To those who aren’t aware about non-monogamy, or might be misinformed by popular misconceptions of non-monogamy, the association with religion may occupy two extremes: either as part of a ritual cult practice, or as stark contrasts of each other–religion as moral and non-monogamy as immoral.
However, for those of us who identify and/or practice (ethical) non-monogamy and its various forms, it can be a space to cultivate and experience the same virtues one might seek from religion–love, passion and faith. This isn’t to say that non-monogamy is necessarily a spiritual practice–it may not be for those who do not view it this way. But with many of us, particularly in Indian society, having grown up under the aegis of organised religion, it can be helpful to understand how we might carry (or do away with) these influences in our non-monogamous relationships and how it may intersect with our other beliefs.
Note: In this piece, the term religion mostly refers to religious beliefs and morals of the participants. We recognise, of course, that this can have different meanings for different individuals, with variations in the levels of subscription to traditions and personal meaning-making. We have not delved into caste, which is enforced by multiple organised religions in our country, because we believe it needs to be explored separately and it wouldn’t do justice to try and fit it in this piece. The perspectives of the participants reflect their own views and are not to be mistaken for endorsements of any kind.
Meet the participants
Angelique (they/them) is an out and proud queer nerd, completing a degree in Education from Houston. When they aren’t inventing new ways to annoy their cat Allée, they’re crocheting, analysing Jane Austen, or exploring social psychology research proposals.
Sharib A. Ali is finishing a PhD. in political anthropology from Bern, and works with multiple civil political rights initiatives in Delhi, including Quill Foundation, Citizens Against Hate, and Innocence Network.
G (she/they) is a writer, researcher and a queer cat-friend, who prefers polyamory as their chosen relationship style.
Prarthana (she/they) is a mental health professional who works with individuals and couples through a trauma informed, queer sensitive and poly-affirming approach. They love naps and a good cup of tea.
Worlds Collide: Discovering Non-Monogamy
As someone who was raised Catholic, I’ve realised over the past few years how strongly some of my early experiences attending the Church and practicing its various traditions still have a hold on me. The ideas of being a ‘good human being’, of being ‘sinful’ by default, of investing hope in the unknown, are some things I ponder over every once in a while. While I have been able to make space for parts of myself that remain connected to my religious identity, I also realise a lot of it revolves around conformity–some of which I don’t mind following, and some of which I really do mind (particularly those that enforce gender roles and heterosexuality).
On the other hand, I’ve come to learn that I deeply identify as polyamorous, more as an identity than a relationship style. Exploring polyamory has provided me the space to meditate on many aspects like acceptance, abundance, and love, which were things that I was initially looking for in religion. When I connected with other people to interview for this piece, I found that a lot of what they had to say resonated with what I feel, and even provided some moments of deep reflection.
Read on to know more.
What is your religious background like? Would you say that this has reflected in the way that you think about and/or practise non-monogamy?
G: As a child, I was quite a strong believer in Christianity, the religion I was raised in. As I’ve grown up, I’ve moved further and further away from it. Despite my best efforts, my sense of morality is still rooted in Christian principles. But my reasons for holding on to them have changed, and I can justify them through secular ways of reasoning.
Today, I would call myself an agnostic. I don’t think questions about the existence of God or the possibility of an afterlife are important. Instead, I am more interested in the principles we hold, where we trace their origins to, and how these conceptions of religious/secular morality have changed.
My religious moorings have definitely affected the way I think about and practice non-monogamy. At a deeper level, it affected the way I encountered sex and queerness. I had so much guilt around what I termed ‘pre-marital sex’ that I had to rationalise it to myself as having sex with the person who would one day be my husband. The fact that he was not Christian was also a contributor to my guilt. Part of the reason it took me so long to recognize my own queerness is definitely religion. When I did come into my queerness, I was already distant from organised religion and starting out on my journey of non-monogamy.
When I first encountered the idea of non-monogamy, I did not judge it as immoral, but was convinced that it was a way of living that was not right for me. This outlook was something I drew from my understanding of Christianity. As I explored these ideas more and more, I reasoned that Jesus’ own life trajectory did not involve marriage and family, and instead involved travelling with a group of close-friends–the centrality of friendships in some versions of polyamory is very important to me–and challenging various structures of oppression they encountered, especially the organised religion of their time.
Prarthana: Growing up, I was raised Hindu. My mother and grandmother were pious and ritualistic, while my father believed that God is nature–so there was a multiplicity even within the practise of religion. My grandmother used to tell me stories about Krishna, the Ramayana, and taught me shlokas about Vishnu’s many forms. However, since childhood, something felt amiss to me in these daily routines and rituals, because there seemed to be no explanation about the meanings behind them. My sister and I mostly did what we were told to do, to stay out of trouble.
