The following excerpt was adapted from Yasodhara and the Buddha, a novel by Vanessa R. Sasson.
This is the story of Yasodhara, the woman who was married to the one who became the Buddha. Yasodhara is not the focus of most early Buddhist texts. The literature preserves fragments of her life, but the focus is (unsurprisingly) usually on her husband. The literature is genuinely scant where she is concerned—particularly regarding her youth. She is a key player during a few moments in the Buddha’s life, but otherwise, we know little about her. We know she produced their one and only son, that she was left behind when he made his Great Departure, and that when he returned to the palace seven (or eight) years later, he took his son back to the forest with him. The Jatakas (past-life stories) refer to her regularly, suggesting that Yasodhara and the Buddha had been connected for lifetimes, but we do not know much more than that. Indeed, Yasodhara is so marginalized in some cases that she does not even receive a name. She is known simply as Rahulamata—Rahula’s mother.
Siddhartha and Yasodhara are described as having been born at the same moment and in the same neighborhood, just a few doors away from each other. The heartbreak she experiences after his departure (which is described dramatically in a number of sources) was grounded in the fact that the Buddha departed alone, without inviting her to join him. After countless lifetimes of shared experiences, he abandoned her without even saying goodbye.
According to one account, his Great Departure took place on the very day she gave birth! After his son was born, Siddhartha is described as walking over to her bedroom to see them. He stood at the threshold and considered entering, longing to touch his newborn son, but he realized that if he did, she would wake up, and then he would no longer be able to leave. He therefore departed without touching his son or saying goodbye to his wife. His abandonment was dramatic, and the outcome was devastating. Yasodhara woke up the next morning to the news of his departure, told to her by someone else.
I have spent most of my academic career exploring the various versions of Yasodhara’s narratives, enjoying the rich tapestry of her and Siddhartha’s shared multi-life story, and I have yet to scratch the surface. The Buddha’s story, where Yasodhara plays an ongoing part, has been told more times than anyone can track, and each telling is different. The skeleton of the story remains, but the details vary, the emphasis redirects. Every time the Buddha and Yasodhara’s timeless story is told, it shifts, so that one can spend a lifetime studying these narratives and never quite reach the end.
The question that begs reflection (at least for me) is this: what would the story be today? What would I say if I was to try writing it myself? What would I see in the story if I did?
I began my own telling and discovered that the story broke my heart. I found Yasodhara facing suffering, living suffering, while her husband roamed the forest in a quest to solve it. She was living what he was trying to understand. Yasodhara was stripped of everything—her home, her husband, her status as a married woman, and eventually even her child. I saw him receiving all the glory while she was left with shattered remains.
For a time, I was angry with him. What kind of a hero causes so much pain? What kind of paradox had I landed in, that he was idealized for solving the problem of suffering while he created so much of it at the same time? Could he not have done things differently? My protective impulse wrapped itself around Yasodhara and pushed the Buddha away.
But then I learned something else: I was not the first to feel the burning pain of Yasodhara’s story. Although Buddhist hagiography focuses on the Buddha, and although these texts (unsurprisingly) idealize him, the early writers did not close their eyes to the suffering he leaves in his wake. Yasodhara’s laments are part of the tradition too. When she discovers he has gone, she challenges the chariot driver for taking her beloved away. She demands explanation, she charges in fury, she collapses with pain. Her abandonment was not lost on many of the early hagiographers.
Buddhism has a long relationship with misogyny, but what I found as I wrote this version of Yasodhara’s story was something else: male authors taking on a woman’s voice, crying her tears of pain, and expressing the loss that his departure represented for her. They knew what the Buddha’s departure cost Yasodhara, and they took the time to express it. These male authors gave a voice to the pain that renunciation creates for the women left behind. They were sensitive in ways I had not appreciated until then. Although I may have been upset with the Buddha for hurting Yasodhara, I grew to love the writers for their sensitivity to her plight. Indeed, I would never have experienced frustration with the Buddha if they did not provide his story so compellingly. They provided me with a map that I had not appreciated until I tried to chart the course myself.
