Was Prince Siddhartha’s wife Yasodhara so awful that he felt compelled to renounce everything to get away from it all? So runs, at least, a misogynistic joke about the story of Buddha’s life and Enlightenment. The question remains, however, and in recent times, this story has been revisited in fiction to imagine the circumstances that could have led to his departure from worldly affairs.
A starting point for these reconstructions tends to be the question of gender: Was Yasodhara bad? How could she have been so clueless about her husband’s mission and decision? In the process of addressing these questions, these reconstructions, at least the better ones, also finely balance the question of difference between attachment and bondage, and the inner world and the outer one.
Mansions of the Moon by Shyam Selvadurai is the latest addition to the list of these reconstructions, and a very successful one at that. In Selvadurai’s rendering of the Buddha’s story, he takes an ancient legend and subjects the story to the literary rigors of the modern novel, which he approaches from both mental and social angles. The psychological angle involves focusing on the suffering of Siddhartha (the future Buddha) and his wife Yasodhara as individuals. He also broadens the sphere of interactions of Siddhartha’s world by populating it with more characters. The former helps depict a troubled marriage while the latter makes the society of the Buddha’s times a lot more accessible in all its complexities: warring kingdoms, rituals and superstition, and women’s powerlessness (along with the way they begin to organize themselves). Together, these psycho-sociological elements make Selvadurai’s novel unique in the literary reimagination of Buddha’s story.
Selvadurai’s novel accomplishes what fictionalizing ought to achieve: making the “original” story accessible by re-imagining its supernatural and rather simplistic elements. Selvadurai’s Siddhartha is not a cocooned youth living in the palace blissfully ignorant of suffering and suddenly being shaken out of it all one day when he steps out into the world and sees sorrow, illness, old age, and death, but a son who is constantly punished by his father. In this real and painful story, he suffers more and is exposed to the various philosophies of the different samanas (wandering ascetics in search of salvation and the ultimate truth of life). One of them he witnesses breathing his last:
The ascetic keenly studied Siddhartha’s face, as if looking into him. “Listen, sami, I am tired of dragging this body around. Truly, I wish to end my cycles of suffering. We grow old and sick, we sorrow and hurt. We desire beyond any possible fulfillment. Lose the ones we love most, the things and places we love most. Our bodies that we so cosset become our enemies with age and sickness. But the wisdom of non-action stops all this.”
Selvadurai gives Siddhartha many more interactions with the world than have previous novelists. He is, as a result, more disillusioned with the world and yet eager to explore the truth of things: “frightened by his attraction to this truth, because he didn’t know what he was supposed to do with it.” The ascetics he gets to know prepare him for his big mission.
Another instance of the way Selvadurai expands the canvas of the story is the portrayal of how Siddhartha and Yasodhara drift apart. Here is Yasodhara leaving to see her ailing mother:
She was escaping Siddhartha, escaping their marriage; could feel herself expanding inside, realizing only now how small she had shrunk herself over the last year to fit his unhappiness. Yes, yes, she thought, folding her arms under her shawl, shredding a tassel. The world rasps at a marriage, like a knife at a rope. How true that old adage had proven to be. In the last year, Siddhartha had brown even more discontented with his work, short with the village council, brusque and brooding with her. Worse, though, was his attempt to recompense for his brusqueness — there was something so desperately forced about it, as if he were a prisoner behind bars stretching out a hand, begging for freedom.
Both of them feel trapped in the marriage and do get subtly cruel with each other. Selvadurai captures their unhappiness in different ways: “constriction”, “pain”, “hurt”, “frowned”, “irritated” “brooding”, “morose”, “dispiritedly”, “numb misery”, “stabbed at himself” and so on. Yasodhara resents him for not doing enough to gain better positions in the kingdom and for uprooting her constantly. Though the (publicity material around the) novel claims to be primarily about her perspective, Selvadurai also lets some notes of Siddhartha’s suffering be:
The next morning, after the sacrifice, Siddhartha ate in their room while Yasodhara served him. Both of them were silent, withdrawn into their own thoughts and fears. Then, with a desperate pleading glance at her, like a child being sent off to his first day of fencing and riding lessons, Siddhartha tied his sash tight, set his turban on his head and went to see his father. Wearily, Yasodhara watched him go; she had no comfort to offer.
Such moments make one wonder if Siddhartha’s intellectual and spiritual inquiry have to be only seen as antagonistic to the possibility of a healthy marriage. Does “fighting for marriage” mean confining one’s spouse to the house? This register of Siddhartha’s suffocation aside, the novel goes where no other Yasodhara-Buddha story has ever gone’ until now—into the moment when the women appeal to the Buddha for ordaining them as well. They have no choice: they have been abandoned by the men and so can only become courtesans or slaves. Buddha refuses but ultimately relents provided they agree to be subordinate to the monks. Yasodhara leads the group of women in this appeal and in the process offers to them a spiritual leadership they are grateful for. This phase of Buddha’s story is also what gives the novel a sociological dimension: an imagination of his life is incomplete without the socio-political changes in terms of caste and gender his philosophy initiates.
In both its micro and macro documentation of Buddha’s life and times, Selvadurai presents an interesting possibility of what one can learn from the tension between demands of reality and aspiration to spirituality. It is an intriguing version of gender debates interwoven with questions of personal space.