by Benjamin Gottlieb, guest contributor
On the day of his wedding, Ashok Jain’s parents beat him mercilessly after he told them he married a Hindu woman.
“They didn’t accept my marriage,” said Mr. Jain, whose family practices Jainism, an ancient Indian religion that emphasizes non-violence. “They asked me to walk out of the home without anything… without even a toothbrush.”
Ashok Jain left his parents’ home in New Delhi 34 years ago with nothing but the clothes on this back. His marriage to Neena, a Bengali Hindu, tore his family apart; his parents, completely baffled by their son’s desire to marry outside his Jain religion, disowned him. He would not see his parents until his son’s first birthday, five years later.
In a traditional Indian marriage, partners are arranged for children by their parents, often at very young ages. The idea of wedding for love — let alone outside of one’s community — is seen historically as taboo. But Mr. Jain’s story of breaking conventional attitudes toward marriage constitutes a growing trend in India’s urban communities that rejects arranged marriages as the only acceptable union.
“The more important thing which spoke to me — above love and all that — was that I had to live for my own identity,” Mr. Jain, who works as a tour guide based in Delhi, said. “I wanted to stand on my own two feet and do what was right, regardless of any social pressure.”
Strict laws concerning marriage in India are fortified by caste, a complex system of social stratification indigenous to the subcontinent. The system is demarcated by four major groupings, known as the varnas, and further stratified into subcastes or jati.
Mr. Jain’s family is from the third caste, known as the Vaishyas, which make up the merchant class of India. His wife, on the other hand, comes from a Brahman family, the highest caste.
“Surprisingly, the resistance came from my family, even though I was marrying up, so to speak, and she was marrying down,” Mr. Jain said.
Ashok and Neena met in Buenos Aires in mid-1970s while both of their fathers worked in India’s foreign service. At first, their families accepted Ashok and Neena’s friendship because, “we needed a fourth person for bridge,” Neena joked.
But when things became serious, Mr. Jain’s family, which he describes as more traditional, became very reticent to the prospect of them getting married. The thought of ripping apart their families forced the two to separate.
“We had decided that she would go her way and see boys and I would go my ways and see other girls,” Mr. Jain recalled. “We agreed to call each other when we decided to get married to someone else.”
After numerous failed attempts by their parents to arrange a marriage for each of them, Ashok and Neena decided to forego tradition.
“When we made the phone call, I said ‘I’m not getting married to anybody’ and she said the same thing,” Mr. Jain said. “And so we said, ‘What the hell?’”
Back in Delhi, the two wed at an Arya Samaj temple, a small sect in Hinduism that, among other progressive ideas, denounced the caste system in 1978. Unlike the typical Indian wedding, which boasts hundreds of guests and lavish party decor, Ashok and Neena’s marriage only included a few close friends; their wedding attendance, or lack thereof, would later exemplify the first few years of their lives together.
“Looking back, I was satisfied with whatever we had,” Neena, who works in Argentina’s New Delhi embassy, said. “It was hard to bring the kids up alone, especially the first year with my eldest son. Not having anyone to help me out, the frustration at times of taking care of our kids… that was hard.”
In Mr. Jain’s India — which he describes as urban, educated, and modern — intercaste and interfaith marriages are becoming more commonplace. His two sons married sisters from the same Punjabi-Hindu family, and his close friends are made up of those who have either married outside of their faith or have progressive ideas about marriage.
“But my India is not the real India,” Mr. Jain said. “Changing norms, changing traditions, breaking traditions. This is not happening for a large part of the country.”
While India continues to modernize rapidly, more than 70 percent of the country’s 1.2 billion people still live in rural areas. Attitudes toward intercaste or interfaith marriage in these rural areas continue to be traditional.
“Intercaste marriage is confined mostly to society’s elite,” said Sohail Hashmi, a writer and historian living in Delhi. “In [India’s] major cities, if you fall in love with someone from the wrong caste, it’s not so bad. But in rural parts of the country, marrying outside your caste could spell banishment or, in extreme cases, death.”
