Wednesday, January 11, 2006

marriage versus monasticism

In this vain fleeting universe, a man
Of wisdom has two courses: first, he can
Direct his time to pray, to save his soul,
And wallow in religion's nectar-bowl;
But, if he cannot, it is surely best
To touch and hold a lovely women's breast,
And to caress her warm round hips, and thighs,
And to possess that which between them lies.

— Bhartrihari

[c.f. the description of women with shantideva's: And all for pleasure and the perfect bliss, that utmost penetrating kiss, of what in truth is nothing but a heap of bones]

It is hard to tell what Bhartrihari [and his translator] consider to be the better option. On one hand, 'marriage' is described as the also ran, the second-best, the path to be pursued if one "cannot" the first. And yet, the language implies the reverse. The monastic path is almost dismissed when described as wallowing. In contrast, it is with a lingering fondness that the charms of women are enumerated in almost pornographic detail. Which path to follow, then?

We use the word marriage as a proxy for the world of sensory gratification, of the satisfaction of the house-holder duties of kama and artha.

Hinduism would appear to traditionally suggest that in life one should go from monasticism [brahmachari] to marriage [grihastha], and then back to monasticism [vanaprastha, followed by sanyaas]. These are rites of passage, and each stage is both important and necessary. Many buddhists on the other hand will often embrace monasticism at an early age, and continue that path for the rest of their lives. This was not the case with the Buddha himself however, who grew up in a life of sexual gratification [his father's idea], before getting married and having a son. He walked out on all this one day realising it to be futile and pointless, and became a monk [a bhikkhu] until the day he died. The monastic order [the sangha] he founded repuired celibacy and abstinence of its members.

To move away from holy men and closer to mere mortals, I am reminded of the travel writer pico iyer's book four seasons in kyoto. He goes to Kyoto and for a year lives in a monastery, but at the same time finds himself falling in love with a woman he subsepuently married. We once had a neighbour who had once been a monk, but then gave up his robes after falling in love. The actress Uma Thurman's father too was once a monk.

One of the stories about Bhartrihari is that he was once a king, who upon learning of his wife's infidelities, gave up his crown and became a hermit. Many hindus move on from being house-holders to renouncers. One famous but somewhat disturbing example was mahatma gandhi, whose weird experiments with celibacy were probably not what the hindu sages recommended.

It is also worth noting that the ancient hindus seemed to think it too difficult to be a monk from the start anyway. After all, Bhishma in the Mahabharata is famous for the terrible oath he took, and what oath was that but not to marry [ie remain celibate][passage: Devavrata made a terrible vow, that he would never marry so that such a situation would never arise. The earth and the heavens resounded with this terrible vow and the sound of "Bhishma". "Bhishma" echoed through out the heavens and the earth.]! And yet, thousands of monks take the same oath every year, many of them young men who have never known the world of kama. And if monasticism is the eventual path to truth, the recommended final path for both ascetic and householder, then why waste time, why not embark on it as early as possible?

Another story about Bhartrihari is [there are many, and it is hard to say which ones are true] that he was a man who could not make up his mind whether to follow the sensual or ascetic path. Each time he chose one path, he would see its deficiences and the attractions of the other, and go to the other. And so he would move back and forth from pleasure and renunciation.

So all kinds of permutations seem possible. One may become a monk, and forever remain a monk. One may marry and never become a monk. One may marry first, and then later become a monk. Or one may become a monk, and then later marry. But which option is best? Can happiness be found in the pleasures of the world, or is the quest so foolish and futile that it would be better to pursue the cessation of suffering? Or should we try both paths? If so, in which order?