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Marriage: The Why's And The Wherefore's (from SikhChic)


1947-2014 (Archived)
Jun 17, 2004
Marriage: The Why's and the Wherefore's

by IJ Singh

Some years ago, a particular novel caught the public eye. Looking for Mr. Goodbar was not a pleasant story, and it delved fearlessly into our mating instincts, our neurotic impulses and our psychological insecurities.

Years or perhaps generations ago, one never heard of such things. These matters were hardly ever discussed between parents and children. When children came of age, the parental obligation was to hunt for and find that "special someone" for their offspring. Even without the benefits of genetic counseling, most primitive societies knew not to seek mates among closely related family.

Intertwined bloodlines increase the chances of birth defects and retardation; hybridization is the key to vigour. Even now, except among Muslims and the remnants of European royalty, most cultures frown on marriages between first cousins. So people looked for a mate from another community, perhaps a few towns and villages over.

Parental responsibility was primarily driven by the need to match the educational and socio-economic levels of the two families. The most erotic human organ remains the mind, and it is impossible to discover, much less celebrate, physical compatibility where the minds are always at loggerheads. (Yes, those who are absolutely unlike each other attract, but unlike magnetic poles, they rarely stay attracted for very long.)

The parents performed this crucial screening, thus protecting the vulnerability of their daughters. Don't forget that men were the hunters and gatherers, and men and women lived effectively segregated lives.

Females needed protection as mothers, and perpetuation of a people mostly depended on them, even if they were treated as chattel. Society developed elaborate rules and rituals for the mating process and sanctified it by religious imprimatur. Marriages, it was decreed, were made in heaven and were holy, not merely legally binding socioeconomic contracts recognized and enforced by society between a man and woman ... and children, if any. What created this male-female bonding and a society was more than just a piece of parchment. A stable family was and remains the building block of society.

But these heavenly unions have an earthly existence. Necessarily, most people married within traveling distance of where they were born and raised and died. Apron strings of extended families propped up the institution of the family and kept it intact. It was in the interests of society to do so.Breakup of families created a heavy burden of unclaimed and helpless children, dangerously bloody vendettas whose roots were in familial property and footloose single people in the throes of their raging hormones.

Now, computers attempt to perform this vitally critical function of winnowing wheat from chaff in the multitudes of eligible young people.

Marriage was perhaps the first human institution and the first religion, and people have married for a myriad of reasons. Some marry to forge alliances - local to international; others marry to continue the family and dynasty or to acquire children, land, property or power. Some even marry for love, but this motive has a late development in human history - a good guide to this is 19-century literature. My task is not to provide a history of marriage; that is best left to social scientists, historians and cultural anthropologists.

Let's fast-forward to times when reality has changed.

Human societies are no longer as insular as they once were. Education is no longer a luxury limited only to an exclusive minority. Travel is not the exception; staying within a singular society throughout one's entire lifespan is. The body can move, so can the brain, but not the heart quite so easily. So even when we relocate to the far ends of the earth, we remain attached by our heartstrings to the little corners of our cultural enclaves. Are these the "ghettos of the mind" that continue to define us and govern us? I leave this question for another time.

Now that our world has shrunk to a global village, distance and language may not be quite the problems they once were. But even now, people tend to marry their own kind. And this is not entirely surprising, nor is it undesirable. Even in the best of circumstances, marriage is a crapshoot. But raising children and rearing a family becomes somewhat easier when there is some commonality of language, culture, tradition and expectations. These factors are discounted only in marriages based strictly on notions of romantic love and passion. But passion is by definition spasmodic and episodic, not a continuous phenomenon but one of temporary intensity (or insanity!).

Romeo and Juliet, Heer-Ranjha and Sohni-Mahiwal make moving sagas that are soul wrenching, but they slink away from encountering the reality of the routine and grind of day-to-day living. Marriages may be made in heaven, but they have to be lived here on earth.

Romantic love requires that young people be thrown together to discover what chemistry may develop between them. Unfortunately, this happens when their intellects are not yet fully functional or even somewhat in control of their hormone-laden, developing young bodies, and the ways of the flesh are all too predictable, almost incendiary. Sparks ignite between young people quickly and can consume them incredibly fast.

Eastern cultures try to curb this by early marriages with the emphasis on mergers of families (and properties) and selection of mates by parents. Western societies controlled this as well by chaperoned exposure, the quaint custom of bundling, group activities and selective introductions.

