Marriage in Buddhism

Marriage (āvāhavihvha) is the formal and legal joining of a man and a woman which usually takes place in a ceremony called a wedding. For Buddhism marriage is a secular institution, an arrangement between two people or two families and Buddhism does not insist upon monogamy, polygamy, polyandry or any other form of marriage. There were several forms of marriage in ancient India, the most common being those arranged by the parents or guardians, those where the couple chose each other with the parents approval, and elopement. The ancient law books called this second form Svayaṃvara and the third Gāndharva. It was thought good for the bride and groom to be the same age (tulyavaya), ideally 16, although the Kāma Sūtra recommends that the bride be three years younger than the groom. The Buddha saw faithfulness (anubbata or assava) as an essential component to marriage [1] , he mentioned adultery (aticariya) as against the third Precept and he said nothing about divorce. The Buddha also thought it inappropriate for old men to marry women much younger than themselves [2] .

Traditionally, Buddhists have practised the form of marriage which prevail in the society in which they live. Although the Buddha did not advocate any particular form of marriage, it is clear that he favoured monogamy. His father Suddhodana had two wives and as a prince he could have had several wives also, but he chose to have only one. In a discourse on marriage, the Buddha only discusses monogamy, again implying that he accepted this as the best form of marriage [3] . He said that if a woman lacks merit she might have to contend with a co-wife (sapattī, [4] and the scriptures discuss the disadvantages of polygamy for women. “Being a co-wife is painful.” [5] , “A woman’s worst misery is to quarrel with her co-wives.” [6] . Such problems are confirmed by the Kāma Sūtra which describes the tensions and manoeuvrings between several wives in the same household. There seems little doubt that it was for these reasons that the Jataka councils: “Do not have a wife in common with other” [7] .

Having been both a husband and briefly a father, the Buddha was able to speak of marriage and parenthood from personal experience. A husband, he said, should honour and respect his wife, never disparage her, be faithful to her, give her authority and provide for her financially. A wife should do her work properly, manage the servants, be faithful to her husband, protect the family income and be skilled and diligent [8] . He said that a couple who are following the Dhamma will “speak loving words to each other” (aññamañña piyaṃvādā) [9] and that “to cherish one’s children and spouse is the greatest blessing” (puttadārassa saṅgahoetaṃ maṅgalam uttamaṃ) [10] . He said that “a good wife is the supreme soulmate” (bharyā va paramā sakhā) [11] and the Jātaka comments that a husband and wife should live “with joyful minds, of one heart and in harmony” (pamodamānā ekacittā samaggavāsaṃ) [12] . The Buddha criticized the Brahmans for buying their wives rather than “coming together in harmony and out of mutual affection” (sampiyena pi saṃvāsaṃ samaggatthāya sampavattenti) [13] , implying that he thought this a far better motive for marriage. “In this world, union without love is suffering” says the Jātaka (lokismiṃ hi appiyasampayogo va dukkha) [14] .

According to the Buddha’s understanding, if a husband and wife love each other deeply and have similar kamma, they may be able to renew their relationship in the next life [15] . He also said that the strong affinity two people feel towards each other might be explained by them having had a strong love in a previous life. “By living together in the past and by affection in the present, love is born as surely as a lotus is born in water.” [16] . This idea is elaborated in the Mahavastu: “When love enters the mind and the heart is joyful, the intelligent man can say certainty ‘This woman has lived with me before’ ” [17] .

The ideal Buddhist couple would be Nakulapita and Nakulamata who were devoted disciples of the Buddha and who had been happily married for many years. Once Nakulapita told the Buddha in the presence of his wife: ‘Lord, ever since Nakulamata was brought to my home when I was a mere boy and she a mere girl, I have never been unfaithful to her, not even in thought, let alone in body.’ [18] . On another occasion, Nakulamata devotedly nursed her husband through a long illness, encouraging and reassuring him all the while. When the Buddha came to know of this, he said to Nakulapita: “You have benefitted, good sir, you have greatly benefitted, in having Nakulamata full of compassion for you, full of love, as your mentor and teacher.” (anukampikā, atthakāmā, ovādikā, anusasikā) [19] . From the Buddhist perspective, these qualities would be the recipe for an enduring and enriching relationship – faithfulness, mutual love and compassion and being each others’ spiritual mentor and teacher.

It seems that throughout history most ordinary Buddhists have been monogamous, although monarchs were sometimes polygamous and polyandry was common in Tibet until just recently. In the highlands of Sri Lanka during the medieval period polyandry was practised, and it still is in parts of the western Indian Himalayas. Today, monogamy is the only legally accepted form of marriage in all Buddhist countries, although the former king of Bhutan had two wives. There is no specific Buddhist wedding ceremony; different countries have their own customs which monks do not perform or participate in. However, just before or after the wedding the bride and groom often go to a monastery to receive a blessing from a monk.

It should be kept in mind that the early Christian attitude to sex and marriage was similar to that of early Buddhism’s – giving them a place, but only a secondary place, after celibacy and the life of unmarried holiness. Jesus was unmarried and said nothing about marriage other than to forbid divorce (Matthew 19,6; Luke 16,18) except on the grounds of adultery; and to maintain that marriages do not take place in heaven (Matthew 22,30. Mark 12,25; Luke 20,25). His views on the family were also closer to the Buddha’s, although much more radical, than they are to those of some modern Christians. “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, even their own life, such a person cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14,26). “Everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or wife or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life” (Matthew 19,29). “For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother’…a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household” (Matthew 10:34-6). St. Paul saw marriage as a concession to the weak-willed. “Now to the unmarried and to widows I say this; it is good for them to stay unmarried, as am I. But if they cannot control themselves they should marry, for it is better to marry than to burn with lust” (1Corinthians 7:8-9) Such attitudes were the norm during Christianity’s first centuries. Commenting on St. Paul advice not to touch a woman (1 Cor. 7:1), St. Jerome (347-420) said: “It is good, he says, for a man not to touch a woman. If it is good not to touch a woman, then it is bad to touch one; for there is no opposite to goodness but badness. But if it be bad and the evil is pardoned, the reason for the concession is to prevent worse evil.” Early Christianity was suspicious of all expressions of sexuality and like early Buddhism, considered virginity to be the preferred state. The particular condemnation of homosexuality was probably partly because of its association with classical culture, something the early Christians despised.

Notes

  1. Digha Nikaya III,190 [back]
  2. Sutta Nipata 110 [back]
  3. Anguttara Nikaya IV, 91 [back]
  4. Samyutta Nikaya IV, 249 [back]
  5. Therigatha 216 [back]
  6. Ja.IV,316 [back]
  7. Ja.VI,286 [back]
  8. Digha Nikaya III, 190 [back]
  9. Anguttara Nikaya II, 59 [back]
  10. Sutta Nikaya 262 [back]
  11. (Samyutta Nikaya I, 37 [back]
  12. Jataka II,122 [back]
  13. Anguttara Nikaya II, 222 [back]
  14. Jataka II, 205 [back]
  15. Anguttara Nikaya II,161 [back]
  16. Jataka II, 235 [back]
  17. Mahavastu III,185 [back]
  18. Anguttara Nikaya II, 61 [back]
  19. Anguttara Nikaya III, 295-8 [back]