Excerpt from the novel Buddha’s Wife. Yasodhara was Siddhartha’s wife before he became known as The Buddha. Pajapati was Siddhartha’s step-mother (Yasodhara’s mother-in-law) and the only mother Siddhartha ever knew. His birth mother died shortly after he was born (as did Yasodhara’s mother).
I dreamed of my visit to find Siddhartha in Uruvela after leaving Rajagaha and our meeting with Davidia.
Pajapati was reluctant to go out of our way, not because she didn’t wish to listen to Siddhartha’s teachings and learn more about the freedom he claimed to have discovered, but because of the pain and agony she knew it would cause me. But I insisted, and Pajapati had learned long ago that I am not easily swayed once I’ve made up my mind.
Though the Ordained Followers of the Teacher from Sakya, as they were called by villagers, already numbered in the thousands, it took some time to find them in the vihara (sanctuary) on the outskirts of Uruvela. The vihara had been donated by Siddhartha’s devotees Anathapindika and Jeta. The area was called Jetavana and the followers called themselves the Union of Bhikkhus. They were protected in Jetavana, yet seldom remained there long and often slept out in the open.
I was taken aback to see women at the camp, as I had always been under the impression that they were forbidden. Pajapati asked a woman carrying water to a group of men if she was with the Buddha.
“I am a lay disciple,” she replied. “We follow our husbands and sons who have been called to live a life of renunciation and seek liberation from desire and suffering.” She continued walking and we followed.
“But surely, they have not allowed you to take orders and don robes like the men?” I asked, running to keep up.
“Oh no,” she replied. “Being of service to the followers of Gotama is reward enough.”
We watched the woman pour her jug of water into the cups of the men with robes and shaved heads. There were not many women present, but one or two I recognized. I saw Yasa’s wife and mother, who had left the province, unexpectedly, six months earlier. Rumors that they had gone to follow the Tathagata circulated freely, but I didn’t realize they had not only sought the Buddha, but had literally joined their husband and son as lay disciples. The realization that, unlike most practices of the day, one did not have to leave their family to follow a religious life threw a cold bucket of pain in my face. I stood as frozen as snow on the peak of a Himalayan mountain in winter. Pajapati was hit with the same realization. She saw the shock on my face and realized what I was thinking.
“Yasodhara,” she said. “Let’s get out of here.”
I couldn’t move or reply.
“Come on.” Pajapati pulled at my sleeve. “Let’s go. The carriage is waiting.”
I remained immobile. My hands opened and closed stiffly. My fingers turned white and my face crimson red.
“That idiot!” I exclaimed, so loudly that Pajapati tried to hide inside her sari. “What a liar—a thoughtless, selfish liar!”
“Come on!” Pajapati pulled frantically at my sleeve. “Don’t make a scene.”
“How could he leave us?!” I said loudly, tears sliding down my cheeks. “He didn’t have to leave us!”
Pajapati wrapped her arm around me and lead me away as people watched and listened.
“He’s a demon!” I cried. “He’s destroyed every dream.”
“Come, come,” Pajapati soothed, her eyes wet with sympathy. “I understand.”
“Understand?” I stopped and stared. “How can you understand? He left me; he left Rahula. He discarded us like a sack of rocks. For what?” I motioned towards the followers. “Adoration for a coward—a man who talks about peace, but leaves his family in torment?”
“Stop it!” Pajapati shouted, dragging me into the waiting carriage. “That’s my step-son you’re talking about, and he’s the furthest thing from a demon I’ve ever known.”
Siddhartha had been informed later that day about a disturbance on the outskirts of the gathering. Something about a rich woman yelling obscenities and her mother escorting her out of the area. He wished them peace.