According to the social system and circumstances of ancient India, it was possible for a man to have several wives.
Once there was a man who had four wives. The Indian had become ill and was about to die. At the end of his life, he felt very lonely and so asked the first wife to accompany him to the other world.
‘My dear wife,’ he said, ‘I loved you day and night, I took care of you throughout my whole life. Now I am about to die, will you please go with me wherever I go after my death?’
He expected her to answer yes. But she answered, ‘My dear husband, I know you always loved me. And you are going to die. Now it is time to separate from you. Goodbye, my dear.’
He called his second wife to his sickbed and begged her to follow him in death. He said, ‘My dear second wife, you know how I loved you. Sometimes I was afraid you might leave me, but I held on to you strongly. My dear, please come with me.’
The second wife expressed herself rather coldly. ‘Dear husband, your first wife refused to accompany you after your death. How can I follow you? You loved me only for your own selfish sake.’
Lying in his deathbed, he called his third wife, and asked her to follow him. The third wife replied, with tears in her eyes, ‘My dear, I pity you and I feel sad for myself. Therefore I shall accompany you to the graveyard. This is my last duty to you.’ The third wife thus also refused to follow him to death.
Three wives had refused to follow him after his death. Now he recalled that there was another wife, his fourth wife, for whom he didn’t care very much. He had treated her like a slave and had always shown much displeasure with her. He now thought that if he asked her to follow him to death, she certainly would say no.
But his loneliness and fear were so severe that he made the effort to ask her to accompany him to the other world. The fourth wife gladly accepted her husband’s request.
‘My dear husband,’ she said, ‘I will go with you. Whatever happens, I am determined to be with you forever. I cannot be separated from you.”
This is the story of ‘A Man and His Four Wives.’
Gautama Buddha concluded the story as follows:
‘Every man and woman has four wives or husbands. What do these wives signify?’
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The First Wife
The first ‘wife’ is the body. Day and night, we love our body. In the morning we dress and get it ready for the day, making ourselves look presentable. We take care of our body like the first wife in this story.
But the reality is our first ‘wife’ can’t follow us into the next world. It must be thrown into back to the earth from which it came.
The Second Wife
The second ‘wife’ represents our material things such as property, fame, position, and money. Often times we’re afraid to lose these possessions and want to own more of them. But at the end of life, we are forced to let them go. Trying to hold on to them is pure ego.
The Third Wife
Believe it or not, the ‘third wife’ is the relationship of our family and society. While they are saddened by our passing, there’s nothing they can do. The message here is that we can’t take our body, wealth, or family with us in the end. We’re born alone and die alone.
The Fourth Wife
The only ‘wife’ to follow us after death is the fourth. She represents the mind. When we pass, we take all of our happiness, anger, greed, compassion, empathy, etc. with us. Negative feelings is definitely karma that must be let go of — in this world or the next. The fourth wife told her dying husband, ‘I will follow you wherever you go.’”