Polygamy and Buddhism

The 1944 novel, Anna and the King, by Margaret Landon was based on two memoirs by Anna Leonowens, and on King Mongkut's public papers, but is perhaps better known for the films it inspired:
  • Anna and the King (1946, drama) starring Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison.
  • The King and I (1956, musical) starring Deborah Kerr and Yul Brynner.
  • Anna and the King (1999, drama) starring Jodie Foster and Chow Yun-fat.
These films present a fictionalized account of Anna Leonowens' life as an English schoolteacher who was enlisted to travel to Siam and teach King Mongkut's children. Upon arriving, she is introduced to 15 children she will teach, but is surprised to find out he has 67 more,[1] and many wives.[2] A clash of cultures ensues as she attempts to teach the children and wives English and English customs.

The government of Thailand banned the producer of the 1999 film from filming any parts of it there, claiming inaccuracies regarding the life of King Mongkut.[3] Historical inconsistencies have come to light in recent years about elements of the story. These are a few of them.
  • Leonowens was Anglo-Indian, raised in India, not Welsh.
  • For 27 years, King Mongkut has been a Buddhist monk before becoming King. The portrayal of him as an arrogant tyrant is fiction.
  • She was a widow, but had two children, not just one son.
  • Her son did not die as portrayed, but outlived his mother.
  • Leonowens was not present when the King died. She had been granted leave for health reasons and was in England at the time. The new King did not invite her to return and resume her post.[4]
However, one element of the story is accurate even today: polygamy. Historically, polygamy was viewed as a symbol of wealth, bringing men respect in their community and the ability to amass wealth.[5] World-wide, polygamy is legal in over 150 countries.[6] Polygamy is not permitted in developed countries, but it still exists in developing countries. Due to acts of forced marriage, domestic abuse and neglect, it is considered a human rights abuse, and the U.N. recommends an end to polygamy throughout the world. In the countries permitting polygamy, only polygyny (one man with multiple wives) is permitted. Legally, it occurs primarily in Muslim and African nations, with one exception: Burma (Myanmar).[7]

Buddhist texts do not require anyone to marry or have children, however, in general Buddhists are encouraged to only have one wife. Marriage is treated as a personal decision, as is the decision to have children, and it is not considered a religious duty or sacrament.[8]

Tibet has the largest polyandrous (one woman with more than one husband) community in the world, and polyandry is also common for Buddhists living in Ladakh, Bhutan, and in other portions of the Indian subcontinent. Traditionally in Tibet, having multiple spouses was not viewed as having sex inappropriately, and nomadic Tibetans in Nepal have practiced fraternal polyandry (one woman with men related as brothers). Until 2010, Thailand legally recognized polygyny.[9]

[1] "The King and I (1956_film)," Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_King_and_I_(1956_film)#Plot, retrieved June 4, 2013.

[2] At the time of his death, he had 32 wives and 82 children. "Mongkut/Reign as King," Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mongkut#Reign_as_king, retrieved June 10, 2013.

[3] "Anna and the King," Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_and_the_King#Controversy, retrieved June 4, 2013.

[4] "Anna and the King of Siam (film)", Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anna_and_the_King_of_Siam_(film), retrieved June 4, 2013.

[5] "Africa's Potentate of Polygamy," Los Angeles Times, articles.latimes.com/1999/mar/20/news/mn-19133, retrieved June 11, 2013.

[6] "History of Polygamy," PolygamyStop.org, www.polygamystop.org/history.html, retrieved June 5, 2013.

[7] "Polygamy," Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polygamy, retrieved June 4, 2013.

[8] "Buddhist Views on Marriage," Budsas.org, budsas.org/ebud/whatbudbeliev/237.htm, retrieved June 6, 2013.

[9] "Polygamy," Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polygamy, retrieved June 4, 2013.
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