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December 05, 2022

An Indian Interfaith Alliance

By Amrita Valan

Growing up in an India with a Nehruvian-Gandhian ideology of secularism, we were taught early on to embrace differences of culture, religion and community in the broader sense of treating everyone as having equal rights. Which meant despite being a Hindu, belonging to the majority community of India, no majoritarianism. No minoritarian-ism either, but ...

To explain, let me talk a little about my upbringing.

I am an eighties convent-educated kid. My father worked in several American and British multinationals. My mother and father were progressive and permissive in thinking, which isn't quite the same as being liberal or truly modern. Daddy kept, and still keeps the Holy Bible, the Quran, and the Bhagwad Gita in the alcove where we used to worship our impressive pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses. He often says if God intended us to be divided into religious sects, he would have sent us stamped with our religious affiliation prior to birth. Scratch the surface however, and a devout traditionalist emerges, who expects the evening lamp to be lit and mantras to be recited in honour of the specific deities he adores. He made no bones about that. "I embrace modernity but am a Traditionalist," he stated imperiously when we rebelled. He gave us little cause to defy him, being a liberal parent. We had to touch the feet of our elders in greetings, especially those of grandparental age, be respectful, courteous, kind, and mindful of our manners. That age confers superiority of status in India, is something we all knew and accepted.

In addition, Gods were an indispensable part of our daily lives and we had to assist our parents during formal pujas (Worship). Occasionally bunking was mildly frowned upon. If ma was busy or unwell, I had to light the evening lamp and recite the 108 names of goddess Kali to ward off evil. That was the sum total of our religious training. At least in urban middle and upper middle class families, like mine. OK I am sure more pious Hindus, taught their kids to fast on new moon days, accompany their elders to weekly or monthly visits to the temple. But my upbringing, like many of my friends, was westernized and upper middle class. Our temple visits were restricted to mark momentous occasions, the annual new year visit, or the celebration of a marriage or engagement in the family. Biennial or tri-annual ones at the most. When I was 12, daddy joked that I could bring home a boyfriend but no running off and marrying! I gravely replied that since I couldn't marry him, it would have to be my big brother or an adored male cousin. He guffawed with laughter and regaled Ma with my naivete. He did not tell me I have to marry within my own Bengali community or choose someone of my faith, i.e. Hindu. Or that, if I married a man of another faith, that he must convert to mine. That's the true essence of Hinduism in my heart. One can only be born a Hindu, not convert to it; At a stroke, any obligation of spreading one's faith or insisting that one's life partner embrace it, is done away with. It used to be we were open to our co-religionists converting but ... in these troubled post-nineties Indian climes, the narrative has shifted, and become defensive, polarized and wary of the evangelical activities of Abrahamic religions, particularly Christianity. It has spawned a phenomenon alien to Hinduism, "Ghar Wapsi" (Re conversion or return to the mother religion.)

I am saddened by the polarisation created by the co-opting of religion by political parties, but I sincerely believe that the root of the evil lies in proselytizing, or the championing of one's faith, because of a mistaken belief in religious supremacy or hegemony.

You cannot blame the effect without at least scrutinizing the cause.

My acquaintance with interfaith harmony and the lack of it at times, began when I was courted by, and fell in love with a young man who was my boss in a small firm I had joined at the time. Through this story I want to cast a light, on why discord between faiths happen, through the window of my personal experiences.

But kindness and goodness exists in every faith, that I cannot stress enough. I write this only to shed light on certain facets which perhaps we could as common humanity outgrow, or evolve out of.

In 1999 I married him, a Roman Catholic man of 26 years, being myself the same age. When he proposed to me, I asked if perhaps he would expect me to convert, since in patriarchies like ours, the husband's religion superseded the wife's, in importance. Not once did it strike me that conversion was more about religious supremacy than patriarchy.

That's the resultant offshoot of Nehru-Gandhian ideology, (otherwise admirable), that we fostered a wilful blindness to the mere tolerance of other faiths by supremacist evangelizing ideologies, as opposed to true inclusiveness. Where the sanctity of all faiths, and the validity, of all paths to God was negated and other faiths were endured more as childish fallacies than equally valid paths to divinity. Otherwise, why the desire to convert? Unless every other path is deemed somewhat false, inferior to one's own?

Tolerance? I dislike that word because it implies silently enduring or suffering something! Why not embrace and accept joyfully the differences between religions as an opportunity for growth and enrichment?

If by tolerance, one means the higher sense of acceptance, I am okay with the terminology of course.

Turning the other cheek on supremacist attitudes, was somehow considered "secular", more liberal, more progressive. A rosy eyed vision that created, even encouraged ignorance of any covert parochialism by the minority, and put the onus of secularism more on the majority. Every Christian girl I have personally met, interacted with or known intimately since my marriage in 1999 have all converted their Hindu husbands, sometimes even their in-laws to their faith. This isn't patriarchy, but pressures brought to bear on the impressionable "Flock," to spread the "faith," by "bearing witness."

