Geetha Ravindra, author of Shaadi Remix, says arranged marriages sometimes reinforce the Indian caste system. Photo courtesy of the International Monetary Fund.
A contemporary look at ancient values
Q&A by Anne Skove
Geetha Ravindra, mediator for the International Monetary Fund in Washington, D.C., is the author of Shaadi Remix: Transforming the Traditional Indian Marriage. She served as director of the Department of Dispute Resolution Services at the Supreme Court of Virginia for 11 years.
A25: You are a mediator, and your mediation skills are obvious to me when I read your book. On one level, you are mediating conflict between spouses and among families. But on a deeper level, you recognize that much of the conflict is between two wonderfully rich cultures – India and the United States – and that there are consequences for the many people lucky enough to lay claim to both. No matter where our families come from, we often think in terms of today’s culture vs. “old country” ways. The idea that there is a third way – a way that I believe mediators see more readily than the rest of us – is intriguing. What exactly is the third way of seeing culture? Is it a melding of two cultures? A careful picking and choosing of what is worth holding onto and what needs to be tossed? A realization that one’s worldview differs from the worldview of one’s parents and grandparents?
Ravindra: You are absolutely correct that, as a mediator, I cannot help but bring my interest in finding common ground to the discussion of culture and marriage. I believe that there is some truth to everything you identified as the “third” way. There is an opportunity to blend aspects of both cultures, there is a need for younger adults to consider which values and traditions they wish to preserve, and there is a respectful means by which the older and younger generations should recognize that they have different world views. This cultural negotiation between the first generation of Indians and second/third generation Indians has been an ongoing process in the Indian community. The first generation, like my parents, held very tightly to the traditions of our mother country so as to not lose our identity in coming to the U.S. The second and third generations are generally more relaxed in their observation of cultural traditions, and my fear is that over time there may be a tremendous loss of our unique cultural traditions in the interest of becoming fully integrated into the western culture. This is why I try to emphasize in Shaadi Remix the importance of younger generation of Indians understanding the rationale and values behind our traditions, so that they may make informed choices as to which traditions they seek to maintain. It is my hope that my children and other younger-generation Indians will recognize the value of maintaining many of our spiritual and cultural traditions, but likewise let go of some of the practices that are impractical and unnecessary today, such as the caste system.
A25: I love how you talk about the karma and the dharma of a marriage: “Karma, the belief that everything happens as a consequence of past deeds, is integral to the Hindu faith. If a woman or man has an unhappy marriage, it is because of some bad actions they committed in a previous life.” Wow!
Next, you explain: “There is also an important Hindu belief that one must do his duty, or dharma. Dharma requires men and women to marry, as that is an integral part of being a householder, which is a key stage in life. The Vedas divide human life into four stages: brahmacharya ashrama (student), grahastha ashrama (householder), vanaprastha ashrama (retirement), and sannyasa ashrama (renunciation). Dharma forces one to remain married, even if it an unhappy or difficult relationship, in order to fulfill responsibilities to family and to society during the grahastha stage.
The karma is sort of damning – there is nothing one can do to keep the extremely far-off past from snowballing into one’s current life. The dharma responds with the only possible advice: “Deal with it!” This sounds harsh, but there is something comforting about such a no-nonsense approach. What positive, practical outlook can we take from this pair of ideas, this problem and its concomitant solution?
Ravindra: The concepts of karma and dharma may sound harsh, but they are based on the basic scientific idea that every action has a reaction, and we cannot escape that. In essence, our responsibility as Hindus is to do our duty, or dharma, and leave the fruits of our actions to God. We should carry out our responsibilities with the Lord in our heart and not be attached to our actions, or have expectations of rewards as a result of our actions. We will receive the appropriate consequences for our deeds, both good and bad, in our next life. We will finally attain salvation and reach God when we have attained enlightenment and there is no karma pending. In the context of marriage, if one is in a difficult marriage, a Hindu may believe that it is the result of some bad deeds he or she committed in a previous life. In order to work through this bad karma, the person must fulfill their householder responsibilities, which include being a good wife or husband and mother or father. The positive hope is that by continuing to love and manage household responsibilities with a difficult spouse (i.e. by doing their dharma), one may address and reconcile the bad karma and have a happier marriage in their next life. This sense of responsibility for one’s actions allows one to tolerate difficult situations more effectively and encourages one to engage in more positive conduct with the hope of a better future.
A25: You point out the irony of a culture in which marriage has little to do with romance, but which is obsessed with romantic Bollywood films. Do these films owe their popularity to wishful thinking?
