Buddhism Yasodharā
by
Vanessa R. Sasson
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 September 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0231

Introduction

It would be easier to produce a bibliography of all the sources that do not make reference to Yasodharā than the ones that do. Yasodharā—the name most often attributed to the Buddha’s wife in hagiographic literature—is a shadowy figure in scholarship. Although research on women in Buddhism abounds, little work has been produced on the woman he was married to. There may be a few reasons for this dearth of scholarship. First of all, the wife of the Buddha is barely referred to in early Pali sources. She must have existed—at least in the imagination of the authors—if for no other reason than the fact that the Buddha produced an heir: Rāhula. Someone must have been Rāhula’s mother. She is indeed known as Rāhulamata (Rāhula’s mother) and not by any personal name in the earlier portions of the Pali Canon. This is what led André Bareau to suggest that she might have died soon after giving birth. Later texts, however, develop her character and her story. In a number of Sanskrit, Sri Lankan, Tibetan, and Newari sources, Yasodharā is a fully developed character whose experience of loss is highly pronounced. Either she tragically laments her husband’s departure, or she chooses to embrace asceticism as a means of following his journey from inside the palace walls. Despite these later portrayals, it remains unclear whether Yasodharā was the Buddha’s one and only wife, or whether there were others. Some of the scholarship referred to below tackles this question directly, attempting to disentangle the many names associated with the character known as the Buddha’s wife. Whoever she (or they) was (were), the fact remains that the Buddha’s story includes at least one wife, and that this character—most often known as Yasodharā—stimulated the Buddhist imagination for centuries.

Primary Sources

It is worth identifying some of the primary sources that give voice to the Buddha’s wife as a character. In this section, I have chosen a few examples by way of introduction. There are many more than the ones highlighted here, but this can serve as a sampling of the material available.

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