Some of my telling of Yasodhara’s story is based on early Buddhist literature. Some of it is based on what we know as early Hindu literature. Some of it may be historical, but most of it is not. And some of it has come out of the playfulness of my mind. I could say a lot more about this project, but I believe it is time to let the story speak for itself.
The following is the prologue to Sasson’s novel.
I was shivering despite the heat. I gripped the wall for support as I reached for my shawl. The inlaid jewels felt so cold and hard against the palm of my hand. No matter how many pillows I had filled my room with over the years, I had never been able to soften the edges. The towering structure of palace life was built with too much stone. I folded myself into the white cotton cloth, trying desperately to quiet the trembling.
I could not go downstairs in this state. I didn’t want to fall apart in front of everyone, but I knew they were waiting, and my body was not complying. I could not make myself still.
I took a deep breath and readied myself to let go, but as soon as I did, I buckled and fell. “Great Goddess!” I cried out as I hit the marble floor.
My maidservant flew into the room and was beside me in seconds. “Your Highness!”
“I can’t do this!”
I was trying to breathe but was failing miserably. “I don’t want to lose my baby!”
Neelima was holding my hand, squeezing it with all her strength. “Breathe, Your Highness. You must breathe.”
I tried, but there was no air. “Who asks such a thing from a mother? It isn’t right!”
“I know,” she mumbled as she tried to hold back her own tears. “It never is.”
I was clutching a leg of the rosewood bedframe as though it might carry me to shore, but it did little to anchor me. The swirling was coming from within, and no ship would have been strong enough to navigate against my pain. Looking up, I was met with high ceilings pulsating over my head, geometric carvings moving in all directions.
“What if he needs me out there?” I pleaded. “What if something happens?”
“He won’t be alone. They will take care of him,” she tried to assure me.
“But they can’t take care of him the way I do! He needs his mother, and they are taking him away from me!”
There was no response to that. We could both see the truth of my words. I looked around the room, looking for something to save me from the situation. Some argument that had been left behind that might convince them to change their minds.
“And they will be in the forest!” I added, suddenly remembering this piece of fear. “It’s so dangerous out there! There are snakes and tigers and who knows what else!”
She held onto my hand as my worries spilled onto the floor.
“What if I never see him again, Neelima? What if he never comes back?”
“I don’t know . . .”
“What kind of a man makes such a request?” I burst with anger. “First he leaves me, and then he comes back only to take away my only son! How can he do this to me?” If I had had anything in my hands at that moment, I would have thrown it across the room.
“How does he keep finding new ways to splinter me apart?” I sobbed into the darkness of my palms.
For some reason, this last question affected her differently. Perhaps it was because she had just met with him. She straightened her hunched frame, tucked a few wisps of gray hair that had escaped her headscarf, and looked me right in the eyes.
“Your Highness, I know that this is horrible. But I also know that you are brave,” she replied. “You can face this.”
“But I don’t want to face this . . .” I said almost to myself.
“Of course not. But it is what you are being called to do. Master Rahula needs you to do this. He needs you to be brave so that he can be. It is time for him to receive his education.”
“But why does his education have to take him so far away?”
“I don’t know . . . but it is the way of things for him.”
I took a deep breath as her words landed on my crowded heart. She was telling me what so many others had told me before. She was telling me what I did not want to hear but what everyone else seemed to recognize. I looked into her weathered face, following the lines of history that were etched across her forehead. Her spotted hands resting on mine.
She was right. My own confusion was probably nothing compared with what he must be experiencing in his little seven-year-old self. I had to pull myself together for his sake.
Sensing my determination, she offered me one of her gnarled hands. “Let me help you up.”
I took it gratefully. Her calluses were so thick they had turned into cushions.
“Are you all right?” she asked as I leaned against the bed. The silk sheets were bunched up in a corner. I had not let anyone into my room for days. Not even her.
