Inter-religion marriage still taboo among Indians?

“So, what will be Ramesh’s new name? John? Tom? William? Ha ha ha!” The elderly gentleman continued to laugh as he walked out of my friend Suresh’s office.

The elderly gentleman, Suresh’s distant relative, was an industrialist who was also involved in a lot of social work. Most people, including I, respected him immensely. I was shocked and pained by his words and his tone because he was referring to Suresh’s cousin Ramesh.

Ramesh’s marriage, which had been arranged by his parents about 8 years back, ran into trouble within a few months. Three years later, after many failed attempts at reconciliation, Ramesh and his wife decided to go in for a divorce. The bitter divorce proceedings were completed almost two years later.

About a week before the incident in Suresh’s office, Ramesh’s parents had announced to their close relatives that Ramesh’s marriage with his colleague Sheila would take place a month later. When somebody pointed out that Sheila was a Christian and asked them whether they approved of the marriage, Ramesh’s parents had replied that they had found Sheila to be a wonderful person and they were optimistic that Ramesh would be happy being married to her. They admitted that they would have been happier had Sheila been a Hindu, and even happier had she belonged to their own community, but their uppermost concern was Ramesh’s happiness.

Suresh told me that, while he and some others among Ramesh’s relatives had been very supportive and genuinely wished that Ramesh would have a happy married life with Sheila, many of the relatives were unhappy that Ramesh was marrying outside their religion. A few among these, like the elderly gentleman, had been making all kinds of snide remarks. Suresh was extremely upset with such people because their comments might have a negative impact on Ramesh’s parents’ attitude to Sheila.

I know quite a few people who have had inter-religious marriages. In many cases, these marriages have faced strong and bitter opposition from one or both sets of parents and the families. In some cases, the parents are inclined to enthusiastically or reluctantly accept their son’s/daughter’s decision, but pressure from relatives, friends and ‘well-wishers’ make them oppose the marriage.

In 20 % of the cases that I know of, one set of parents had given their enthusiastic approval on the conditions that their prospective son/daughter-in-law convert to their religion before the marriage, that the marriage be conducted according to their religion only and in their place of worship, that the prospective son/daughter-in-law should follow their religious practices after marriage, and that the children from the marriage be brought up in their religion only. If these conditions had not been agreed to, they would have completely opposed the marriage, and would have even disowned their daughter/son. Incidentally, this religion did not originate in India.

In 30 % of the cases that I know of, one set of parents had given their approval (some enthusiastically, some reluctantly), but the other set of parents had strongly and bitterly opposed the marriage, and immense pressure had been put on the son/daughter to back out of the marriage plans. In some of these cases, one set of parents had completely cut off ties with their son/daughter and reluctantly reconciled only after a few years.

In 20 % of the cases that I know of, as in the case of Ramesh’s second marriage, the parents had given their reluctant approval because certain circumstance led them into a sense of resignation. The heartening thing in such cases known to me is the first initiative to approve and accept the intended marriage came from a not very highly educated mother/aunt/female relative whose explanation was, “To parents, their son’s/daughter’s happiness is most important.”

In the remaining 30 % cases, the parents had given their approval and acceptance quite readily (some reluctantly, some enthusiastically), but I think the approval and acceptance came more readily than expected because the prospective son/daughter-in-law was a foreigner, and the Indian daughter/son would be living abroad (Europe/USA) after marriage.

In all the cases known to me, to the best of my knowledge, the wife and husband themselves have not really been affected by the fact that theirs is an inter-religious marriage.

I would say that, in general, inter-religion marriage is still taboo among Indians. However, let me end this post with 2 questions that each one of us must ask himself / herself:

1. How would I react if my daughter/son/sibling wanted to marry a person belonging to another religion?

2. How would I react if a relative wanted to marry a person belonging to another religion?

This post is in response to Indispire Edition 25.

31 thoughts on “Inter-religion marriage still taboo among Indians?

  1. Very rightly expressed. We must ask these 2 questions.
    ‘Charity begins at home’…
    May we all be open & accept…

  2. It will take still a long long time for the older generation to accept a muslim esp or a chirstian daughter in law or son in law . The younger generation have got a common language, English but the older generation stil speak in regional languages and that might also be a reason for them to oppose to the intercaste marriage.

    Very well analysed post!

    • You’ve made an interesting point about the linguistic barrier for the older generation. Food habits can also be a barrier for them, being quite different between people of different religions/castes/regions/etc..

