Marriage (àvàha-vihàha) is the formal and legal joining of a man and a woman. It is a secular institution, an arrangement between two people or two families and thus Buddhism does not insist upon monogamy, polygamy, polyandry or any other form of marriage.
BUDDHISM, WEDDINGS AND MARRIAGE
Bhante S. Dhammika
As understood in most cultures, marriage is the union of two persons which is recognized by some authority be it religious, legal or social. There are and always have been many types of marriage – polygamous and polyandrous, there are cousin marriages, forced marriages, and in parts of the Islamic world temporary marriages. In some parts of the Western world same-sex marriage has gained legal and social acceptance.
The various law books of Brahmanism, the main formal religion of the Buddha’s time, tell us much about marriage customs and weddings ceremonies in India before the turn of the first millennium. A girl had to be married off within a few months after her first menstruation and a father who failed to do so incurred more blame as time passed. There was a marriage season and the actual day and time of the wedding was usually determined by astrology. The caste of the two families was a crucial consideration. The two highest castes, Brahmans and the warrior caste, sometimes intermarried, but only rarely did either marry below this, and to marry a sudra or an outcaste was inconceivable.
Brahmanism recognized eight forms of marriage, the most common being those arranged by the parents or guardians and which usually included a payment. Less common but still recognized were where the couple chose each other with the parents approval (Āsura), or where the couple married without their parent’s permission (Gāndharvah). This last type usually involved elopement. Abduction (Rāksasa) was allowed for the warrior caste and sometimes resulted in violence. The Vajjians used to “abduct others’ wives and daughters and compel them to live with them”, a custom the Buddha considered socially harmful (D.II,74). Svayaṃara was a form of marriage wherein usually a girl but sometimes a boy chose a partner from a number of suitors. Such ceremonies would usually take place at a public gathering. The last and lowest type, although still legal, the Paiśāca marriage, involved marrying the girl after having raped her while she was asleep, drunk or otherwise unaware of what was happening. Apart from these eight recognized marriages, there were, in fact, several other forms of conjugal arrangements. A slave or servant could gradually come to be treated as a wife, a woman could consent to live with a man because he paid her to do so, and a woman taken in war could become a wife. There was also what was known as a temporary wife (muhuttika, or taṃkhaṇika, Vin.III,139) when a man and woman came together out of convenience and parted when either one of them wanted to do so.
The Brahmanical wedding was usually preceded by checking the genealogies of the two families and was always conducted by a Brahman priest. While the wedding ceremony might differ slightly in different regions they all shared two other common features. These were the father of the girl joining the couple’s hands and the couple then taking seven steps around the sacred fire. According to some law books, the newlyweds were to abstain from sex for at least three days after their marriage. As most couples usually did not even see their future spouse until the wedding ceremony, this would have given them at least some opportunity to get to know each other before physical intimacy began.
There does not seem to have been formal divorce in ancient India, at least during the Buddha’s time. If a man was dissatisfied with his wife he simply took another one, sometimes keeping his first wife or perhaps casting her out. The law books say a husband could expel his wife if she was barren, unfaithful, cantankerous, chronically ill or because had not produced a son within a certain number of years. In later centuries, the permission of some authority - a guild, the heads of the clan or the king, was needed to divorce a wife. The Arthaśāstra advises the king to grant divorces if both parties are unhappy with their marriage.
It is worth pointing out that the area of northern India where the Buddha lived, the Middle Land, was by no means completely Brahmanized during his time and would not become so for at least another few centuries. Brahmanical and Hindu law books such as Manu Smṛti, Yājñavalkya Smṛti, and the various Dharmasūtras, present the ideal, not necessarily the actual situation, and their rules were not always enforced by state power. Further, many communities and regions undoubtedly had their own wedding and marriage traditions and took no notice of, or sometimes opposed Brahmanism’s teachings on marriage, weddings, and other matters.