Ravindra: The Bollywood industry most definitely owes its success to its ability to offer the average person a fantasy world that they can escape to. Most Bollywood movies are three hours long and entail exaggerated drama, unrealistic romance, beautiful songs, grand locations and incredibly happy endings. Indians of all ages enjoy Bollywood cinema, as it offers the opportunity to be part of a dream world. Then, when the movie ends, everyone goes back to their normal reality. The culture is slowly changing in India, and more urban/educated/wealthier younger adults are dating and finding their own partner as in Bollywood movies. The real world, however, is nothing like what one sees in the Bollywood movies.
A25: Writing this book was an act of bravery on your part. In the beginning, you state that you mean no disrespect for the Hindu faith or faithful, and that you are not breaking from that tradition. Yet, you proceed to turn thousands of years of tradition on its ear:
“In essence, the arranged marriage system in India is a way of maintaining the caste system. It has been a tool for the upper-caste people to protect their community and to preserve their social status. … Many Indians, including Mahatma Gandhi, have rebuked the caste system. It is inconsistent with the Hindu concepts of universal respect, brotherhood, and peace, as well as the belief that God resides in the soul of every human being.”
Yet, you note many positive aspects of arranged marriages – longevity, a sense of commitment, and a view of marriage as a relationship that is broader than just the relationship between the two spouses, but that spreads to their families and communities. Clearly, you are putting the “rad” in “tradition!” How do you find the balance?
Ravindra: I did take a huge risk in writing this book. I recognize that my perspective is contrary to many traditional Hindu beliefs and customs, but I felt compelled to write the book because of what I am seeing as the damaging consequences of forcing some marriage traditions on the younger generation. Indians are very private, and we do not discuss divorce or problems in our family or community openly, as that would bring shame. I am fortunate to have a very supportive husband who encouraged me to express my views, as my goal was not to be disrespectful, but to be helpful. I am proud to be both a Hindu and an American of Indian origin, and I am so grateful to have been raised in a manner which has allowed me to enjoy both the Indian and American cultures. The Indian culture is incredibly beautiful, and our values are divine. In my humble opinion, there are aspects of our cultural traditions that are based on antiquated ideas and beliefs that are not effectively applied in today’s world and which impair the ability for there to be gender equity in marital relationships. I think we can acknowledge some beliefs/traditions as not being effective or necessary today, without being disrespectful of the culture and religion as a whole.
A25: One sees a type of mismatch in many religions – a message of peace may get lost in acts of violence by a religion’s adherents, for example. Likewise, good ideas about marriage are transformed into horrible practices, all based on the same beliefs. As my kids would say, “That is SO wrong!” It may not be an answerable question, but how do we get to these incongruous places?
Ravindra: This is a very good point. The institution of marriage is the basic building block of Indian society and has enormous value in our religion and community. As the Saptapadi (seven steps a couple take together during the marriage ceremony) suggests, in marriage two people come together to build a life of love, happiness, peace, prosperity and friendship together. I do not believe the ideals of the institution of marriage are flawed. It is the premises upon which such unions have historically been based (caste, horoscope, family status, dowry etc.) that are flawed – and the manner in which our culture seeks to bind people to this institution when there are problems that is inappropriate.
A25: You rightly and again quite bravely say that caste not only has no place in Hinduism, but it also is completely inappropriate in a marriage. You note how people marry within a caste, yet one is always encouraged to “marry up.” It seems so hypocritical, yet everyone – north, south, east or west – will recognize this.
Ravindra: It is interesting that you say this. Whenever I mention to a friend or colleague that I had an arranged marriage, I often hear, “I would love to do that for my child! You would not believe the type of people they date.” This is often said in jest, but there is truth to the idea of parents wanting the best for their child. Indian parents often use words such as, “a boy or girl from a good family is all we expect.” This is the universal notion that parents believe that their child will be well cared for if they marry into a family that is wealthy or well positioned, and they can rest easy that their child will be OK when they are no longer around or are not in a position to help.
A25: Can cross-cultural marriages of any type ever work? You include some important questions that prospective spouses should consider – everything from career goals to whether a person is a night owl or morning person. What homework should people do, and what work must they keep on doing?