When educational and career opportunities were limited and early marriages were the norm, parents could select mates for their children. Also, joint and extended families lived together in intergenerational existence. But the world has changed. People used to marry in their teens, but now marriage occurs progressively later in life. Young people now need to explore the self, the world and their compatibility with potential mates before they plight their troth.

The game of dating also requires that both players be at their most charming and magnetic best, as well as at their peak physical attractiveness. The results are pretty but not always lasting. Just look at the divorce rate in advanced societies, which approaches or even surpasses 50 percent. Sooner or later, one discovers that the other is not so attractive early in the morning, doesn't always smell heavenly and may sometimes be a bit of a hedgehog.

Times are changing in more ways than one can imagine or chronicle. Canada, France, Germany, Portugal, Denmark, the Netherlands and South Africa are dramatically redefining the traditional meaning of marriage. They are legalizing unions of same sex as well as of opposite sex partners, with a variety of rights and obligations. Some draw the line at adoptions or health coverage, others balk at social security or tax benefits. In this evolving, multistep, graded concept of marriage, the reality in the United States is more complicated because of states' rights and a strongly conservative Christian movement.

In traditional societies, there was an unwritten code on the division of labor. Generally, wives tended to the house and children while men - hunters and gatherers - brought home the bacon. Now that both partners are equally educated with almost evenly matched earning potential, how are housework and childcare to be shared? Even living together before making it legally official is not much help. Yet the siren song of romantic love cannot be ignored. In traditional societies, the divorce rate may indeed be lower, not because the partners are any happier, but for lack of the full range of options within their cultural constraints.

To recognize some of the absurdities that we follow most faithfully, one needs only a quick look at how traditional Indian society is trying to come to grips with the reality of a fast-moving world. The ethnic Indian press has a myriad of weeklies. Their biggest earner of advertising revenue remains the personal column - classified ads for marriage partners, rarely placed by the principals themselves but most often by their parents or other relatives.

In these ads, what kind of a person do they seek and how do they signal their needs or highlight their qualifications? Almost always, the blurb begins with family connections and values and continues with adjectives that communicate marriageability. The code words for a prospective bride here include "very fair," "highly attractive" and even "homely." I suspect the advertisers really mean "homey," that is, in tune with home values, not "homely," which means plain or not smashingly attractive. From the number of times I have seen "homely" juxtaposed with "beautiful" in the ads, I am sure the latter meaning is not their intent.

The phrases that follow usually talk of a well-established family and its presumed status, and mention close relatives, particularly if they are settled abroad or professionally educated. These code words seem to indicate financial standing and ability to meet the demands of dowry and provide the expected quality of life. The young woman's academic qualifications may be mentioned but merely in passing. I wonder if it is a china doll that I am reading about.

The qualifications for a young man looking for a bride are important, but more critical seems to be a word or two on his affluence - that he is running his own business or something along similar lines - and, of course, the respectability of his family. It is interesting how hopefuls are always referred to as "boy" and "girl," not "man" and "woman," no matter what their ages, and divorced candidates are always "innocently divorced," usually after a "brief and issueless marriage." Rarely are there any ads for people 40 or more years of age; it is as if life stops at 40.

Sikhs tend to add some additional twist to this madness. The first sentence often specifies whether the young man is keshadhari, the nonkeshadhari person is often identified as clean-shaven. I don't know how clean the person is, so the term "clean-shaven" seems odd to me. And sometimes the ad specifies a modern Sikh or clean-shaven Gursikh young man; the latter to me is an oxy{censored}. It is like describing someone as a God-fearing atheist.

Better than 50 percent of the ads by Sikhs start by specifying the caste or at least whether the person is a jutt, and that really confuses me. (Some ads contain abbreviations like "JSM" or "JSF" for "Jutt Sikh male" or "Jutt Sikh female," which are like Greek to the uninitiated.) If I were to claim from a public pulpit that Sikhs believe in caste, I would be vilified and abused by most Sikhs, if not banished from the community. But if I say that Sikh doctrine is against caste while Sikh practice in marriage is rarely devoid of it, this should make one wonder about our hypocrisy, schizoid nature or sanity.

I also see many marriages between Sikhs and non-Sikhs. They are inevitable, of course. People tend to be attracted to others in their workplace and educational or social environment, and they will make their own choices. Yet such options are not without their problems. The movie Bend It Like Beckham highlighted most effectively, even pleasantly, some of our contradictions in this matter.

