The Vital Institution of Marriage


Is it sinful to have a nice, serious, stable, and committed conjugal relationship without formal marriage?


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Without resorting to words like “sinful,” I will try to rationally consider the necessity of “institutionalizing” a “nice, serious, stable, and committed relationship” between a man and woman. We may consider the following points:

Ultimately, the justification for any Krishna conscious rule, whether an injunction or a prohibition, is that it significantly helps our Krishna consciousness. The Caitanya-caritāmṛta 1.22.113 quotes the Padma Purāṇa as follows: “One should always remember Viṣṇu and one should never forget Him. All injunctions and prohibitions are servants of these two rules.” So every rule must have a rational basis, in that it must promote well-being for oneself and others. Marriage must also serve this purpose. I believe it does. I will first consider the social implications of marriage.

Those who accept the many significant benefits of living in a society, whether secular or religious, implicitly enter into a social contract, in which they must consider if their actions benefit or harm society. Bhagavad-gītā 3.20-26 teaches that even if we are “beyond” normal social conventions, we should follow them anyway so that we do not mislead others who are not beyond the rules. Most couples have children and studies show that children raised by parents who are divorced or separated are more likely to develop anti-social or self-destructive behavior, including drug abuse, and are five times more prone to mental suffering. Here is just a little of the massive evidence:

Even if you don’t have children, you are setting an example that sexual intimacy is okay outside of marriage, and that will lead others astray. Further, if we seek to normalize or even glorify a “freedom” from binding, lifelong commitment, this can hardly strengthen one’s ability to follow lifelong spiritual life vows.

On one hand, the natural state of the soul is freedom, and therefore since rules necessarily limit our freedom, society must justify the imposition of rules by engaging in “public reason,” which requires that “the moral or political rules that regulate our common life (as a society) be, in some sense, justifiable or acceptable to…those persons over whom the rules purport to have authority.” The philosopher John Locke in his famous social contract theory explains that “because we all belong equally to God, and because we cannot take away that which is rightfully His, we are prohibited from harming one another. So, the State of Nature is a state of liberty where persons are free to pursue their own interests and plans under God’s laws…, where persons recognize the Law of Nature and therefore do not harm one another.”

Regarding freedom, Prabhupada explains that, “The need of the spirit soul is that he wants…complete freedom…He wants to see the free light and the spirit…in all spheres of devotional service, freedom is the main pivot. Without freedom there is no execution of devotional service.” However he also states in this context that, “The freedom surrendered to the Lord does not mean that the devotee becomes dependent in every respect. To surrender unto the Lord through the transparent medium of the spiritual master is to attain complete freedom of life.” [ŚBh 1.2.8 Purport]

I conclude that both in pursuance of one’s own rational self-interest, and in service to society, marriage is in fact a vital institution.

Additional points:

  1. We must keep in mind that our duties are both private and public, our life is both individual and social. This is true at the deepest level in the formation of human consciousness, in our ability to communicate through language, in the fact that armies protect us, governments make sure the streets are lit at night. Without social responsibility, civilization is reduced to savagery.
  2. Our private relationships are inevitably also social facts, because our example influences others.
  3. There are legitimate grounds for separation, such as physical or emotional abuse, spiritual or moral decadence, insanity, etc.
  4. Society’s needs cannot lead to oppression of the individual, nor should individual liberty undermine the social order needed to maintain civilization in the face of barbarism and savagery.
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