Polygamy is not the rule but the exception to the rule on monogamy. Even within societies which allow polygamy, in actual practice it generally occurs only rarely
Adultery was a social concern even during the time of the ancient Babylonian king Hammurabi (1792 B.C.). The famous Code of Hammurabi condemned adulterous conduct and prescribed as punishment death by drowning or burning of the unfaithful spouse and the partner.
The Decalogue (Ten Commandments) of Moses also decreed prohibiting adultery “You shall not commit adultery.” (Bible: Exodus 20:14, Deuteronomy 5:18).
“Let marriage be held in honour among all, and let the marriage bed be undefiled; for God will judge the immoral and the adulterous.” (Bible: Hebrews 13:4).
The Bible also condemns with death the act of adultery.
“If a man is found lying with a woman married to a husband, then both of them shall die—the man that lay with the woman, and the woman; so you shall put away the evil from Israel.” (Deuteronomy 22:22).
It is argued that ‘a world with above-board polygamy is probably better than one where it is driven underground’. This is not about religion but addressing reality. In other words, taking the bull by the horn. The New World Encyclopaedia defines ‘Adultery’ as consensual sexual intercourse by a married person with someone other than his or her lawful spouse. The synonym for adultery is infidelity as well as unfaithfulness or in colloquial speech, ‘cheating.’
Generally, marriage is considered an inviolable and a sacred commitment, therefore, a violation of this is strictly censured by society. Adultery has an impact on several people – the persons who are involved, the spouses of each person, their families, the future of children and the community at large. Adultery is considered sufficient cause for divorce.
Polygamy is the practice where a person is married to more than one woman. Unlike adultery, polygamy is practiced with the acceptance of society. A polygamous union also affects all those mentioned above in an adulterous relationship. The difference is that a polygamous marriage provides legal protection for everyone.
It has to be noted that polygamy is not the rule but the exception to the rule on monogamy. Even within societies which allow polygamy, in actual practice it generally occurs only rarely. To maintain more than one wife requires extra resources: this may put polygamy beyond the means of many people; nevertheless, it must be legalised for everyone in general.
In jail or in hell
Of the five cardinal Buddhist ethical practices, avoidance of sexual misconduct is the third. “Kamesu micchacara veramani sikkhapadam samadiyami” (I undertake the precept to refrain from sexual misconduct). Buddha said, “Evil adulterers shall suffer in Niraya (hell). Even the brief time with the woman is filled with fear, the punishment is severe.” (Dhammapada 309-10.) Therefore, no man should frequent another man’s wife nor have illicit affairs.
In Islam, the Quran also states: “Approach not adultery: for it is a shameful deed and an evil, (opening the road to other evils).” (Chapter 17 Verse 32). What the Quran states is that adultery will lead to other evils for example uttering lies denying the sexual misconduct. It is interesting to see what Buddha said: “One who tells lies goes to niraya (hell); one who has done evil and says “I did not do it” also goes to niraya. Both of them being evil-doers, suffer alike (in niraya) in their next existence.” (Dhammapada Verse 306).
Buddha speaking about the consequences of adultery states in the Soreyya story that “men who commit adultery suffer hell for hundreds of thousands of years after rebirth, then are reborn a hundred successive times as women on earth.” (Saddharmaratnavaliya – Portraits of Buddhist Women by Ranjini Obeyesekere)
In Hinduism, “Offering presents to a woman, romping with her, touching her ornaments and dress, sitting with her on a bed, all these are considered adulterous acts. (Laws of Manu 8.357). “Winking at a woman, smiling at her, sending go-betweens to her, touching her ornaments or clothes, is called adultery of the first degree. Sending perfumes, garlands, fruits, wine, food or clothes, and conversing with her in secret, are regarded to be adulterous acts of the second degree. Sitting on the same bed, dallying, kissing or embracing each other, is defined as adultery of the highest degree.” (Bṛhaspati: 23.6-8).
The military of the United States of America prohibits adultery and names it a crime, as stated in Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. The maximum punishment for extramarital sexual conduct is a dishonourable discharge, forfeiture of all pay and allowances, and confinement for up to one year.
Some 16 States in America still criminalise adultery. The law of adultery in Minnesota is as cold as the state itself. If you are caught cheating, you can be fined up to $ 3,000 and even imprisonment for a year. In Taiwan and Philippines, one could face jail terms for adultery. In Taiwan for each adulterous act the person will be jailed for four months. Taiwan’s Minister of Culture Lung Ying-tai said she wants to do away with the law, but a 2013 survey conducted by the department found that 82.2% of respondents want the law to remain in place (www.insider.com/ places-you-can-go-to-jail-fined-infidelity-laws).
The case for polygamy
Cheshire Calhoun Professor of Philosophy and Research Professor writes, “Marriages are supposed to satisfy a plurality of individuals’ needs, including needs for sexual and emotional intimacy, reproduction, childrearing, and the care of adults’ material needs.” When these expectations are not met, many marriages fail.” “The expectation that marriages will provide stable contexts for the rearing of children and the economic support of adults and long-term commitment to the marriage” are in danger. The door opens for extra-marital relationship.
“On the other side, polygamy advocates like the Mormon women, argue that plural marriage promised to solve the social problems created by the failure of monogamous marriage to supply both adequate sexual satisfaction for men and a stable reproductive environment for women and children.”
“Mormon women argued that if only men were allowed to have plural wives, they would not be motivated to use prostitutes (or to divorce). Thus, fewer women would be degraded to work as prostitutes and fewer would suffer the hardships of bearing children out of wedlock or of being left without adequate economic support.” (Who’s Afraid of Polygamous Marriage? San Diego Law Review).
Evils of adultery
The family forms the nucleus of a society. When that unit is damaged by infidelity the family suffers. All the social norms, family traditions, the spiritual foundation of life and the unity of the family are lost. The Bhagavad Gita records, “Where there is no sense of unity, the women of the family become corrupt; and with the corruption of its women, society is plunged into chaos. Social chaos is hell for the family and for those who have destroyed the family as well. Those who destroy family traditions dwell in hell for an indefinite period of time. (Chapter 1:40-44)
Extra-marital partnering is a complex engagement which impacts on the marriage life. Personal health of the innocent spouse is at great risk by the exposure to sexually transmitted diseases due to the other’s sexual activity. The adulteress may become pregnant and give birth to an illegitimate baby. Infanticides have been reported in such instances. Imagine the intense psychological and emotional state of the woman and the child from this secret relationship.
It is possible that the woman is carrying her paramour’s child, thereby burdening the legal husband to provide for another man’s child (without knowledge). By this, the purity of the marriage and offsprings, is corrupted and inheritance belonging to the legitimate children is also altered. We have heard of the plots and ploys of the guilty spouse against the innocent spouse sometimes ending in murder. Or, a husband seeing his wife on bed with another, provoked to commit homicide.
In a society where adultery is not a crime, the society as a whole suffers because of the unnatural disruption of the institution of marriage. By marriage the next generation is procreated and that generation must continue the lineage. It has to be a generation with dignity and not one where the paternity of an illegitimate child is not known. The society over a period of time will morally degenerate. The decadence of a society will result in the death of the culture and religion of that nation. All of these can be protected by allowing polygamy for everyone.
“Those who imagine wrong in what is not wrong, who do not see wrong in what is wrong, and who hold wrong views go to a lower plane of existence (duggati).” (Dhammmapada Verse 318).
Why not do the right thing? Instead of banning a legal polygamous marriage why not criminalise adultery?
(The writer can be reached via email: firstname.lastname@example.org.)