My eyes are full, my garments wet, tears fall,
As my husband nectar-like, do I recall.
He went leaving our son, I now remember
Does this world together such as I?
From a folk poem on Yashodhara (translated by Ranjini Obeysekara)
Most religious traditions tell us that Gods and angels reveal themselves more often to men than to women. Nevertheless, in some religions – certainly in all pre-Abrahamic religions there are goddesses as well as gods: Isis and Athena, Minerva and Sarasvati, Brigantia and Frigg, for example.
Very little of historical authenticity is known about these reverence-worthy women who command great respect in humanity’s cultural history. But their stories have become part of sacred history. Days on the calendar are sometimes consecrated to celebrate their presence in the faith-systems of the world. In this way religions have memorialized Esther in the Judaic tradition, Radha in the Hindu, Mary in the Christian, Aisha in the Islamic, and Yashodhara in the Buddhist.
May 2 is the Day for Yashodhara for many Buddhists. So I will reflect on her today.
King Shuddhodana – Buddha’s father – had a sister named Pamitá. She was married to King Suppabuddha. Yashodhara was the name of this couple’s daughter. The name means One who bears Glory. Other names for her are Bimbadevi and Bhaddakacchana.
As per tradition, Siddhartha (who was to become the Buddha) was born on exactly the same day as Yashodhara. The two grew up in luxury in their respective families. When they reached the age of sixteen, they were married. The couple lived happily. Many years later, when both were 29, Yashodhara gave birth to a son. The child was named Ráhula.
It says in the lore that Prince Siddhartha left his wife, son, and palace on the very day of the child’s birth, in his quest for higher truths. He went out to solve the puzzle of human suffering and to discover the ultimate cause of pain and anguish in the world. In another rendition of this event, when Siddhartha wore a monk’s attire and was about to leave on his mission, crowds came to pay respect to him. Yashodhara was conspicuously not there among the visitors. Alone in her chamber she thought of the Enlightened One, felt there was no need for her, and waited to see if he would leave her without taking leave.
Siddhartha noticed that Yashodhara’s absence, and he asked about her. His father said she was in her room. The young prince went at once to see her. Yashodhara was overwhelmed with joy and sadness. She fell at his feet and sobbed heavily. Siddhartha’s toes were drenched by her tears. But the sage left her calmly, saying she had always been loyal to him, even in a previous birth.
First Yashodhara was thrown into tremendous sorrow by her husband’s abandonment. After she understood the purpose and significance of Siddhartha’s spiritual quest she decided to follow the ascetic path herself. She cast away jewels and silken robes, changed to ordinary raiment, and began taking only sparse food.
Gabriel Constans wrote a historical fiction: Buddha’s Wife (2009). This re-telling of Yashodhara’s story, while being respectful of the Buddhist tradition raises fundamental questions on spiritual life. It makes us think about some of the injustices towards women. In this fictional account of the scene Yashodhara says: “Shakya walked out of the door the day I delivered Rahula. Dazed after the strenuous labor, all I wanted to do was sleep. But I was woken out of my reverie by cries of ladies in waiting. Gathering my strength I walked out to witness the happening. Tears flowed effortlessly. I saw Prince Siddhartha devoid of his status, clad in mere robe moving away from the palace without a knowing gait. I quickly clad myself and ran out of the palace doors. I ran knowing I could lose everything if it happened. I ran amidst wailing crowd begging Siddhartha to change his mind. I ran to protect my child who had just opened his eyes to this world. By the time I caught up with my Prince, he had transformed to the point of no recognition. He simply looked at me and walked on. I ceased running and fell to the ground hoping that he would look at me. He kept walking. I passed out over the fading footprints of Shakya on the palace grounds.”
We read in the lore that many came to give Yashodhara moral support. It is even said that some princes came forward to marry her and look after her and the child. But she would have nothing of that. Instead, she persisted in her own ascetic life and followed five hundred other women who also became bikkhuni (nuns) of the order. Later, son Ráhula also joined the monastic order established by his father. Yashodhara he lived to be 78. She became an enlightened soul (arhat or arahant).
There are books on Buddhism that make no mention of Yashodhara, for what matters to the authors is the wisdom from the Master: not the pain and wailing of one abandoned woman. The saga of Yashodhara is symbolic of the story of women all through history who have endured neglect and abandonment, sometimes even abuse and persecution, while their husbands go on the search for higher truths and ideals. While men are absorbed in hours of scientific research, artistic creation, spiritual quest, business affairs, or whatever, the devoted wives are at hard work in the kitchen and the laundry, often attending to children’s needs and the husband’s other meals. With due respect to the many great men of wisdom and creativity who have labored for the welfare of humankind in their different ways, one shouldn’t forget that countless women have silently and selflessly sacrificed their personal comforts just to enable their male consorts to achieve their goals.
The world has changed for the better in some ways. Still, on this Day, let the males of the species recognize how much they owe to their, rightly called, better halves, and reflect a little more on their roles and responsibilities in daily chores.
May 2, 2016