As Buddhist scriptures have it, when Gotami, the Buddha’s foster mother, asked for ordination from the Buddha, he refused. The Buddha’s cousin and disciple, Ananda, intervened: since, according to the teachings of the Buddha, women were capable of achieving awakening, they must be let into the monastery. The Buddha, outsmarted, let the women into his fold but he also dictated that the women will have to live as second class citizens, subordinate to the monks.
This episode in Buddhist texts has been among the most controversial ones in the otherwise feel-good aspects of the religion that is primarily seen as concerned with self-discovery, the ending of suffering, and even challenging social hierarchies of its time. In The Gathering, a sequel to Yasodhara and the Buddha, Vanessa R Sasson fictionalizes the story of the women who set out to ask the impossible thing, the right to live as renunciants, like men.
Sasson’s imagination of the episode turns the story of these first women into a riveting road trip kind of narrative, not very different from, or rather a much longer version of, women’s marches of the present times. In Sasson’s hands, that one story from the history of Buddhism becomes multiple stories in which women, some fictional and some based on the references to women in Therigatha, the book of poems by the earliest nuns, come to know each other and themselves as they walk together.
The story itself is the reminiscing and passing down of the memories of the journey and the women’s quest for access to the Buddha’s teachings by the last of the women alive to a young girl in the monastery.
“The Gathering” refers to the group of women undertaking the journey. As the journey progresses, the women share what they are leaving behind and what they seek. “A group of women roving the forest like madwomen”, they are a diverse lot: a prostitute trying to escape the brothel, a feisty debater, a maidservant to a princess, a woman who has lost her entire family, and a mother who carries the corpse of her dead infant unable to accept his death, among many others. It is a strange gathering with queens, courtesans, beggars, and prostitutes walking together bound by the suffering inflicted upon them because of their gender: “they all seemed to come from a story of pain.”
One example of the source of pain in women’s lives is Kumari, a brothel owner. She comes to the place where the Gathering is resting for a while in their journey to take back the prostitute who dared to escape in pursuit of a safer, dignified life. But as Sasson reminds the reader, Kumari is only an example of the agents of oppression:
No one had bothered with Kumari and her henchmen at first. They were, after all, not the first to reclaim female property. Almost every woman in the Gathering had been accosted or accused at some point the day before. Husbands, children, parents, employers. One after another charging into the Gathering to plead with the escaping women to return. Some intruders threatened, others grabbed, but most begged. Kumari was just another proprietor attempting to reclaim what she thought was hers.
Then there are others like Chanda who join the Gathering not for the sake of the new teachings that promised an end to suffering or out of concern for its gendered nature:
She never pretended to have such high aspirations. She just wanted some company in old age. And some food if there was any to spare.
Surasa, a transgender character made up for the novel, decides to leave after she learns of the Buddha’s restrictions on the nuns, seeing staying in the monastery as trading one kind of prison for another.
In reconstructing so many lives and letting their stories intersect to write about the implications of the Buddha’s teachings for women then and today, Sasson accomplishes quite a feat. The novel ought to be seen as balancing itself on the precarious spot of working with feminist angst against patriarchal nature of religion while also aspiring to understand the condition of being human. Here is a the last of surviving women from the “Gathering” sharing a lesson about the nature of suffering with an impatient young girl:
“When we talk about impermanence, we often think about all the good stuff that we have to let go of. We think of our bodies, our friendships, our loved ones, our homes. This is what most people think they have to practice letting go of, because it is what they think they are most attached to.”
“But those things are impermanent,” Darshini exclaimed.
“Yes, that’s true, and we must learn to let go of all of it. But what we tend to forget is that the bad stuff is also impermanent. It’s not just the good stuff that we have to let go of. Our bad experiences are impermanent too. They don’t last forever. Nor does the suffering that comes from them.”
One must read the book to see if Sasson’s narrative strategy of universalising women’s suffering to tell a story of human suffering more broadly makes sense in the light of society of the ancient as well as contemporary times.