The killings Mr. Hashmi references stem from well-known horror stories in Indian khaps, or social councils in rural villages.
A common afterthought in an interfaith or intercaste marriage is the identity of the couple’s children. In a society that places great importance on one’s caste and religion for the purpose of identity, the children of interfaith marriages run the risk of being ostracized by society.
But that was never a concern for Mr. Jain and his two sons. When asked what his children’s caste or religion is, he responded emphatically, “No caste. No religion.”
“If you were to break it down, I’d say geographically I’m from Delhi but do I follow religion? No, I don’t,” said Sunny, Mr. Jain’s second son. “I had a very secular education as well, so until the end of high school I never really gave this a thought about ‘who is who’.”
When asked how he self-identifies, Sunny, a 30-year-old software entrepreneur, replied with a smile, “I don’t.”
Despite all turmoil associated with Ashok’s decision to marry outside his community, he admitted he now holds a more favorable opinion of arranged marriage.
“There have been cases when young people have come to my wife and I and said, ‘Oh uncle, you did this… so let us know what do you think?’ I tell them that it is not an easy decision, but it’s your decision,” he said.
“You have to decide what you want, decide what is right and wrong… and then, you have to face the baby.”
Benjamin Max Gottlieb is a multimedia journalist and photographer from Los Angeles, California. He is currently a web producer at The Washington Post and the art director of InTheFray.org. Follow him on Twitter at @benjamin_max.Comments
by Emily Frost, guest contributor
At a coffee shop in Delhi, Kanika thought she was spending just another afternoon passing time with her childhood friend Jo Jo, avoiding the heat and the crush of people outside. But there was something different in the way Jo Jo approached her that day. He had a special question for her: Do you know what is happening to your soul when you die? Kanika had no idea, and that worried her.
Surprisingly, in their twenty years of friendship, Jo Jo, an Indian Evangelical Christian, and Kanika, a Hindu, had never discussed their religions. That day at Costa Coffee though, Jo Jo started a long discussion, scribbling Christian themes and images on the napkins scattered around him. Kanika collected the napkins and poured over them that night in bed.
In the weeks to come, Kanika began talking to other Christian friends and considering a conversion. She knew hardly anything about Christianity and had grown up in a devout Hindu family, but the question of life after death remained unanswered for her.
Now, four years later, at 24, Kanika is at a crossroads. She has become an Evangelical Christian in secret, and her family disapproves of any reference she makes to Christianity.Comments
by Susan Leem, associate producer + Trent Gilliss, senior editor
In preparation for the Maha Shivratri festival, an Indian girl touches up these in-demand statuettes of Lord Shiva at a roadside stall on the outskirts of Amritsar. (photo: Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images)
Lord Shiva, one of the Trimurti in the Hindu trinity, is recognized today during the festival of Maha Shivratri. At this time, Hindus offer special prayers and fast to worship Lord Shiva, the Lord of Destruction. Lord Shiva’s devotees consider him to be the destroyer of the world, ego, and attachments. At temples devoted to Shiva, the devout pray and burn incense as offerings during a night-long vigil.
Shiva is often represented symbolically with a Shiva Lingam (photos below), an ancient phallic figure that is incorporated into the ritual of bathing as part of the Maha Shivratri celebrations. Subhamoy Das offers this helpful description:
The phallus symbol representing Shiva is called the lingam. It is usually made of granite, soapstone, quartz, marble or metal, and has a “yoni” or vagina as its base representing the union of organs. Devotees circumambulate the lingam and worship it throughout the night. It is bathed every three hours with the 5 sacred offerings of a cow, called the “panchagavya” — milk, sour milk, urine, butter, and dung. Then the five foods of immortality — milk, clarified butter, curd, honey, and sugar — are placed before the lingam. Datura fruit and flower, though poisonous, are believed to be sacred to Shiva and thus offered to him.
