I was raised as a Catholic in a society marked by religious pluralism in India. I grew up listening to wisdom stories and the philosophical and spiritual teachings of other religions and they have helped me in my journey as a Christian. In a two part series, I would like to share a few thoughts from the life of Siddartha and his wife, Yasodhara; focusing more on Yasodhara as we journey in our own spiritual life.
The mention of Siddhartha (who later becomes the Buddha) brings to our mind the magnitude of his sacrifice in renouncing his crown and leaving his wife and his child in search of enlightenment. We stand in awe at his determination to know the truth. While we admire his relentless pursuit of truth, we tend to forget the great sacrifice of his wife, Yasodahara. In the grandeur of Buddha’s Path, Yasodahara’s spiritual legacy is not just a footnote. My intention is not to get into the debate whether Siddhartha was right in abandoning his family for enlightenment or whose sacrifice was greater. Let us focus solely on the spiritual path of Yasodahara.
Yasodhara and Siddhartha were married when they were sixteen. At the age of 29, she gave birth to their only child, Rahula and on the 7th night of his birth, Siddartha left the palace while his wife and son were sleeping. Definitely, she must have been devastated and filled with sorrow and grief. Was she surprised and taken aback by the departure of Siddartha? She knew when she married him that there was a remote possibility that he would leave her to go in search of truth. Her father, King Dhandapaani, who was against her marriage to Siddartha, was aware of the prophecy of the wise sage who foretold that Siddharth would become a great spiritual teacher and a Buddha: “You know, dear daughter, the signs are that Siddhartha will go off and leave his family to pursue enlightenment.” “Yes father, I know this,” Yasodhara replied, “but I will have none other than Siddhartha for my husband. We have been promised to one another over many lifetimes. It is to be our last and we are to do it together.” She was also aware of his encounters with the four signs that convinced him to seek enlightenment. Even before he became a Buddha, Siddartha was known for his non-violence and compassion to all beings; he suffered at the pain and sorrow of others. Yashodhara knew that Siddartha was keen to find a solution to end suffering and that he would eventually undertake such a journey not just for himself but also for her, for their son, and for all living beings. And for this she had to pay the price: sacrifice.
Though Siddartha made sure that his wife and their son would be taken care of in his absence, still it was a loss and an emptiness that she had to face and live with. She was never the same, and her life was totally shattered and her world turned upside down. If her husband had made a tremendous sacrifice in renouncing everyone and everything to find a solution to end human suffering, the sacrifice of Yashodhara was equally great. After he left her, she did not accept her parent’s offer to return to their kingdom and declined marriage proposals that came to her; she continued to stay in the palace living a simple life, growing in righteousness and holiness. She was magnanimous in embracing her life of sacrifice, accepting it gracefully, and channelized her sacrifice to form the basis of her spiritual life.
Their life and their spiritual paths underscore the truth that ‘sacrifice’ is indispensable to deepen one’s spiritual life. Siddartha sacrificed his crown, the palace life, and his family to seek the truth. Yasodhara not only accepted that sacrifice but her life itself became a ‘sacrifice.’ Both had to ‘sacrifice’ to deepen their spiritual lives (When Buddha, after his enlightenment visited the palace, he acknowledged the sacrifice, the greatness, and the spiritual depth of Yasodahara). Either we can scratch the surface of spiritual life and be contented to stay there or dive deep into it to seek communion with God. As spiritual life deepens, there will definitely come a time when we have to make a choice and choice implies sacrifice.
Sacrifice, here does not imply radical sacrifice (like the sacrifice of Siddartha and Yasodhara), but in our desire for a deeper relationship with God, to sacrifice that which is holding me back from making a strong commitment to a spiritual discipline. We want a vibrant and a fulfilling relationship with God, but at the same time we tend to hold onto things, habits, and practices that are not aligned with our genuine spiritual desire. Undivided attention to a spiritual discipline implies giving up that which hinders our spiritual growth. Ask yourself: is there anything that is holding me back because of what I keep returning to, the starting point over and over again? It is like taking one step forward and then taking three steps backward. Let us honestly confront ourselves: if something is holding me back whether at the physical level, emotional level, various addictions, distractions… am I prepared to let go? It is ‘sacrifice’ that will take us from the outer mansion to the inner chamber where God is waiting for us (The Interior Castle). Sacrifice makes possible determination, dedication, commitment, and discipline needed to remain faithful to a spiritual practice.
The power behind their sacrifice was love. Siddaartha embraced a life of sacrifice to find an end to suffering because of his genuine compassion for all living beings. For Yasodhara it was her love for Siddartha and acceptance of his life’s purpose. In spiritual life sacrifice is not possible without love. I constantly remind myself that it is not Jesus’ physical pain on the cross that saved us, but the love which is visible in his sacrifice that saved us. It is love for God that is the sustaining force for a life of sacrifice. It is true in human relationships as well: the pain and suffering one goes through in caring for the wellbeing of the other can only be done in genuine love. Love bears all things. Love is power.
In the midst of all that was happening to Yasodhara after Siddartha left, she continued to stand by him. She knew in her heart that this is what Siddartha wanted to do all his life. This was his desire, his dream: to know the truth and to find an end to human suffering. He was selfless in his desire and she supported him till the end. We all come into this world with our dreams but, somehow along the way, due to social responsibilities and duties, they are pushed to the back burner. We don’t have time to pursue our dreams. As a spouse, notwithstanding your own responsibilities, can you encourage, create the opportunity for your spouse to pursue her/his dreams? Your spouse is not just a husband/wife but also an individual with her/his own dreams. Will the dreams ever become a reality for you? As a spouse, to accompany your partner to realize her/his purpose will surely call for sacrifice on your part. Are you willing?