Until the Mountains are Washed to the Sea

Conjugal or companionate love is the relationship that ideally exists between a couple, whether their marriage is de jure or de facto. For many people it is this relationship that first springs to mind when they hear the word love. Conjugal love usually begins before the wedding but it is most commonly thought of as reaching its fullest expression within marriage. Sadly, it sometimes does not survive marriage. Erich Fromm referred to this problem when he wrote: “There is hardly any activity, any enterprise, which is started with such tremendous hopes and expectations, and yet, which fails so regularly, as love.”

At the time of the Buddha, conjugal love usually began after the wedding ceremony as it still does in those cultures where arranged marriages are usual. Young people were married off and then gradually came to love each other. Even so, people did sometimes fall in love before they were married off, elope and get themselves married. Whatever form the coming together took, it was hoped that love would grow and strengthen as the marriage proceeded. In the Jatakas, the Bodhisattva gives this wedding benediction: “May your friendship with your beloved wife never fade.” [1]

The Buddha said in the Sigaloavada Sutta, his famous discourse on human relationships, that a loving husband would honour and respect his wife, never disparage her, be faithful to her, give her authority in the household and over the family property, and provide for her financially. For her part, the good wife would do her work properly, manage the servants, be faithful to her husband, protect the family income and be skilled and diligent. [2] While this sounds like a recipe for a harmonious household, it does not say very much about love, a matter the Buddha dealt with elsewhere.

The Buddha considered love, tenderness and mutual respect to be the basis for a successful, that is to say a happy and enduring, marriage. He criticised the Brahmans, the heredity priests of Hinduism, for buying their wives rather than “coming together in harmony and out of mutual affection”. [3] Clearly he thought such motives made far better foundations for a lifetime partnership. As the Jatakas say: “In this world, union without love is suffering.” [4] The Buddha considered cherishing one’s spouse and child to be a great blessing, [5] that a loving wife was “the best friend one can have”. [6] He said that a couple who were following the Dhamma would “speak loving words to each other”, [7] and live together “with joyful minds, of one heart and in harmony”. [8]

Although the Buddha did not advocate any particular type of marriage, the evidence suggests that he favoured monogamy, even though polygamy was common at that time. His father, King Suddhodana, had two wives and as a prince the Buddha could have had several wives also, but chose to have only one. In a discourse on marriage, he only discussed monogamy, again implying that he accepted this as the best form of conjugal relationship. [9] Like many careful observers since, he probably recognised that a woman rarely benefited from a polygamous marriage and preferred to be the sole object of her partner’s affections. The scriptures allude to the disadvantages of polygamy for women. “Being a co-wife is painful.” [10] “A woman’s worst misery is to quarrel with her co-wives.” [11] These and other problems are confirmed by the Kāma Sūtra, the Rāmāyaṇa and other ancient Indian literature which describe the tensions, jealousies and manoeuvrings between several wives in the same household. There seems little doubt that it was for these reasons that the Jatakas counsels “Do not have a wife in common with others”. [12]

When two people love each other deeply they often have a very strong feeling that their coming together was somehow “destined”. Likewise they have a mysterious sense that their love for each other has some kind of eternal quality to it and that it will last “until the mountains are washed to the sea”. Scientists have tried to explain such feelings in terms of chemical changes in the body and they might be right, but there could be another explanation. According to the Buddha’s teachings, before our present life we have lived before and after we die we will proceed to a new life. Our intentional thoughts, speech and actions (i.e. our kamma) in our previous existence largely condition our experiences in the present life. How we intentionally behave now will have an influence in the life to come. Strong attachments to or affinity with things may draw us to them in future lives. A strong identification with or connection to a particular location or culture may cause us to be reborn there. Likewise, a close bond or affinity with a particular person may mean that we reconnect with them after we die.