      However, I’ve come across many younger people who enjoy a liberal lifestyle, but are still extremely allergic to people of certain religions different from their own.

  3. While there is something to be said about the pressure from society/community/relatives etc, I feel each case is still quite unique and therefore am hesitant to label it broadly as a taboo or anything. Your point about spouse being a foreigner is interesting, goes to show what is important here. Not necessarily the religion but the future socio-economic prospects of the son/daughter. Maybe the riches (or possibility of riches) could win over the religious divide too, I don’t know, just guessing. Interesting questions to ponder upon at the end.

    • Perhaps the word ‘taboo’ is too strong, but, in my opinion, it’s not too far off the mark.

      Riches (or possibility of riches) can win over many things. We are ardent worshippers of Goddess Lakshmi, aren’t we? 🙂

  4. I guess “inter-religion marriage is still taboo among Indians” is right… only a couple of comments for this post?

  5. A friend of mine who went to the US in 1969 was brainwashed by one & all for 4 years not to bring a “GORI” came in 1973 with a BLACK(Afro-American) girl. She landed in Mumbai wearing a saree
    and touched everybody’s feet on being introduced & was every bit an “Indian Bahu” from the word go. Fortunately its 41 years & the marriage is still strong. The same persons TWO brothers who had arranged marriages in India have both landed in broken marriages/Divorce within years of their marriage. Soooo much for so called arranged marriage.

    • It’s nice to know about your friend’s happy inter-religion, inter-nation and inter-race marriage!

      There are quite a few inter-religion, inter-nation and/or inter-race marriages that have been successful, and quite a few that are broken/fractured. The same holds for arranged marriages.

      People tend to take strong positions in favour of or against arranged marriages or other types of marriages. I think there’s no simple formula. There are so many factors.

      This post is not about the relative merits of different types of marriages. It is only an attempt to introspect about our attitudes to inter-religion marriages.

  6. Fortunately, both the questions posed have figured in my life. Many of my cousins are part of inter caste/ inter religious marriages and I am glad that my uncles/aunts have been very generous and broad minded to accept the same whole heartedly and without insisting on conversion. And I am happy to say that every one of these marriages has been a happy one and all are doing well. So when my son informed us about his intention to get married to a foreigner, we gave him a go ahead (though my wife did have a certain amount of reservation only from the point whether the match will be compatible) unconditionally in spite of several snide remarks from close up people. And I would like to clarify that it was purely with the feeling that he is old enough to know what he wants and with his happiness as the sole concern and not for any socio-economic considerations. Definitely we have not regretted it.
    We need to realize that these things are going to be more and more common as time passes- the world has become a very small place these days and ultimately what counts is the happiness of the couple involved.

    • Kiran, thank you for sharing your experiences. Your wife and you correctly took the stand that “he is old enough to know what he wants” and that your son’s happiness is the sole concern.

      The last paragraph of your comment hits the nail on the head!

  7. As human beings what matters is our children happiness and not our ego. This log kya kahenge is so passe and such a pet peeve. I know! My family members and some friends also nurture such prejudices where we focus on the negatives than positives. I feel the children would live with each other and not parents.

    • Vishal, you and I may not like this “log kya kahenge”, but it is still going strong among many people, maybe the majority.
      You’ve correctly stated that, in many matters, we focus so strongly on the negatives that we miss the positives or, sometimes, we refuse to see the positives.

  8. Well said !….I have seen many people who speak ,support and write posts about inter-faith marraige or inter-caste marraige but if suchcase happens in their own family , the reaction is totally different …….And it’s so funny to know that religion has no importance when money is involved ….. Nice post !

    • We are all guilty, to varying extents, of preaching one thing and practising something else, maybe the exact opposite!
      That’s why I included the questions that each one of us must ask himself / herself.

  9. I have seen the marriages work not on the basis of religion but tremendous mutual understanding, empathy, respect and commitment to not let scatter the bond at any cost come what. Acceptance of family and religion might give you that blessing that we look forward to as a couple at the beginning but there is no guarantee that it will lead to a so called happy marriage….marriage is a work in process which needs constant rearing. Lastly, just staying under the same roof for societal pressure or for sake of a norm is not marriage…..a true marriage is way above that.

  10. As long as the two people involved are human beings, I think anything goes. To answer those two questions, I’d be absolutely open-minded. In spite of being rather orthodox, my family was rather broad-minded when it came to me – I had their blessings no matter who I chose. I think they were secretly worried whether I’d marry at all! 🙂

    In many families the opposition dissolves when a grandchild enters the picture.