Yes, most of my Christian friends are generally good sports and wonderful friends. They will beat the dholak during Hindu festivals, eat our prasad or holy offerings and even enter our temples. But not the neo-converts. I have been castigated by them, for choosing to keep my faith, for worshipping the entire Hindu Pantheon as well as Mother Mary and Jesus. I have been told I am defiling both sets of Gods by housing them not only under the same roof, but inside the same alcove. I have been berated for not loving my kids and hubby enough to convert to his faith, that somehow my children will not get the right values because of my decision, And at times even elite affluent Christian ladies have lamented their failure to save my soul!

Do you see how deep this rabbit hole runs? It stems from a place of good intentions but ... it takes for granted, that my soul is theirs to save! That the Almighty has a special contract with his chosen people! As though a mere human could defile true Omnipotence, even if she tried. I have retorted, "Can one throw a clod of mud at the sky without it falling on one's own head? Similarly futile would be my efforts to desecrate or dishonour the Most High."

Put plainly I blame the brainwashing of believers, by leaders of supremacist ideologies from the earliest days of childhood, which teaches that a potentially blessed union of two different cultures, faiths and philosophies, instead of being seen as a merger, should be considered a takeover. None of the Hindu halves among the many interfaith couples I have met, are still Hindus, they have all converted, but sport their Hindu names in public instead of their baptismal names. Their kids attend Sunday school, and only sometimes, they also attend Moorthy pujas. (Idol Worship). It is a concession, an indulgence granted, especially if the husband is the Hindu half of the marriage, (Intersectionality of patriarchy and religion), because in another generation, the Hindu part of their identity will get effaced, because of the exclusive importance doled out to the other half of their identity. This is a factual observation. I often see a gracious accommodation of the Hindu partner's beliefs in first-generation interfaith marriages but rarely the joyful proactive embracing of dual sets of values, equally, by both partners. I have lived this life, so I am not hypothesizing. And for the few highly evolved interfaith couples who have a different paradigm of marriage, where each retained his faith and encouraged the children to be brought up in both sets of faith and values, I am glad for you. So far, I have not met any of you, yet, though I am talking about affluent upper middle-class India by and large.

My husband's side hails from a small town, true, deep in the heartland of South India, but I have met and interacted with couples like me, from all over India, and from elite, affluent urban backgrounds. And I have always found, to my surprise, that the Hindu half of a progressive liberal wealthy couple has inevitably converted. This is my experience, for the last two decades, so I can only write about what I have faced.

Neo converts were even more determined to earn validation by bringing more faithful to the fold.

I was that tempting target, a new unconverted Hindu bride to a Roman Catholic gentleman,

(A very lukewarm Christian by the way!), from whom I had extracted a promise. That neither he, nor my in-laws would ever ask me to change my religion.

My concession was, however rightly or wrongly, to patriarchy, more as a pragmatic survival tactic than a true conviction. I agreed, even volunteered, that my future children, if any, would be baptised. This was my token nod to patriarchal India, not to the superiority of my life partner's faith.

At first, when he had proposed, my husband to be, had said conversion was not at all important to him. I truly believe that he believed that in that moment of passion. I was also feeling generous and having watched far too many movies of The Father of the Bride ilk, I told him conversion was no biggie for me either. I could, convert that is, as what mattered was our union, not our affiliations and religious credentials. Like any girl in love would, I wanted to please my lover.

So, I giggled thoughtlessly, "I want to wear a white wedding gown like Kimberley in Father of the Bride!" Yup! I was that shallow in my early twenties.

This could not have happened to a Christian girl or perhaps even a girl of another faith, with a conservative upbringing. She would have been groomed to take pride in her roots, her religious legacy and its perpetuation.

I feel this is why laidback affluent Hindus often convert, thinking that religious identity does not matter. When it does, very much so, to their spouses from other religions. One's refusal to convert could well be the deal breaker. My refusal to convert, later on, almost was.

And at least in our social and commercial negotiations in the Indian scenario, religion does have an impact.

When you apply to missionary schools for your children, or the position of a teacher in a missionary school, your religious affiliations matter. Whether you are on the pastor's list of recommended parishioners for a job matters. When your kids and you are seen through the subtle prism of prejudice, as being neither here, nor there, for simply being interfaith, it matters. When they are mocked and not taken seriously, as "half christians," it matters. When their choices in friendship and your own social circle gets limited, against all reason, by this silent bias which no one will admit openly, it matters.

I am a victim of it, as well as my children. Where friendship is offered and then withdrawn and you get hints enough to be aware why you are facing the cold and silent treatment. It is sad and demoralizing, especially for kids.

