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Mar 15
Yasodhara and the Buddha: a novel by Vanessa R. Sasson

Reviewed by Christine Heming

This is the story of Yasodhara, the woman who was married to the one who became the Buddha. . . . After countless lifetimes of shared experiences, he abandoned her without even saying goodbye. . . on the very day she gave birth!

Vanessa R. Sasson, from Introductory Note

Abandoned? After lifetimes together? Without even saying goodbye? On the very day his son was born? How could he?

Most of us probably haven’t thought about the ones the Buddha left behind when he made his departure from the palace, abdicating the Lion Throne of the Sakya. I know I had not. This seemingly callous abandonment aroused Vanessa Sasson’s curiosity. Sasson, professor of Religious Studies at Marianopolis College in Westmount, Quebec and Research Fellow at the University of the Free State in South Africa, was particularly interested in the females in Prince Siddhattha’s world. How did they react to his leaving? Did any follow him? How did his wife Yasodhara take the news? What happened to her?

In the Preface, University of Chicago Distinguished Professor Wendy Doniger points out that the story of the Buddha has been told and retold for centuries by countless men. In Yasodhara and the Buddha, Sasson re-images the story through the eyes and heart of the woman closest to the future Buddha, his wife, Yasodhara. She invites us to imagine the effect that Prince Siddhattha had on all the people surrounding him, and in particular, women in his world.

Not many know the story of Yasodhara. Only fragments of her life have been preserved. Sasson weaves these fragments into a fascinating tale of ancient Indian court life. Yasodhara and the Buddha is a story rich in Indian mythology, ceremonies and rituals. It offers us keen insight into the customs and norms of what life may have been like in the Sakya Kingdom of Prince Siddhattha.

Yasodhara is our narrator. She tells the story of her life from her birth through her carefree childhood. We are swept along with her coming of age, falling in love, and fairy-tale wedding. We feel her mounting fear as she observes changes in her husband and her overwhelming devastation when he leaves her. Yasodhara is a woman of passion, independent and strong-willed, often frustrated and angered by the limitations her culture imposes on women and girls. This ancient story, like many of our stories, is timeless. Yasodhara’s experience is dressed in the passions, fears, joys and sorrows that transcend time and place.

There are so many wonderful characters in this novel that capture our imagination, and for whom one feels empathy and appreciation: King Suddhodana and his loyal second queen Mahapajapati; Yasodhara’s mother, Pamita, and her father, Dandapani; the bullying cousin Devadatta; the maidservant Neelima; the Chariot Driver Channa; and of course the Prince himself, the future Buddha. Sasson is not shy about expressing her surprise at just “ . . . how much love I would come to feel for the characters.”

Always wary of revealing too much, I will share a scene that I found deeply moving. Dandapani is called to the palace by King Suddhodana. He surmises the reason is to discuss the proposed marriage of his daughter, Yasodhara, to Prince Siddhattha. These two gentlemen have known one another for many years, but always the formalities of sovereign and subject are respected. The king, however, invites his brother-in-law for a stroll in his private “Peacock Garden.” Dandapani is caught off guard by the informality, and when the king asks him what he thinks of the garden, he inadvertently mentions the name of the former queen aloud – something that is not done in the king’s presence. There is a tender moment and rather than a rebuke, an opening is created that enables the king to pour out his story of grief for his beloved queen. It is a touching scene, a shared intimacy between the two men.

The author cautions this story does not belong to the category of the historical novel. So little is known of any certainty about the time of the Buddha and the life of Yasodhara. She calls the book “hagiographical fiction,” combing as it does the stories of the Buddha that have been handed down over the centuries with her own personal insight into how people of that time would have felt and responded to these events, in particular our heroine, Yasodhara. At the end of the book the author provides copious notes to each chapter with a discussion about the sources used for each scene and references to additional research.

Sasson’s book is a page-turner, an enchanting fairytale, and at the same time grounded in the realities of the human condition. I was captured and pulled into the events of a time and place to which I was already predisposed. It opened my eyes to the human side of Buddha’s story.

Sasson has authored a number of academic books, but this is her first book converting her research into a novel. In the writing, she discovers a love for the creative process, and she is working on a sequel to Yasodhara and the Buddha. I will look forward to that.

You can find Yasodhara and the Buddha here.

Christine Heming is a writer and educator.  She has been a student of the buddhadharma for over 45 years, and a senior teacher and meditation instructor in Shambhala.  She lives in Port Royal, Nova Scotia.

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1 response to “ Yasodhara and the Buddha: a novel by Vanessa R. Sasson ”
  1. Yashodara was a role model of feminine enlightenment and of enlightened relationship with Buddha that she plotted to ease the suffering of the world.

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