BOOK EXCERPT

We know the story of the Buddha, but what about his wife Yasodhara?

An excerpt from a new novel that imagines and retells the story of the Buddha from the point of view of Yasodhara, who was married to Siddhattha.

One morning, I woke up in a fierce mood. It was not going to be a day of lethargy. It was going to be one of rage. I stormed into the stables with my hair in disarray and my clothes trailing behind me with madness.

“Chariot Driver!” I bellowed like a peasant as I yanked open the stable doors. “Chariot Driver! Where are you?”

I stormed through the stables with abandon. My mother would have been horrified had she lived to see me in that state.

“Chariot Driver!” I repeated as I banged my way through the corridors. I launched everything on my path to the side like a wild bull, stampeding forward. I kicked closed doors open and relished the sound they made as they wacked against their frames. Closed doors were not going to assault me with their stillness today!

“Chariot Driver!” I screamed again.

I heard a shuffling sound behind me and whirled in its direction. Chariot Driver was rushing towards me, a panicked look in his eyes.

“I was calling you, Chariot Driver! What took you so long?”

Channa fell to his knees and put the crown of his head to the floor. “My deepest apologies, Princess. I was doing some work in the field behind the stables.” He was trembling all over. And he was so thin. I did not remember him being that thin before.

“What can I do for you, Your Highness?” he asked, with his head still lowered. It was the appropriate posture for a servant to use when addressing royalty, but I felt that something else was keeping his eyes to the ground. That he could not face me for reasons other than what social hierarchy dictated.

“I was calling you! Didn’t you hear me?” I demanded. Channa choked back a muffled sound.

“Stand up, Chariot Driver.” He hesitated, but eventually pulled himself back to standing position. His head was still curled towards his feet.

“Look at me.”

He lifted his face. What had happened to him? I knew the answer, but I was not prepared to face it. I had more pressing questions to ask.

“Where is he?” I whispered.

I expected him to feign ignorance, to ask me who I was referring to, but Channa had more integrity than that. We both knew perfectly well who this was about and neither of us was built to ignore it.

“He is gone, Your Majesty,” he replied almost inaudibly.

“Of course he’s gone!” I raged. “Everyone knows that! But where did he go? You were the last one to see him! You led him out of the palace compound! You know where he went! I order you to tell me where he is!”

I hated myself that way. I had never had so little composure. So little control over my own emotions. I was completely beyond my own power, ailing with hysteria.

“I...I promise you, Your Highness. I don’t know where he is,” Channa snivelled.

“Well you must know something! How did he leave here? How did he get past the guards? Why didn’t anyone notice the two of you escaping? Tell me!”

Channa was collapsing into himself. “I promise you, Your Highness,” he cried, “I don’t know. I don’t know how we got out and I don’t know where he is. I don’t know anything.”

“Liar!” I screamed. “You have to know! Tell me what you know!” I was sobbing with frustration. I thought the earth was going to crack under the pressure of my rage.

“But I don’t, Your Highness. It all happened so fast!” he pleaded. “One minute, life was routine, and the next he was pulling me aside and begging me to take him away. I didn’t know what I was supposed to do!”

“What were you supposed to do?” I cried. “You were supposed to say no! You were supposed to tell him that he had a wife and a son and that he was supposed to stay here with us! You were supposed to say no!” I wanted to smash all of my anger against his broken body, beating him until there was nothing left of either of us. I hit his chest with my fists as I cried. Channa did not resist.

Eventually, my energy buckled and I fell into the dust. “You were supposed to tell him not to go because of me,” I whimpered pathetically. “How could you let him run away?”

Channa lowered himself to the ground beside me. “Your Highness,” he said quietly, “I begged him not to go. I spoke of you and of his newborn son many times. I reminded him of your loveliness, of your gentle compassion, of how strong your love is for each other. I begged him not to go, but his resolve was unshakeable. No matter what I said, I could not change his mind. He was leaving and there was nothing I could do to stop him.”

“When my words failed to convince him,” he continued, “I hoped the guards would be more effective. I assumed they would be at their posts, prepared to fulfil their obligations. I saddled Kanthaka and we rode out towards the gate. I expected the sound of the horse’s hooves to alert them before we arrived, but Kanthaka did not make a sound. Not one click from his steps. It was as though he was gliding over the earth. When I looked down, I saw hundreds of gods lining the road beneath us, reaching out their hands and catching his hooves in their palms.”

I pulled myself up to a seated position and looked at him with my swollen eyes. “The gods were underneath you?” I asked incredulously.

“Yes, Your Highness. I saw them myself. Kanthaka galloped across the courtyard without making a sound, each step received by the gods’ open hands. No one heard us approach the gates.”

“But...even if that were true,” I was disoriented, “it still doesn’t explain how you made it through the gates. The king keeps those locked!”

“You are right, Your Highness. But the gates swung open as we reached them. I tell you, Princess: the gods were leading us out, enabling our escape. And it was such a dark night. There was a full eclipse of the moon. We would have been invisible to human eyes anyway. Don’t you remember the darkness of that night?”

