July 15, 2009

Book review: Buddha’s Wife (Gabriel Constans)

The story of what happened to Yasodhara, the wife of Siddhartha, and their son after he left them both in the middle of the night to seek enlightenment is one of the more compelling yet least talked about stories in spiritual literature. In Buddha’s Wife, author Gabriel Constans explores that story in a fictional tale that is both captivating and moving.  Buddha’s Wife opens at the end of Yasodhara’s life. Long time friend Ananda is caring for the ailing Yasodhara as friends and family gather to say their goodbyes (the Buddha himself having passed away some years earlier).  Rahula, who in this story has outlived his father and did not choose ordination, has become estranged from his family, but is on his way from Sri Lanka to say goodbye to his mother. Ultimately, this tale is about the role of women in the life of the Buddha and within Buddhism’s earliest days as much as it is a story of compassion and forgiveness.

Yasodhara’s life and that of those close to her are replayed through a series of flashbacks framed as conscious memories being relived by the various characters in the novel. In a similar vein to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon, Buddha’s Wife retells an important story from the point of view of the women of that story. It explores many issues during Buddhism’s initial appearance and development from a different point of view, especially that of the Buddha’s view on women and enlightenment, including the famous conversation around that issue with Ananda. Through Buddha’s Wife, we see the Buddha not only as an enlightened being, but we especially see him as a man, and it is this humanizing of the Buddha that makes his achievements all the more attainable for all of us. One of the best books I’ve read this year, Buddha’s Wife is available in August from Robert D. Reed Publishers and available for pre-order from your local, independent bookstore.  (Shop local, shop independent, and tell ’em you saw it on Elephant Journal!)

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