Buddhist Weddings and Marriage
The Pāḷi Tipiṭaka, the oldest record of the Buddha’s life and teachings, tell us something about what the Buddha and the early Buddhists thought about weddings and marriage and how they conducted them. The usual words for a wedding were maṅgalakiriyā or avahamaṅgala. Vivāha referred to the arrangement where the girl was brought to the boy’s home and vivāhana was when the boy went to the girl’s (D.I,99; I,11). In both cases, this was done to the accompaniment of music and dancing. Although the big day was probably selected astrologically the Nakkhata Jātaka mocks this practice as foolish (Ja.I257-8).
The Tipiṭaka says little about Prince Siddhattha’s life before he became a wandering monk and nothing about his marriage. We know that he was married because it mentions his wife, although never names her, and make reference to his son Rāhula. The Lalitavistata (1st cent. BCE/2nd cent. CE), a literary account of the Buddha’s life, describes him selecting his bride and marking his choice by giving the girl his ring (aṅguleyyaka). Apparently, the giving of engagement rings had become a custom by that time although this custom is not mentioned anywhere in the Tipiṭaka.
Influenced by the prevailing social norms the first Buddhists probably married within their own caste. But as the Buddha’s teachings of human equality started to have the effect in breaking down caste barriers, this declined, at least within the Buddhist community. The 12th chapter of the Lalitavistata has the Buddha’s father say that his son can marry even a low caste girl if she is virtuous. He then adds: “He is not concerned with caste or lineage in a wife. He desires only virtue.”
There is no mention of child marriage in the Tipiṭaka, nor did the Buddha say anything on this matter. However, all mentions in the Tipiṭaka of the age of girls being married range from 16 to 20, most being closer to the former (patta soḷasa vassa kale pattavaya, Ja.I,421). It was generally thought good for the bride and groom to be the same age (tulyavaya). The only thing the Buddha said concerning marital age was that it was inappropriate for men to marry women much younger than themselves (Sn.110).
The Tipiṭaka preserves only fragments of information about how the first Buddhists conducted their wedding ceremonies. To distinguish their weddings from those of Brahmanism it seems that the elders of one or the other family conducted the marriage rather than having a Brahman priest officiate. The essential feature of the ceremony was when the father of the bride took her hand, put it in the groom’s hand and with a ceremonial vase or pot (bhinkāra or kuṇdi) in his right hand poured water over their joined hands. This event was called the Giving by Water (pānīpradāna) and marked the culmination of the marriage. The person conducting the ceremony then imparted a benediction to the newly-wedded couple. A benediction from the Jātaka goes: “May your friendship with your beloved wife never decay” (Ajeyyaṃ esa tava hotu mettī bhariyaya kaccana piyaya saddhiṃ). Seven days after the marriage monks were invited for a meal.
Buddhist monks and nuns were forbidden by their rules to act as go-betweens or matchmakers. However, they were allowed to attend weddings. In fact, according to the Vinaya, if the supporter of a particular monastic community invited a monk from that community to attend his son’s or daughter’s wedding the monk was obliged to go (Vin.I,140). It is not certain what role monks had in marriages if indeed they had one. Perhaps their presence was considered auspicious or that it added luster to the proceedings. Perhaps they took the place of Brahmans in receiving gifts. It is also possible that they gave a blessing to the newlyweds.
The Buddha on Marriage
Having been both a husband and 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 (D.III,190). He said that a couple who are following the Dhamma will “speak loving words to each other” (aññamañña piyaṃvādā, A.II,59) and that “to cherish one’s children and wife is the greatest blessing” (puttadārassa saṅgaho etaṃ maṅgalam uttamaṃ, Sn.262). He said that “a good wife is the best companion” (bharyā va paramā sakhā, S.I,37), and the Jātaka comments that a husband and wife should live “with joyful minds, of one heart and in harmony” (pamodamānā ekacittā samaggavāsaṃ, Ja.II,122). 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, A.III,222), making it clear 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, Ja.II,205).
