Interreligious Marriages in India – Issues & Challenges (2016)

The idea for a book about interreligious marriages in India dawned on me in the beginning of 2013 when I casually browsed through the websites on interreligious marriages, either religious or civil, between partners professing different religions – say, a Muslim marrying a Christian, a Hindu marrying a Muslim, a Jew marrying a Hindu or a Christian, and so on. As interreligious marriages are an increasing phenomena in India and all over, and also a matter of concern with regard to the challenges couples, children, and institutions face, I came across, to my surprise, various websites dealing with interreligious marriages, for example, the Forum for Interfaith Relationships with Equality. Such websites speak on the issues, problems, difficulties, dangers, challenges, and possibilities of interfaith relationships and marriages from religious, legal, familial, and societal points of view, with relevant statistics. One of the best videos I saw on this issue is a presentation by Hemant Mehta who offers ten tips for interfaith couples. There are also websites that discourage and even forbid interreligious marriages because of the prohibition found in certain religious texts seem discouraging or because of community prejudices. Some other issues addressed by websites on interreligious marriage are Can a Muslim man marry a Hindu woman? Can Muslim men marry non-Muslims who are ahlal kitab [people of the book], Rulings pertaining to polygamous and interreligious marriages in Islam, Can we have interreligious marriages in the Gurdwaras, and so on. A general conclusion one can draw from these websites is that religious institutions are generally not favourable to Interreligious weddings, and clerics that are more conservative oppose such marriages.
A number of books related to interreligious marriages were published in the 1990s, for example, Marriage Among the Religions of the World edited by Arlene Swindler (1990) explores the ideals and models that have been set before young people, the extent to which religions determine law concerning marriage, and what stands these religions have taken on interreligious marriage. Interreligious Wedding Ceremonies: Samples and Sources, edited by Joan C. Hawxhurst (1996) reveals some of the practical problems the interreligious couple would face while planning the wedding ceremony, such as working with diverse religious traditions and choosing the officiant. The Interreligious Family Guidebook: Practical Advice for Jewish and Christian Partners by the same author (1998) covers topics like the holiday explanations, traditions, and new ways of celebrating, programmes – institutional and independent – for interreligious couples, their parents and children, life-cycle events, such as marriage, birth, entrance into a religious community, and death. It also deals with related family issues, such as how to deal with a mother-in-law, how to encourage family discussions, and with spiritual issues, such as how parents deal with their own evolving ideas about religions as they teach their children about God. Raising Interreligious Children: Spiritual Orphans or Spiritual Heirs? by Donna E. Schaper (1999) accounts for the strategies of raising an interreligious family.
The issues related to interfaith marriages in India are similar to those described in the above books, but the contexts and areas regarding ritual and other aspects of life before, during, and after marriage are extremely varied, complex, and exhausting. We can ask why interreligious marriages are so difficult in India even when a young woman and man are in love and are ready to live together. Why is it that parents hesitate, especially when their Hindu daughter is to get married to a Muslim man? Why does society in India not generally accept interreligious marriages, except for those cases when there is no other alternative? Why do parents ignore the happiness of their sons and daughters when it comes to an interreligious marriage?
In India, questions of authority, love, family, and cohabitation are governed by cultural and customary norms. In spite of modernity, Indian society struggles to safeguard cherished norms and culture. Mobility has offered many opportunities for intermingling; cultural cohesion in food, dress, and buying habits has changed. However, in the realm of relationships and especially marital relationships, traditional norms are still strong.
There was, therefore, need for a research on interreligious marriages in India. On the occasion of the fiftieth Jubilee year of the beginning of the Second Vatican Council, our institute, the Institute of Dialogue with Cultures and Religions (IDCR), discussed the importance and relevance of the Council documents, especially those passages that referred to interreligious relations in a world marked by prejudice, intolerance, and violence. The basic thrust was that dialogue starts with God and is God’s gift to all people. The communitarian nature of the human vocation calls for interdependence, healthy conversation, and collaboration to remove all that does not help life in its fullness.
Close to 70 Protestant ministers, Catholic religious, and a few lay people had an in-depth sharing on the challenges of interreligious relations. The participants acknowledged the Spirit of God working in all religions and thence the dignity of human beings, and the need to be sensitive to one’s religious neighbours. They suggested that an inclusive attitude and inclusive language would be helpful in all conversations and common engagements. The group also discussed concrete situations such as interreligious marriages, which cause great problems for couples, their children, and religious institutions. They felt that they needed to be good role models in broadening their horizon before they could educate their churches.
Taking its cue from this discussion, IDCR invited research proposals for a cash-award on “Interreligious Mixed Marriages: How they Affect Relations in Religion and Life.” The following sub-topics were proposed: (1) How do the interreligious couples live their life together: difficulties, challenges, and solutions? (2) How do the children face this situation? What is their religious Identity and experience? (3) How do the religious institutions - Christian, Hindu, Muslim - look at such marriages? (4) What impact does interreligious marriage have on wider society in the interreligious setting of India? The four project undertakers presented their final report in the presence of a group of experts. Broadly speaking, the discussions focussed on religious identity and the experience of children born to such interreligious couples. How are these couples able to adjust and adapt within family/village settings, and do they lead their life with or without religious freedom and understanding?
This book is the product of the research that was conducted. I hope it helps people see their importance of interreligious marriages in building community and harmony in India. I also hope that the research may enlighten people with insights, both positive and challenging, on the reality of such marriages. The practical tips given in the appendix will be useful to young people intending
to marry across religious borders.
