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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Yasodhara and the Buddha

Vanessa R. Sasson

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To purchase Yasodhara and the Buddha

Title: Yasodhara and the Buddha
Author: Vanessa R. Sasson
Genre: Novel
Written: 2018
Length: 283 pages
Availability: Yasodhara and the Buddha - US
Yasodhara and the Buddha - UK
Yasodhara and the Buddha - Canada
Yasodhara - India
  • Indian title: Yasodhara
  • Indian subtitle: A Novel about the Buddha's Wife
  • US/UK title: Yasodhara and the Buddha
  • With a Preface by Wendy Doniger

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Our Assessment:

B : a welcome variation on the Buddha-story, quite well done

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
TLS . 18/6/2021 Natasha Heller

  From the Reviews:
  • "From the point of view of a woman who is sidelined in many accounts, Sasson offers an alternative version of the Buddha's early life and renunciation. Retellings such as this can destabilize or demystify a beloved narrative, but they can also give it new life, and that is what Sasson achieves here. (...) Sasson has done her research -- she is a professor of religious studies specializing in Buddhism -- and the choices she makes are detailed in notes appended to the main narrative. I found it helpful to turn to these when I came across a detail that surprised me (.....) Sasson's Yasodhara and the Buddha explores the emotional dimensions to the story of the Buddha while also making new connections in familiar material." - Natasha Heller, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Yasodhara and the Buddha (originally published simply as Yasodhara) tells a familiar story -- that of the Buddha. As author Vanessa R. Sasson notes, beyond the basic facts and outline there is no definitive account of his life; indeed, there are countless variations on it, and: "The skeleton of the story remains, but the details vary, the emphasis redirects". With this novel she works to expand the story by shifting the focus: the central figure -- and narrator -- is not the Buddha but rather Yasodhara, who became his wife. As Sasson notes, Yasodhara: "is a key player during a few moments in the Buddha's life, but otherwise, we know little about her". Given the limited historical record and documentation, Sasson chose to write a work of fiction -- based on the available information, about Yasodhara and (roughly) those times, but taking that only as a starting point, filling in the (gaping) blanks of the life-story with her own imagination.
       Sasson insists that Yasodhara and the Buddha should not be considered historical fiction -- not least because of, for example, the supernatural elements she includes in the story --; her preferred term is 'hagiographical fiction' -- one that can equally be applied to many earlier Buddha-accounts.
       As she explains in her Introductory Note:

