Most people who know me would know I am an atheist. I have this colleague, a Tamil Brahmin, religious and traditional to the core. Ever since I moved from Delhi to join this place as his colleague he has been disturbed by multiple cultural and moral shocks.

Good thing about him though, is that he only looks at me as this strange creature from outer world but considers me harmless. He is somehow convinced I pose no threat to his culture. He sees me as an alien in his little world. Unlike most custodians of the great Indian tradition, he doesn’t feel the need to defend his tradition from being polluted by me. (He has no idea)

He is curious, about how I perceive life and other important factors that drives us. So, today he asked me an interesting question. He asked, “What is your religion?”

We were having coffee, I was off guard. I casually answered, “I am a Hindu.”

He knew what my answer was going to be, because his next statement, like a canon was ready to be shot. “How can you claim you are a Hindu if you call yourself an atheist.”

“I don’t claim,” I replied.

As an atheist I do not have a religion. Not at least those religion which we find in common parlance. I could however say feminism / humanism / communism / socialism is my religion.

Technically, since I was born to Hindu parents I am a Hindu. A Hindu is a Hindu by birth, there is no concept of ‘conversion’ in Hinduism for the simple reason that it was never an organized religion that believed in growth and market. That said, in my pursuit of life religion has no role to play. So I do not and will not ever claim I am a Hindu.

Technically, who is a Hindu?

The Hindu Marriage Act (HMA) is the only Law in the country which to a very narrow extent, only for the purpose of marriage defines a Hindu. Per Section 2 of the Act, anybody who is born to Hindu parents, raised in Hindu customs is considered a Hindu and includes a Virashaiva, a Lingayat or a follower of the Brahmo, Prarthana or Arya Samaj. The Act, even though is called ‘Hindu’ marriage act, applies to Buddhist, Jaina or Sikh and to any other person domiciled in this country (some exceptions) who is not a Muslim, Christian, Parsi or Jew.

This classification of being Hindu is only for the purpose of marriage, divorce property etc. Only in these personal matters do we have religion playing a role. Marriages solemnized under HMA have also to be divorced (when required) as per the procedure laid down in the same Act.

As an atheist this is where I could be proactive. If I ever think of getting married, I would marry under the Special Marriage Act, 1954 (SMA) there by ending the religion that I have been carrying due to reasons of my birth.

The SMA is a special law which is free of all religion. The act doesn’t talk about any religion. It is applicable to any two people within the area to which its jurisdiction extends (which means India, except Jammu and Kashmir). Two people even if they are of the same religion may chose to get married under this law.

Under this law, marriages can be solemnized in any which way you might want, in any damn place you wish to (at a reasonable distance from the marriage officer’s office). The wedding could be performed by just a kiss or by exchanging garlands or by opening a bottle of wine or by simultaneously poking each other on Facebook, whatever. There is just one condition, both parties would have to say these words in front of the marriage officer, “I take thee as my lawful wife / husband.” There are some other technical requirement like 4 witnesses, notice etc.

Once a couple is married under the SMA their other personal matters are also governed by SMA and not by their personal laws. For example, marriages completed under this act can be divorced (when & if required) as per the procedures laid in this act. Which means a Muslim couple marrying under this law would no longer be governed by the Muslim personal law for divorce or property matters.

Although this is not given in black and white but it would be fair to assume that children born to a couple married under this law wouldn’t have any religion by birth. They would have the religion in which they would be brought up. If they are brought up by atheist parents, atheism would be their religion.

When I first learned about it, I liked this law a lot. On the face of it, it looked like a progressive one. Then I read Section 19 of the Act.

Secition 19 – “Marriage solemnized under this Act of any member of an undivided family who professes the Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh or Jaina religion shall be deemed to effect his severance from such family.”

I wonder why this provision is there. What significance has it got except to strongly reflect upon the idea that even though the law of the land allows you to, yet it is not moral for you to marry against the diktats of your religious law. None of the personal law allows an inter religion marriage. Thus, couple from different religions would have to be married under SMA and bam they are severed from their familes.

Why should a law have a direct effect on my connection with my family? How strange is that.

Section 21A of SMA makes it further clear that inter religions marriages are not cool. It says,

Where the marriage is solemnized under this Act of any person who professes the Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh or Jain religion with a person who professes the Hindu, Buddhish, Sikh or Jain religion. Secs. 19 and 21 shall not apply…

This means if two Hindus decided to get married under SMA to avoid all the extravaganza around weddings, they will not be severed from their Hindu Undivided Families. All is cool as long as it is not an inter-religious marriage.

So to sum up these varied concepts — go fall in love with the one outside your religion, perform a wedding under Special Marriage Act and the law would get you officially declared as an atheist disowned by the family.

Interesting isn’t it?

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