In praise of bad marriages

22 04 2019

In my intellectual traversing around Hinduism, I encountered the above clip of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada [Founder of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), popularly known as the Hare Krishnas] speaking of his former married life. Prabhupada left his family once his children were grown to become a sannyasi, or renounced monk, but his marriage was apparently not a happy one. In this clip, Srila Prabhupada speaks about how as a young man, he went to his father to complain that he didn’t like his wife. At that time, marriage to more than one woman was permitted in colonial India, and the insinuation was that he was asking what his father would think if he were to take another wife. Instead of giving the blessing to take another wife, the father told his son that he was most fortunate not to like his wife. For by having a wife he didn’t like, it would be easier to leave her aside and go back to Godhead (that is, Krishna). We all have to give up what we love in this life sooner or later, and loving your wife less would mean that leaving her would be easier.

This idea is no doubt connected to the Vedic idea of the transmigration of souls. The first two premises of the Brahma-Madhava-Gaudiya sampradaya (the line of Vedic thought preached by ISKCON), is that 1. Truth is a Person (Bhagavan – The Supreme Personality of Godhead, namely Krishna) and 2. We as conditioned souls are not the body, but rather our souls (jiva) are part and parcel of the Supreme Personality of Godhead. As in we are like water molecules and Krishna is the ocean. In that sense, the wife would be the figurative old ball and chain. Conjugal love is exclusively for procreation, and one should learn to detachment from one’s spouse over time. In the end, it’s all a preparation for death. If the last thing in your head when you die is your wife and children, you will likely come back to do family life all over again, just as you likely have over millions of lives that you don’t remember. So to get off the wheel of samsara (death and re-birth), it’s probably best if you’re ready to say “good riddance” to the things that bind you to material existence.

Srila Prabhupada’s anecdote reminded me of a letter a mother wrote to her daughter in France during the time of Louis XIV. The mother was upbraiding the daughter for the offense of still loving her husband after having been married to him for a year or so. I don’t remember the details, but I can imagine the reasoning was that marriage was primarily a business contract, and men were tremendously capricious since, at that time, they held all the cards when it came to authority and property in marriage. Sure, he’s nice and lovey-dovey to you now, but in five years… best guard your heart against him. You can think that  I am being tremendously cynical, but even Christian saints have painted an image of marriage as a rather bloody and tragic affair, even if the couple is virtuous. As St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote in this treatise, On Virginity, in speaking of a young wife dying in childbirth:

But her time of labour comes upon the young wife; and the occasion is regarded not as the bringing of a child into the world, but as the approach of death; in bearing it is expected that she will die; and, indeed, often this sad presentiment is true, and before they spread the birthday feast, before they taste any of their expected joys, they have to change their rejoicing into lamentation. Still in love’s fever, still at the height of their passionate affection, not yet having grasped life’s sweetest gifts, as in the vision of a dream, they are suddenly torn away from all they possessed. But what comes next? Domestics, like conquering foes, dismantle the bridal chamber; they deck it for the funeral, but it is death’s room now; they make the useless wailings and beatings of the hands. Then there is the memory of former days, curses on those who advised the marriage, recriminations against friends who did not stop it; blame thrown on parents whether they be alive or dead, bitter outbursts against human destiny, arraigning of the whole course of nature, complaints and accusations even against the Divine government; war within the man himself, and fighting with those who would admonish; no repugnance to the most shocking words and acts. In some this state of mind continues, and their reason is more completely swallowed up by grief; and their tragedy has a sadder ending, the victim not enduring to survive the calamity.

I recently read Brant Pitre’s Jesus the Bridegroom, which is an explication of the Christian mystery of the Cross from the original sources. I won’t get into many details about this book, but I do recommend it. In the boo, Pitre does exegesis on the text from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians about wives submitting to their husbands and husbands loving their wives. The points he makes are ones I have heard before many, many times. My own question in these discussions is: Just what is love in this context anyway? I am not talking about what is it in the text, that’s neither here nor there. But when modern people invoke the whole “love” thing, I think they always do it in a disordered way. Love for us is always sentiment. It’s always a feeling. We’re horrified by the idea that one can have a “loving marriage” where the couple does not like each other and aren’t happy. They may be impeccably responsible in regards to their children (who are the near-inevitable fruit of marriage), they may be outwardly virtuous and nice people. But they may not be able to stand each other. Is that okay, or is it always inherently sinful? Is happiness always virtuous?

Human beings are fickle by nature. Over a certain number of years, all of the cells in our body die and are replaced. We aren’t the same people as ten or fifteen years ago if we are just going by our bodily existence. Just as I may be hungry or cold now and may be neither an hour from now, love then in this material existence can’t be permanent. If it last a long time in given circumstances, I suppose that’s not a terrible thing, but it is by no means a guaranteed thing. The actual premise of eternal religion is not that we have to make the things of this world permanent, but rather that we must bind ourselves to the permanent beyond the world. It’s as if we are on a long journey and, instead of the final destination being our goal, we are more worried about the condition of the vehicle we use to get us there. If we are to believe Srila Prabhupada’s teachings, the issue is that we keep getting caught up with the condition of the vehicle and not the destination of the journey, so we keep changing vehicle after vehicle ad infinitum, and never getting where we need to go.

