Vanessa R. Sasson. Yasodhara: A Novel About the Buddha’s Wife. New Delhi, India: Speaking Tiger Books, June 10, 2018.
Last month I was thrilled to hear from my friend and recently retired colleague, Mavis, about a new novel by Buddhist Studies scholar Vanessa R. Sasson. Yasodhara: A Novel About the Buddha’s Wife is Sasson’s first work of fiction, and it is sublimely captivating.
The novel cuts across various genres. In the book’s Introductory Note, Sasson calls her retelling a work of hagiographical fiction vice historical fiction, drawing attention to the (somewhat sparse) information about Yasodhara in Buddhist narratives and texts given her role in the Buddha’s enlightenment narrative. In this respect, the novel is clearly Buddhist fiction, but also, and perhaps more poignantly, it is a feminist narrative because of Sasson’s skilful retelling. Her scholarly background combined with her talent for storytelling allows Sasson to give a unique voice to Yasodhara and portray her as having some agency while still functioning within the limitations of her cultural and societal contexts.
As I expected, Sasson writes context very well. The timeframe for the Buddha’s narrative is roughly fifth century BCE. The novel is set in Brahmanic northern India at a time when the tales of Rama and Sita from the Ramayana provided social archetypes, especially the archetypes of husband and wife. Sasson recreates the context of the novel by relying on Buddhist and Indian stories to revisit and tell Yasodhara’s story afresh. Readers may recognize Buddhist jatakas, suttas, vinayas, the Therigatha, and the Indian epic Ramayana used in the plot and – more importantly – character development. The Buddhist stories, in particular, were used carefully, thoughtfully, keeping in mind they would not have been circulating at the time Yasodhara’s story transpired (since Siddhattha Gautama had not yet become the Buddha and there was not yet a tradition of Buddhist narratives circulating in India). For example, the Vessantara Jataka is used as both a past life memory and a portentous dream. And while we expect Mahapajapati to show up as a character, (crafted as a very regal lady, I might add), Kisa Gotami is an unexpected but excellent addition to the character roster as well.
What I enjoyed most about the novel was Sasson’s use of traditional stories to help tell Yasodhara’s story. For example, when a troupe of actors and entertainers perform a portion of the Ramayana that contained the story of Suparnakha, Sasson’s imagined ancient minstrel version gave the palace audience a lot to consider. Yasodhara’s reaction to a more compassionate portrayal of Suparnakha, the female demon and sister of Ravana, was echoed by all:
“I thought people would raise their fists against this version of the story, but no one did. Night after night, the troupe transported us elsewhere, telling us the story from her point of view.” (Location 1322 of 5298 of my Kindle edition)
Just as this imagined troupe gave a compassionate voice to a demoness, Sasson gives a courageous voice to Yasodhara and opens up a view to her many challenges in her life-roles of daughter, wife to an awakening being, and mother. Further, this characterization of “the Buddha’s wife” suggests how, like the unfolding of the epic Ramayana instigated by Suparnakha, Siddhattha’s journey to Buddhahood may have been different without his marriage to Yasodhara.
In Sasson’s careful, elevated retelling, Yasodhara’s hagiography is presented to readers as a gorgeous set of matryoshka dolls: a profound story within stories set in richly decorated, near-mythical domains, skillfully layered in cultural and historical contexts.