With some sympathy, the Buddha described the discomfort of the newly-wedded bride. “When a young wife is led to her husband’s home, either by day or night, for a while she feels great timidity and shyness in the presence of her mother-in-law, her father-in-law, her husband and even towards the servants and slaves.” (A.II,78)
The Tipiṭaka occasionally mentions men having more than one wife. Probably only monarchs and the very rich were polygamous. Although the Buddha did not advocate any particular form of marriage, it can be assumed that he favoured monogamy. His father Suddhodana had two wives and as a prince, he could have had several wives also, but he apparently chose to have only one. In a discourse on marriage, the Buddha assumes monogamy, again implying that he accepted this as the preferred form of marriage. In the Saṁyutta Nikāya, he said that if a woman lacks merit she might have to contend with a co-wife (sapattī, S.IV,249), and the Tipiṭaka occasionally discusses the disadvantages of polygamy for women. “Being a co-wife is painful” (Thi. 216), “A woman’s worst misery is to quarrel with her cowives” (Ja.IV,316). Such problems are confirmed by other ancient Indian literature which describes the tensions and maneuverings between several wives in the same household.
Togetherness through Many Lives
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 (A.II,61-2). 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” (Ja.II,235). This idea is elaborated in the Mahāvastu: “When love enters the mind and the heart is joyful, the intelligent man can say certainty, ‘This woman has lived with me before’.” (Mvu.III,185).
The Ideal Couple
The ideal Buddhist couple would be Nakulapitā and Nakulamātā, who were devoted disciples of the Buddha and who had been happily married for many years. Once Nakulapitā told the Buddha in the presence of his wife: “Lord, ever since Nakulamātā 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” (A.II,61). On another occasion, Nakulamātā 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 Nakulapitā: “You have benefitted, good sir, you have greatly benefitted, in having Nakulamātā full of compassion for you, full of love, as your mentor and teacher” (anukampikā, atthakāmā, ovādikā, anusasikā, A.III,295-8). From the Buddhist perspective, these qualities would be the recipe for an enduring and enriching relationship; faithfulness, mutual love and compassion and being each other’s spiritual mentor and teacher.
The Buddha pinpointed faithfulness as one of the most important ingredients for a successful marriage. A husband should not, he said, be unfaithful to his wife or a wife to her husband. A character in the Jātaka says: “We do not transgress with another’s wife and our wife does not transgress against us. We relate to others’ partners as if we were celibate” (Mayañ ca bhariyaṃ nātikkamāma amhe ca bhariyā nātikkamanti aññatra tāhi brahma cariyaṃ carāma pe, Ja.IV,53). A good wife was praised in the Tipiṭaka as “true to one husband” (ekabhattakinī) and a good husband could be similarly defined. The archetypical, devoted and loyal spouse in the Buddhist tradition is Sambula, the wife of King Sotthisena. 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 happily accompanied him in his exile. With patience and love, she nursed him through and eventually cured him of his disease. When he doubted her faithfulness and shunned her, she would still not abandon him. Eventually, he recognized her faithfulness, apologized for not trusting her, and the two were reconciled (Ja.V,88 ff).
Conjugal faithfulness and love is an important theme of many other Jatakas too. In one such story, a wife’s devotion to her husband saves him from the machinations of an evil king, and in another, the Bodhisattva instructs a husband to treat his dedicated and long-suffering wife with the respect she deserves. In a particularly moving story, all the friends of a husband desert him when he is confronted by a terrible monster, and even his wife’s courage momentarily to falter. His pleas for help dispel her hesitation and she rushes to his side saying: ‘Noble husband of sixty years, I shall not desert you. Even the four corners of the Earth know that you are most dear to me’ (Ja.II,341-4). Another story tells of a wife whose willingness to die for her husband saves both of them from certain death (Ja.III,184-7).
A same-sex marriage is a legally recognized union between two people of the same gender, i.e. two homosexuals. Same-sex marriages have only of late become legal in several European countries and in a few states in the United States. However, such unions may have existed in some parts of the ancient world, including in India. The Kāma Sūtra (4th century CE) mentions marriages between men, although it is not clear if these were performed by Hindu priests or were recognized by the state, probably not. In Yasodhara’s Jayamaṅgala (13th century?), a commentary on the Kāma Sūtra composed in about the 13th century, it says: “Freemen of this inclination (i.e. homosexuals) who reject women and can willingly do without them because they love each other, get married, bound by a deep trusting friendship.” Any close, long-term relationship, heterosexual or homosexual, will endure and be fulfilling if the couple involved are faithful to each other (D.III,190), speak loving words to each other (A.II,59), have compassion and love towards each other, and look upon each other as their mentor and teacher (A.III,295-8).
