Two religions, one marriage-the gamble,
Part One introduced our series on mixed marriages with a
mix of fact and opinion. Firstly, they are clearly on the rise-interregionally in India,
and interracially and interreligiously globally. Secondly, many Hindus still oppose them.
But outright condemnation is now viewed as more mean than meaningful. Accommodation is in.
Part Two will undertake a decidedly less popular, very delicate discussion-the
disadvantages of interfaith marriages.
By Lavina Melwani
The carload of Hindu women were on a
"moon-sighting" expedition in the middle of New York City. Driving up and down
skyscraper-walled avenues, they were looking for the moon. It was Karva Chauth. They
couldn't break a fast taken for the health of their husbands until they caught a glimpse
of the moon. Finally, mission accomplished, they returned to the dinner party they were
One of them them was Janet, an American married to a Hindu
man. Although herself not Hindu, she had learned some Hindi, installed a puja room at home
and given her daughters Hindu names. She had been feeling sick that day and was faint from
the fast. She felt angry and imposed upon because her husband Raghu expected her to
observe the fast in spite of her ill-health. But he considered himself a model husband,
and would have been annoyed if she begged not to. After all, wasn't his wife simply doing
her duty as a good Hindu wife?
Sharda is a Hindu woman in Kuala Lumpur who fell in love
with Hasan, a Muslim. He had insisted that she convert to Islam at the time of marriage
and that the children be brought up as Muslims. She gave in, but a few years later there
is a major crisis: Hasan took a second wife, allowed under Islamic law. She has no choice
but to accept it, because if she divorces him, he will get custody of the children. She
has lost her religion and her culture, and even the intrinsic bond of man and wife.
Such are the hurdles, big and small, of an interfaith
marriage. These couples have to slay more demons than most, for they have to contend not
only with the emotional baggage they bring into the relationship, but also with the
demands of different traditions.
Religion is indeed a major stumbling block in intercultural
marriages. Which is the correct route to paradise? In the first flush of romance, couples
hardly give a thought to religion, but the problems magnify with the birth of children.
Which faith should they follow?
Marrying a Whole Culture-Wow!
Can a person from an alien culture infiltrate the
tightly-knit Hindu world and make it home, especially in India? Many have tried. Some have
failed, tripped by caste, religion and in-laws; others have flourished, turning negatives
into positives, enriching both cultures. In any marriage, intercultural or not, it is
usually the woman who makes the major adjustments. For a Western woman entering this
culture of contrasts and contradictions, it is no easy chore.
Many Western women have come into this bewildering Indian
world of large joint families where the patriarch is the head of the extended family, no
matter how old his sons. Another surprise is the Hindu mother-in-law, the de-facto
commander, many-armed Indian Goddess who giveth and taketh, and to whom all must bow in
obeisance. When a woman marries an Indian man, she generally marries his whole family of
father, mother, brothers, sisters, sisters-in-law, uncles, aunts and cousins as well. For
the Western spouse expecting more marital sovereignty, the Hindu joint family demands can
be very disquieting.
Often intercultural marriages fail, a victim of unrealistic
expectations. Some Indian men are brought up with preconceptions and misconceptions of
what marriage ought to be, based on self-effacing mothers, sisters, aunts and
sisters-in-law in a male-dominated culture. Living in the 90's, in hectic cities abroad,
these men still expect their Western women to transform into traditional Hindu wives.
Indian women married to foreign men, however, seem to do
better, perhaps because these women are used to the idea of being the givers,
compromisers, and adapters. In a traditional Indian marriage they would be adjusting to a
vast family of in-laws, whereas here they adjust to a new culture and people.
Susan is a young American woman married to Anil, a Hindu
who lives in New Delhi. When she delivered her first son at her mother's place in
California, the child was baptized, in a Christian name-giving rite. But in India this
first son had a Hindu name-giving ceremony and was given a Hindu first name and an
American middle name. Is he Hindu or Christian? Will his religious education become a
matter of dissent? Only time will tell.
I Love You, but my Religious Beliefs Too!
Pathmaraja Nagalingam, a businessman in Malaysia, says that
there are over 150,000 intercultural couples in that country. Since Malaysia is a Muslim
country, in any intermarriages, the non-Muslim spouse must convert to Islam. "These
interfaith marriages are the main reason we are losing our Hindus," Nagalingam says.
