“From Satyajit Ray’s films to Bollywood’s ‘Ashoka’ & ‘The Bandit Queen’ — Indian cinema has always left an impact on me. And living in a university town with a sizeable Indian community, I’ve also been exposed to the land's wonderful dance and music, too” - Shelley Schanfield
Bookaholicanonymous is extremely proud to present American author, Shelley Schanfield, this time around. It’s admirable for someone who has never visited India, to have written books based on Indian traditions and mythologies. Her research has been specifically on women around the Buddha and how their lives changed after their association with him! We are fascinated... hope you, too, will be after reading our exclusive interview with the author!
About Shelley Schanfield: She has had a long love affair with India’s rich mythological and philosophical traditions. It began during the cold winters of her Minnesota childhood, when she came across a book of Buddhist legends set in warm, vibrant India. In later life, this led her to write novels about women of Buddha’s times. She has published the first two books in a historical fantasy trilogy whose characters include Siddhartha’s wife Yasodhara, the infamous outlaw Angulimala re-imagined as a powerful woman, and one of his earliest followers, the nun Kisagotami (or Kirsa Gautami, in her books), as well as Siddhartha himself among many others. She is onto her third novel in the series.
You are fascinated by the Buddha’s era…especially, about the women of that time. Why?
I discovered the Buddha’s story as a child and found it utterly compelling. I imagined this handsome Prince, Siddhartha, who had everything — a royal destiny, a beautiful wife and a son —all of which he willingly sacrificed to become a homeless wanderer, seeking a way to end humanity’s suffering. Through the years, his story continued to compel me. But as an adult, I began to wonder, what kind of a man would leave his wife and newborn child like that? And how did the wife feel about it when he embarked on his journey?
I love historical fiction, and I had read several novels based on the Buddha’s life – but none satisfied me. Toni Morrison famously said, that you must write the book you want to read. I decided to take her advice and began to write my own, intending to focus on the Buddha's wife’s story.
As I dived into Buddhist myths, legends, and teachings to find out more about Yashodhara, I discovered that women from all walks of life followed the Buddha from the very first. Many of their stories provide stunning contrast to his. He chose to give up wealth and power to seek enlightenment, while the women who followed the Buddha often were thrust on their spiritual journeys after harrowing losses. Not their own decisions, but bereft and destitute after the deaths of parents, husbands, or children sent them into the world. In the case of low-caste or outcaste women, they had nothing to lose, but were oppressed twice over because of their status and their sex. Whether they were nobles or slaves, the Buddha’s teachings offered these women a path to healing and freedom.
Two such women figure prominently in my books, Kirsa Gautami (Kisagotami in Pali) and the outcaste Mala. The first is found in the Buddhist story ‘The Mustard Seed.’ The second is a creation of my imagination, an amalgam from ancient and modern sources, and a feminine twist on the Buddhist legend of the ruthless outlaw, Angulimala, who is redeemed by the Buddha’s teachings.
You portray the feminine aspects of the divine, don't you? What attracts you to this thought?
Since childhood, I’ve loved learning about the world’s mythologies and religions. Stories from Greek mythology were my special favourites, especially those about Athena, the goddess of wisdom. I admired her confidence, her sense of justice, refinement and the regal image.
My childhood reading about world's religions led me to an illustrated book about Hinduism. Images of Hindu goddesses shocked and enthralled me: Many-armed Durga fighting the buffalo demon and Kali with her necklace of skulls and girdle of severed arms especially evoked awe in me. Over the years I gained a deeper appreciation for the more profound and, well, feminist, concept of the divine feminine — of the Devi and all her aspects. Athena, after all, was born from Zeus’s head but Kali existed before time and owed her existence to no male.
In so many ways, the Devi embodies female empowerment, and yet, today as in ancient times, the status of women belies her power. Whether one worships her or studies her as mythological symbol, she offers examples of courage, strength, and love that the world desperately needs.