Ravindra: I do believe cross-cultural marriages can work, and I have many friends who have very strong cross-cultural marriages. The key to success is respect for both cultures and good communication. The expectations about how the differences in culture and religion will be addressed during their life together and with their children, if they choose to have children, must be discussed openly before marriage. The more people do in terms of better understanding a potential partner’s character, values, likes, dislikes, priorities, goals, lifestyle, communication style, problem-solving style, interests, hobbies, pet peeves, etc., before marriage, the less likely there will be an unhappy surprise or unmet expectations after marriage. I recognize that there is no way to know everything about a person before one commits to a marital relationship, but if you can at least be confident in the issues that are priorities for you, then you are better positioned for a successful relationship. If a couple has respect, love and trust in one another and a commitment to the institution of marriage, they will generally be able to work through any problems or difficulties that might arise. Marriage is hard work, and the work that a couple must do is to continue to engage in effective communication and collaborative problem-solving throughout their marriage.
A25: You include a shocking story your mother. As a young girl, she was not allowed out unaccompanied. One time, she roamed the neighborhood to help find a lost child, only to return home to experience violence at the hands of her own father. The most startling part to me was the reason: “Her father was not afraid for her safety, but afraid of what others would think about the freedom her parents gave her to walk on the road unattended.” How do you think this shaped your mother’s ideas about gender and family? How did it shape your views?
Ravindra: This was a very sad story from my mother’s childhood and one that she graciously shared with me. Regrettably, she had many experiences in her childhood that reinforced the message that, as a woman, her place was in the home; and her primary duty in life was to marry a man that her parents would select for her, to have children and to lead a life as a housewife. She was not permitted to go to college and was married to my father at age 19. She was raised to believe that women are subservient to men and that they must do as they are told. As she was raised in a very conservative manner, she continues to serve my father to this day hand-and-foot. However, when my parents moved to the U.S., my mother was only 21 years old and she began to slowly enjoy more freedom and opportunity. With my father’s permission, my mother learned how to drive, and she worked outside the home once my sister and I started attending elementary school. My mother continues to be very active, outspoken, and is the center of our family. My mother always encouraged me to excel academically, and she is supportive of all my professional endeavors. She has served as a role model for me of how a woman can balance work and family effectively. She has always put her family first, she has always respected and honored my father’s wishes and she has also been able to enjoy a full professional and social life. I think my mother’s childhood experiences have motivated me to work harder at achieving my goals, as I truly appreciate having opportunities that my mother did not enjoy.
A25: Mediation is often touted as a way for parties to maintain privacy and “save face.” We tend to think – perhaps only the abstract, before the occasion arises – that saving face is not something we care about. Perhaps, though, it is the underlying reason for many of the things we do – including disciplining our children, choosing a spouse, divorcing, etc. While your grandfather obviously went to extremes, it made me wonder: How important is “saving face?”
Ravindra: In the Indian culture, saving face is a very important value. We are more of a “collective” culture as opposed to “individualistic” culture, and so care a great deal about what our community thinks and how we are perceived. Divorce, loss of virginity before marriage, “dating” boys, drinking alcohol, doing poorly in school, etc., are all examples of things that would bring shame to a family. Many couples that are unhappy remain married in India and the U.S. primarily to save face in the community.
A25: Lately, we have been hearing a great deal about violence against women in India. You discuss dowry murders, which, even as an under-reported statistic, are in the thousands annually. How can better marriages help end this cycle?
Ravindra: I am hopeful that better marriages or marriages that are based on mutual interests, love, etc., can help end dowry deaths, as the marriage will not be based on how much money the bride brings, but on compatibility. Ideally, if dowry is not even a factor in marriage, there would be no cause to punish or harm a woman for insufficient dowry.
A25: The rape and murder of a young woman by five men in New Delhi sparked the world’s attention. Is a perfect storm – the economic and social changes (which may or may not be viewed as “progress”), plus a heinous crime – the reason India’s domestic-violence problem has come to everyone’s attention? Is there another reason or reasons? Is this the time for positive change, or will we see backlash? What will we be saying about these incidents and statistics a few decades from now?
Ravindra: I am horrified and embarrassed by the highly publicized gang rape on the bus, as well as other reports of rape of women in India. My sense is that rape of women in India has always been a problem, but it did not get the attention of the media because women were reluctant to report it for fear of the shame and stigma it would bring to them and their family. I also doubt that law enforcement and the court system took such reports seriously, and women may have been revictimized in the process of seeking justice. I believe the increasing visibility of these crimes on women is a very positive sign, and this is our society’s opportunity to effectuate meaningful change. I am hopeful that, by raising awareness, tightening laws and penalties for such crimes and strictly enforcing such laws, we may see a cultural shift. In Hinduism we pray to the female form of God using names such as Lakshmi or Durga and we pray to our own mother – Maatru Devo Bhava. Yet we see such disrespect and abuse of women. I am hopeful that, with greater focus and attention on these matters and a more confident and educated female presence in India, we will see positive change and the number of incidents should decline over the next decade.