“In Vedic civilization the husband and wife were not separated by such man-made laws as divorce. We should understand the necessity for maintaining family life in human society and should thus abolish this artificial law known as divorce. The husband and wife should live in Krishna consciousness and follow in the footsteps of Lakshmi-Narayana or Krishna-Rukmini. In this way peace and harmony can be possible within this world.” (Shrila Prabhupada, Shrimad Bhagavatam, 4.23.25 Purport)
Friend1: Alright, we’re going to delve into controversial territory today.
Friend2: Yeah? Want to talk about demigod worship, again?
Friend1: Marriage. More specifically, divorce.
Friend2: Let me guess, you want to know how there could have been no divorce in the past. Were the women just forced to suffer through a bad marriage, and isn’t that mean?
Friend1: Not necessarily where I was going. I understand the marriages in Vedic civilization took place primarily through arrangement by the parents.
Friend2: They used legitimate astrology to compare the natures of the children. If the boy and girl were a match, then the marriage would take place. So it wasn’t just by random arrangement.
Friend1: And sometimes there was a svayamvara, or self-choice ceremony. The bride would get to pick from a gathering of potential husbands.
Friend2: Right, or sometimes there was a contest, but the same thing. The most famous svayamvara being that held by King Janaka, to find a husband for his daughter Sita.
Friend1: Glad you brought that up. I’m going to return to that in a second. Just to set the table, in Vedic culture the husband and wife should stay together. There is no such thing as divorce.
Friend2: Correct. The wife serves and the husband protects. The roles descend from the Supreme Lord Himself. In the spiritual world He is the ultimate protector as Narayana. He is served constantly by the goddess of fortune, Lakshmi Devi. Indeed, Sita is an incarnation of Lakshmi, so she maintained the same role when married to Shri Rama, who is an incarnation of Narayana.
Friend1: Okay. Got it. Here’s the area of confusion. There is also something called sannyasa.
Friend2: The renounced order of life. It is an ashrama, which means “a spiritual institution.” It is the last of the four stages for the cultured human being, who aims to go beyond the animalistic activities of eating, sleeping, mating and defending.
Friend1: While there is a lot to accepting sannyasa, we can say that the foundation is renunciation of family life. Basically, no women around. You’re free to concentrate on the Divine.
Friend2: Since this is the last stage of life, death is on the horizon. Though the end can come at any moment, there is no better time to start fixing the consciousness on the Supreme Lord, since the consciousness at the time of death determines the state of being in the next life.
Friend1: Alright, so let’s say someone takes sannyasa. They enter the institution after previously being married. Isn’t that the same thing as divorce?
Friend2: It is not.
Friend2: Divorce is usually based on the inversion of kama. You previously had some sense gratification being met. Over time the attachment turned into hatred or aversion. Shri Krishna mentions this in the Bhagavad-gita, that every individual is born into delusion and overcome by such dualities.
“O scion of Bharata [Arjuna], O conqueror of the foe, all living entities are born into delusion, overcome by the dualities of desire and hate.” (Lord Krishna, Bhagavad-gita, 7.27)
Listen, sometimes there is no option. The situation can be so bad that you have to escape. The general idea is that you shouldn’t just split up because of a change in kama, which is lust. The marriage should be based on dharma, which is virtue, religion or duty. If there is dedication to dharma on both sides, there is no reason for divorce.
Friend1: Are you saying that taking sannyasa is part of dharma?
Friend2: Absolutely. The complete system is known as varnashrama-dharma. There are four occupational divisions and four spiritual institutions. Those who follow this system are very dear to God.
Friend1: Okay, so back to the Sita Devi example. Shri Rama eventually renounced her. He had her sent to the ashrama of Valmiki Muni in the forest. Rama technically didn’t take sannyasa. Was that not divorce? Can’t others use that as an excuse to follow the same behavior?
Friend2: With the lila of Bhagavan, we should take lessons but not imitate. Unless we can create a bridge out of floating rocks and battle 14,000 warriors singlehandedly, it is best not to imitate everything that Shri Rama did during His time on earth. The rejecting of Sita was for the benefit of the Raghu dynasty, for the leaders to be respected, remaining above suspicion. It is a lesson that in this world the reputation of even the most spotless people can be tainted. Shri Krishna was once under suspicion for stealing, if you remember.
Friend1: The Syamantaka jewel.
Friend2: Yeah, which was only important to people because it produced endless amounts of gold. Imagine that. A person who is wealth personified would be so desperate for gold that He would steal a jewel from someone else? Ridiculous to come to that conclusion, but that shows you the influence of kama. It takes away good judgment. Back to your original question, sannyasa is not like divorce. The idea is to keep the wife protected in old age through the care of the eldest son. It is not like abandoning someone out of nowhere simply to find more comforts in life. Sannyasa is also known as the fearless ashrama, since a person has to be really committed in order to both accept it and succeed in it.
Marriage in dharma should be,
Not just for senses in glee.
So then in divorce not to end,
But how sannyasa to defend?
Renouncing the wife all the same,
Not then divorce of different name?
For spiritual wellbeing, with wife protected,
For improved consciousness option elected.