Posted On : May 12 2020
Writer : Shelley Schanfield
American author, Shelley Schanfield, writes exclusively for Bookaholicanonymous. She has never visited India, yet has written books based on Indian mythologies more specifically on the life of the Buddha. Her research has focused on the women around the Buddha and how their lives changed after their association with him! Here she writes about Yasodhara, the wife of the Buddha.
In search of enlightenment, Siddhartha left his wife and family on the very night his son was born. He returned six years later as the Buddha.
Stand-up guy or no? Some would say he was right to go. The truths he found have helped millions. But still, he deserted his wife and son. What did she think about that?
We don’t know much about her. While myth and legend obscure the historical facts about Siddhartha, the young man of the warrior caste who became the Buddha, historians agree that he was a real person who lived in the 5th or 6th century BCE in Northeastern India.
No such certainty exists about his wife. She goes by different names in the many texts that tell the Buddha’s tale. In some she is referred to as Bhaddakaccana or Subhadakka or Bimba Devi, or Rahulamata, which means mother of Rahula, her son by Siddhartha. I met her under the most widely used of her names, Yasodhara, in William Barrett’s The Lady of the Lotus, a novel that portrays her as intelligent and even wise to let Siddhartha go to pursue his quest, knowing he will not be satisfied unless he follows his heart.
Whatever she is called, there is curiously little about Siddhartha’s wife either in Sanskrit sources or the vast collection of Buddhist texts known as the Pali Canon. Yet the outline of her story begs to be filled in. She plays important roles in two dramatic events in his life: the Great Renunciation; and his return to his family six years later as the Buddha, the Awakened One.
In the most common version of the Great Renunciation, Yasodhara has just given birth to their first son, which precipitates her husband’s spiritual crisis. The legends give two scenarios for his departure. In one, Siddhartha orders his unwilling charioteer Chandaka to saddle up his trusty horse, while the gods put the city to sleep so that Siddhartha can ride away in secret. He stops by his wife’s chambers, but does not wake her or their son Rahula, fearing that if he wakes them he will not be able to leave.
In another scenario, the prince stops to ask his father’s blessing before he goes, which the king gives him. Most scholars think this gloss was added to the story much later to show that while Siddhartha had rejected his royal duty, he was still a good son (though perhaps not such a good husband and father).
But other sources from the proliferating early Buddhist sects give a different version entirely. In these writings, Yasodhara and Siddhartha make love on the night he decides to leave. The texts are very clear that he has been ignoring his 84,000 concubines, and ancient rumor had it that he wasn’t interested in women. Thus the night he leaves, he makes love to his wife to prove that he is a man. Thereafter they fall asleep, and this version continues to describe Yasodhara’s anxious dreams, which point to his leaving. They wake in the middle of the night and she asks him to take her with him. “Wherever I go, I take you with me,” he responds, but Yasodhara is not fooled. Sure enough, when she wakes the next morning he has left without her.
These texts explain that he really hasn’t lied to her; he was implying that he would take her to Nirvana with him. And indeed, they show her to be engaged in an equally trying spiritual quest. She has conceived, but the pregnancy lasts six years. At first, it doesn’t show. As word comes to Yasodhara of Siddhartha’s ascetic activities, she begins to copy them, sleeping on the ground and starving herself so that the baby ceases growing in her belly. When Siddhartha realizes the error of extreme asceticism and begins to eat, so does Yasodhara. The baby begins to show, and she is accused of infidelity. At the moment Siddhartha reaches enlightenment, Yasodhara gives birth to Rahula.
Both versions inform Yasodhara as I imagine her in my novel The Mountain Goddess, the second book in the Sadhana Trilogy. (The first book, The Tigress and the Yogi, introduces the outcaste woman Mala, who becomes a powerful yogi and ruthless outlaw, and her daughter Kirsa, a beloved playmate of Siddhartha.) Possibly because I reconnected with my college fascination with Buddhism through an adult pursuit of a black belt in the martial arts, she came to me as a spirited, rebellious girl called Dhara; a warrior’s daughter, indulged by her father and equally gifted as her husband in spiritual and martial endeavors, but flawed in a different way. While Siddhartha rejects royal power, she is drawn to it, and while he chooses to leave his child, she stays with hers, though she has grave doubts about her abilities as a mother.
I’ve said that there were two key events in which Yasodhara plays a crucial role. The first is Siddhartha’s leave-taking, and Book II in the Sadhana Trilogy ends there. The second dramatic event occurs when Siddhartha returns to his clan as the Buddha. The Pali Canon says that when king and court go out to honor him, Yasodhara refuses to leave the palace. The Buddha must go to her, a rather extraordinary thing to do. One might say that at least she gets a bit of her own back, but ultimately she bows and touches her forehead to his feet. (My reimagining of this moment in the trilogy’s third book will have its own version of this event.)
For more traditional versions of Buddha’s story as well as to get a feel for his times and extraordinary teachings, see Wendy Garling’s Stars at Dawn: Forgotten Stories of Women in the Buddha’s Time, Susan Murcott’s First Buddhist Women: Translations and Commentary on the Terigatha, Karen Armstrong’s Buddha, Iqbal Singh’s Gautama Buddha, John Strong’s The Buddha: A Short Biography, and Edward J. Thomas’s The Life of Buddha as Legend and History.
I also highly recommend Vicki MacKenzie’s Cave in the Snow, a biography about the contemporary Buddhist nun Tenzin Palmo, and Stephen Batchelor’s Confession of a Buddhist Atheist not only for his insights into the earliest Buddhist literature but also for its account of his own remarkable spiritual journey.
About Shelley Schanfield: Shelley Schanfield’s interest in East Asian religious and mythological traditions led her to study the martial arts, where she discovered that the meditative techniques Buddhist monks use to calm and focus the mind also helped the warrior prepare for battle.
Her curiosity about Buddhism’s role in the martial arts ignited her fascination with Buddhism’s roots in ancient India. By profession a librarian, Shelley immersed herself in research on the time, place, and spiritual traditions that 2500 years ago produced the young warrior Siddhartha, who became the Buddha. She learned that yoga, in some form, has a role in all of these traditions, and she began studying yoga, which proved as transformational for her as Buddhist meditation.
The personal and spiritual struggles of women who knew the Buddha inspired Shelley to tell their stories. She has written two novels and is currently working on the final novel in the Sadhana Trilogy, which brings this mythical world to vibrant life.
Some years back, Shelley hung up her Tae Kwon Do black belt to practice Iyengar yoga. Both disciplines have enriched her world and the world of her books.
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