Krishnan, a young Tamil in Kuala Lumpur was very committed to the Sanatana Dharma. So the
priests at the temple were surprised when he told them he was marrying a Catholic girl. He
explained she wasn't very religious so there would be no conflicts. In the first years of
his marriage, he kept up his religious practices. But gradually he stopped coming to the
temple because his wife wanted him home on the weekends. When the children were born, he
intended to bring them up as Hindus, but his wife objected so he gave up this idea to keep
his wife happy. To this day he silently feels sad and guilty.
Suraj, a Hindu man, married Mary, a Christian Indian girl.
At the time of the marriage, they had agreed to bring up the children in both faiths. Over
time, however, Mary who is with the children all day, began taking them to church and
teaching them about Christianity. Suraj, who works long hours, does not get the
opportunity to give them a Hindu education. Now the girl's priest and her relatives are
trying to prevent the children from even accompanying their father to the Hindu temple.
Of course, marital harmony is not guaranteed even in
marriages between Hindus-but especially when one is religious and the other not.
Saraswati, a young religious woman in Mauritius, loved satsang, doing karma yoga with
other Hindus and performing a puja and meditation daily. She wanted a religious husband
and repeatedly refused matches with men who ate meat or were too worldly. But her parents
were very anxious to get her married off. So she gave in and married Ramanathan who said
he would let her be vegetarian, raise the children as Hindus and continue her religious
activities. But after marriage he wouldn't let her go to the temple, demanded she eat meat
and sometimes beat her. The deeper tragedy here was that everyone had failed her-not only
her parents, but also her close friends, relatives and community elders.
The loss of Hindu religious culture through mixed marriages
is common in many countries around the globe, especially in the USA, home of over 600,000
Hindus. Religion is not discussed much in mainstream America. Interfaith couples tend to
avoid this topic. They feel that if they can avoid the troublesome "R" word,
their marriage is safe. The result is that some parents bend over backwards to avoid the
rituals and traditions of either faith and their children are brought up without any
religious convictions. When faced with tough times, these children lack the bulwark of
faith built on the example of parents, rituals and religious childhood memories.
Suresh, a young engineer in Atlanta, married Anna, an
American woman with the understanding that both cultures would be respected. Once the
children came, she did a complete turnabout. She would not allow them to go to the Hindu
temple, derogated the Hindu culture and basically turned the children against everything
Indian. Her relatives started taking the children to a Christian church. Suresh found his
children didn't want to associate with anything Indian or eat Indian food. He was
heartsick but felt he had no choice. Though still together, their marriage is a sham.
Dr. Rao, a scientist in San Antonio, Texas, has seen many
interfaith marriages crash on the rock of religion. He assesses, "When the husband
and wife do not subscribe to the same religion, the greatest victims are the children.
What I'm afraid of is these children who are not able to have any spiritual guidance will
have nothing to pass on to their own children. It will lead to more and more unhappy
Paradoxically, Dr. Rao, although seemingly against
interfaith marriages, blessed his own daughter's union with a Jewish man. The couple were
married in ceremonies presided over by a Hindu priest, a Christian minister and a Jewish
rabbi. Yet Dr. Rao finds no discrepancy between his words and his actions, for he believes
in Hindu philosophy which allows a view of God as universal. He feels he can worship God
in the form of Krishna and still be totally comfortable in a synagogue or a church.
It is this same idea of one universal God that he has
passed on to his children, and which they hope to pass on to theirs. True, these children
will not be orthodox sectarian Hindus, but they will be Hindu in a broader, all-embracing
sense. Such is the elasticity and humanity of Hinduism.
Dr. Rao maintains religion itself-eclectic or sectarian-is
vital for the well-being of children. And it doesn't help when parents are divided on the
religious issue. "In India, there's a saying that a cart has to be pulled by both
bulls in the same direction. If one bull pulls in one direction and the other pulls in the
other direction, the cart will never move forward."
Part III will include testimonies by several interfaith
couples from different countries.
A Clash with Christian Clergy
Meeta Gajjar and Frank Parker of Delaware, USA, were
married last year with both Hindu and Christian ceremonies. Meeta here shares what few
know-tracking down a willing Christian priest isn't easy!
