Making Interfaith Relationships Work

Can I please take my grandchild to the temple? The answer is NO. No you may not. What kind of ridiculous answer is that, you would ask, right?

But some of us can relate to this situation already while others are still living in the illusion.

As a grandparent, it could be a heartbreaking situation if you have no choice but to refuse. What do you mean by no? He or she is my grandchild. We are Hindu and as grandparents we have rights on them. It’s sad but let me introduce you to the reality: no, you don’t. I’ll explain why.

There is often a large gap between the expectations of parents and children about the child’s choice of a life partner. In the Western world, new adults can date individuals from other faiths during their college years. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that our young generation of Dharmic (Hindus, Jains, Buddhists and Sikhs) marry Abrahamic (Christians, Jews and Muslims). This trend is expected to rise in the years ahead. We need to recognize that interfaith marriages are a matter of chance, regardless of the religious training given in childhood. Parents of interfaith married couples also need to learn to live with a new reality of life. Several interfaith marriage issues need to be addressed such as:

1) What will be the religion of children born to the couple involved in interfaith relationships?
2) A Dharmic must ask: is there any expectation of a religious “label” to be placed on the children by BBS (Baptism (Christian), Bris (Jewish) or Sunat (Islamic))?
3) An Abrahamic must ask: will they have to be a part of the Hindu worship practice of puja and the display of Hindu Ishvara icons in the home?
4) Will there be expectation of religious conversion of the groom/bride before marriage?
5) Will there be restrictions on the names of children?
6) Will there be circumcision for religious reasons?
7) Which religion will be followed for the funeral rites of the spouse and children by this marriage?

Now let’s also mention it here that not all interfaith spouses try to impose their religious beliefs/practices on their counterpart in marriage, but it is critical to find out the facts sooner rather than later. It is also important to recognize that despite all the potential marital pitfalls, a successful and fulfilling inter-religious marriage is possible. One effective way to achieve this is by not imposing one’s religious beliefs on the other partner. They both should make sure prenuptial agreement is signed and documented as a part of interfaith marriage to protect rights for both parties involved in relationship.

How do we do that? Is there such agreement available for us? These are the kinds of questions that are being asked in the American Hindu community. The answer is NO.

There is no institutional mechanism whereby the families affected can get help. Whatever little help is available, it is there in the mainstream secular context, which may not address factors that relate to culture and religion. Thus, the need to have American Hindu-specific programs of education and social services. Do you want to know why?

It’s because we, as American Hindus, by and large, are very liberal in our social outlook. In matters of relationships and matrimony, we take a very soft approach with the intention of looking for happiness in our children’s lives. In most cases, parents readily agree to interfaith relationships or matrimony for their children. In most case, they will go out of their way to win the trust and appreciation of the non-Hindus joining their families. In several cases, they even go to the extent of leaving their Hindu circles and thereupon cease to be part of the Hindu community. On the other hand, the same parents have a guilt feeling of ceasing to be part of Hindu society, and their kids losing their Hindu heritage. Both by empirical observations as well as structured studies, it is well established that Hindus lose out of their heritage. This is because of wanting unqualified happiness for their kids, their willingness to compromise, and the nature of their spiritual and cultural practices that enables their attitude. It’s clear that the Hindu-specific solutions should accommodate such factors that are characteristic of the American Hindu psyche.

The solution to the problem seems to be the construction of a structured discipline that consists of three distinct phases: 1) Awareness, 2) Counseling, and 3) Rehabilitation.

The development of American Hindu Social Services that can address the needs and requirements of interfaith relationships, will require unflinching support from community leaders in general, and specifically those who run temples and Hindu organizations. There needs to be a professional counseling program staffed by paid counselors. Also, there needs to be a social welfare fund and a pool of social services volunteers, which can provide assistance to those who are affected by adverse circumstances. Let me leave you with this comment that it is not my objective to criticize any religion. However, in order to guide our youth in interfaith relationships it is our duty to make them aware about potential issues arising out of different religious upbringing. We want to assure them our support and assistance not when it’s too late but before it happens.


Written by: Sangeeta Dua

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