Sikhism is relatively young and, until recently, a very small minority of Sikhs ventured outside of familial influence or the Punjabi cultural ambit. But other religions have had a larger and longer perspective on such matters. And they have reacted with a variety of regulations and directives that, I think, have served primarily to muddy the waters.

I once tried to get a handle on how we (Punjabi Sikhs) might view prospective mates via an informal survey, with a single multiplechoice question. How would you respond, I asked, if your daughter or son wanted to marry (a) a practicing keshadhari Sikh, (b) a nonpracticing keshadhari Sikh - one who looked like a Sikh but had little feeling for his religion or its lifestyle, (c) a "clean-shaven" Sikh, (d) a non-Sikh Punjabi Hindu, (e) a non-Sikh Punjabi who is not a Hindu but could be a Muslim or a Christian, (f) a non-Punjabi Indian Sikh, (g) a non-Sikh non-Punjabi Indian who could be a Gujarati, Tamil and so on, (h) a White European or North American of any of the persuasions mentioned above, including one who is a practicing Sikh and, finally, (i) a Black of any of the above choices, including one who is a practicing Sikh? The questionnaire might also be expanded by adding to the cauldron choices of caste or being a jutt, a chamaar, or whatever.

I would ask my readers to explore such questions honestly and in privacy. It might even lead to some self-discovery. We might notice that our choices are often visceral, not logical or rational. And then we use whatever intellect God gave us to justify the choices we have made.

For some people, the clean-shaven visage may outrank the keshadhari, though they would proudly flaunt their Sikh credentials and antecedents. Often the culturally acceptable choice might prevail over the religious one. Think for a moment of choosing between a practicing Sikh who is Black, and a Punjabi Hindu. I think at the bottom of the preference might be the Black, the non-Punjabi Muslim or someone from a low caste in the Indian system of reckoning. The White Christian, even though he may be nearly "white trash," might surprisingly outshine many others because history has associated him with the ruling elite. The Punjabi Hindu, even if a rabid anti-Sikh, would likely outscore many others because of his cultural, historical ties to Punjabi culture and Sikhs. Also, while taking all these into account, never underestimate the power of money and worldly success.

Although I have listed many possible combinations, we usually think of interfaith marriages as those between two people who are adherents of different religions. It is when this happens that we get most exercised, and it is for such a possibility that most religions have evolved elaborate rules.

For example, in Reform Judaism the child of a Jewish mother is by definition a Jew; fatherhood does not count. I suppose it is so because motherhood is a matter of fact while fatherhood remains one of faith. But Orthodox and most Conservative Jews are not quite so charitable, and the question of a mixed marriage would almost never be entertained. Nor would Islam allow any accommodation. Sometimes societal law might take a position that may or may not be based in religious teaching. For example, Malaysia, which is a Muslim state, requires a non-Muslim to convert to Islam before marrying a local Muslim man or woman.

In Roman Catholic belief, at one time, the non-Catholic partner was required to convert before being allowed a church wedding. Now, the requirement is that he or she must agree to raise any children in the Catholic faith. A Roman Catholic priest would never celebrate a ceremony that also includes rituals of the non-Catholic partner.

Christianity, however, has over 250 sects and denominations. It is not difficult to find the entire gamut of extreme belief and practice - from some who are most intolerant of non-Christians and automatically consign them to hell to those who would willingly participate in double nuptials of two very different religions and contradictory belief systems. In my experience, Hindus and their priests seem to have the least objection to taking part in two very different wedding ceremonies just minutes apart.

There is one thing I like that Roman Catholics do and that Sikhs do not. It is imposing the minimum requirement of a premarital meeting between the couple and the priest who will officiate at their wedding, at which Roman Catholic belief and its position on parenting is explained. Such counseling may seem superfluous in the modern world in which we live. But it is necessary, for it serves to inform the couple of the requirements of the faith so that they can see a little bit beyond the blinders of romantic love.

Parenthetically, I add that I know of only one young granthi, Gurdarshan Singh of the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation in Maryland, U.S.A., who requires that a couple spend some time in discussion of the meaning of a Sikh marriage. He is also supremely uneasy about performing interfaith marriages, and will perform a Sikh ceremony for a couple of mixed religious loyalties only if it is the only religious wedding rite to be performed. Most granthis, however, haven't even thought about these issues.