Engaged & Enmeshed - Religions in Society in India (August 2017)
Years ago when I was a teaching faculty in Arul Anandar College, Karumathur, I introduced a course for undergraduate students titled “Religions in Society,” a foundation course for training in harmony and friendship across boundaries of religion. In my conversations with the students over several years, some did not feel comfortable about religion, nor did they feel the need for it. They said that religion does not have a place in the modern technological and scientific world. Others said that religions tend to be more psychological and emotional. The time would come when reason would overtake emotion and religion would vanish. Others thought that religion was little more than superstition, and that morality was more important than any religion or God. Some students complained that religions often projected themselves as “other-worldly” and showed little concern for contemporary life and history. Still others that religious centres and gurus were misguiding people or giving them false hope. Some students said they were indifferent to religion, claiming that religion is man-made and that all religions are imperfect. They asserted that religion engaged only one portion of their life. Finally, some students were allergic to any talk about religion. They noted that there is a growing rift between religious communities because of prejudice, fear, suspicion, etc., that there is a mounting fundamentalism and fanaticism, and that the political use of religion leads to group conflict and violence.
When criticizing the way religions functioned in society, some students also emphasized that religion plays a role in the conscience of a society as well as in the conscience of an individual. The role of religion in society is to give meaning to life and to all that is. They also pointed out that religions need to address the problem areas of society: injustice and inequality, discrimination and oppression. They admitted that all these evils could be tackled at the economic, political, or social levels, but that religions offer the necessary inspiration, guidance, and motivation for meaningful engagement in society.
Specifically, religions have to address the problem of poverty. Religions and religious communities (people and institutions) should give answer to the questions of how they would free the poor from indolence, lethargy, and idleness, from a spirit of resignation, and empower them to struggle for their rights and liberation. How could religions help the rich to develop a social sense? Religions also have to address India’s caste problem. How do the religious institutions and communities promote the vision of human dignity and equality? Have they accepted or even legitimized the caste system? It is true that there have been renewal and prophetic movements in every religious tradition. Have they stopped now? What about the general status of women in society, their oppression and empowerment, etc.? Do our religions have answers to these and similar questions concerning women? All these questions remain as questions as long as religions do not seriously engage in society and explore answers to these questions.
With these reflexions in mind, IDCR launched a book project “Religions in Society in India Today”. The focus of the project was, first, to explore what role religions and religious institutions could play as “public” religions, meaningfully engaged in society to protect religious freedom, justice, and peace. Secondly, the project sought to explore the ways secular-minded scholars and citizens could promote such “public” religions and religious movements that are helpful to society and its growth through active collaboration between various religious groups and institutions.
There was an immediate response to our project, and from the many proposals submitted by scholars, these papers were chosen for publication. I offer a brief summary of them.
  • Dr Michael Amaladoss traces the roots of violence in religious fundamentalism and fanaticism in different religious traditions.
  • \Dr George Joseph shows secularism as the strength of India from colonial times and offers different models of secularism, comparing them to the West.
  • Dr Ayeesha Zawahir mentions women as the creators of “value,” despite their shrill voice in the public, and discusses the promises rendered to Muslim women by Islam.
  • Mr. Haris, in similar vein, focusses on the solidarity youth movement in Kerala, whose public actions like protests and services base themselves on the interpreted Islamic texts.
  •  Dr Persis Latika Dass takes up the concept of secularism from the Gandhian point of view of “religious equanimity” and explores religious harmony by bridging the gap between various religious communities.
  • Mr. Suyog Subhashchandra Doot emphasises “coming together” and “mixing” of various religious and ideological groups for meaningful conversation with a view to solve Indian problems.
  • Dr Prakash Louis takes up the issue of minority rights from its conceptual framework and explores the Indian constitutions to show the primacy of self-determination of the minorities.
  • Dr Pauline Chakkalakal brings out the significance of interfaith dialogue and partnership in the context of ever-growing pluralism for appropriating human dignity and equality.
  • Dr Priyanca Mathur Velath does a re-reading of secularism in the context of the mix of politics and religion and emphasis a safe distancing of the two in order to respect the rights and liberties of the people.
  • Dr Uma Maheswari, a Sanskrit scholar, traces the principle of good governance from the Indian knowledge system such as the ancient Sanskrit sources, a model that could be relevant and useful even in contemporary times.
  • Dr Nirmala Savrimuthu-Carta explores in practical ways mutual religious relationships in Mauritius, explaining their specific contexts and the attempts her group has made in recent times.
  • Dr Shan Eugene Palakkal explores Baha’i faith to show that humanity is one single race and the way to its unification is through acts of peace and harmony.
  • Dr T.K. Parthasarathy shows the importance of religious freedom and dialogue for cohesive existence, as “human” first, in spite of its several identities.
I have titled this book Engaged & Enmeshed - Religions in Society in India. Religious communities and their institutions thrive in Indian polity and democracy. Political parties and religious bodies interact with each other in subtle ways, sometimes promoting and at times endangering each other. The plus and minus of Indian secularism is that. Thus, both are engaged in a good sense, but at the same time, caught between the ethics of opportunism and gain, discipline and principle. I hope that reading and reflecting on the issues these papers cover would fulfil the task of addressing challenges in a country like India, plural in reality and perspective.
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