too, should be beyond such attractions. At the same time, though, these stories about courtesans and ascetics still retain their associations with the power and auspiciousness of female sexuality. In Buddhist literature courtesans act as lightning rods for Buddhist teachings about sexuality, the nature of women, and the impermanence of the body. 3 The central obstacle to the Buddhist path of renunciation and the main cause of human suffering is desire, and courtesans are experts in desire-the male desire of their customers and their own greed. Indian literature represents the courtesan as one ruled by desire, both for sex and wealth, whose primary goal is to arouse desire in others. 4 When courtesans are converted, they reinforce the Buddhist teaching that all people can become Buddhists, even great sinners, and that not only women but even the worst women can be equal practitioners. Moreover, some converted courtesans also maintain their auspicious powers of fecundity.
In one of his past lives the Buddha was involved with a courtesan. In this tale from the MV (II.162-70), the Śyāmā Jātaka, the Buddha is a