Ideas

“Dad And Mom, I Am Dating Julia”: The Challenges of Inter-Faith Marriage For Indian Americans

The cover of Interfaith Marriage 
Snapshot
  • Dilip Amin’s book is not an academic tome as much as a handbook for understanding interfaith relationships. The do’s and don’ts it contains can guide young couples to lasting marriages and healthy relationships.

Dilip Amin. Interfaith Marriage: Share and Respect with Equality. Mount Meru Publishing. 2017.

Of the nearly three million or so Indians living in the United States today, about 51 per cent are Hindu, about 18 per cent are Christian, 10 per cent are Muslims, 5 per cent are Sikhs, Jains 2 per cent, and 10 per cent claim an ‘unaffiliated’ status (Pew Research Foundation, 2014). The visible Indian presence in the US is fairly recent though a few arrived at different times over the past 200 years.

As I reported elsewhere (South Writ Large, Spring 2016), “the first Indians who landed on the shores of the United States might have been brought here as slaves and, within a generation of the English setting up camp in Jamestown, there were English- and French-speaking Indian slaves, who had been “Christianised,” and who considered themselves a different class of slaves. How many of them survived, married, had children, and made a life for themselves, we don’t know.

About 6,400 Sikhs, landing on the West Coast, who were mostly male, illiterate, and unskilled labourers and agricultural workers, arrived between 1907 and 1909 before the authorities called a halt to their immigration, and locals harassed and tried to run them off. Indian Americans are now considered the newest of immigrants, with the vast majority of us having been born outside of the United States, mostly in India but also having arrived from Britain, Africa, and the Caribbean. The Pew report shows that about 87 per cent of Indian American adults were foreign-born and that only 56.2 per cent of adults are US citizens. Nearly 65 per cent of Indian Americans were Democrats or leaned toward the Democrats, making them the Asian-American subgroup most likely to identify with the Democratic Party.

Another Pew Report notes that almost 4 in 10 Americans (39 per cent) who have married since 2010 have a spouse whose religious faith is different, and that as research indicates intra-faith marriages are more durable than inter-faith marriages, “the rise in religious intermarriage over time may not be as pronounced as it appears, since the Religious Landscape Study measures only marriages intact today (i.e., it is possible there were more intermarriages before 1960 that have since ended in divorce). Even more interesting, interfaith relationships are “even more common today among unmarried people living with a romantic partner than among those who are married. Nearly half (49 per cent) of unmarried couples are living with someone of a different faith”, as per the Pew Report. Finally, the report says that more than three-quarters of Hindus (91 per cent), Mormons (82 per cent) and Muslims (79 per cent) who are married or living with a partner are with someone of the same religion. This is somewhat less common among Jews (65 per cent), mainline Protestants (59 per cent) and religiously unaffiliated people (56 per cent).

As we digest this information, we might want to think about how many of the new immigrants married outside of their faith, and how many of the Indian immigrants’ off-spring are now tying the knot/or in relationship with a person who is not of their religious faith. Here, a fascinating compilation of stories and statistics, mixed with sage advice born out of decades of study and counselling, is offered by Dr Dilip Amin, in his new book, Interfaith Marriage: Share and Respect with Equality.

Dr Amin, after observing inter-faith marriages and relationships in his own family, set up a non-profit forum called “Interfaith Marriage with Equality” (InterfaithShaadi.org) in 2009. Over the years it has gained in popularity, and has become a treasure trove of information and stories about people’s successes, challenges, and failures in interfaith relationships. Dr Amin argues that without equality – in faith, practices, beliefs, attitudes – the road to love and happiness, long term, will be fraught with danger. His goal is to promote “religious pluralism and tolerance” but he acknowledges that it is indeed difficult when it comes to supremacist claims by certain religions – especially Islam, and surely, to an extent, Christianity – and that conflict appears very quickly in a relationship – a few months before marriage, or tragically, a few days after the birth of a child: what rituals shall we have for our marriage? Who will conduct the marriage ceremonies? Will we have to change our faith and take on a new name? What shall we name our child? What religious ceremonies shall we have after the birth of our child?

The questions are numerous, and the answers are always fraught with danger and even despair, because there is an enormous amount of pressure on the partner who is from a Dharmic background from the partner who is from an Abrahamic faith, and especially so, Muslims. Dr Amin correctly advises that partners better discuss these matters early in their relationship rather than later, for later may be too late, and the relational dynamics too complicated and fraught. What he also notes is that the young people are usually tolerant and accommodating of their partner’s faith in the beginning but begin to change their mind and become more adamant because of pressure from family/parents, and religious institutions.

