This is an issue that has stayed with me for nearly three decades. When the first Indian nuclear device exploded at Pokhran, Rajasthan, back in May 1974, the scientists sent the coded message, “The Buddha has smiled” to the prime minister in New Delhi to indicate that the deed had been done. The Buddha – prophet of nonviolence, self-sacrifice, renunciation, prayer and ultimate enlightenment – being associated with a nuclear explosion?
While I was carrying on about the injustice of it all, my long-suffering wife turned around and snapped: “Big deal, your ‘prophet of enlightenment’. He abandoned his wife and young child while he went off to attain enlightenment. Same with Laxman, who went off for 14 years with Ram and Sita, leaving his wife Urmila behind.”
Now this was an interesting angle. Buddha is venerated by all. Laxman’s statue stands next to Ram and Sita as the model brother – he is worshipped by the Hindu millions. But the record seems to be clear on one thing: both Siddhartha Gautam and Laxman abandoned their wives for matters of ‘higher principle’.
Siddhartha was the son of a Shakya chief, a warrior tribe. Born into a princely family, he grew up in the lap of luxury, got married at 16 to Yashodhara, and fathered Rahul. On visiting the city outside the palace one day, he saw a series of disturbing figures – a crippled old man, a corpse, a diseased man and, finally, a wandering monk. He was astounded and enlightened, the experience eventually giving rise to the concept of the ‘eternal circle of life’, encompassing death, disease, pain and age. Blinded by his new vision, Siddhartha decided to leave his wife and son, his position and riches, and stole away from Kapilvastu in the middle of the night.
With Siddhartha gone, the records follow him and forget Yashodhara back at the palace. The earliest Buddhist texts in the Pali canon are silent on the matter, with just one obscure Chinese translation mentioning Yashodhara – in a list of nuns known for their good deeds. It was only in the later stages of Buddhist scholarship, and the need perhaps to appeal to women, that Yashodhara emerged as a minor yet significant part of Buddhist theology. Even in the latter-day mythological treatments, however, Yashodhara spends years on her own, raising Rahul and unaware of what has happened to her husband.
Onward to Laxman – brother of Ram, the incarnation of Vishnu the Preserver. For various reasons, Ram was asked to go from Ayodhya into exile for 14 years, along with his wife Sita. Laxman was married to Sita’s sister, Urmila; but upon joining Ram in exile, he left her behind. Whatever Laxman really was, his persona has now morphed into divinity. Hindu gods usually represent natural or human forces; Laxman today stands for steadfast loyalty and/or brotherly love, maintained even at terrible personal cost. Ram-Laxman are the enduring role models for brothers-in-arms.
My research on Urmila, however, was difficult. There seems to be an Indian film actress who carries the same name. But in trying to locate books, papers or articles on the mythological Urmila, I consistently came up short. We know that, together with Sita, she is a personification of either the ideal wife or of Shakti. She spent 14 years in loneliness, but was expected to suffer in silence – and she did. The names of her brother-in-law, sister and husband are mouthed in millions of daily prayers, but she remains almost unknown.
You might consider all of this to be nothing more than a ‘feminist’ perspective, and perhaps it is. Abandoning your wife and child(ren) is clearly a drastic decision at which to arrive. Both of these women were royalty, and their situations can be assumed to have been reasonably comfortable. It is one thing to embark on a noble journey for your beliefs. But the fact remains: all faiths place significant importance on marriage and the family unit. The concept of love and responsibility towards your nearest and dearest – like parents, children and siblings – is ranked highly by all religions.
Rethinking the Buddha’s story and that of Laxman from the perspective of the abandoned wife or child, my wife’s reaction made more sense.