In 'The Tigress and the Yogi' you wrote about a young woman named Mala, based on the infamous outlaw Angulimala. Was she associated with Buddha/Siddhartha? How did you come to re-imagine her as a powerful woman? Who is the yogi?
In my original conception of the Sadhana trilogy, a courtesan Ratna would serve as a sort of omniscient narrator. Historically, wealthy and refined courtesans often generously supported the Buddha and his sangha. Celebrated for her ageless beauty, Ratna is also known for her knowledge of philosophy, literature, science and her skill in the arts of love. I thought her as an ideal hook to captivate readers.
Imagine my surprise when the plain, downtrodden and outcaste girl Mala appeared and pushed Ratna off the page. She appears nowhere in Buddhist literature, but Mala would not let me ignore her. I very soon came to love her fierce determination to escape poverty and oppression, and imagined her as an example of the Buddha’s radical teaching that anyone — man or woman, from the most polluted outcaste to the purest Brahmin — could attain enlightenment.
But how was Mala to do this? I struggled with this question until one night I gave up and switched on the TV. An Indian film, ‘The Bandit Queen,’ was just starting. (More than coincidence, perhaps!) I’d never heard of its true-life heroine, Phoolan Devi, and later learned she was controversial, but her terrible suffering and her fight for vengeance gripped me. Elements of her story resonated with Mala’s. I had also just read about Angulimala, the outlaw who wears a garland of his victims’ fingers and who finds salvation after an encounter with the Buddha. I decided to give that legend a feminist twist: Oppressed Mala would transform into a powerful leader of an outlawed army called Angulimala. In Book Three of the Sadhana trilogy, my work-in-progress, she will meet the Buddha. But will he heal her?
As for the yogi, Asita, he appears in Buddhist legend as the ascetic who prophesies at Siddhartha’s birth that the child will either rule the world or set out on the homeless path to seek ultimate wisdom. In Book One of the Sadhana Trilogy, the powerful Asita awakens Mala’s hunger for spiritual knowledge when she is a girl and years later becomes her guru.
Ratna still plays a significant role in the trilogy!
In 'The Mountain Goddess' who is Dhara? Is Mala the same as in your first book 'The Tigress and the Yogi'? What does Mala teach Dhara?
Dhara, short for Yasodhara, will capture Siddhartha’s heart and become the Sakyan prince’s wife.
In various Buddhist texts, Siddhartha’s wife is called Bhaddakaccana or Subhadakka or Bimba Devi; or Rahulamata, mother of Rahula, her son by Siddhartha, but the most common and the name I liked best is Yasodhara, meaning bearer or the one who ushers in glory.
Perhaps because I reconnected with my youthful fascination with Buddhism through an adult pursuit of a black belt in the martial arts, Yashodhara came to me as a spirited, rebellious girl; a warrior’s daughter, indulged by her father and gifted with spiritual powers and martial skills she must learn to control.
Book Two opens when she’s a girl of 12 years. Mala, a mysterious female yogi (and yes, the same Mala from Book One), passes through Dhara’s village on her way to a sacred cave on the mountain Dhavalagiri, the guardian goddess of Dhara’s clan. Charismatic Mala fires Dhara’s imagination, and later she runs away to study yoga with her. She learns far more than she bargained for.
When she at last meets Siddhartha, it’s love at first sight. But over time, he rejects the royal power that draws her, until the birth of their son brings on his spiritual crisis.
Tell us a little about Kisagotami?
Ah, this is where my fascination with Buddhism started! When I was eight years old, I came across the story ‘The Mustard Seed.’ It tells of how the young woman Kisogotami’s son dies, and she is inconsolable until she encounters the Buddha. He tells her he can help her if she will bring him mustard seed from a home that death has not visited. Of course as she searches for such a thing, she realizes that every family has its sorrow, and she accepts her son’s death. At that time a devastating illness struck my oldest sister, and this story strongly affected me. Fortunately, my sister lived, but the grief and fear in my parents’ eyes during her illness resonated with Kisogotami’s story.
