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.