“I . . . think so.”
“Can I bring you a cup of something warm? Milk with a sprinkle of dried turmeric perhaps?”
I shook my head and turned towards the window. The sun was breaking through the sky, flooding my room with orange light.
“Tell them that I will be downstairs in a moment.”
“Yes, Your Highness,” she obeyed with a bow.
It was time. I ironed out my simple white clothing and adjusted my braid. I would not break again.
I walked carefully down the rounded marble staircase that led to the Great Hall. The trembling had subsided, but I was still a bit uncertain of myself. I held the golden handrail with one hand and lifted my robes with the other so as not to slip. When I reached the bottom, I exhaled with relief.
I could see bodies milling about in the courtyard ahead. Men dressed in orange rags moving silently. Ochre-colored shadows. I adjusted my braid one more time, smoothed out my white wrap and tightened my sash, and then crossed the Great Hall to the courtyard with one objective in mind: to find my son.
He was sitting by himself by the edge of the lotus pool. “How are you, darling?” I asked as I sat down beside him.
He did not look up. His fingers were trailing through the water in between the flowers. A flock of black birds tore through the darkening sky, chasing the moon like lost souls. He did not notice them either. The servants would start lighting the oil lamps soon, and then everything would be different.
Still no response.
“Rahula,” I whispered as I placed my hand on the softness of his little neck. “Please look at me.”
He trailed his fingers a little while longer, making pathways through the water. A frog watched him from the safety of a lotus leaf. Eventually, he looked up. His beautiful eyes were filled with the emotions he could not speak aloud. I wanted to fall into them. My mind fled into the past without permission as images of him from over the years paraded before my eyes. When had he grown so tall?
I placed a lock of hair behind his ear, as I had done so many times before. I loved caressing his hair. But a moment later, I recoiled at the realization that soon his hair would be shaved away. He would be so different. He would not really be my son anymore.
“How are you feeling, sweetheart?” I asked, as I attempted to put those thoughts aside.
He shrugged. “I’m all right.”
“Are you ready?”
“I guess so.” He turned towards the water again.
“Sweetheart, it’s all right to feel a bit scared right now. You don’t have to be so brave.” He looked up at me. “You know,” I added, “I’m scared too.”
At these words, all of his restraint melted, and he threw himself into my arms. “Oh Mother! I am scared! I don’t want to go!” He sobbed against my neck. He was trembling, just as I had been a moment earlier. Every fiber in my being wanted to scoop him up and run away. Run from the men in orange robes who were forcing us into this separation. Run from the world that dictated such realities and called them wisdom. My baby was crying, and I wanted to make his tears go away.
I inhaled the sweet smell of him. I would have renounced the entire world to be able to hold onto him longer, but I would not renounce his future to satisfy my desires. Slowly, ever so carefully, I pulled us apart.
“My most beautiful sweetheart,” I whispered. “I am so sad. I cannot imagine living without you.” I wiped away the tears that were dripping down my own cheeks. “But I won’t hold you back. It is time for you to find your life.”
“But I want to be with you !” he exclaimed.
“I know. I want that too, but you will be with your father. He will take good care of you.”
He looked past me to where the men were, his father sitting straight and elegant at the center.
“I don’t even know him,” he objected.
“You will learn to know him.”
“But . . . what if he doesn’t like me?”
“That, my darling, is one thing I know you don’t have to worry about,” I said with a confident smile. “You are impossible not to love, my beautiful Rahula. And your father is a good man. You will see.”
He wiped his tears, which I knew was a good sign. “But what if I never see you again, Mother?” he asked, as he voiced an all too familiar fear.
“I believe we will see each other again, darling. But if anything happens . . .” I stumbled against the words but caught myself, “then I will see you in the next life. We will never be lost to each other, Rahula. Don’t ever forget that.”
Men in orange robes approached. “Are you ready, young master?” asked one of them.
Rahula searched my face, looking for permission.
“He is ready,” I answered for him.
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