    So – what are your answers to your questions, Pro?

    • 1. I believe in freedom of choice. So far, as a parent, I have never infringed on my son’s freedom of choice, even when I have felt that the choice was not the best one. I only ensured that he had all the facts (pro and con) at his disposal before he decided. When it comes to marriage, I am quite sure I’ll do likewise. After all, it’s his marriage and his life.

      2. I would not react in any way if a relative wanted to marry a person belonging to another religion. I would genuinely wish my relative and his/her spouse the very best, and offer them whatever support I can. That’s exactly what I would do if the relative had married a person of the same religion.

  11. You’re absolutely right. Inter-religious marriages are a taboo even today in our society. Although I do feel that the level of acceptance for such marriages have gone up though and mindsets are gradually broadening, yet we still have a long way to go before such alliances become a non-issue.

    A very thought provoking post.

  12. Well, at the cost of sounding self-appraising, I would like to reply to your question.
    a. I actually think an inter-religious marriage is a good thing. I would love to get such a bride for my son, when the time arrives. I think such mixtures bring a lot of eye-openers to the table and you’re able to let go of thoughts/values/traditions which have merely become a ‘tradition’ and continue those which are meaningful and useful for the family. An amalgamation of two religions helps you bring the best of your religion forward, and give more to your next generation, from the second religion too. But, it needs completely mature and willing set of families. You need to be open to change and acceptance.
    As for the society, I recently posted this on FB ‘Nothing is right and nothing is wrong..only a matter of perspective.’ So, if the parents are with the perspective that it is okay to do it, I don’t think it matters much what relatives think. They back off sooner or later. And the ones who continue to create issues, they would have said something even if it was an intra- marriage.

  13. Good post as always Pro. Religion is pushed down our throats from before we can talk. Unless we are all strong enough to break away from those confines and become spiritual perhaps, accepting the traditions and lifestyle and customs of another faith is difficult. Difficult…but not impossible. Interfaith marriages are not taboo…they are just not yet accepted as everyday events.

  14. profound post and the questions raised in the end are valid as it is easy to preach but difficult to follow

    why we believe marriages made in heaven must be with the partner of same faith? excellent post

    Hindi Hain Hum

  15. I think both bride and bridegroom should be made to live away from paternal home for 6 months to 1 year. That way, both will understand that they need to compromise, be understanding of other’s needs, habits and rituals and both need to take one step forward.
    The current system puts way too much pressure on the bride , just bcos she is in minority and the majority want her to confirm to their habitual way of life.

    • I think, in an inter-religion marriage, the bride and groom are largely aware of the changes that they will have to make. The surprise/shock generally comes from one or both sets of parents.
      In 80% of the inter-religion marriages that I have seen, religion was not an issue at all between the groom and bride. Since they lived as a nuclear family, they were not affected by pressure from parents, families or ‘well-wishers’. In 20 % cases, one set of parents had given their enthusiastic approval on the conditions that their prospective son/daughter-in-law convert to their religion before the marriage, that the marriage be conducted according to their religion only and in their place of worship, that the prospective son/daughter-in-law should follow their religious practices after marriage, and that the children from the marriage be brought up in their religion only. It so happens that the bride converted in 50% such cases, while the groom converted in the remaining 50% cases. Of course, if a survey is conducted among a much larger sample, the result may be different.

  16. Three meetings and Dad declared, “I can’t find you a better person than him as a life partner. But you cannot marry him because he’s not a Keralite. What will people say? If you marry him there’ll be severe problems in finding suitable alliances for your siblings and also for the children born out of such marriages. We won’t be accepted by the society. Our relatives will abandon us.”

    This is what happens in many households. Been there and done that. After almost a decade, everything is fine and every one is happy that we are happy. It’s all in the minds. Society or stars or religion or region, do not have any impact on a marriage. What matters is the compatibility between you and your partner. Though the acceptance levels for such marriage have increased to a large extent, people still consider inter-religion/inter-regional marriages a taboo.

    • From whatever I’ve seen, inter-regional same-religion marriages are accepted much more easily than inter-religion marriages.
      In inter-regional same-religion marriages, parents may oppose initially, but later thank their stars that their daughter/son chose a spouse from the same religion. From what I’ve seen, acceptance of inter-religion marriages by parents is extremely difficult if the parents are very religious. It is not easy, but relatively less difficult if the parents themselves are not religious.

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