When a Jain Marries a Bengali: An Indian Love Story That Defied Tradition
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.”
A Complex System of Class in Castes
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.”
Intercaste Marriage in Rural and Urban Areas of India
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.
What’s Your Hindu Star Birthday?
Shubha Bala, associate producer
A couple of weeks before my birthday, my mom sent me an e-mail reminding me when my “star birthday” was — March 14th, by the way — and saying she was donating to a local temple on that day so they can provide free food for the congregation. Although I’ve always been told when my star birthday was, this was the first time I went on a quest to find out what it was.
Simply put, your star birthday is your birthday using the Hindu calendar instead of the Gregorian calendar. Hindu calendars are traditionally used to derive entire individual horoscopes, which are culturally consulted for just about everything — from determining a baby’s name to finding the best wedding location (and person!)
Your birth star, or Janma Nakshatra, is just one component of the calendar. If you draw a line from where you were born, at the time you were born, to the moon, the Janma Nakshatra is the star constellation that the line would pass through. Each month has 27 Nakshatras, which means some Nakshatras will occur twice in a month.
As with most aspects of Hinduism, there is no rule as to what significance a star birthday has. For example, I spoke to Narayanan Kandanchatha, who grew up in the Indian state of Kerala and is from the sub-caste Nambudiripad. He said that each year they would have to do an important prayer on their star birthday. In his case, the star was so critical that if it was missed, rather than do it the next day, they would wait until the Nakshatra of the following month. He also said that in his culture, in order to do a Upanayanam ceremony (the male coming of age ceremony for the Brahmin caste), a boy must have conducted a special ceremony on his Nakshatra 36 times.
For my mom, her tradition was to wear new clothes on her star birthday. Then she mailed me a new shirt to wear. Some people believe naming your baby with the same first syllable as their star is auspicious. My parents didn’t intend it, but in researching this blog I discovered that I coincidentally ended up with an auspicious first name!
Finding your star birthday
- Find your Janma Nakshatra when you were born by using this calculator and your birth year (mine is Satabhisha.)
- Next find the Hindu month in which you were born. Scroll to the table of Hindu months here to find the start and end dates for that month. For example, I was born March 5, which would be the month Phalguna, starting on February 20.
- Then, go back to this first calculator, and for the date range enter your full Hindu birth month (e.g., February 20 - March 19) for the current year. It will give you a table with all the Nakshatras for the month. Find the date your Nakshatra lands on, and that is your star birthday this year (March 14 for me). If your Nakshatra occurs two times in that month, the second time is when you would celebrate your star birthday.
Since Hinduism is a religion composed of diverse cultures and history, the details in this procedure can change. Many cultures define their months differently. Also, some people don’t use the Nakshatra at all, using instead the Tithi, a completely different aspect of the calendar. But I’ll leave you to investigate these varieties on your own.