BOOK REVIEW: Yasodhara, the Wife of the Bodhisattva

BOOK REVIEW
December 2010, by Jonathan Ciliberto

Yasodharā, the Wife of the Bodhisattva: The Sinhala Yasodharāvata (The Story of Yasodharā) and the Sinhala Yasodharapadanaya (The Sacred Biography of Yasodhara)
Translated with an introduction and notes by Ranjini Obeyesekere
SUNY Press, 2009

The eventual Buddha, Shakyamuni, listing the many obstacles to his renunciation of the world, named the most difficult: leaving his beautiful wife Yasodharā and his two-day old son Rahula. So hard is this trial that he chooses only to look upon them sleeping, fearing that their remonstrances and sadness at his planned departure for the forest and asceticism would be too much for his resolve.

This emotional expression of the power of the most basic human ties is at the core of the Sinhala poem, “Yasodharāvata” (The Story of Yasodharā), which in many ways is a parallel biography to the life of the Buddha himself.

The life story of the Buddha — the historical Shakyamuni — includes a great deal more than his birth, pursuit and achievement of nirvana, teaching, and death. Buddhist biographies take into account the long series of previous lives that for each human stands behind the present one, or, in the case of the Buddha, the final one. Only through many, many lives focused on compassion and wisdom was the prince of the Shakya’s able to achieve final liberation.

The “Yasodharāvata”, a folk poem from Sri Lanka, presents the long life-story of Yasodharā as intertwined with the Buddha’s, not only in his final re-birth as his wife, but throughout innumerable past lives.

Upon learning of his departure, Yasodharā is filled with sadness, and also bitterly criticizes the Bodhisattva for leaving her:

“We were first born in the animal world as deer,
Since that life we two have never been apart.
In every samsaric birth I have always been your consort.
Why then did you leave today without a word?” (74)

In addition to giving an endorsement of both monogamy and a women’s subservient place to her husband, the description of the two joined together through near-eternity casts Yasodharā’s life in romantic terms, as the constant companion and support of the Bodhisattva. Beyond monogamous romance, the chain of connection between the two underscores the ultimate interconnectedness between all beings and the shared project of achieving release from suffering.

In more human terms, the reader is confronted with both the enormous decision made by the young prince, and by the manner in which such a choice affects those left behind. For a devoted companion through many lives, who marched arm-in-arm with the Bodhisattva on the long path to liberation (“Once we went as ascetics together to the forest”, “Once in a former life we were born as squirrels”), the tragic feelings brought on by her realization that he has crept out in the night, abandoning her, are given thorough dramatic space in the poem.

For lay persons everywhere, the joyful choice of the renunciate is countered by the feeling of loss felt by those left behind. Whether or not such sadness is merely a form of clinging is to the side: for, laypersons by definition feel more sharply the sting of loss, both at the absence of a loved one or friends, and the subtle message such a decision delivers to the way of life of those not yet ready to enter the forest. As the biography of Yasodharā reveals, wisdom eventually shows a means to find happiness in the disappearance of one’s lifelong companion.

This volume presents both the 18th or 19th Sinhala poem (the biography) and a 15th century related prose text (which expands the biography to include miracles performed by Yasodharā as a nun and after achieving enlightenment), as well as excellent introductory materials which place the poem in context, and other scholarly apparati.

The author traces the presence of Yasodharā in early Buddhist literature, as well as the many instances in which her life story has received expansion over the centuries. The Sinhala poem suggests “a text composed of several strata” (Introduction, p. 27). Several episodes in the earliest literature offered later writers places in which to upon enlarge her story: 1) the “great departure”, when the Bodhisattva departs, and in which she is asleep; 2) the enlightened Buddha’s return seven years later; 3) the request to the Buddha by Prajapati Gotami (the Buddha’s foster mother), Yasodharā, and others to allow women to enter the religious life; 4) prior to the parinirvana of the Buddha, when Yasodharā displays supernatural powers as an arhat and then enters nirvana. All of these incidents grew richer in re-telling, bringing more life to the previously shadowy figure of the Buddha’s wife.