It happens in suburban and rural India differently though, in a more duplicitous manner. A carrot and stick policy, of seats in good schools, jobs and offers of medical expenses being borne. Monetary boons are nothing short of miracles to impoverished folks.

Had I not made an interfaith marriage, I would have remained blind to the subtle discriminations and covert persuasions, and perhaps retained my rosy vision of a secular tolerant India.

To go back to my own impending alliance, I discussed this with my parents and my brother, as I had no intention of eloping against their wishes. Daddy said "Well yes, I suppose the boys' side would want you to convert." My father too, had that same desire to turn a blind eye on religious one-upmanship, attributing my inevitable conversion to traditional patriarchy. My brother however offered me more clarity, such that I was provoked into thinking outside my twenty-something box of girlish romantic notions and experiences.

"If he chose you, knowing you are a Hindu girl. If he fell in love with you, as you are, why does he want to change the person he chose, before marrying her? It seems to me that you should embrace his Christianity, and he should embrace your Hinduism. Equally."

I like to believe I am logical, objective and honest, over and above my girlish sentiments, my need and desire to be swept off my feet by an overpowering Mills and Boons hero, A Juliet who would declaim to her Romeo, "All my fortunes at thy foot I'll lay, and follow thee my Lord throughout the world."

But I saw the common sense and truth behind my brother's words and pacified him, that it didn't matter to us as a couple either way. Conversion was a non-issue, I reassured. Later that night I picked up the phone and told my fiancé we needed to talk.

Imagine my shock, when my fiancé said that we should call off our wedding since I wouldn't convert. After dating for months, and introducing him to the world as my fiancé! That hurt!

Knowing his intrinsically un-bigoted soul, I pleaded with him to see it from my point of view, but he wouldn't budge. The phrase "Hardening his heart ," comes to mind for a reason. It was a process he forcibly inflicted on himself, fearing societal and familial pressure, not what he was, but what he was steeling himself to be. I asked him, why had he said it didn't matter to him, if I converted, when he proposed, and he promptly retorted, why had I said I would do so?

Touché!

I pleaded insufficient understanding of the value of my identity and legacy. That I had been carried away by a momentary impulse to please him! I charged him, if I hadn't mindlessly bleated that I wanted to wear a white wedding gown, you would have still married me, so why take this hard-line stance now?

He mumbled, about not having told his parents then, but that now that he had conveyed that the girl he had chosen was okay with conversion, they would not accept anything less. I couldn't help thinking, had he married me without me converting, wouldn't his parents have known? Was he planning to keep his unconverted bride hidden? In a pumpkin shell?

The upshot of this conversation led to me giving him an ultimatum. I declared firmly, though heart broken, no marriage unless conversion was knocked off the table. He walked out on me glum and unrepentant.

After a few days, we made up in a weak moment without resolving the issue, I still stuck to my guns as by now, conversion was beginning to look like a most unpleasant prospect, a trap, a cage to enslave me.

This precipitated a hasty visit from his mother, who declared she liked me! My looks and general air of simplicity, I guess, but after a brief honeymoon period, where she invited me to spend a night with her, in my boyfriend's apartment, after tossing me a sari to wear, (Probably to check if I could wear one on my own!), she left my fiancé with an ultimatum, and went back to her hometown. No marriage without conversion.

I felt like the ball had been expertly lobbed back by my future MIL into my court. But I was no easy pushover. I realised this was to be a tough match, starting with a deceptive "Love All." I was immature in not conceding "defeat," as being the "better part of valour." I was high spirited, impulsive, positive I could win her over later, with the upbringing and values my parents had instilled in me.

After my fortnight long efforts to win her over before she returned to her hometown, I was exasperated, I confess.

I dressed in a sari, cooked her tasty items, even massaged her back with pain ointment and balms.

So I went off like a spitfire, when hubby to be, delivered her ultimatum. I snapped off mine, biting each word off sarcastically. "Take Ten Days. Decide if you want to marry a Hindu girl, as is, where is, or ... end this farce."

It was sheer agony and suspense, as intimate as I had been with him, and with my relatives ready to censure me now that I had introduced him to my kin. (As a girl of marriageable age, so reckless, so headstrong etc.).

It was a relief when he capitulated. And gave me his word that there wouldn't be any future attempts at conversion, by him or his relatives. My husband kept his word. But unfortunately, not his kin ...


We married, full of hope, and after a period of hauteur, MIL and my father in law and sisters in law visited. On the surface we were a family, except I wasn't considered worthy of trust, or an insider. My spouse was counselled that I hadn't loved him enough to convert, and that too much love was like poison, and to never forget his roots repeatedly, in front of me. It was insulting and hurtful.

Some of it was due to it being the onus of the daughter-in-law in India to adjust and compromise much more than her in-laws, another part of it was my being a Bengali from Eastern India, unable to speak their South Indian language of Tamil. It was not all religious bigotry. But had I converted, the welcome into the family would have been one of warmth and acceptance.

