Marriage, or No Marriage

Devdutt PattanaikOne of the biggest questions in the mythologies of Indian origin is the question of marriage. Is marriage good or bad? Marriage here is a metaphor for worldly life: responsibilities, conflicts, prosperity, pleasure and power.

Buddha, founder of Buddhism, abandons his wife Yashodhara and his newborn son, Rahul, in the quest for enlightenment. Rishabha, the first Jain Tirthankar, of the current age, who had two wives, Sumangala and Sundanda, had 101 sons including Bharat and Bahubali, two daughters Brahmi and Sundari, renounces the world after completing all worldly duties and bequeathing his kingdom to his children.

The last of the Jain Tirthankars, of the current age, had a wife called Yashodhara and a daughter called Priyadarshana, but he renounced the world at the age of 30 with the permission of his elder brother Nandavardhan. In the Upanishads, we hear of the Rishi Yagnavalkya seeking permission to renounce the world from his two wives, Maitreyi and Katyayani. The Rishi Kardama renounces the world promptly after the birth of his son, Kapila, who formalised the Sankhya system of philosophy.

Illustration/ Devdutt Pattanaik

But as the Puranic age dawned — between the Mauryan and the Gupta periods — and the yagna culture was gradually replaced by the puja culture, and temples gained prominence in India, marriage is seen as more important than monastic ideals. And so we find a concerted effort to get the reluctant hermit Shiva married. He has to move from the still snow-clad mountain of Kailas to the busting marketplace that is Kashi on the riverbank. Ramayan and Mahabharat are epics dealing with household issues like property disputes.

With these stories, the idea of separation of man and woman starts to be seen as painful, not liberating. Ram yearns for Sita, Radha seeks Krishna, Parvati prays for Shiva. It leads to philosophies that equate God as the lover of the devotee. When Islam came to India, despite the pro-marriage leaning of Islamic practices, many fakirs of Sufism chose the narrative of separation and adopted celibacy as well as poverty.

Kama-shastra, or the doctrine of pleasure, thus openly confronted Moksha-shastra, or the doctrine of liberation. The former came to be associated with Tantrik practices while the latter came to be associated with Vedic practices. Gods and Goddesses who did not have a spouse, were said to be ‘hot’ and ‘fiery’ and often coloured red in their shrines. Water was poured on them to cool them down.

Today, many Hindu gurus in the style of Buddhist and Jain monks, tend to be celibate or distance themselves from marriage. It can be argued that this is also the impact of Catholic missionaries in colonial times, especially those involved in educational and charitable activities, who were celebrated for sacrificing personal family life for greater social good.

The author is Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group, and can be reached at

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper. 

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