During our search for a minister, my husband called several
Christian churches of different denominations. He met wall after wall. The worst
confrontation we encountered was with a Baptist minister who informed Frank he would burn
in hell if he married me. He said God had chosen Frank to call him that day so that he
could tell him this. The main problem that most of the churches had in marrying us was
that they said our children would be "unequally yoked." In other words, they
wouldn't have an equal chance of obtaining heaven. They also felt that by marrying
me-"a Hindu worshipping false gods!"-that Frank would be throwing God away and
therefore burn in hell. Frank finally found one that said he would marry us. We went and
met him. He seemed fair, non-judgmental of me and gave us a little quiz to show how much
or little we had in common by our answers to the same questions. But five months down the
road he began not returning our phone calls. Frank finally got him on the phone and made
him give us an answer as to why he was avoiding us. He said, "I haven't been feeling
good, and I don't know a lot about this Islam religion." Frank said, "It's not
the Islam religion, it's Hinduism!" He replied, "I don't have time to learn
about whatever it is; please find someone else." We did finally find a wonderful
minister who happily married us. His beliefs are based on a blend of Christianity, Eastern
religions and metaphysics. He had heard a lot about my father and mother and held them in
high respect. Also, I had a Hindu girlfriend who married an American. When she went to get
a priest to marry her, the priest made her attend church for 3 months prior to the wedding
or else he would not perform the ceremony. So she did it.
Note: Catholic priests may marry a Catholic to a
non-Catholic without requiring conversion.
Malaysia Marriage Masala
By Pushparani, Kuala Lumpur
It was a typical ladies' night out. The conversation
focused on yet another friend who had "married out." Six of us left school
together with romantic dreams that included setting up home and indulging in domestic
bliss. Of the six, only two married Hindus. Four have "married out" -two to
Chinese, one to an orthodox Syrian Christian and the latest to a Malay Muslim. Mind you,
they are all happy, but at a price.
Aarthi was 24 when she met Hamid at the bank where they
worked. She liked how open-minded he was. He considered himself a "progressive
Malay." Aarthi came from a happy home with what she called "guided
freedom." We all knew Aarthi had loads of male admirers. She was one of those women
who brought out the protective instincts in men. Three years later, Hamid asked Aarathi to
marry him. 'When he first told me about how he felt, I was stunned. I liked him a lot but
never thought of it as love. Over the years I had come to value his views and opinions.
"Maybe deep down there was always that feeling. A week later I said yes. That's when
the trouble started. "His parents were more than willing to accommodate some of our
culture. But mine were opposed. My father was aghast. The more I tried to talk with him,
the harder he was on me. My mother stopped talking to me all together. Staying home became
traumatic. The last straw was when I came home one evening and my father said that a
doctor was coming to ask for my hand in marriage. I argued, cried and pleaded, but he had
made up his mind. I decided to leave home. I stayed with friends and four months later I
was married. On my side only four people turned up for the wedding; they were my friends.
Just before the wedding Hamid and I went to see my family. Except for my siblings, no one
else spoke to us. We left a card on a tray with a saree, veshti and beetle leaves and
fruits. We've been married two years. My father still doesn't talk to me. Hamid and I
still go to visit my parents' home. We chat in the kitchen. My mother doesn't say much.
We're planning on having a baby. My in-laws tell me that when a baby comes, ties get
renewed. I hope it's true."
Why Guys like Muslim Girls
Sure, interreligious marriages have problems. But the
problems of non-acceptance are the same for intra-mixed marriages between Indian Tamils,
Sri Lankan Tamils, Telegus, Malayalis and North Indians. The more arrogant party refuses
to accept the incoming spouse.
The most common mixed-marriages here are between Hindu boys
and Malay girls. One Hindu boy engaged to a Malay Muslim girl confided, "We find the
Malay girls petite, charming, feminine and approachable, unlike Indian girls. Malays pay a
lot of attention to personal appearance. Chinese and Indian Christian girls too. And
though everyone thinks Hindu girls are chaste, coming from an estate and having lived in
the university campus, I know that is a myth. We boys don't mind too much about religion.
We just want a girl that we like. Besides, the Malays with their underlying Hindu-like
culture are the next best to Hindus. Compared to Malays and Thais, our Hindu girls seem
unapproachable, without a smile on their faces. If not for the law that you have to
convert to Islam, most Hindu boys would have married Malays. We also know that Malay girls
prefer Indian boys. They find them more responsible and less likely to take a second wife.
Why should we complain about marrying outside the Hindu fold when even if Chinese (or
Malay) girls are willing to embrace Hinduism, still we do not accept them."
Race vs. Religion
Though absolute generalizations about marriage are foolish,
summarizing reoccurring patterns is helpful. One trend appears clear: marriages mixed by
race are easier than those mixed by religion. Skin color and ethnic orientation are more
smoothly assimilated, reconciled, compromised, or simply all-embraced, than differences of
religious belief. And differences can be severe-e.g. Christians believe non-Christians are
going to hell and Hindus worship a God with an elephant face, to begin an endless list.
One factor helping Indian/Caucasion mixed marriages is that racially, Indians are
Caucasians too! Same race, different skin tone.