First, I'd like to talk briefly about something in the newest Hinduism Today magazine. There is an article about the challenges to Hindus outside of India. One Saivite teacher, who is an Australian convert apparently, "raised issues relating to Westerners who have adopted Hinduism but who resist identifying themselves as Hindus. He pointed out, 'Even though they don't call themselves Hindus, they are part of the same dharma body. But if we Western Hindus can't decide on who we are, then we don't have a voice. If we can say who we are, then we can be together and have a voice.' In contrast, he noted, Western Buddhists are proud to call themselves Buddhists."
I think this "problem" with white Hindus goes both ways. In part, there is the attitude from India that you have to be born into Hinduism and that you have to be Indian. But part of it is non-Indian people feeling strange and self-conscious about identifying as Hindus. For me it was only because I sometimes feel "not wanted," but for some people there are negative stereotypes of what it means to be Hindu. They don't want to be associated with some of the practices and beliefs that Hindus have been criticized for (such as caste, the treatment of widows, etc.)
I hope that more non-Indian people will join me in identifying as Hindu and opening the eyes of the world to the possibility that our ideas about who can and cannot be Hindu might not be accurate (and if you are new to the blog, please read my intro post about how I am a born Hindu in certain ways).
On to the topic for today...
A lot of people in America think arranged marriage is a horrible and exploitative thing no matter what. It sounds awful and archaic to them. I cannot think that way. I am of two minds on the subject.
For some background, within the community that I grew up, arranged marriage was highly valued. I think for the most part no one expected it to happen, but if a girl might be brave enough to try it, people were very impressed. I can't imagine that the people who joined, my parents generation, expected their children to be taught some of the things we were about marriage.
Starting when I was about fourteen, I got lessons in being a good wife. The key lesson was that who you married was not as important as the West tends to think. As long as it was a "good man" (i.e., someone who was spiritual and tried to practice our beliefs), we would come to love anything or anyone that we served. Service was strongly emphasized.
One of the highest up people in the organization, someone I admired very much and tried to emulate, had an arranged marriage. When she began teaching some of my classes, I saw arranged marriage as the ultimate proof of my devotion to our way of life.
There was another girl my age, whose father had betrothed her. She was very much admired and people really respected what a "good girl" she was. I wanted to be a good girl too. I wanted to be praised for my devotion. I struggled with jealousy.
I asked my parents to arrange my marriage. I think they were shocked. They didn't know how to go about it or what to do. They tried. I went on one prospective date, but that man ended up marrying another girl in my class a year later.
When actually faced with the possibility of marrying this man I didn't know much about, terror did set in. Yet I was still consumed with jealousy that he didn't choose me. Strange, conflicting emotions.
I more or less gave up on it after that, but really in my mind I thought that I would "let God arrange things" (in those days I was much more blindly religious and now I am more spiritual). I was 18 and I went off to college, despite messages that a girl ought to stay at home and live at home to go to college and live at home until she is married. I don't think my parents completely bought into that message, though we never talked about it. So my idea was that I would marry the first man to ask me on a date.
(At this point the only date I had ever been on was the prospective marriage one and I had never been kissed). I really believed that it didn't matter who it was because marriage was not about happiness or personal fulfillment, it was about duty and religious devotion.
That set off several years of very bad relationship choices and a terrible confusion over how a relationship should be.
I know that story will probably reinforce the idea that arranged marriage is a terrible thing, but it isn't. Not when it is done properly.
In college I got into an argument with a girl in my class about this. She was very opinionated and sure that she was right about the way the world worked. She also thought that arranged marriage was barbaric. I fought hard for the idea that it is not always about politics or sending your daughter away to just anyone. Sometimes it happens that way, and that is a tragedy, but in general, parents love their children and want them to be happy. This is true of parents in every culture.
I think one of the keys here is the culture in which the arranged marriage takes place. I watched a news program doing a story on arranged marriage. They had one that worked out fine and then one girl who chose a "love match." But the trouble with the story was that it was not even.
They told the arranged marriage story of two Sikhs who married in India. There the practice is still very common and people have very different expectations of how love in marriage works.
The other story was about a girl of Indian descent in America. In America, the culture at large does not support arranged marriage and that makes it much, much harder to sustain. Here we are under a lot of pressure to find a love match and have it be really romantic, etc. This girl found a white man to marry. At first her parents were uncertain, but they quickly warmed to him. One of the things her relatives were uncertain about was the cultural differences between she and him. She pointed out that she was American and they had more in common than different. They both "grew up eating Lucky Charms in front of the Saturday morning cartoons." (This goes back to the previous post about American children of Indian parents).
The girl I knew growing up ended up divorced from her arranged marriage. I don't know the details, but I can image that it must be almost impossible to be a "normal" American, interacting in an American society, with no support for having a very different type of marriage.
One thing to remember is that there is a lot of love in arranged marriages. There really is something to the idea that your love for someone grows as you are close to them and work out problems with them. The expectations that people have going into an arranged marriage are that it is going to take work and compromise and they have trust that they will come to care for each other deeply. That attitude leads to a much lower divorce rate than couples who marry with a "Cinderella" idea of marriage solving your problems.
People in arranged marriages are not thrown into a lifetime commitment with someone random. Again, when done right, parents look for the signs of compatibility. Being older, experienced, and wiser, means that parents can find true compatibility and not just surface attractions.
A Facebook friend turned me on to another interesting blog with a similar theme to mine. It is a white Australian woman who moved to India and she explores her life there as she becomes integrated in the culture (www.whiteindianhousewife.com). She has a post about modern arranged marriages:
The point I am trying to make is that this is an issue that one cannot make a snap judgment about. It is a place where Westerners tend to fall into the trap of assuming that their way of doing something is more refined, more cultured, and better for everyone in the world. We are all guilty of this sometimes (both Westerners and those in the East). But it is okay to have an open mind about arranged marriage.
In the end, I am glad that I did not get married when I was 18. To be 27 (28 next month) and not married, makes me very much an "old maid," but I have grown and changed a lot in the last ten years. I have come to understand myself much better and I have been able to become the person I struggled to be as a teenager.
I was noting to my boyfriend recently that the girl I was at 18 would hate the person I've become (she was much stricter about following rules, very hard on herself, and hated when people said they were more spiritual than religious. She saw things extremely black and white). Should I be upset that I disappointed my 18 year old self? Not at all. Because I am immeasurably happier now than I was at 18. When I stopped trying to fit in or be normal, and just let myself be myself, I found a partner who totally supports my wacky self and I could not be happier.