Returning to the issue of what is love in Saint Paul, could we not say that a husband loving his wife can’t really mean being “nice” to her, and perhaps it has to do with providing for and protecting her with all of his being? Sentimental affection may be an optional side effect here. I cite another Father of the Church, St. John Chrysostom, in his homily on the fifth chapter of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians:

Husbands, says he, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church.

You have seen the measure of obedience, hear also the measure of love. Would you have your wife obedient unto you, as the Church is to Christ? Take then yourself the same provident care for her, as Christ takes for the Church. Yea, even if it shall be needful for you to give your life for her, yea, and to be cut into pieces ten thousand times, yea, and to endure and undergo any suffering whatever — refuse it not. Though you should undergo all this, yet will you not, no, not even then, have done anything like Christ. For thou indeed art doing it for one to whom you are already knit; but He for one who turned her back on Him and hated Him. In the same way then as He laid at His feet her who turned her back on Him, who hated, and spurned, and disdained Him, not by menaces, nor by violence, nor by terror, nor by anything else of the kind, but by his unwearied affection; so also do thou behave yourself toward your wife. Yea, though thou see her looking down upon you, and disdaining, and scorning you, yet by your great thoughtfulness for her, by affection, by kindness, you will be able to lay her at your feet. For there is nothing more powerful to sway than these bonds, and especially for husband and wife. A servant, indeed, one will be able, perhaps, to bind down by fear; nay not even him, for he will soon start away and be gone. But the partner of one’s life, the mother of one’s children, the foundation of one’s every joy, one ought never to chain down by fear and menaces, but with love and good temper. For what sort of union is that, where the wife trembles at her husband? And what sort of pleasure will the husband himself enjoy, if he dwells with his wife as with a slave, and not as with a free-woman? Yea, though you should suffer anything on her account, do not upbraid her; for neither did Christ do this.

You might be asking yourself, “What if it still doesn’t work out?” The good Archbishop has you covered:

But what, one may say, if a wife reverence me not? Never mind, you are to love, fulfill your own duty. For though that which is due from others may not follow, we ought of course to do our duty. This is an example of what I mean. He says, submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of Christ. And what then if another submit not himself? Still obey thou the law of God. Just so, I say, is it also here. Let the wife at least, though she be not loved, still reverence notwithstanding, that nothing may lie at her door; and let the husband, though his wife reverence him not, still show her love notwithstanding, that he himself be not wanting in any point. For each has received his own.

That sounds like a lot of things, but not a guaranteed happy marriage. Returning to the comparison with Hare Krishna thought, it goes without saying that Christianity has more invested in marriage than the religion of the Vedas. Christ is the Bridegroom of the Church, the Virgin Mary is the bride of the Holy Ghost, the soul is the bride of God, etc. The Bible ends with a wedding between the Lamb and the New Jerusalem, and they all (literally) live happily ever after. So maybe in Christianity, a failed marriage always indicates failed people. That is why the conservatives now are so adamant to defend marriage in the face of the Vatican’s initiatives to address how modern marriages fail at an alarming rate.

In contrast, the Hare Krishna Supreme Being’s approach to marriage is quite different. [Here for the sake of brevity, I am going to sloppily simplify.] Krishna in his original highest abode, Goloka Vrindavan, does not have a wife. There he is eternally frolicking as a young boy with his cowherd buddies as well as the gopis (cowherd girls). His main consort, Radha, his pleasure potency (shakti), is a girl who is already married, but it doesn’t matter. They run off into the forest anyway and perform their lovers’ pastimes. Thus, Radha-Krishna are always portrayed together, though they are later separated when Krishna goes off to Mathura and then Dwarka, where he is king with 16,108 wives (he multiplies himself to be a loving and attentive husband to all of them). And yet Radha is always primary, Radha has his heart in a playful childhood puppy love affair, and that is why Krishna never leaves Vrindavan. There he is loved outside of social convention and benefit, there people love him without regard for his being the Supreme Personality of Godhead.

One should be cautioned from invoking that which is above to explain that which is below, yet here I cannot resist. Marriage at best represents a ridiculous parody of an actual crazy stupid love we once witnessed elsewhere. We came here and thought we could imitate it but we can’t. Perhaps the realization of the transitory nature of love in the material world is the first step to ascending once again into the wild sleepless nights above, where all is bliss and laughter. Maybe it is indeed a blessing to not like your wife, provided you continue to do your duty to her for the sake of a higher goal.


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