A frustrating exercise in feminism
The Buddha is one of the most beloved and revered figures in the realms of history, mythology and legend with his teachings resonating to this very day. The luminescence of the Enlightened One is such that it is hardly surprising that he wound up eclipsing the rest of his contemporaries. With Yasodhara: A Novel About the Buddha’s Wife, Vanessa R Sasson makes a commendable effort to give voice to a character who has been given short shrift in the numerous accounts of the life and times of Gautama Buddha.
Attempting the resurrection of such a character is a thankless task given that historians, storytellers, and scholars have traditionally been so taken with the Buddha and his marvellous achievements; they have been shockingly lax when it comes to providing information about his consort, barring vague nuggets. These lamentable holes often prove impossible to plug. Which of course means, researchers will have to contend themselves with a whole lot of speculation and work their way through oceans of material on the Buddha in the remote hope of catching a glimpse of Yasodhara, and somehow find a way to use artistic licence coupled with a febrile imagination to flesh out such an ephemeral presence and capture her essence while bringing to life the times she lived in and the momentous events which illuminated that period.
Sasson makes a game attempt but the result is far from satisfactory. The author is keen to illuminate her narrative with feminist-approved principles and she is well within her rights to do so, but the effect feels downright jarring in parts and entirely anachronistic in others. Barring the well-known names, the yarn may well be about an implausible modern-day dysfunctional couple with an overdose of melodrama. Within the fictional framework, one can forgive the occasional strain on credibility provided it is convincing but it is hard to buy that a Princess of the Sakya clan would pound unrestrainedly on the charioteer’s chest in a hysterical fit of grief or argue heatedly with the royal priest and her king in the presence of the gathered assembly.
Even worse is an overwrought scene where Yasodhara is assaulted (while she is arranging flowers in a guest room!) by Devadatta who is portrayed as a villain in many Buddhist texts and fights back, using her mother-in-law’s help to throw him out of the window. Even if one were inclined to suspend disbelief at the depiction of a man casually sauntering into the seraglio, the hallowed space traditionally reserved exclusively for the ladies and misbehaving with his prince’s consort, this contrived bit of rah-rah feminism leaves a bad taste in the mouth.
Clearly a lot of painstaking research has gone into the making of this novel going by the copious notes and detailed bibliography supplied, which makes Sasson’s decision to leave out Yasodhara’s own journey towards enlightenment as well as the miracles she was supposed to have performed, all the more flummoxing. Yasodhara is often exalted as an arhat, belonging to the highest order of saints, credited with spiritual powers that may have been comparable with Buddha’s, since she was the one who was aware of their many past lives where she was always his constant companion and faithful consort even when they were born as animals. It is a pity this aspect hasn’t been explored.
The pieces of the story are too carefully assembled to be organic and clumsily greased together with stilted dialogue that desperately seeks to inspire and elucidate but in the end is merely stultifying in the extreme.