What would be the Buddhist attitude to such marriages? Buddhism sees marriage as a secular institution, an arrangement between two people, and thus Buddhist monks or nuns do not perform marriages, although they are often called upon to bless the couple either just before or just after the marriage. Monks also often give short sermons and chant a few suttas during the opening of new businesses, at birthdays, funerals and at the bedside of the sick or the dying. If two men or two women were genuinely committed to each other and wanted a monk to bless their union and wish them well in their life together, it is not difficult to imagine that he would be happy to do this for them.
There does not seem to be a word in the Tipiñaka for divorce, other than perhaps vikiraõa meaning ‘to break’ or ‘to separate’, which is sometimes used in reference to marriage (e.g. D.I,11). According to the Vinaya, “being told ‘Enough!’.” (alaṃvacanīyā) by one’s husband was the usual way of dissolving a marriage during the Buddha's time (Vin.III,144). When someone was dissatisfied with their spouse, one or the other would either depart or be expelled from the household. It was usually the wife who did this or to whom this was done. When Ugga decided that he was going to become celibate he informed his four wives that they could continue to live in the house, return to their parents or take another husband. The eldest wife apparently already has her eye on another man and asked to be given to him, which Ugga happily did (A.IV,210). Isidāsī and her husband lived in his parent’s house. He was unhappy with her so he left the house and resided somewhere else. Isidāsī returned to her parent's house and they subsequently married her off to another man (Thi.413-20). The Buddha said nothing about divorce. When Sangāmaji decided to become a monk he simply abandoned his house and his pregnant wife. After his wife gave birth she took the baby to Sangāmaji but he refused to acknowledge either her or the child (Ud.5-6). The Buddha said nothing about divorce.
Adultery (aticariyā) is having sexual relations with another person while married or with a person married to another. Until recently it was the major reason for divorce. In the Tipiṭaka, a male adulterer is called a paradārika and a female equivalent is called aticārinī (S.II,259). An adulteress might also be dubbed “an owl-like one” (kosiyāyayanī) because she was thought to sneak around at night (Ja.I,496). Adultery is probably the most common breach of the third Precept. Most marriage ceremonies include a solemn promise by both parties that they will be faithful to each other. Committing adultery breaks this promise and usually involves other negative behaviours such as lying, deceit and pretence. The negative results of adultery on others can include the destruction of trust, humiliation, heartbreak and a weakening of family cohesion. For these reasons, the Buddha said: “Being dissatisfied with his wife, if one is seen with prostitutes or the wives of others, this is a cause of one's decline” (Sn.108).
Buddhist Weddings and Marriages through History
It seems that throughout history most ordinary Buddhists have usually been monogamous, although kings were sometimes polygamous and fraternal polyandry was common in Tibet until just recently. In the highlands of Sri Lanka during the medieval period polyandry was practiced, and it still is in parts of Ladakh and Spiti. Today, monogamy is the only legally accepted form of marriage in all Buddhist countries. There is no specific Buddhist wedding ceremony; different countries have their own customs which monks usually 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.
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All references are to the volume number (Roman numerals) and page number (Arabic numerals) or where relevant to verse numbers of the Pali Text Society’s editions of the Pali Buddhist scriptures.
A Aṅguttara Nikāya
D Dīgha Nikāya
M Majjhima Nikāya
S Saṃyutta Nikāya
Sn Sutta Nipāta
Vin Vinya Piṭaka
- Gay marriage in the article: Homosexuality
- Transgendered people and Buddhism
- Buddhist wedding pictures
- http://www.BuddhismA2Z.com/ Buddhism A to Z. Ven. Dhammika, 2007.