I was prepared for that and repeatedly touched the feet of elders on command, tried to charm them by lisping in broken Tamil, till even my stern father in law smiled approvingly. It is a hilarious thing for a Bengali with her neutral subdued accents to speak the melodious agglutinative Tamil tongue. I was fodder for rich entertainment as a new bride. However one day as I massaged MIL's back, (my apple polishing regimen!), she lamented sadly, "Convert Ma!"

Iron descended into my heart. After months of trying to be close to her as a daughter, serving my younger sisters-in-law, hand and foot, cooking for six of us single-handed, cleaning an apartment that they messed up regally, I hadn't made progress after all, into their hearts!

I was an outsider still, because of my religion. Just like my very spiritual sister in law slept with a rosary under her pillow, I worshipped my Bal Gopal, (Infant lord Krishna), the shepherd God like my personal infant Jesus.

How could they, so firm in their beliefs, expect other people not to have similar convictions, similar deeply held faith in their own religion?

So, I made eye contact with MIL, and said firmly, "No. Please don't ask me ever again."

My eyes convinced her I would speak to her son about it, and she never did ask me again.

But I lost her trust, and heard later, how she considered Hindus, demon worshippers, because we were polytheists. "Oh you have millions of Gods!" My gods were dismissed as ridiculous, because there were so many of them! She continued to treat the deities that I revered as toys and trinkets, placing her cell phone and hair accessories in the alcove where I worshipped them, as if it was her dressing table. On the days of our annual Durga Puja she insisted on going to Church, even though it wasn't a Sunday, and dragged off my hubby with her. She tried to take my toddler too, but I said he would enjoy the puja festivities with me, or else, in despair, I offered to accompany them to church as well. I was shocked to be denied the right to attend church with them. "You are not Christian, why would you want to go to church?" I replied, to be with my child, and because I feared that they would tell my baby that his mommy did not want to attend church. In the evenings we went pandal hopping, but mother-in-law sat in the car refusing to step into the shamianas/pandals, (canvas or cloth awnings), that housed the altars of our Hindu goddess.

It hurt me beyond bearing to see how lightly my faith and beliefs were treated.

I chose to think of it as nothing else but the stink of Indian patriarchy. That my offense was that as a woman, I had not bowed to my husband's religion. Till my husband's female cousin snagged a handsome Hindu gentleman, only after persuading him to convert to Christianity. At her wedding this girl returned a wedding gift, a gold ring, with the Hindu OM symbol on it. "Why should they send such a ring?" she complained to me, forgetting I was a Hindu. I smiled at her, till she recalled who I was, and had the grace to blush.

I wanted to say, "See how, because we are friends first and Hindu and Christian afterwards, how easily you forgot who I was? This shows how little difference there really is between us, between the Cross and the Om, both are simply auspicious symbols of the divine."

But I remained mute, embarrassed to my core that a foreign returned software engineer could still nurture such bias.

Another time, I got cheekier with a handsome and favourite uncle-in-law, who advised, "Amrita, Why don't you convert? It's just a change of clothes, after all."

We were chilling together, perhaps he found me mellowed down enough to broach this sensitive topic? "Uncle, why doesn't hubby change his clothes instead?" I lobbed the ball back to his court cheekily! Ooh! Faux Pas! Dead silence followed, with a red-faced uncle, and scandalized looks from cousins-in-law. My husband in eerily silent mode.

Evidently, sauce for the goose wasn't sauce for the gander. Intersectionality of religious supremacy and patriarchy trumps gender equity and religious freedom.

Evidently only conversion to one religion was as easy-peasy as a change of clothes. While even the suggestion of a reverse costume change was heresy, blasphemy, and apostasy. I have lived with this now for 21 years.

I know individually, people of all faiths are kind, benevolent and high-minded. They will help the distressed, the poor and the needy. They will help if I approach them with a personal illness or problem, but for that one blind spot which is the result of an anachronistic, divisive, and irrational teaching.

That there is only one path to salvation, one true God, and that it is their God-given duty to bring others to the way, the truth, the life. To save my "benighted" gentile soul.

It is rejection of this core belief, which can bring out the worst narrow-minded prejudice, capable of discrimination, directed towards even innocent interfaith children.

I think that the reasoning behind this is, if not by love, then perhaps by withdrawal of it, we can bring her to see the light? God alone knows how often I have been tempted to convert, for all the wrong reasons. I thank my parents for the education that enabled me to discern between true spirituality and blind faith.

When will we learn to love like Jesus said, embrace the good Samaritan as our true neighbour, by his behaviour and not by religious affiliation?






Article © Amrita Valan. All rights reserved.
Published on 2022-01-03
Image(s) © Sand Pilarski. All rights reserved.
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