interfaith marriage ceremony of Alexandra and Madhavan

Most world wars have been fought over religion. People have been slaughtered over centuries in the name of one religion over another. Religion is a touchy subject and a personal one. Many people are passionate about religion—even blinded by their God. So, what happens when a person falls in love with someone from a completely different religion? How can they build a life together? How can they raise a family in a two-religion household and what's the fate of interfaith marriages?

I am one of those individuals. My husband is Hindu, from a conservative Tamil Iyengar family. I was raised attending the Catholic Church and said the Lord’s Prayer before bed every night. I still say my prayer at night; only now I wake up in the morning and light incense in front of my husband’s gods and play Vishnu Sahasranamam!

Our story

As a mixed family, we face a lot of questions from people who wonder how our marriage works, because we are from vastly different cultures and we are an interfaith couple. People are shocked when we tell them that we have actually never fought about religion. For us, religion has been one of the easier aspects of our relationship. I think this comes from the fact that both of us are very open-minded and not extreme when it comes to religion. We respect each other’s religions and attend both, the temple and the church. We celebrate both Christmas and Diwali, which fills our life with so much joy. My Tamil Iyengar in-laws celebrate Christmas with full-on Indian festival vigour. My mother-in-law once told me, “I never dreamed I’d be growing old celebrating Christmas, and that too, loving it!”

People are shocked when we tell them that we have actually never fought about religion

Choosing a religion for our daughter

People also want to know which religion we are raising our daughter in? To that I say: both. She is both Hindu and Catholic; just like she is equally Indian and Canadian. When she gets older, she may continue practising both, choose either one; or she may marry someone from a completely different religion and choose to practise theirs—it will be her choice and her path. We want to raise her with an exposure to many religions and cultures, not just our own, and with respect for all. Because of this, she mingles with everyone and fits in everywhere with ease. She is an open-minded global citizen, and we believe the world needs more of those.

Other interfaith families tend to agree with me. Cynthia [who is spiritual but not religious] married to a Hindu shares, “We never even felt the need to explain anything about religion to our daughter. She was a bit puzzled when one of her friends asked her if she was a Christian because she didn’t speak Hindi. She had no idea what that meant; yet, she is very clear about the fact that some people like praying differently than others. She just didn’t understand that she must be one thing or the other because we never thought of it ourselves.”

People also want to know which religion we are raising our daughter in? To that I say: both

There can’t be zero challenges

Not to say there aren’t challenges about being an interfaith couple. If you ignorantly belittle your spouse’s religion, or question their rituals condescendingly, you might hurt their sentiments, even if they are not staunch believers. Respecting your spouse’s religion is an act of love. Problems can also arise if one spouse is adamant that the other converts to their religion. The other spouse may feel cornered and like they have lost a part of their identity. Wendy, a Christian married to a Muslim says, “We put off our wedding date for three years because we were ‘stuck’ on if I should convert to Islam or not. His side said I had to, my side said I shouldn’t. This caused a rift that we kept ignoring but eventually had to face. It almost tore us apart because we were listening to others.”

Don’t wait till the child arrives

Other disagreements can arise if you want your child to be raised in only one religion. A Catholic friend of mine wanted to get her children baptised. This she had not shared with her Buddhist husband before they got married and had a child. He refused to baptise their child and she was upset about it because it was important for her to know that her children would go to heaven, in case anything bad were to ever happen to them.

Respecting your spouse’s religion is an act of love

Another Christian friend of mine did not want her child’s head shaved for the mundan ceremony that her Hindu husband wished to have. He had not prepared her from the beginning that this is something he would expect for their child. She fought with her husband over this, but had to give in as he was adamant about it. Finally she changed her mind a day before the ceremony and all hell broke loose.

You may not realise that these things can pop up after having kids. After having a child of your own, you may feel more strongly about participating in religious traditions.

If you are in an interfaith marriage and planning to have children, discuss with your spouse about the religious milestones that you would like your children to participate in. Speak about it up front, negotiate if needed and reach a common ground that you both are satisfied with. Belinda, who married a Sikh, had a mutual agreement with her husband that they wouldn’t make the other person celebrate something they weren’t comfortable with.

You may not realise that these things can pop up after having kids

Exploring your spouse’s religion

Learning about your spouse’s religion would give you more time to absorb the various traditions, and when the time comes, you may not feel so alien. Most of the religious traditions—like baptism or mundan—are harmless and are done out of love. Most traditions, in fact, turn out to be interesting and fun. Ashwin, who married a Jew, says “I find the Jewish stories fascinating and love attending the Passover seders. My Hindu mother reads a lot about Jewish culture and likes finding the similarities between Hindu culture and Jewish culture.”

Ashlee de, a Christian married to a Hindu, says, “We make it a point to put 100 per cent effort into both religions so that neither person feels slighted. Sometimes, the religions are just too foreign to us that we don’t understand why it is the way it is. Other times, it’s just funny. My husband’s first time at church, he took his shoes off under the pew because he felt so strange wearing shoes in a religious place. I often joke that my Hindu husband has become a better Christian than I am. We go to church every Sunday by his urging and he’s always getting us involved, whether it’s volunteering us for the welcome committee or signing us up to help the homeless. He’s even begun running a food donation programme at the church. Each week we even go to lunch with our church friends. They all know he is Hindu, and they love and accept him.”

Most of the religious traditions are harmless and are done out of love

Teaching your in-laws about your religion

When you are in an interfaith marriage, you also need to gently educate your respective families about your spouse’s religion. This can be difficult to do if a family is close-minded, devout, or disinterested in learning about a different religion. But chances are that if they agreed to your marriage, they will eventually come on board about religion too. Some families, however, can disown their children if they marry a spouse from a different religion. Says Catherine, who married a Sikh against her family’s wishes, “Most of my family disowned me for being with someone of a different religion... except my dad, who is a Southern Baptist preacher. I guess he practises what he preaches.”

It is important to always try to include your family in your religious traditions and explain everything carefully. Invite them for every religious festival and make sure they enjoy it. Take them to your place of worship, guiding them slowly and surely into this new and foreign world. Often, you may be the only connection that your in-laws have to that particular religion, so you should make it a positive experience. However, it is important not to be aggressive about it, and you have to learn about their religion too, equally.

I think there’s a lot to learn from interfaith couples who peacefully co-exist, respect each others religions and raise their children to understand, respect and celebrate all religions. If we can do it, then there is hope that others can too and that is one step closer to making this world a better place.

This was first published in the May 2016 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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