THE WOMAN LEFT BEHIND
REVIEW – ANJANA BASU
A Novel about the Buddha’s Wife
Vanessa R Sasson
While the world focuses on the teachings of the Buddha, there have been some who have focused on the plight of Yasodhara and her son Rahula who were abandoned when the Enlightened One renounced the material world. Vanessa Sasson tells the story of Yasodhara in her novel, choosing to give the princess a precocious, omniscient voice. The story begins with Yasodhara’s birth, which coincides with that of Prince Siddhattha – Sasson chooses this spelling over the usual Sidhartha focussing on the Siddha aspect – and the death of his mother Queen Maya.
There are many legends about the birth of the Buddha the main one being how he stepped out of his mother’s side in the fragrant Lumbini Gardens. Sasson through her researches reveals the fact that in actuality Queen Maya died giving birth to her son and King Sudhodhana forbade any celebration in the kingdom. Yasodhara’s birth therefore went unheralded.
Sasson traces the timeline of Prince Siddhattha’s life, leading to his exposure to old age, disease and death over which she depicts a group of presiding gods who expose him to the experiences in quick succession on a single day. Again, legend has it that the Prince met these three conditions of life at three different periods after his marriage to Yasodhara. However, the novel is a speedy telling of the encounters which precipitated the Prince into his decision to renounce the world. This decision coincides with the birth of his son Rahula after twelve years of marriage.
Encountering the pains of childbirth for the first time in her life, Yasodhara also discovers that her husband has left her. Sasson gives her heroine believable emotions – Yasodhara who was feisty and deeply in love with her husband refuses to look at her son for a long time probing instead into the reasons why Siddhattha left her. Ultimately, after hearing about Siddhattha’s miraculous departure from his Chariot Driver, she resigns herself to motherhood while renouncing the bejewelled robes that she had worn as a Princess bride and dressing in widow’s simple whites.
Again most legends tell us that the Prince left the palace at Kapilavastu some time after his son’s birth, when the baby was a few months old, and that he gave his son the name Rahula because the baby was yet another obstacle in his path of renunciation. However, Sasson’s approach is guaranteed to lend more poignancy to Yasodhara’s condition – yet another devoted wife like Sita who finds herself deprived when she is at her most vulnerable.
Sasson’s story is simply told, though the reader will check the narrative against the details that he or she is familiar with fairly frequently. Yasodhara comes across as a woman with great inner strength – there are comparisons with the goddess Durga who did not require a man to define her – who finally rises above perceived betrayal to become a spiritual force in her own right.
Anjana Basu, Kolkata