I love reading novels as well as academic books, but usually these two categories are firmly separate. Recently this separation broke down as I read Vanessa Sasson’s novel about the Buddha’s long-suffering wife, called Yasodhara and available from Speaking Tiger Books.

I first heard about Vanessa’s creative efforts at last summer’s IABS Congress, when she was persuaded to do a little reading from the opening of the novel during the Q&A session that followed her paper. I was really impressed by the skilful way in which she switched gears, drawing us all into the emotional torment of Yasodhara as she contemplates her young son’s departure. I was almost in tears by the end.

Photo on 17-09-2018 at 13.40I was therefore really excited to hear about the book’s publication, and couldn’t wait to get my order. It was well worth it: a very imaginative and engrossing tale, interweaving a range of narrative sources and references (including the Vessantara Jataka and the Ramayana) to create something both engaging and thought provoking.

It is not often that a scholar is able to also write good fiction. In the field of Indology the notable exception is Lee Siegel, whose novel Love in a Dead Language captivated me as a graduate student, combining as it does the academic conventions of translation and commentary with fiction. Vanessa Sasson’s book is also not exactly full blown fiction: it is based in part on biographical (or hagiographical) sources about the Buddha’s lifestory, and Notes at the end of the novel helpfully indicate what bits of the story come from where. However, she has not been held back by any concerns over “fact” or “history”, instead letting her imagination take her on a journey of exploration in the company of Yasodhara. We get a totally different – and hugely enriched – perspective on the Buddha’s lifestory as a result.


About naomiappleton

I work in the Divinity School at the University of Edinburgh, where I research and teach subjects related to South and Southeast Asian religions.
This entry was posted in Academia, Buddhism, Buddhist texts, gender, Publications, Religious narrative. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Yasodhara

  1. Thanks for this review! Another view of Yasodhara is found in “The Lady of the Lotus” by William Barrett (author of “Lilies of the Field”), published in 1975. He gives a lot of agency to Yasodhara, even to the point of showing her as letting Siddhartha go as opposed to just being left behind.

    I confess it was heart-stopping for a moment to learn of this book. Yasodhara features largely in the second book of my trilogy about women of the Buddha’s time (and remains an important figure in the third book, currently a work-in-progress. But if immersion in India’s myths, legends, and religions has taught me one thing, it’s that there a many, many ways to tell the story. I’ve already got the Kindle version of Sasson’s book and am enjoying it, partly because it’s so different from mine!

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