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Many Westerners, who have grown up with the idea that marriage is the ultimate bond between two people who have fallen in love, find the idea of arranged marriages alternately fascinating and bizarre. But in areas in the world where arranged marriages are practiced (such as India), they seem as natural as the idea of “falling in love” seems to us. One of the interesting things about Sikhs, as wells as some other groups of people in India, is that they have moved to many different parts of the world and taken much of their culture with them.
Because of this, there is an opportunity to see what happens when two different cultures interact and perhaps exchange or adapt to each other’s ideas. The focus of this paper is the see how the dispersal of Sikhs around the world has affected the practice of arranged marriage and their attitudes about it.
As anthropologists often note, most marriages in the world are not just alliances between individuals; they are also alliances between families.
From this point of view, the concept of arranged marriages start to make a little more since. Parents spend a lot of time in search of brides or grooms for their children. Generally, the man’s parents are the ones who do the investigating, although the girl’s parents spend just as much time in making themselves look good and perhaps advertising. When the man’s parents meet with the family of the potential bride, they take many things into account: the class or caste of the individual, the family’s financial situation, the reputation of the family and the individual, the health of the family, i.
e., if they have any heritable diseases, and many other things.
Once they have found a suitable match, the man’s family sends a friend over to act as a messenger. This person relays any necessary information between the two families, and if the girl’s family is interested, a meeting is set up. It is with this meeting that the man’s family sees the girl for the first time. This makes clear how important the girl’s family background is to the potential marriage than the girl herself. During the meeting, the girl is closely scrutinized to see if she will be compatible with her new family. If everything goes well, the girl will eventually present herself so that the man and his family can see and meet her for the first time. Eventually, if everyone is satisfied, dates for engagement and marriage are arranged.1
The above sketch of what happens in an arranged marriage is, of course, greatly simplified. What actually takes place varies from culture to culture and often within the culture as well. Arranged marriages have taken place for thousands of years in India and other parts of the world. While the exact way in which the arrangement should be conducted may be disputed, the concept of arranged marriage itself is generally not questioned. In situations where Sikhs or other groups have taken the practice of arranged marriage to other parts of the world (especially the West), however, this is precisely what often happens. Presumably this is because of the influence that Western culture has on the society.
One of the biggest areas of conflict in such situations is when children, who may have spent all or most of their lives in the Western society, have different views on arranged marriages than their parents.
One of the most common conflicts occurs when children, especially those who have been in the Western society for a long time, take on the customs of dating that other people in that society have. In India, and perhaps other countries which practice arranged marriages, dating is either not allowed or not heard of. But in Western societies such as the United States, dating is the normal method by which people “fall in love” and get married.
Many young Sikhs in Western societies have faced the obstacle of choosing between what the want to do, i.e., marry someone they have met and fallen in love with, and doing what they feel is right, i.e., let their parent arrange their marriage for them. Because Sikhs are generally very attached and dedicated to their family and their culture, this is often a tough decision. On one hand, they do not want to disobey their parents by marrying someone that they do not approve of. And on the other hand, for those that have been introduced to the concept of dating, they do not want to leave the choice of whom they are going to spend the rest of their life with entirely to their parents.
Ideally what happens in such situations is that a compromise is made between the children and the parents. For example, the parents may decide that it is okay for their son or daughter to choose his or her own mate as long as it is someone from the same caste with a good family. Of the children may decide to let their parents arrange their marriage, but will only agree to marriage after meeting the person and getting to know him or her. As you might expect, however, such compromises are often not reached.
Many Sikhs have posted their opinions about arranged marriages on internet discussion groups. One of the most commonly reoccurring topics is the question of whether or not people should marriage outside of their own caste and/or religion. Traditionally, marriages in India only occurred between members of the same caste. But outside of India, caste distinctions are less noticeable, particularly among the younger generation. In many cases, children do not see the importance of marrying people from their own caste as much as their parents do.
One person, a member of the Jat caste whose parent insist that his wife also be a Jat, questioned the role that the caste system plays in Sikhism. “One of the fundamental principles of Sikhism,” he writes, “was to abolish the caste system and believe that everyone was equal.” When he asked his parents why it was so important that he marry another Jat, they simply said that that was the way their family always did things, i.e., it’s part of their traditional heritage. What may seem perfectly natural to parents often seems confusing to children who have not grown up with a strong sense of family tradition.
The strong influence that Western society can have on Sikhs is demonstrated by one girl’s quest to find her “soul-mate.” The idea that there is someone out there that was “made” for every individual is probably a purely Western phenomenon. This young girl completely embraces the idea: “[I] have always believed that we each have a soul mate somewhere out there, and it’s our duty to find them, fall in love with them, and be prepared to spend the rest of our lives with them.” She argues that insisting that people marry from within their own religion only hinders people from “the one”.
Interestingly, although people in Western societies are free to marry whomever they want, people tend to marry within their own religion and class anyway. One study found a 90 percent of all marriages in the US occur between people the same religion, ethnicity, class, education, and age group. So in many ways, the so-called love-based marriages are not as different from arranged marriages as they may seem. One of the goals of arranged marriages is to make sure that people marry people with whom they are compatible. The same is true for love-based marriages in the West.
Some people have even argued that arranged marriages do a better job of making sure that people are compatible than marriages based on falling in love. One girl argued that love-based marriages often fail because the people are so focused on the “love” aspect of the relationship that they are often faced with “dashed hopes and missed expectations” later on. “Life has a way of burying romanticism as [financial] and family demands take over,” she writes.
Of course not all young people agree with this point of view. Many are convinced that marriages based on love have a far better chance of lasting than arranged marriages. They often site examples of arranged-marriages-gone-wrong to prove their point. One of the most poignant of these stories I found was by a girl who was born in England and later came to the US. She had already been dating for a long time before she got married, and had even had two guys propose to her. But she claims she agreed to an arranged marriage only to please her parents. After her wedding, she had the feeling that she was by herself alone in a hotel with a guy she barely knew who was supposed to be her husband. She said she felt more like a prostitute.
Obviously, there is no easy answer to the question of which form of marriage is “better” than the other. Perhaps it is meaningless to ask such questions, since both forms of marriages are a traditional part of the cultures in which they are found. And in each of these cultures, there are example are when these marriages work and when they don’t. The greatest insight to be gained is when different form of marriages come in contact, for this is when the differences and similarities between them are clearly seen.
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