Pātācarā was the daughter of a wealthy merchant. They lived in Sāvatthī, one of the six largest ancient Indian cities during Gautama Buddha's lifetime. She was extremely beautiful and caught the interest of many suitors. When Pātācarā was sixteen, her parents confined her to their mansion's seventh story to limit her interaction with men. During this time, her parents arranged for her to marry a man that they deemed suitable for her, but she had fallen in love with one of her parents' servants. The two lovers ran away to a distant village. Here her husband farmed while she learned to carry out the tasks that her parents' servants used to do for her.
Pātācarā fell pregnant and wanted to deliver her baby in her parents' home. She was sure that her parents would forgive her for running away and welcome her back into their home. Pātācarā's husband was hesitant, thinking that her parents would punish him for running off with their daughter. Realizing that her husband would not accompany her to her parents' home, Pātācarā set off alone one day while her husband was working. When her husband returned, he asked the neighbors where Pātācarā was and, upon hearing that she left to her parents' home, he set off after her. He soon caught up to her, but they had left it too late. Pātācarā ended up giving birth to their son on the road. After the birth of their son, the couple decided to return home.
The same thing happened during Pātācarā's second pregnancy. Again she begged her husband to go with her to her parents' home, and again he refused. Once more, she set off alone, and once more, he followed. On the way, the couple got caught in a massive storm. During this storm, Pātācarā went into labor. She asked her husband to build a shelter where she could give birth. Her husband set off to collect branches for a shelter but did not return. Pātācarā gave birth alone during a raging storm with her small son nearby.
In the morning, once the storm had passed, she went to go look for her husband – sure that he wouldn't have just left her alone. She followed the path that he had taken and found his body on the ground. While cutting branches and vegetation for a shelter, he was bitten by a snake and died. Having had lost her husband, Pātācarā set off to her parents' home with her small son and new-born baby. Along the way, she encountered a river. The river was flowing briskly, fed by the rains from the storm. Realizing that she would not make it across the river with her baby and her son, she decided to leave her son on the river bank, take the baby across and then come back to fetch her son.
Pātācarā made it safely across the river with her new-born. She gently placed the baby amongst soft grass and turned back to help her son. When she was halfway through, a bird of prey (either a hawk or an eagle) snatched her baby up. Pātācarā shouted and waved, trying to chase the bird away, but it flew off with the infant. On the riverbank, her son thought that she was calling him to her, and he entered the river. The current was strong and washed him away.
Consumed with grief, Pātācarā set out to the comfort of her parents' home. Once in the city, she struggled to find their home and asked a passer-by. The man informed her that her parent's home had collapsed during the storm, killing everyone inside. He pointed out the smoke from their funeral pyres. Unable to process the anguish of losing her husband, children, parents, and siblings in such a short time, Pātācarā mind left her. She tore away at her clothes and wandered around naked.
One day Pātācarā came to the monastery where Buddha was staying. He saw her and implored her to regain her mindfulness. The Buddha's words penetrated Pātācarā's grief. She covered herself with a cloak given to her by one of the bystanders. Through the teachings of the Buddha and meditation, Pātācarā came to realize that some people have short lives, some mid-length, and others long ones. With this, Pātācarā manages to achieve detachment and liberation.
Pātācarā became the keeper of the Vinaya – the rules and guidelines set out for the Buddhist community. She adopted the role of teaching and guiding followers (especially female followers) in the monastic rules. Pātācarā provided comfort for those facing difficulties and encouraged many towards the path of enlightenment through practicing compassion.