Question: Please explain the Vedic perspective on sex within marriage. Is the couple permitted to have a certain amount of sex?
Answer: From the Vedic perspective, sex is only for procreation. It is recommended that the husband unites with his wife after the menstruation period and after she has bathed.
There is no other recommendation about sex within marriage. There is a popular saying: putrārhte kriyate bhāryā putram piṇḍa-prayojanam—“One accepts a wife to produce a son, and a son is produced so that he can perform śrāddha for the pitṛs.”
The wife is called dharma-patnī, or ardhāṅginī. She is accepted as a companion for executing dharma and not as an object of sex enjoyment. Śrī Kṛṣṇa says that He is that kāma which is not against dharma. This kāma is for procreation. That implies that any other kāma is adharmic. He also says that as a progenitor, He is Kandarpa. That also implies that sex is for procreation.
So this is the ideal situation. However, the practical side is different. The married couple should have an understanding of the ideal, but how much they engage is up to them. Repression is also not healthy. It is better to engage in sex than to repress. In Kaliyuga, it is difficult for couples to only united for procreation. Therefore keeping in mind the purpose of marriage, one can engage in sex as per one’s mutual need. Otherwise it leads to repression and hypocracy, which is worse than engaging in sex with one’s married partner.
Question: Niyoga is believed to be the practice of begetting a child through the gods or devas. Considering the below statements, one can clearly understand that sexual activity is involved between a wife and a man other than her husband.
“In the absence of a son, a woman wishing to obtain a progeny, shall lie down under an appointment, with a younger brother, or with a sapiṇḍa relation, of her husband for the procreation of a son.” Manu-smṛti 9.59, translated by M.N. Dutt
“A woman whose husband is dead and who desires offspring (may bear a son) to her brother-in-law.  (On failure of a brother-in-law she may obtain offspring) by (cohabiting with) a sapiṇḍa, a sagotra, a samāna-pravara, or one who belongs to the same caste.” Gautama-dharmasūtra 18.4
“The younger brother of the husband, a sapiṇḍa or a sagotra, being anointed with clarified butter, and with the permission of the guru, may go to a sonless widows, when in season, with the desire of raising a son.” Yājñavalkya Smṛti, Ācārādhyāya 3.68, translated by R.B.S. Chandra Vidyarnava
“For producing a son and a heir in the family, the brother-in-law or a cousin or a person of the same clan can have intercourse with an issueless widow until she conceives.” Garuda Purāṇa 1.95.16-17
“Let the widow of a deceased, sonless man get a son procreated on her person by a man of her husband’s gotra (i.e., his younger brother, or a sapiṇḍa relation), and let the entire estate of that deceased person be invested in that son.” Manu-smṛti 9.190, translated by M.N. Dutt
Our scriptures stress the importance of a women’s chastity, and that the elder brother’s wife is like a mother (such as Sītā and Lakṣmaṇa) Then why did something like niyoga exist? Why was it considered to be within the limits of dharma, simply because there was an emergency situation? Is one allowed to cross limits?
Answer: Have you ever studied the constitution of your country? Maybe not. But if yes, have you ever been to court and heard arguments of the opposing lawyers on the same law? Maybe not. But if yes, then you know how complicated it is to understand the law in different situations. If a person is murdered by another person, and it is proven that he has committed the murder, it is still not a simple thing to decide which punishment to give. The law goes into minute details. It studies the intention of the person. Did he plan it or did it happen in the spur of the moment? Was it done with a motive or just to protect oneself or someone else? All these considerations make a judgement a very complex affair. It is not a black and white thing.
The same goes for dharma. The ślokas that you have cited are from books called smṛtis which were like the constitution for the rulers and judges. One has to understand the smṛti and its underlying principles very minutely. This is called jurisprudence. It is not the job of a common person. You need experts for this just as you need lawyers in the courtroom.
This is why Kṛṣṇa says “what is karma and what is akarma, even learned scholars get bewildered by it” (Gītā 4.16), and “the knowledge of karma is very complex to understand” (4.17).
So now coming to your specific question. There is sāmānya-dharma, or general principles and then there is viśeṣa-dharma, or a principle to be followed under specific circumstances. Viśeṣa-dharma overrides sāmānya-dharma. Niyogais a specific situation. By this, neither the woman becomes unchaste nor the man becomes a debauchee, because they are not acting for sensual pleasure. They unite for propagating dharma. Vyāsa did niyoga with Ambikā and Ambālikā and that is how Dhṛtarāṣṭra and Pāṇḍu were born. He himself describes it. You should read that description. The man has to approach the woman with oil all over his body and to unite without speaking a word.
The Smṛtis and Purāṇas which you have referred to describe the principles of varṇāśrama-dharma. They give rules how the society should be organized and about the duties of different classes of people. One of the very fundamental principles of varṇāśrama-dharma is to have a qualified son who can continue the śrāddha ceremony for the forefathers.
Therefore you will see that producing a son was a great responsibility and also a source of worry for gṛhasthas. This can be seen in the story of the birth of Pāṇḍu and Dhṛtarastra, the birth of Rāmacandra, the story of Citraketu not having a son, and many other stories in Bhāgavata Purāṇa. Even Kṛṣṇa performed austerities to get Samba from Jambavatī. Kṛṣṇa protected Parīkṣit in the womb for the same reason, so that the dynasty could continue. Aśvatthāmā, on the other hand, killed the five sons of Draupadī and also tried to kill Parīkṣit in the womb to take revenge. He wanted to make sure that the Pāṇḍava dynasty did not continue.
Since having a son was a very important principle of varṇāśrama-dharma, niyoga was allowed. It was not meant for sexual pleasure. It was an act of dharma, although to a modern mind it may appear differently.
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