Most Buddhists are familiar with the Buddha’s family. There’s his wife, Yasodhara, and his son, Rahula, both of whom he leaves behind to pursue enlightenment. There’s his father, King Suddhodana, whose efforts to shield the boy from grief and prevent his “tuning in, turning on, and dropping out” only spur him toward that very goal. And there’s his mother, Maya, who died seven days after his birth, and his stepmother, Mahapajapati, who raised him.
Or is there?
Here is the Buddha’s biography according to the Pali suttas, which according to some are our earliest records:
There are next to no details about his childhood. The Buddha tells us that he was very wealthy, having separate homes for each season, and eating only the best foods (Sutta on Refinement, AN 3.38). The Buddha tells us that despite this refinement he was horrified and humiliated to see the indignities of “aging, sickness, and death” and considered that these would happen to him too. “Should I not seek a release from aging, illness, and death?” he asked himself.
He next tells us that he left home as a young man. There is no mention of his father’s efforts to protect him, or his going out and being shocked by first seeing the “four sights” after a life sheltered from them. He just noticed aging, sickness, and death like anyone else would, but had a more profound response to them than the average.
Not only is there no mention of a wife or child in the Buddha’s recounting of his renunciation, he seems to suggest that he was still living at home with his parents: “So . . . while still young, a black-haired young man endowed with the blessings of youth in the first stage of life—and while my parents, unwilling, were crying with tears streaming down their faces—I shaved off my hair & beard, put on the ochre robe and went forth from the home life into homelessness.” (The Sutta on The Noble Search, MN 26).
The absence of a wife or child is striking. Without the claims of later tradition, we would assume the Buddha had left home as an unmarried youth.
John S. Strong, Professor of Asian Studies at Bates University and author of a number of books exploring the Buddha legend, also pointed out to Tricycle the reference to “my parents.” “What happened to his mother dying a week after his birth?” Strong asked.
The suttas do explicitly identify one relative, the monk Nanda, as the Buddha’s cousin, son of his maternal uncle (Ud 3.2). The specificity of this identification only makes starker the lack of similar identification when other characters traditionally believed to be the Buddha’s relatives are mentioned. Neither Rahula nor Mahapajapati appear with kinship information. And there is no mention of the Buddha’s former wife.
We get some more additions of a fantastical nature from a later stratum of material in the suttas that are rife with supernatural details. It is in this strata that we learn that the Buddha was a prince whose father was Suddhodana, that after he descended from Tusita heaven to be born to the rejoicing of the gods, a Brahmin made fateful predictions at his birth. Here we learn of his miraculous birth, of lotuses sprouting under his infant footsteps and him pronouncing his identity when only a few minutes old.
It is in the Cullavagga, the stories explaining each rule in the monastic code, that we first hear that Rahula was ordained as a child, and that his mother, simply called “Rahulamata” (Rahula’s mother) sent him off to join the Buddha with the poignant words “go get your inheritance” (this is a cautionary tale of the pain that a child’s ordination can cause parents). This story does seem to suggest that the Buddha was Rahula’s father. It must have been based on a familiar, older tradition, but that tradition may still have come to be hundreds of years after the Buddha died (it was written down between 500 and 1000 years after his death).
The legends of the Buddha’s family are elaborated in various versions by the Buddhacarita, the earliest full biography of the Buddha, written by the poet Asvaghosa in the first century CE; the Lalitavistara, a Mahayana/Sarvastivada biography dating to the third century CE; the Mahavastu from the Mahasamghika Lokottaravada, which was composed incrementally until perhaps the fourth century CE; and the Nidanakatha from the Theravada tradition in Sri Lanka, composed in the fifth century by Buddhaghosa. Most of our ideas of the Buddha legend come from these works.
Accepting the idea that the Buddha had no wife and son for a moment, why would they be imagined for the Buddha if they didn’t exist?
There may have been pressure to show the Buddha as virile and fulfilling his clan obligations, thus softening the critiques of the young religion as it moved into the Indian mainstream. This explanation is supported by a version of the Buddha-to-be’s home-leaving from the monastic code literature of the Mulasarvastivadans, an early Buddhist school. In this telling, quoted in Strong’s The Buddha: A Short Biography, the Buddha does not yet have a son when he decides to leave. Siddhattha stops and makes love to his wife the night of his departure, saying, “Lest others say that the prince Shakyamuni was ‘not a man’ and that he wandered forth without ‘paying attention’ to . . . his wives [the bodhisattva entered his bedchamber], and thinking ‘let me now ‘pay attention’ to Yasodhara,’ he did so, and Yasodhara became pregnant.”
“Part of what is needed to call someone a saint is that they meet the pattern. This is a man who had to be manly, who had to have the sexual prowess to father children. The legends underscore his masculinity,” Strong said. “There were really pressures on the tradition to pay attention to family issues. The Buddha has to have a son because he has to fulfill his filial duties to his clan.”
Perhaps the Buddha needed to have a son, then, and once he had a son he also needed to have a wife he had left behind. The at first shapeless “Rahulamata” becomes Bimba, or Gopa, or Yasodhara in different traditions. Once imagined, she becomes a figure of pathos and drama.
In one telling she was born at the same time as the Buddha, and when he leaves the home life she imitates his asceticism, based on reports from her father-in-law’s spies who have been tracking him. She fasts and sleeps on the ground, and the embryo in her womb goes into suspended animation, to be named Rahula after his birth under the constellation of the dragon “Rahu,” not because his father thought he was a rahu (an impediment), as in other versions. When the Buddha eats normally again and attains enlightenment, she too regains her strength and the child is finally born just as the Buddha’s liberation dawns.
Once the Buddha had a family, it also became necessary to show that he had not abandoned them. The tradition came to claim that all the members of the Buddha’s family either joined the monastic order or became enlightened, thus benefiting from his renunciation after all. “Not only that, but even his late mother benefits through his preaching the Abhidharma to her in a heavenly world,” Strong points out.
Driven by the imagination of poets, the wit of rambling storytellers, the innovations of sculptors and painters, and the story cycles that flourished at pilgrimage destinations, the legend of the Buddha’s royal childhood and of his family grew. Perhaps they were entirely imagined by a swelling religious culture that simply could not bear the unsettling, history-less everyman of the original Siddhattha who aside from a clan name, came with little that was humanly relatable, making him seem suspicious and distant.
Or maybe not. Maybe the stories of the Buddha’s family date to ancient oral traditions, and they are absent from the Pali suttas simply because the monks who standardized and chanted them were more interested in doctrine and meditation techniques than the Buddha’s family life and personal history.
”It could be that the Pali suttas were written with a different audience,” says scholar Vanessa Sasson, Professor of Religious Studies at Marionopolis College in Westmount, Quebec. Sasson is not happy with the idea of stripping the Buddha of his family. “You can’t do that!” she told Tricycle. “These messy, difficult stories are part of what make the tradition great. For too long we’ve tried to strip Buddhism down to just being about the Buddha alone. It’s much more than that.”
But perhaps our desire not to “strip Buddhism down to this one man” says more about ourselves than it does about the Buddha, just as the legends of ancient India may say more about ancient Indian Buddhists than about Siddhattha Gotama. There is currently no way to settle the question, however. The plethora of teachings either stemming from or inspired by the Buddha remain for us to experiment with for ourselves. For the foreseeable future the Buddha himself will remain mysterious, a person of dreams and legend.