Yasodhara: Wife, Mother, Nun
Continuing with our series on Buddhist Women (see categories), today I’d like to tell the story of Yasodhara, Siddartha Gautama’s wife. The story I’m writing comes from a conglomeration of stories I’ve read about her and will link below.
The Story Of Yasodhara
Yasodhara was a beautiful child, born to King Suppabuddha and Amita of the Shakya clan. Yasodhara was born on the same day and at the same time as Siddartha was born to King Suddhodana and Queen Maya. As such, their families thought they were destined for each other from the beginning.
The two most powerful clans at that time were the Shakya and the Koliya, so much so that it was believed that no one came close to equal them. So, they married members only of each other's clans Although both families were members of the Shakya clan, Amita’s father was of the Koliya clan. At the appropriate time, Siddhartha and Yasodhara were introduced and the marriage was arranged. They were wed at age sixteen in a huge celebration. Even though the marriage was arranged, they had known each other their whole lives, and so they grew to love each other.
When you’re close to someone, like a best friend, a sibling, parents, partners; you can tell when they are troubled. As they got older, Yasodhara knew that Siddartha was restless. He was always thinking, always striving for something more…or something else? I wonder if he could name it? The sage Asita had predicted he would become a great king or a great spiritual leader. King Suddhodana believed, wanted to believe, needed to believe that Siddartha would ascend to lead the Shakyas upon Suddodhana’s death. But this was not what Siddhartha wanted.
I can imagine how Yasodhara must have felt. She might have felt, (especially in 500 BCE) that it was her responsibility to help her husband to feel more at ease with his life. She might have also felt that his restlessness was her fault! Maybe she felt if she were prettier, smarter, a better wife he wouldn’t be discontent. This is pure conjecture, but I can see how she might have felt this way. I'm sure she tried to help him feel more at ease at home.
And so, at age 29, Yasodhara became pregnant.
By this time, Siddhartha knew that he wasn’t going to be the leader of the Shakyas. He had already snuck out beyond the palace walls and had seen poverty, old age, sickness and death. He was consumed with finding an answer to all the suffering in the world. He knew he was going to leave but couldn’t bear to share this with Yasodhara. He knew it was going to break her heart, as well as the heart of his father, siblings and his adopted mother, Gotami. On the night Yasodhara gave birth to a son who is named Rahula, Siddartha, not wanting to become attached to the baby, leaves in secret on the night he is born.
There is another version of the story which says that Yasodhara
remains pregnant for about 6 years, until Siddhartha's first return. On the day of his return, she miraculously gives birth.
I’m going with the first version.
Yasodhara gives birth and Siddhartha sneaks out that night, knowing he would never do what he feels compelled to do if he laid eyes on the baby Rahula. And so Yasodhara, Gotami and Suddhodana are left grief-stricken and broken-hearted.
In the five or six years that Siddhartha was gone, war broke out between the Koliyas and the Shakyas, these two most powerful and friendly clans. The war was over rights to water. At the same time, Suddhodana was growing frail and Yasodhara was growing older each day as she waited, hoping for Siddhartha to return.
Finally, the day came. Siddharta, now Buddha, returned with his followers.
The Buddha returned to his home in Kapilavastu. He was given a somewhat cool reception, but his family, friends and others warmed up quickly when they saw the change. They saw it in the way he walked, the way he dressed and spoke. Most of all, they saw it in his eyes. When they heard him, listened to him, his father, his mother Gotami, his wife Yasodhara and many within the household were converted.
Before long, Yasodhara felt his restlessness again. She knew it would not be long before Buddha would leave to continue teaching. His ailing father asked him to please talk to the warring Koliyas and Shakyas to bring peace to the land again. Buddha did as his father wished and in doing so, converted the soldiers.
When it came time to leave, he took with him, the Koliya and Shakya men who had converted, his son Rahula, his half-brother, Nanda, and many of the males within the household. The townspeople began calling him,“the thief who steals sons and husbands.”
Not long after the Buddha left with his new followers, Suddhodana died. Now Gotami was left without a husband or sons. Yasodhara was also left without a husband or sons. The wives and mothers in the surrounding towns, whose husbands and sons and fathers had left them to follow the Buddha, npw found their way to the palace and asked for help. At that time, without men, they could not sustain themselves.
Gotami and Yasodhara helped the great numbers of women knowing that what was stored in the palace could not last forever. They had to do something. Gotami spoke with the women and spoke with Yasodhara and decided upon a daring and audacious plan. They would join with the Buddha! That way they could all be together, help each other and learn together. Gotami set off in search of the Buddha. Yasodhara stayed behind to care for the women. When Gotami returned, they were dismayed to find that the Buddha had rejected Gotami’s idea.
Nevertheless, they persisted.
A while later, Gotami set out again. This time, she set out with ALL of the women. The women of the household and harems, the women of the Shakya and Koliya clans who had lost sons and husbands to the Buddha, and her devoted daughter-in-law, Yasodhara. They all shaved their heads and wore robes similar to the monks' robes. They gave up everything that was left and walked for days to find the Buddha.
When Gotami and the group of women approached the place where Buddha was staying, dirty, hungry and thirsty, she saw the Buddha’s attendant Ananda. She implored him to speak to the Buddha on their behalf. He did so, and after much debate and thinking, the Buddha relented, the women could stay. But, there were eight rules they must obey:
A nun who has been ordained even for a hundred years must greet respectfully, rise up from her seat, salute with joined palms, do proper homage to a monk ordained, even on t that day.
2. A nun must cannot spend the rainy season (3 months) in a residence where there are monks.
3. Every half-month a nun should desire two things from the Order of Monks: the asking as to the date of the Uposatha day (the Buddha taught Uposatha was for the cleaning of the mind, which would bring peace and joy) , and coming for the Dharma talks.
4. After the rains a nun must invite before both the Orders in respect of three matters; what was seen, what was heard and what was suspected.
5. A nun, offending against an important rule, must undergo mansatta (penance) for half a month before both the Orders.
6. When, as a probationer, a nun has been trained in the six rules for two years, she should seek ordination from both the Orders.
7. A monk must not be abused or reviled in any way by a nun.
8. From today admonition of monks by nuns is forbidden, admonition by monks is not forbidden.
The women agreed to the rules.
At some point, perhaps upon ordination, Gotami’s name was changed to Pajapati “Mother Of All”.
There’s much to learn from this story. We can learn about and acknowledge the suffering that comes from being attached to the important people in our lives, We can relate to the suffering we feel over someone important leaving us. This is normal. This is a human condition. This story also teaches us about children leaving to follow a dream, their dream, which may not be our dream. Maybe most of all, It teaches us about persistence and diligence. Maha Pajapati’s persistence in speaking with the Buddha teaches us about the importance of not giving up and advocating for ourselves.
Yasodhara’s story ends here. We know Yasodhara left all her wealth behind and came to live as a nun. Living as a nun she could be close to the man who had been her husband as well as Rahula, her son as well as her niece and nephew. We know that she predeceased the Buddha. It seems that in her own life, she was a “supporting character” but her name means “renowned”. She certainly has been to Buddhists throughout the ages.
Buddha by Karen Arnold
Old Path White Clouds by Thich Nhat Hanh
Woman Of The Way by Sallie Tisdale
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