No, I thought to myself bitterly, I did not remember. I had just given birth. I was not paying attention to the moon.

I wiped my nose with the back of my hand the way I had when I was a little girl. So many competing emotions were tangled inside my head. I got to my feet and turned around to adjust myself. I adjusted the sash around my robe and rearranged my hair.

“Take me to Kanthaka, Chariot Driver,” I said as I turned back towards him. “I would like to see him.”

Channa looked at me with sad, red-rimmed eyes. “I am afraid that is impossible, Your Highness.”

“Why?”

“Because, Your Highness...Kanthaka is dead.”

“Dead? What do you mean dead? I heard nothing of this!”

Channa kicked the floor into a swirl of pink dust. “No announcement was made, Your Highness. The king refused to hear of it.”

“But...but why?” I muttered with surprise. “How can this be?”

Channa did not respond. It was not his place to question the king’s royal intentions. Or the lack thereof.

“How did he die? When? Where is he now?” I asked.

“He died the night of the prince’s departure, Your Highness...” his voice trailed off painfully.

I could not imagine a world without that creature in it. He had always seemed immortal to me. Channa, by contrast, looked like a shattered man. I was beginning to understand that I was not the only one with a broken heart.

“Tell me what happened, Chariot Driver,” I said more tenderly.

“Well...” he began with a distressed voice, “Kanthaka was valiant, as always. He was swift and powerful as he charged his way out of the palace compound. We ran through the night, clear across the entire kingdom! He didn’t take a moment to rest or drink a bit of water. He just ran and ran. As though it wasn’t just the prince escaping anymore. He was running for his life.”

He paused to look up at me. “You know, Kanthaka always hated being confined here. No one but the prince was capable of riding him. He never belonged here, bound by our chains.”

Siddhattha never belonged here either. I looked away as the emotions rose to the surface again.

“When we arrived,” he continued, “the prince jumped down without even waiting for me to help him. He walked towards the forest without looking back.”

“You mean he left? Just like that? Without even saying anything?”

“He tried to. At least I think he did. It’s impossible to know what another intends. He seemed so determined, but I could not let him go. I ran after him and begged him to return. I had begged him already so many times, but when I saw him take those first steps away from me, I panicked and threw myself at his feet. I begged him all over again, pleaded for him to stay, but his mind would not be changed.”

“Where were you when all of this was happening? Where had you gone to?”

“We were at the very edge, Your Highness. The end of the earth as I have ever known it.”

The end of the earth, I thought to myself. My husband had not stopped running until the entire world lay stretched out between us. Another knife wound to my heart.

“What is it like there?” I whispered.

“It is a most terrifying place, Your Highness. When I saw him heading into that forest, my panic became even more terrible. I didn’t want him to go in there. Not alone.”

I shuddered as I tried to imagine my husband walking alone into deserted darkness. A place of exile. I could not continue the discussion in the stables, facing him as he described the moments that had splintered my heart.

“Go on, Chariot Driver,” I said as I made my way outdoors. “Where is the edge of the world?”

“Well...it is difficult to say. I am not sure where we were exactly, but it’s bordered by a most wild forest, Your Highness. It’s well known amongst the sages. I remember hearing about it as a child, although I never imagined I would see it for myself. It is the haunt of the ascetics. Only those who are prepared to face themselves dare step inside.”

We walked into a wide-open field. His description was unsettling me. The fresh air wrapped around me with a chill.

“It was dark and eerie,” he continued. “I could see a ring of ghosts hovering over the trees, haunting the area. I was terrified, shivers running up and down my spine the whole time. But the prince was fearless. It was where he wanted to be.”

We were surrounded by tall green grass and pretty wild flowers. The sun was shining. What a contrast from the place where my beloved now dwelt.

“Once I realised how determined he was, I stopped trying to convince him to turn back. Instead, I just begged him to let me go with him. I didn’t want to leave him alone there, Your Highness! I couldn’t bear the thought of him in that frightening place without someone to protect him. I begged and I begged, but he refused. He insisted that he had to make the journey alone. There was no way to change his mind. He would not take me with him no matter what I said.”

Channa’s voice was cracked with torment. I knew all too well what he was feeling. I had begged Siddhattha many times too.

“The prince brought the conversation to a close. He then took out his golden sword and with one quick movement, sliced off his long black hair.”

My hands flew to my face.

“I tried to catch the hair as it fell,” he continued with an empty stare. “I don’t know what I was thinking. I suppose it was shock. Nothing made much sense to me at the time.”

My beautiful husband without his long, black hair! I couldn’t imagine it. And yet, at the same time, I could already see what it meant. He was cutting himself off from our world entirely. He was not a prince anymore. He was not a husband or a father either.

“The prince then handed me his sword and asked me to bring it back to the king with his respects. He then turned around and walked away.”

Like that, he was gone.

Excerpted with permission from Yasodhara: A Novel About the Buddha’s Wife, Vanessa R Sasson, Speaking Tiger.

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