Given the fact that most of us are wary of sharing our experience, it is difficult for the public to know what kinds of relational and religious faith dynamics shape and change a couple’s life. Thus, the knowledge that Dr Amin has collected from his web forum is very important for all of us, parents and children, friends and relatives, to know and be prepared for in the high probability of our children, or our friends’ children begin to date a person from outside of our faith system.

The book is not an academic tome as much as a handbook/playbook for understanding interfaith relationships, and the do’s and don’ts that can guide young couples to lasting marriages and healthy relationships. Chapter two is a general introduction on interfaith marriages but includes some important pointers – like this set of questions:

What will be the religion of children?

A Dharmic must ask: is there any expectation of a religious “label” to be placed on the child/children by Baptism (according to Christians), Bris (according to Jews), or Sunat (according to Muslims)?

An Abrahamic must ask: Will they have to be a part of the Hindu worship practice of puja, and the display of Hindu religious icons and deities at home?

Will there be an expectation of religious conversion of the groom/bride before marriage?

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What will be the choice of names for the children?

Will there be circumcision of the male children for religious reasons? (Interestingly, Dr Amin fails to note the increasing incidence of some Muslim families in the United States insisting on and surreptitiously performing ‘female genital mutilation’).

Which religious rites will be followed for the funeral of the partners and children in an interfaith marriage/family?

Chapter 3 is on Hindu-Christian marriages; chapter 4 deals with Jewish-Hindu marriages; chapter 5 on Hindu-Muslim marriages (which happens to be the longest chapter in the book – taking up nearly one-third of the book); chapter 6 on Sikh-Muslim marriages; chapter 7 on Jain-Muslim marriages; chapter 8 on Christian-Muslim marriages; chapter 9 on inter-racial interfaith marriages; chapter 10 on Parsi-Hindu marriages; and chapter 11 on Jain-Hindu marriages. The final chapter provides thumbnail sketches of what each religious faith scripture/s say about other religions. A little snippet from the section on Jain-Muslim marriages gives us an inkling about the courage and openness of young people and in equal measure or more their foolhardiness. Here is “Sweta” in a section titled “I am a Jain girl and love a Muslim” (p. 207):

“I am a Jain girl and I love a Muslim boy from the past 8 years. He also loves me a lot and can do anything for me. We have decided to tell my parents about our relationship after one or two years. He always says that he is with me, whatever be the situation.

At present, the biggest issue for me is “non-veg.” I am not able to even think about that but he says that his family and even he never will force me to do this and he promises me that non-veg will never enter in our home.

I have complete trust in him. I know, in my future life with him, he will never put any boundaries on me as he always encourages me to achieve any goals and to do the things that I like. I feel so comfortable with him and hope things will be the same in future also.

I know it is a bit difficult to adjust in a Muslim family for us but do you think that if you marry a Hindu boy and doesn’t love you then it will be easy for you? There is no guarantee about future. I strongly believe a line “whatever is written in our destiny, we have to face it.

… According to me “nothing is greater than love.” Definitely one has to adjust a lot but if you both try to understand each other then everything will become easy and then religion doesn’t matter.”

Indeed, we might concur, love can conquer all, but as wise observers, we can also tell this young woman in love that “reality is more complex”, and that she will have to not only be energised by love but has to figure out the tools for mending any relational challenges, or have handy the escape route in case marriage becomes a “non-veg” cooking pot.

As we wrap this review, we might want to consider especially the reality of Hindus marrying outside of their faith. How does the image of oneself as Hindu and American and one’s attitude toward others shape inter-faith relationships? What are the challenges for the Hindu-American, with his/her amorphous, grand, confusing, all-embracing worldview and his/her quotidian reality of food, god, ritual, culture, friends, family expectations, and peer-pressure in choosing a mate? How can we ensure that the choice/s are made with care and conviction, and that the relationship/s last and are healthy and joyful?

Dr Amin’s book, with its many real-life anecdotes and examples, and a clear, simple list of matters to know and ideas to consider about others’ ways of life and belief in God, should be in everyone’s home, and every young boy and girl of dating age and/or in love or planning to get betrothed should have this book as mandatory reading.

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