Later, as I read more Buddhist legends and stories, I found a tale where Siddhartha gives a young cousin Kirsa Gautami a pearl necklace. She thinks he’s in love with her, but actually he is really almost ready to embark on his spiritual quest and was only saying goodbye.
I used elements from these tales to fashion Kirsa. By a strange twist of fate, Kirsa, stolen from her mother Mala, becomes Siddhartha’s beloved childhood playmate. But her clouded lineage prohibits them from marrying. Broken-hearted, Kirsa takes refuge in the healing arts.
You are working on the third book... what can we expect?
The third book weaves the fates of Mala, Kirsa, Dhara, and Siddhartha together as war threatens. Siddhartha has disappeared and Dhara is left struggling for power in a kingdom threatened by internal strife and external enemies. Kirsa’s healing powers meet the ultimate challenge when a plague devastates the Sakyan kingdom and strikes down the one she loves most, while Mala/Angulimala descends so far into violence and madness that no one can reach her.
As chaos threatens to destroy everything, a homeless wanderer appears at the gates of the Sakyan kingdom. Does he bring redemption or destruction?
You based your books on Buddhism or Hinduism? Or before Siddhartha became the Buddha?
I wanted to know what formed the Buddha’s thought? So in addition to reading his teachings, I went back to the ‘Rig Veda’, the ‘Upanishads’, and other ancient texts to understand his era’s prevailing religious and philosophical climate. The ‘Mahabharata’ in written form came after the Buddha’s time, however, its stories and teachings were passed down orally for centuries prior to that and no doubt shaped his world view. Whether they did or not, the ‘Mahabharata’ cast a spell over me, and its complex and epic drama and wisdom inform my novels.
You said you haven't visited India. Yet, you know so much about its history and social classes...
One day I will visit India, but so far, my travel to the Land of the Roseapple Tree has been through the magic carpet of books. I’ve flown on hundreds of them, starting way back to my bookaholic childhood!
Through writers’ groups I’ve found several good friends of Indian descent as well as Sanskrit scholar Elisabeth Khan, and all have provided excellent feedback on my work. And other art forms have fed my imagination. Be it Satyajit Ray’s works or Bollywood’s ‘Ashoka’ and ‘The Bandit Queen’ — Indian films have had an impact on me and living in a university town with a sizeable Indian community, I’ve been exposed to the land's wonderful dance and music performances.
What books & authors did you use as references?
Oh, heavens! Hundreds of books! Some of the most important include: Hemchandra Raychaudhuri’s ‘Political History of Ancient India’ confused me utterly, but Romila Thapar’s books about early India, at least, partially straightened me out.
Devdutt Pattanaik’s books and posts about mythology are a constant source of new insights.
I could not have done without Wendy Doniger’s translations of the ‘Rig Veda’ and the ‘Kama Sutra’ as well as her controversial and wonderful ‘The Hindus: An Alternative History’.
So hard to pick just a few about the Buddha and his teachings. Good biographies: Iqbal Singh’s ‘Gautama Buddha’; and Bhikkhu Nanamoli’s ‘The Life of the Buddha’. Stephen Batchelor’s ‘Confession of a Buddhist Atheist’ describes Batchelor’s own engrossing spiritual quest and tells Siddhartha’s story with moving insight.
As mentioned, the ‘Mahabharata’ continues to affect me profoundly. I’ve read several different translations including CJ Rajagopalachari’s and Pattanaik’s. Right now, I’m blissfully engrossed in the recently issued Penguin/Random House/DK volume ‘The Illustrated Mahabharata: The Definitive Guide to India’s Greatest Epic’.
For books on yoga, I recommend almost anything by BKS Iyengar, for scholarly yoga history I recommend looking into James Mallinson’s and Mark Singleton’s work.
What do your books tell your readers about India?
My books bring a vibrant mythical world to life. While enjoying a rousing adventure, readers will deepen their appreciation for India’s incredibly rich religious, philosophical, and mythological traditions.
Bookaholicanonymous wishes Shelley many more writing successes...do keep us informed!
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