In rural India, it's still taboo. Outside India, everyone is getting used to it. Visionaries laud it as the making of a multi-ethnic, golden race that will bring peace to the planet. Some of your closest friends have done it and everybody gossips about it-mixed marriages. By all estimates, it will only increase. Slowly, awkwardly, Hindu society is facing it and finding it's a lot healthier to talk about it and positively adjust to it when it happens, rather than hide it, fight it or ignore it. This begins our three-part series.By Shikha Malaviya, Maryland, USA They were discussing the recent marriage of her cousin Rahul to a black woman. She recalls her father's words quiet clearly. "Can you imagine! Rahul, a strict Hindu, marrying an African woman? Their lifestyle is so different. Imagine the children-Indian names, but they'll look black and be treated like blacks." Neha was appalled her parents were talking like this. How would they react if they knew about Mohsin, her Muslim boyfriend! Neha Pancholi, a 23-year-old girl from Ann Arbor, Michigan, experienced what many Hindu youth are facing in America. It's an issue of mixed emotions, mixed philosophies and mixed cultures. Should a Hindu date a Muslim? Should Christians and Hindus marry? What religion would a child be if the parents were Hindu and Jewish respectively? We all like to think of ourselves as liberal people and dismiss the issue of interreligious marriage by saying, "If they love each other, that's all that matters. As long as they are happy, we are happy." However, deep down inside, do we really feel that way? How does one truly feel about inter-religious relationships and marriages? Does "love make the world go 'round," or does religion, tradition and society? Neha is not her real name. The computer science student at the University of Michigan, agreed to share her story with Hinduism Today on the basis of anonymity. Neha met Mohsin Ali at a party which her elder brother held four years ago. She was a freshman in college. "I was always very friendly and had no reservations about race or religion. When I met Mohsin, I regarded him only as my brother's friend," says Neha. But a week after the party, Mohsin met Neha for lunch at school and asked her to be his girlfriend. Neha said yes. "He was energetic, smart and intelligent, whereas I was more quiet and simple." Neha and Mohsin's relationship deepened. Eventually Neha told her elder brother who replied, "It's your life and your choice to make. But if our parents find out, don't count me in." Neha was shocked to hear her brother's words. "This was my own flesh and blood going against me." Within one year, Neha stopped socializing with other people because it made Mohsin jealous. She recalls, "I never cared that Mohsin was a Muslim until it started interfering with who I was. He proposed to me and I wanted to say yes, but he wanted me to convert to Islam. Our kids would have to be Muslim. I would have to live in Pakistan. I would have to wear a veil, etc." Mohsin didn't want Neha to pursue graduate school or act in theatrical productions. Neha was shattered. Things got worse when rumors spread. "We walked separately at school so that no one would notice us," says Neha. "Still, I would get stares from Hindu people I didn't even know. It got to the point that I was too scared to step out of the house. I became an introvert. My grades dropped. I lost fifteen pounds." Neha finally broke off with Mohsin six months ago and decided to marry a Hindu. She sighs, relieved, and says, "after what I've been through, I know that religion matters. Mohsin was the way he was because of his upbringing. His mother wears a veil. My mother does not. That's only the beginning." To girls her age she suggests: "Think before you leap into an inter religious relationship. Don't do it if you can't be honest to those around you and to yourself." Challenges, Successes and Criticisms Is Neha's experience the rule or the exception? Do religious differences necessarily create barriers or problems? Mrs. Ellaru, from Houston, Texas, is the proud mother-in-law of a white Christian girl. Her son Raghu married Christina after they met at a hospital in Indianapolis where Raghu was training. Says Mrs. Ellaru, "I didn't have any opposition to my son marrying an American girl. My children have been raised in this country, so I don't expect them to marry a Hindu." Asked if there was any opposition from the Hindu community, Mrs. Ellaru replied, "No one said anything to me. Interreligious marriages are quite common now." Happily married for four years, Raghu and Christina have successfully integrated Hindu and American culture. They have two sons, Andrew and Austin, who are being brought up with a blend of Hindu and Christian principles. When the boys were baptized, Raghu asked his parents if it was okay. Both Mr. and Mrs. Ellaru agreed: "We are happy with whatever they choose to do." Mrs. Ellaru loves Christina like her own daughter, and is happy that Christina respects and understands Hindu culture. Whenever she comes to visit us," says Mrs. Ellaru, " Christina wears her wedding chain. She visits the temple with us with the children. She also wears a sari on many occasions. She likes to do these things on her own, and we appreciate it." But Vignaraj, a Hindu of Silver Spring, Maryland, feels that children bear the heaviest burden of mixed marriages. He says, "I believe your faith is your way of life. If your life partner shares the same faith, you share a common philosophy in which you can bring up your children. I have many friends that had mixed marriages which broke after ten or twelve years. Their children didn't know who or what they were. Besides material wealth and education, what else do we have to give children but religion." Narayan and Kamala Ramanathan, a couple from Falls Church, Virginia, whole-heartedly support interreligious marriage. Kamala's mother is a Christian from England and her father is a Hindu. Kamala told Hinduism Today, "I base interreligious marriage on the strength of the person. If society says no, but the couple is confident of what they want in life, then by all means they should get married. But if they aren't sure of themselves, they shouldn't get married." Narayan and Kamala have an eight- year-old son, Rajiv. "I want my son to respect all religions," says Narayan. "I don't want Rajiv to be religious, I want him to be spiritual. To me, there is a big difference." Kamala's parents met in England where her father was stationed with the Royal Indian Army. Later they moved to India, where Kamala grew up. "I never felt different from any other family," says Kamala. "People who say that children get affected by interreligious marriages are wrong! My upbringing has only strengthened my understanding and respect of religion." According to Narayan, the concept of religion has become too rigid, placing barriers on people. He says, "We should judge people for their character, not their religion." More Open Talk, Less Phobia Please How concerned are parents about their sons and daughters finding interreligious partners? "They are very concerned," emphatically shares Bina Parekh (left), of Sahara, a hot/line counseling center in California serving the Indian community. "We hold forums for both parents and teenagers about dating, etc.," says Bina, head of Sahara's Youth Chapter. Sahara gets a lot of calls from parents, worried about their children dating people of different races and religions. "Teenagers don't call us that often about this subject," Bina says, "because they have their friends they can talk to. Parents are very reluctant to talk with anyone." Veena Ramachandran is a student at Catholic University, Washington DC. She feels that interracial dating and marriage are still quite foreign to her parents' generation. Their marriages were arranged with other Indians and mostly successful, so they cling instinctively to the simple logic: "If it worked for us, it will work for you." Veena adds, "I think this happens in every society-parents worrying about love, race and religion. We shouldn't think that this happens only among the Hindu community." Marriage doesn't come without challenges, even hardships-even when Hindus marryHindus. But in such sensitive areas like relationships and marriage, I feel one does have to consider religion because how you are brought up and what you believe are important. It is vital to talk about culture and religion-no matter what the discussion reveals. Many of us are ignorant about others'cultures which generates more fear than the understanding so needed in this area.