The Buddha endorsed this idea, saying that if a couple loved each other deeply and if they had similar kamma, they could come together again in the next life. [13] The Mahāvastu says: “When love enters the mind and the heart is joyful, the intelligent man can say with certainty ‘This woman has lived with me before’.” [14] The Jatakas agree: “By living together in the past and by affection in the present, love is born as surely as a lotus is born in water.” [15] Later tradition says that the Buddha and his wife Yasodhara had been partners through 500 lives. If our love for someone is strong enough to persist through several lives and draws us towards them throughout, this does not mean that we will always be in the same state when we reconnect. Two people may have been husband and wife in the last life, are bosom friends in the present life and might be close siblings in a future one. Likewise, the genders of the two people in this life might be reversed in the next life.

The ideal loving 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 my wife was brought to my home when I was a mere boy and she was a mere girl, I have never been unfaithful to her, not even in thought, let alone in deed.” [16] 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 benefited, good Sir, you have greatly benefited, in having your wife Nakulamata full of compassion for you, full of love for you, as your mentor and teacher.” [17] From the Buddhist perspective, these qualities are the recipe for an enduring and enriching relationship –faithfulness, mutual love and compassion and a willingness to learn from each other (anukampikā or anaticariya, atthakāmā, ovādikā, and anusasikā respectively).

The Buddha often mentioned faithfulness as an essential component of marriage. A firm and enduring loyalty and commitment has long been recognised as important for a successful marriage and so it is not surprising that the scriptures have much to say on the subject. Conjugal love implies faithfulness. [18] A character in the Jatakas says: “We do not transgress with another’s wife and our wife does not transgress against us. We relate to the partners of others as if we were celibate.” [19] A good wife is praised as “true to one husband”. [20]

The Jatakas contain many stories highlighting the role of faithfulness and caring commitment in marriage, the “in sickness and health, for richer or poorer” side of a relationship. One such story tells of King Sotthisena and his wife Sambula. When he was struck by a disfiguring disease and had to renounce the throne and go into the forest, she ignored all his requests to stay behind and devotedly accompanied him in his exile. With patience and love she nursed him through and eventually cured him of his disease. When at one point he doubted her faithfulness and shunned her, she would still not abandon him. Eventually, he recognised her faithfulness, apologised for not trusting her, and the two were reconciled. [21] In another story, a wife’s devotion to her husband saved him from the machinations of an evil king [22] and in another, the Bodhisattva instructed a husband to treat his dedicated and long-suffering wife with the respect she deserved. [23] In one particularly moving story, all a husband’s friends deserted him when he was confronted by a terrible monster, and even his wife’s courage momentarily faltered. His pleas for help dispelled her hesitation and she rushed to his side saying: “Noble husband of 60 years, I shall not desert you. Even the four corners of the earth know that you are most dear to me.” [24] Another story tells of a wife whose willingness to die for her husband saved both of them from certain death. [25]


  1. Ajeyyam esā tava hotu mettī bhariyāya kaccāna piyāya saddhiṃ, Ja.VI,323. [back]
  2. D.III,190. [back]
  3. sampiyena pi samvāsṃa samaggatthāya sampavattenti, A.III,222; S.290. [back]
  4. lokismiṃ hi appiyasampayogo va dukkho, Ja.II,205. [back]
  5. Sn.262. [back]
  6. bharyā va paramā sakhā, S.I,37. [back]
  7. aññamaññam piyamvādā, A.II,59. [back]
  8. pamodamānā ekacittā samaggavāsam, Ja.II,122. [back]
  9. A.IV,91. [back]
  10. Thi.216. [back]
  11. Ja.IV,316. [back]
  12. Ja.VI,286. [back]
  13. A.II,62. [back]
  14. Mv.III,185. [back]
  15. Ja.II,235. [back]
  16. A.II,61. [back]
  17. A.III,295-8. [back]
  18. D.III,190. [back]
  19. Ja.IV,53. [back]
  20. ekabhattakinī, Ja.III,63. [back]
  21. Ja.V,88-98. [back]
  22. Ja.II,122-5. [back]
  23. Ja.II,203-5. [back]
  24. Ja.II,341-4. [back]
  25. Ja.III,184-7. [back]