What women need to understand is that they too have the power to make a difference.
Ancient myths and legends relegate women as proverbial sacrificial lambs in the gendered narrative of our history. Yashodhara is one such, who was made to suffer protracted isolation as her husband abandoned her in his spiritual journey to attain enlightenment as the Buddha. Although forced to suffer for none of her doings, her sacrifice did not find a respectful place in the grand narrative, and neither her story features prominently in the religious histories. Could there be more to the story that has been told in numerous times over the centuries?
By giving a fictional spin to the grand old story, Sahitya Akademi award-winning author P Lalitha Kumari aka Volga re-imagines Yashodhara as a well-defined woman with a distinct spiritual mind, and an agency of her own. Far from being the victim that she has been made out to be, Yashodhara emerges as a woman of strong character who frees Siddhartha from family obligations to pursue the path of knowledge. ‘I must make the path of the pathfinder more comfortable for him to tread upon’. The young girl had a worldview that shaped the course of religious history, becoming the tower of strength behind Siddhartha.
Yashodhara is an example of propulsive storytelling, bursting at the seams with insights and reflections on empathy and compassion. An important figure in feminist literature, Volga’s retelling of Yashodhara story is a call for women to partake in intellectual learning, and not to be left behind. ‘What women need to understand is that they too have the power to make a difference’. In her rewriting of mythical characters, Volga’s feminist exploration grants them the strength to outgrow their victimhood and take an exemplary role of their lives. Such empowering narratives need to be heard more often in these troubled times.
Reimaging the epics from the eyes of its leading women characters has evolved as a genre, leading to a gendered retelling of the history. From Draupadi’s version of Mahabharata in The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Divakaruni to Urmila’s assessment of Ramayana in Sita’s Sister by Kavita Kane, feminist writing has come a long way in interpreting religious histories for the modern readers. Having narrated Ramayana from the perspectives of its female characters in The Liberation of Sita, Volga has added Yashodhara to her repertoire. It is a welcome addition to this genre, for building a nuanced understanding of our past.
Harper Perennial, New Delhi
Extent: 176, Price: Rs. 299.
(Sudhirendar Sharma is a writer on development issues based in New Delhi, India)