Buddha's Wife caught my attention because of its unique and little-known story. My knowledge of Buddhism isn’t vast, but I am familiar with the story of Siddartha. I’ve never before come across a piece of literature that tells the story from the point of the view of the wife Siddartha left behind.
Yasodhara is dying. Word reaches her estranged son, who has been living hundreds of miles away with his wife and young son. Rahula makes the decision to leave his home and travel back to his mother to make peace before she dies. As Rahula makes the dangerous journey back to Yasodhara’s side, we learn about his mother’s life with her beloved Siddartha and how she coped when he left her in the middle of the night to seek enlightenment.
The topic of Yasodhara is something that has always fascinated me but something I knew little about before reading this book. Buddha's Wife is suitable for readers who only have a basic knowledge of Buddha. It manages to be entertaining but informative; at no point did it feel like I was being preached at, which is particularly important in a novel like this.
The characters are extremely endearing, and although we’re introduced to many characters at once, Constans has clearly worked hard to ensure that each character speaks in his or her own distinct voice. This, coupled with the little quirks that make each character memorable, prevents the reader from getting confused between Devadatta and Davida or Ambapali and Ananda.
The use of flashbacks here is among the best I’ve seen lately, really helping to create tension and slowly draw the reader into Yasodhara and Siddartha’s world until you are so involved that you can’t help but read on. More than once I had to hide this book inside an important-looking file until my boss passed by me at work.
However, occasionally I was confused as to what was a flashback and what was present-day, but I quickly got used to the change in tense. Once I understood the format, it really added a lot to the novel.
Although Rahula and his family are important to the story, I wish a little less attention had been given to their journey – it doesn’t add much to the story. Yasodhara’s recollections are far more readable and the narrative could have used a few more of those.
Buddha's Wife is an extremely strong novel - I found myself thinking about it after I’d finished reading, which speaks volumes. There are heartbreaking moments where I genuinely felt for Yasodhara as she struggled to overcome her feelings for the man who abandoned her and their baby son.
The most powerful moment in the novel is when Yasodhara, determined to see Siddartha one more time, arrives at the camp he is staying at only to find tens of women who followed their husbands and sons who had been called to follow Siddartha and his teachings. The following quotation, where she realizes for the first time just how deeply Siddartha’s abandonment has affected her, is one of the best passages I have read for a long time:
The realization that, unlike most practices of the day, one did not have to leave their family to follow a religious life threw a cold bucket of water in my face. I stood as frozen as snow on the peak of a Himalayan mountain in winter. Pajapati was hit with the same realization. She saw the shock on my face and realized what I was thinking.
Buddha's Wife is a novel about many things - religion, friendship, family - but it is primarily a story of love. The story’s strength lies in its unwavering belief that love, when it is strong enough, can truly overcome any boundary.
...“How could he leave us?!” I said loudly, tears sliding down my cheeks. “He didn’t have to leave us!”
Pajapati wrapped her arm around me and led me away as people watched and listened.
“He’s a demon!” I cried. “He’s destroyed every dream.”’