This book is my attempt at recreating a hagiography, inspired by hagiographies that belong to an earlier time.
       An academic, she nevertheless tries to bring in what known history there is, making for an interesting mix. Certainly, her Yasodhara -- and all the other characters -- are very much her own invention; nevertheless, she goes to great pains to ground them and the story in both the available history and in previous variations of the stories she presents.
       In the section of Notes to each chapter collected at the end of the book Sasson discusses some of the choices she made, and the reasoning behind these -- and arguably the most interesting aspect of the novel is found in this text-accompanying elucidation of what she presents and why, a revealing behind-the-scenes look at the author at work. (More authors should do this !)
       Among the significant historical shifts found in the novel is one already mentioned in her Introductory Note, where she explains the reason for transposing the story to around the better-documented first century CE, as there is practically no record of what life in northern India/southern Nepal was like in the time when the events are actually said to have taken place ("somewhere around the fifth century BCE") -- a reasonable choice in a fiction, particularly if the reader is made aware of it. Elsewhere, Sasson suggests -- in justifying a scene involving a naming-ceremony for Yasodhara despite there being: "no evidence that any ceremony like it was practiced for girls" -- that, for example, after all:
Rituals ebb and flow, and many of the early rites are surely lost to us now. This means (at least in the context of a novel) that there is space to imagine where facts fail.
       Beyond that, Sasson repeatedly fills in much other space, too (as noted, many facts are in short supply here) -- as in the naming ceremony of Yasodhara and the Buddha's son, Rahula, which is: "not part of the tradition, but a ritual must have been performed".
       What little of Yasodhara and her life is known certainly makes for an interesting foundation, and Sasson builds up a strong and appealing independent character on this. As she notes, the tradition does have Yasodhara and the future Buddha being co-natal -- born at the same time -- as well as having them: "also shared many previous lives together as husband and wife". (Among the arguably underdeveloped elements in the fiction is this idea of their having already shared many lives: Sasson does offer glimpses of this, but this is something which, in a work of fiction that is also willing to embrace the supernatural (as this one is), could have been embellished considerably more, to surely good effect.)
       Yasodhara and Siddhattha, the son of the king of the Sakya Kingdom, Suddhodana, were cousins, and close from childhood on. (Sasson explains that she uses Pali rather than Sanskrit in the novel: "Pali being a more likely language used by the characters of this book. The Buddha's personal name is therefore 'Siddhattha' rather than 'Siddhartha'".) The astrological chart drawn up at the boy's birth prophesied two possible paths for him, to become: "the greatest king ever known" or "a life of religious homelessness" that will lead to him becoming: "the greatest sage the world has ever known". (As Sasson notes, the tradition includes numerous permutations of what the chart reveals and what the king is told, from which she chooses (this) one.)
       Suddhodana tries -- and quite effectively manages -- to protect Siddhattha from learning how harsh real life can be, keeping the boy within the confines of the palace grounds and not exposing him to almost anything that could reveal to him anything about human life's hardships. Of course, that only works for so long; eventually Siddhattha glimpses the reality of the world -- and eventually will come to feel the need to explore and come to understand it for himself.
       Despite not receiving a proper education or training, Siddhattha is a remarkably gifted young man, as he then also proves in the competition to win his bride -- though they had already chosen each other and were, of course, meant to be together. They live happily married, though it is over a decade before Yasodhara gets pregnant. Of course it is then -- nudged by the gods and the 'Four Sights' -- that Siddhattha decides he has to go and seek understanding of and in the world at large, abandoning his wife and new-born son. When he returns, several years later, he demands an even greater sacrifice of his wife: that she give up their son, too.
       Yasodhara and the Buddha is narrated by Yasodhara, and told from her point of view, her own understanding of the world around her and of Siddhattha changing also as she matures. (Sasson does not, however, present the entire novel from Yasodhara's perspective, including numerous scenes and exchanges which she has no first-hand knowledge of.) It's an interesting contrast to the usually male-focused accounts, as this allows Sasson to explore the female experience in greater detail. Inevitably, Siddhattha and his upbringing and experiences are still very much at the heart of the novel -- but given the bonds between the two, which date back through many previous lives, this focus on his life-story is more of a twin-track along her own than the dominant one.
       The separation of male and female experiences in those times is effectively presented -- including such things as menstruation, where: "Bleeding required confinement and according to the elders confinement was necessary because I was polluting when I bled". Sasson has Yasodhara's mother cleverly put a very different spin on that, concluding that: "what we do is one thing. How the elders explain it can be quite different. They can say it is because we are polluted, but that is not necessarily what is happening". Similarly, Sasson reframes and presents Yasodhara's misery after Siddhattha's departure -- her 'Great Sadness' -- as post-partum depression, a contemporary but practically obvious reading.
       Somewhat oddly, there's little sense of the Buddha's enlightenment and then teachings, beyond in their basic outlines. The novel concludes with Yasodhara embarking, with many others, on the path to him -- but, curiously, does not follow or describe this part of her life. (Sasson notes that Mahapajapati -- Siddhattha's aunt and then step-mother -- would go to the Buddha and ask for ordination, only being accepted after first being turned down, and then also only with: "heavy conditions attached" -- conditions that have: "led to a number of painful consequences that continue to affect women's ordination status in certain Buddhist contexts today", but she neither describes these scenes nor the conditions, both of which would surely be of interest.) It seems an odd place to bring the book to its conclusion, though perhaps can be explained by the focus throughout on Yasodhara's (and Siddhattha's) temporal rather than their spiritual lives.
       Yasodhara shows some understanding for Siddhattha's actions -- though also feeling deeply hurt by them. Sasson handles this quite well, though Siddhattha's actions -- and, not least, the timing, especially of his first great abandonment -- can still seem outrageous.
       Overall, Sasson spins an engaging variation on the Buddha-story, including in her (re)telling of several of the familiar episodes from it. Among the greater liberties she takes with the known stories is that of King Sihahanu's bow, which she has planted in the earth Excalibur-like, with Siddhattha then effortlessly pulling it free. As she explains in her notes, after writing the episode this way she realized: "I had gotten the story quite wrong. I had confused King Arthur and his miraculous sword retrieval with this narrative". She nevertheless decided to stick with it, explaining:
If this book is an exercise in hagiographical writing, then part of the experience is (consciously or unconsciously) about weaving together old stories with modern yarn. Storytelling is, moreover, nothing if not a little spontaneous. The prince has, therefore, become slightly King Arthur-esque here. And that is just how stories go.
       Readers may find this overlap/confusion of familiar myths slightly jarring or distracting, the Excalibur-story both too familiar and too distant from the Buddha-story to square with it, but for the most part Sasson's approach works quite well. The telling does feel rather modern, but it is consistently engaging -- and, as noted, her endnotes, explaining some of the choices she made in the writing of the story, is particularly welcome supplemental and supporting material, a fascinating glimpse behind the writing scenes that also allows her to explore some of the paths not taken, as well as helpfully point to other versions of the story.
       Yasodhara and the Buddha is a solid novel, and a very welcome variation on the Buddha story, bringing the important character of Yasodhara to the fore. Among the interesting questions the novel raises is why no one has ever done this before -- despite all the hagiographies, Yasodhara has been kept in her place, figuring prominently in a few scenes of the Buddha-life-stories but otherwise remaining very much in the background. Sasson herself places her novel in a continuing chain of hagiographies, and one can indeed hope that it will be extended by others, with new variations that also focus on Yasodhara's life being added; as this novel shows, it is a perspective deserving considerably more attention.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 July 2021

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Yasodhara and the Buddha: Reviews: Vanessa R. Sasson: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Canadian author Vanessa R. Sasson teaches at Marianopolis College.

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© 2021 the complete review

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