Tag Archives: Buddha’s Wife

Reading at the Intersection of Buddhism and Historical Fiction

Thank-you, so very much, to everyone who responded to the short Siddhartha survey. Just when I was going to put up a new post, I would get another survey response, so I have left the survey up throughout the summer. My apologies if you have been awaiting something new. Hopefully you found some time during the warmer days and quieter moments to read a work of Buddhist fiction.

I received 43 responses in total to the Siddhartha survey! I wanted to share with you some data and themes from the responses before considering reading works like Siddhartha by Herman Hesse that are positioned at the intersection of Buddhism and historical fiction. Of the 43 respondents, 34 have recommended Siddhartha to others, and 9 have not, for a total of 79% of respondents recommending the book to other readers. Just over half of the respondents, 23 people, read Hesse’s novel during their teen years, with the remainder reading Siddhartha between their twenties and forties (13 in the twenties, 2 in the thirties, and 5 in the forties).

Hesse’s novel is perhaps the most well known example of a work of Western historical fiction that tells a Buddhist story – a novel set in the time of the historical Buddha. There is little hard data to provide statistics which prove a lasting influence of Siddhartha on readers, but the anecdotal evidence points to a strong provocation for readers to intensify spiritual seeking. Of the 19 respondents who answered the impact and lasting effects question on the Siddhartha survey, the majority indicated that reading the novel was, in some way, a transforming experience for them.

The impact or lasting effect of Siddhartha is aptly conveyed in the verbs used by respondents who wrote that they were propelled to explore Buddhism further or introduced to Buddhist philosophy, encouraged to find a path of personal wisdom, reminded of impermanence, and moved to examine a current lifestyle. One respondent said that the novel “helped to fan a spark” while another called Hesse’s work the “seed” of their refuge. A third respondent wrote that Siddhartha was their first contact with the Buddhadharma and their reading initiated a practice that has now lasted over 25 years. A fourth said that the novel “gave words” to their “yearning and validated it. I never looked back.” The impact or lasting effect of the novel conveyed through the verbs connotes the strength of subtle shift as simple yet moving as a shift in perception: “I never looked at water the same way again.”

A few respondents reflected on their engagement with Siddhartha as it affected their reading, writing, teaching and creativity, beginning with the inspiration to read more fiction that conveyed stories of and/or about Buddhism. Where one respondent was inspired to write their own novel of Buddhist fiction, another assigned the novel Siddhartha to a college class as a reading assignment. Perhaps the novel’s affective power lies in the “absolutely beautiful sentences” described by a respondent as “transporting. It was living in meditation.” These types of responses reflect the act of reading as a potentially powerful, transforming experience. Having said this, one respondent wrote that they re-read Siddhartha in later years and it did not have the same impact. This tidbit of information, combined with the fact that roughly half of the respondents read the novel in their teens, made me return to the survey data to do a rough review. I wondered if a correlation could be made between the age at which a respondent read Siddhartha and the impact or lasting effect of reading the novel. Of course, the data is so sparse that it can only infer a correlation. A much more thorough survey with many more respondents generating a good deal more data for a deeper analysis would need to be done before this point could be substantiated.

The responses were all positive in tone, with two responses noting boundaries concerning the novel’s influence. One respondent stated that there was a definite “flowering of eastern spirituality in Canada” of the late 1960s, and “Hesse was just one petal,” which blurs the religious boundaries that scholars of Buddhism like to establish to make our work easier. Still, this response is undeniably true, and reminds me of my constant aim of distinguishing Buddhadharma, especially in the form of fiction, from stories that are more generally dharmic in nature. Lastly, a respondent felt that Hesse’s work called “for us to leave the herd mentality and embrace change.” This interpretation of Hesse’s influence toward transformation points to embracing change as a boundary crossing activity.

One of the few scholars of contemporary Buddhism who has tackled Siddhartha‘s influence is David McMahan. In his 2009 book The Making of Buddhist Modernism, McMahan outlines the differences between the ways in which literary Modernists and Romantics depict “epiphanies of the ordinary” (p. 232) found in enlightening novels such as Hesse’s works. He states that Hesse’s protagonist Siddhartha is “the Buddha reconceived for the twentieth century, perhaps the Buddha Hesse wished the historical Buddha was: an awakened one with no baggage of centuries of accumulated tradition, who embodies not just the spiritual concerns of ancient India but those of modern Europe and America” (p. 231). Ironically, even though Siddhartha could be placed in the literary genre of historical fiction, McMahan asserts that Hesse may well have been trying to eschew centuries of cultural accretions. These accretions are beliefs derived from “outdated” myths, not the practice or forms of Buddhism so highly valued in the West. Disdain for these accretions, stacked like turtles all the way down, is an indication of the demythologization of Buddhism as it is translated for and transformed in the West.

Perhaps this irony of Siddhartha as a work of historical fiction that aids in demythologization points to why there have been so few works of historical fiction set in the Buddha’s time. Aside from Siddhartha, I can think of three off the top of my head:

1. Lily Adams Beck, The Splendour of Asia (1926) reprinted as The Life of the Buddha (1939);

2. Deepak Chopra, Buddha: A Story of Enlightenment (2007); and,

3. Gabriel Constans, Buddha’s Wife (2009).

As I’m sure there are other titles I am forgetting at the moment, I hope Buddhist Fiction Blog readers will email to let me know what I have overlooked. For now, I will wax complimentary about Gabrial Constans’ historical fiction novel, Buddha’s Wife. I brought up the title of this work in a focus group I was conducting, and one of the participants immediately spoke out. The participant quipped that the title was a misnomer; Siddhartha Gautama had a wife, but the Buddha did not. This is true. Still, Constans novel is a fascinating read that depicts the life of women Buddhist monastics and, in particular, the life of the woman who had been Siddhartha’s wife, Yasodhara. The novel opens with an elderly Yasodhara who remembers life with Siddhartha and also her life as a Buddhist nun. While reading I realized that Constans must have done a good deal of research in the Pali canon, and some passages reminded me of epiphanies and old longings written about in the poems of early Buddhist nuns collected in the Therigatha. His work is thoughtful, compassionate and compelling, especially as the title reflects the idea that in some ways, familial ties were maintained by many early Buddhist monks and nuns. This idea of the continuation of familial ties while living as a Buddhist monastic is the focus of an upcoming text by Shayne Clarke. I eagerly await the publication of his monograph Family Matters in Indian Buddhist Monasticism in February 2014 from the University of Hawai’i Press. I have a sense that Clarke’s text will point to the complexities of life as a Buddhist monk or nun that may have lead Constans to choose a title like Buddha’s Wife. I invite you to read his novel and give me your opinion.