Nepalese Hindu women offer prayers to Shiva on the banks of the Shali River on the outskirts of Kathmandu. Hundreds of married and unmarried women in the Himalayan nation fast for the month leading up to Maha Shivratri with hopes of a prosperous life and conjugal happiness. (photo: Prakash Mathema/AFP/Getty Images)
A Hindu priest scatters rose petals on the Shivling at the Shree Pshupatinath Mandir at Singarwa village on Mahashivratri. The Shree Pshupatinath Mandir at Singarwa, a replica of that in Nepal, is thronged by Nepalese Hindus across Gujarat state. (photo: Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images)
The next morning followers break their fast after the nightlong worship with a family feast.Comments
by Susan Leem, associate producer
Raksha Bandhan literally means "a bond of protection" and Hindus celebrate brotherhood on this day, the full moon day of the Shravan month. It’s a celebration of relationships where the symbolic thread, or rakhi bracelet represents an inseparable bond of love and trust between a brother and sister with a pledge to take care of one another.
If you don’t have a brother or a sister, the goodwill metaphor is intended to apply more broadly to your neighbors and community. Priests may tie rakhis around the wrists of congregation members or close friends share them. Women will tie rakhis around the wrists of the prime minister, or around the wrists of soldiers.Comments
Shubha Bala, associate producer
Swami Vivekananda (1863–1902) is known for being one of the first people to bring the message of Hinduism to the West. He was a disciple of Sri Ramakrishna, and a follower of Vedanta. I recently picked up Vedanta: Voice of Freedom, a compilation of Swami Vivekananda’s speeches, that I had read when I was a teenager.
The book touches on many aspects of Vedanta. For example, he explains that there are three variations among Vedantists: dualists, qualified nondualists, and Advaitists. He explains that Advaitists believe God is “both the material and the efficient cause of the universe”:
"Sometimes a sick man lying on his bed may hear a tap on the door. He gets up and opens it and finds no one there. He goes back to bed, and again he hears a tap. He gets up and opens the door. Nobody is there. At last he finds that it was his own heartbeat, which he fancied was a knock at the door.
Thus man, after this vain search for various gods outside himself, completes the circle and comes back to the point from which he started-the human soul. And he finds that the God whom he was searching for in hill and dale, whom he was seeking in every brook, in ever temple, in churches and heavens, that God whom he was even imagining as sitting in heaven and ruling the world, is his own Self. I am He, and He is I. None but I was God, and this little I never existed.”
Later in the book he reinforces this explanation with another image:
"When Vedanta says that you and I are God, it does not mean the Personal God. To take an example: Out of a mass of clay a huge elephant of clay is manufactured, and out of the same clay a little clay mouse is made. Would the clay mouse ever be able to become the clay elephant? But put them both in water and they are both clay. As clay they are both one, but as mouse and elephant there will be an eternal difference between them. The Infinite, the Impersonal, is like the clay in the example."
Shubha Bala, associate producer
"…there are some scientists who say ‘I don’t think electrons really exist.’ It’s useful to think of them as existing. It’s useful to build computers with that image in mind of an electron, but I don’t think they really exist… when other people think of God as a personal thing, that’s as close as you can get given the constraints on human cognition and maybe it’s not something you should apologize for…"
Transcribing Krista’s interview with Robert Wright for next week’s show, I came across this passage, which reminded me of a conversation I had with a Hindu Sanyasi when I was 16. In Hinduism, “God” has different definitions depending on what appeals to you. For example, in my family, I grew up understanding that all the different deities were forms of one personal being. But working in India, I met people who literally believed every deity existed as a separate identity — true polytheism. And this Sanyasi was my first exposure to the idea of God not as a personal being.
He explained it by saying that you have to start in kindergarten, learning simple concepts and forms. I think he believed that many people need rituals and images to understand God, but as their spirits reincarnate (and they “graduate”), they can refine their perception of God towards the truth, just like over time we can understand quantum physics (maybe!).Comments