Since Sikhs are largely unaware of their own codified requirements pertaining to marriage, I have seen some pretty comical situations in mixed marriages. In my understanding, the Sikh code of conduct (Rehat Maryada) recommends that Sikh parents marry their daughter to a Sikh. It was written with the rural Sikh society of Punjab in mind.

You cannot always hold the parents responsible for what their children might do. Also, this clause is silent about its equal applicability to sons of Sikhs. It says nothing about the need for educating a couple about the rudiments of Sikhism, nor does it speak of human values and the rearing of a family in a house of mixed faith. This text, I believe, needs serious reinterpretation.

As an aside, I should add that many of our absurd practices arise not from Sikh doctrine but from the predominant Hindu cultural attitudes that surround us somewhat like a cocoon. Many of our practices do stem from similar antecedents. I suspect that the Sikh ritual of circumambulating Guru Granth four times during Anand Karaj is a mere adaptation of the Hindu practice of walking around a fire seven times.

I have discussed the magic, mystery and meaning of the Sikh wedding in an earlier essay and will not do so here. Historically, it has evolved such that only rarely is an explanation of it ever rendered to the couple before or at the time of marriage. Often the couple understands no Punjabi and the hymns, as well as the officiant's discourse, are unintelligible to them. The ceremony becomes a meaningless festival for the two families, as well as for the bride and groom, but great fun is had by all.

Does it have any legal meaning? Only rarely. In the diaspora, the great majority of granthis who perform Sikh weddings are not licensed to do so, and a civil ceremony also becomes necessary.

An extreme example of this occurred not so long ago when a starlet of the Indian screen married another well-known actor. Neither was a Sikh, but they preferred a Sikh wedding; perhaps they thought it would be most amusing. They were able to find a Sikh granthi who obliged them, and I am sure the merriment was memorable. In this case, the function clearly had no spiritual meaning for either partner because neither was a Sikh. But if a marriage is to be one in which "two bodies come together to create a union of souls," as Guru Granth recommends, then it has to be more than a spectacular bash.

If people opt for a religious ceremony, and keep in mind that the legal requirement can be satisfied at a city hall without any such element, then religious sanctity and the power of prayer must not be entirely meaningless to the main participants in it. It clearly follows, then, that in an interfaith marriage when children arrive, considerable disagreement and tension would automatically surface.

How do you raise children and what values do you teach them? Just imagine the piquancy of the situation in which one parent believes in shaving the head and the other believes in unshorn hair; where one practices obeisance to idols while the other is absolutely iconoclastic; where one believes in the divine ordination of caste and the other ideologically rejects it. What are the poor children to learn and how are they to do it?

One could claim that all that we wish to teach our children is virtue and good citizenship - human values. However, even these values are not taught without institutions and rituals. We must decide which institutional rules to accept and the methods by which they will be conveyed, particularly if the two religions conflict in these matters. Don't forget that values, even atheistic ones, come wrapped in traditions.

I suppose a dual identity is not entirely impossible, but it is not easy. In an interfaith marriage, the question of family identity, as well as of how to transmit values and traditions to the children, is unavoidable. Instead of a misguided attempt to repeat vows two different ways in different houses of worship, would it not be better to require that a couple makes a single choice? Such a choice does not imply a value judgment on the two religions. The process of deciding will bring to the fore any strong feelings that might have been suppressed in the gush of romance. It will put the couple on a better footing for the future. And if they opt to go with a Sikh ceremony, do require that they both spend some time in counseling and exploration of Sikh teaching and tradition so that both are comfortable with their choice. If, on the other hand, they choose a non-Sikh ceremony, be not angry with them, but celebrate that reality.

If people marry when they are professionally and personally secure, they are likely to have definite ideas about whom they wish to spend their lives with and what kind of future they envision. They will probably not be swayed easily by the opinions of their parents. On the other hand, if they marry as soon as they are reproductively mature, they are not equipped to make their way in the world, nor do they have any idea of what life is all about. They often have unrealistic notions of getting hitched and disappearing into the sunset to live happily ever after, as in B movies from Hollywood and Bollywood.

Young people might think life is just one grand party, but hope can die early to be replaced by disappointment and a hardness of the heart.

And that's the way it is.


[First published as a chapter, "The Many Ways of Mating" in The World According to Sikhi, by I.J. Singh. The Centennial Foundation, Guelph, Canada, 2006.]


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