In their enthusiasm for Yasodharā, some writers even give her powers superior to the bodhisattva. Upon enlightenment, the Buddha remembers in complete detail all of his past lives. In the Yasodharāvata, however, Yasodharā begins recounting her past lives immediately upon learning of the Prince’s departure. The poem draws from earlier sources, including the Pali Yasodharāpadāna, which describes the same recounting, placing it at the end of Yasodharā’s life, when she becomes an arhat and thus manifest a more supernatural memory of her past lives.

She appears in the earliest Sanskrit biography of the Buddha: Aśvaghoṣa’s, from the first-second century CE. The poem is a considered my recent scholars an apologetic to the counter-reformation, contemporary Brahamanical epics which sought to fight the rising power of Buddhism in India. ["Life of the Buddha" By Aśvaghoṣa, Translated by Patrick Olivelle. Clay Sanskrit Library, 2009. p xxi-xxiii]

Yasodharā appears in this work in Canto 8, “Lamenting in the Seraglio,” and this section forms the centerpiece of the Sinhala folk poem. It is the lament portions which have found their way most readily into the folk traditions of Sri Lanka. The translator provides consideration of this tradition, in Sinhala poetry, within and outside of Buddhist literature.

The principle purpose of Buddhist poetry is to praise the Buddha and the dharma, and these are foremost in the biography of Yasodharā. While scenes of lamentation and recrimination against the Bodhisattva might appear counterproductive to this end, “the Buddhist worldview is also strengthened by by the description of Yasodharā’s grief as process — a forward movement from her first almost manic attack on Canna [...] to a mood of resignation and acceptance as she turns to a life of Buddhist meditation” (31). This movement also increases Yasodharā’s significance dramatically. Her previous lives document sacrifices for the sake of the bodhisattva, and her eventual arhat-hood and enlightenment (prior to the Buddha’s) project her beyond the role of “wife.” Yasodharā’s story shifts from lamentational to heroic. The poem thereby serves as a model both for laypersons (wives) and nuns.

The translation by Ranjini Obeyesekere is fluid, readable, and reflects well the folk tradition from which is springs.

I do not read Sinhala, the language from which the poem is translated. Speaking then solely from the English side, I was delighted by the decision to retain some of the rhyme scheme of the original  in which each line in each four line quatrain ends with a rhyme, without a rigid adherence. That is, while in translation many of the quatrains have two or more lines rhyming or near-rhyming, many others do not.

She tore off her precious pearl and gemstone jewels,
Took off her golden silks and the rings on her toes,
Pulled off the golden ornaments in her ears,
The queen sat lifeless as if turned to stone. (93)

More generally, the rhythm of the poem captures what (I imagine) is the easy, swinging feel of the original text, a folk poem recited and repeated by generations of Sinhala speakers. It is a pleasure to read.

~ Jonathan Ciliberto

Table of Contents

Preface
Acknowledgments

Introduction:

Yasodharā: The Woman
Yasodharā in Early Sanskrit and Pali Buddhist Literature
Yasodharā in Sinhala Literature
The Folk Poem Yasodharāvata (A)
The Tradition of Lament in Sinhala Poetry
The Yasodharāvata (A) in the Context of Sinhala Literary History
The Printed Texts
An Analysis of the Poem Yasodharāvata (A)
Modern Critics of the Yasodharāvata

1. The Poem: Yasodharāvata (The Story of Yasodharā)

2. Comments on the Yasodharāpadānaya

3. The Prose Text: Yasodharāpdānaya
(The Sacred Biography of Yasodharā)

Appendix
A Review of the Palm Leaf Manuscripts of the Yasodharāvata in the National Museum Library, Colombo, and the British Museum Library, London.

Glossary
Bibliography

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