Yasodhara and the Buddha

Written by Vanessa R. Sasson
Review by Elisabeth Lenckos

When Prince Siddhartha begins the series of pilgrimages that lead to his becoming the Buddha, he leaves behind his wife, who is pregnant with his son. Yasodhara and the Buddha imagines her young life in beautiful, lyrical episodes that evoke the Indian hagiographic tradition of the Jataka, the sacred stories told about the god and his existence on earth.

A first-person account, the novel provides an intimate portrayal of the noblewoman who marries Siddhartha when they are both sixteen. The prince chooses Yasodhara, his cousin, from among the ladies of his realm by gifting her with his necklace. They enter a loving union, which, to Yasodhara’s regret, remains childless until she is twenty-nine.

But just when she is finally expecting a child, Siddhartha, whose father has kept him captive to prevent him from experiencing human suffering—old age, sickness, death, and renunciation—ventures out of the paternal palace into the countryside. There, he comes to understand that he must experience the fullness of existence before he can achieve enlightenment. He embarks on a lengthy journey of discovery, while his wife remains behind, mourning his absence.

When Siddhartha returns years later, only to take their son away with him on the next stage of his sojourn, Yasodhara is once more heartbroken. But this time, rather than staying home, she, too, embarks on a quest.

A feminist rendering of an ancient myth, Yasodhara and the Buddha lovingly revives the story of the Buddha’s spouse for modern readers. Written by a religious scholar, the novel comes complete with scholarly sources, tracing its roots to the tradition of epic Indian religious storytelling. Marvelous.