With regards to non-monogamy, I had to unlearn a lot of values about what it means to be a “good” partner and to have a “good” relationship. The story of Sita from the Ramayana taught me that I was supposed to look for a good, virtuous, strong prince, and stick by him no matter what his behaviour was towards me. Because of being socialised as a woman, I gathered that if I wanted to love someone, I had to be sacrificial, dutiful, and loyal to my partner, in order to be deserving of a loving relationship in return. The stories that I heard of Krishna gave me the idea that it was more acceptable for men to be fluid with their romantic attachments than for women, and that it was okay for men to have feelings for multiple people. But that it was in women’s nature to be romantically attached only to one person. Hence, they must choose wisely and hold on to that one person with everything they’ve got.
In order to practise non-monogamy in a way that would be safe and fulfilling for me, I had to deconstruct how I perceived roles in my relationships. I’ve had to let go of the stories I’d been told as standards of “good”, and of gendered expectations in love. I had to re-organise the hierarchy of relationships in my own head, which placed my romantic relationships above others. Over time, this helped me become more aware of my needs and boundaries, and develop broader values of what love could look like. I started to appreciate the various forms in which relationships could exist, even with imperfections. With time I’ve gotten better at recognising multiplicity in love, the same way my family did with religion.
Angelique: I was raised vaguely Catholic, threw myself into the faith at 12 years old, wanted to live a consecrated life until I was 16, and left the Church at 18. I haven’t gone back to Catholicism and I will never go back to participating in organised religion.
The biggest effect that polyamory has had would be on my idea of commitment and fidelity. The church sees it as unconditional and eternal–I don’t. Such a simplistic view diminishes the complexity of human connection.
I see choosing someone as an ongoing process and polyamory as encouraging connection. Religion showed me what I didn’t want in a relationship, which also meant that it showed me what I did want.
Sharib: I grew up in Calcutta, in a conservative Muslim society. As is the case with most middle class neighbourhoods, Hindu or Muslim, the social environment can be restricting and force you to be within boxes.
I have gone on to live in Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Germany, Switzerland, the UAE and have observed people practicing the heteronormative, monogamous lifestyle, which I feel is very is limiting and built out of fear. And I’ve always felt in my heart that love cannot be bound. Of course, to practise real love, it takes so much care and meditation. Love is full of challenges, so the easier option is to box it. This makes it less risky, but also less enriching and less free.
I am on my own path at the moment. You could say it’s a path of discovery, that I’ve been walking for the past 8 years. There is spirituality in it, there is desire, there is heart, and mind, and body, and I feel very strongly drawn to and connected to many things. Everything is subject to my discovery or my path, which is why I don’t do relationships–because I’m walking. There are many people who want to be in a relationship with me and I struggle with that and tell them from the beginning that I cannot do that, because I’m not “constant” in any place–within or outside myself. Maybe you can meet me when I rest under a tree, or beside a river. Or you can walk with me for a bit. But those who are really walking, they know that they are walking by themselves.
My religious practice is of all kinds. I walk with all people and their beliefs. I have my own personal and cultural ways of connecting, which are more Sufi–but they are also tantric, and Abrahamic, and pagan. What I find is that through the heart you can do it all, which is the essence of Sufism.
Has identifying with and/or practising non-monogamy influenced your idea of religion/spirituality?
Angelique: The church focuses on the sanctity of marriage, not the connection and joy shared by a couple. If they end up miserable, there’s no way out because they promised each other to be together, “Till death do us part”. I couldn’t reconcile with a God who prevented His people from finding joy, and it was partly why I left the Church.
I am a global citizen–having grown up in five different countries–I’m neurodivergent, a survivor of multiple forms of violence, queer, trans/gender non-conforming, and disabled…and that’s not even all of it. Expecting a single person to engage with every single part of me in full capacity is an unrealistic expectation for me to have not just in romantic relationships, but in platonic ones too. Polyamory changes this because different partners focus on different selves. It allows me to have more grounded, healthy relationships, which satisfy my needs in different ways. We do not complete each other, but compliment each other, and that makes all the difference.
Essentially, for me, being polyamorous is having a committed relationship. Connecting with people in true relationships means entrusting each other with our spirits. The warmth and safety of this act is my form of spiritual transcendence.
Religion and Mononormativity
Would you say that religion contributes to mononormativity by perpetuating a monogamous bias, purity culture and internalised polyphobia? Could you elaborate a little bit more on this?
Prarthana: I definitely do think that organised religion perpetuates and maintains the idea of monogamy as the standard (or aspirational? moralistic?) practice in society. In my experience, I’ve seen that organised religion often takes up the role of providing legitimacy to monogamous relationships in the form of social rituals. Legitimacy can be important in relationships, and can help people feel secure–it is a human instinct to want to simply shout it out from the rooftops when you love someone. In Christianity, it is common practice for the couple to receive marriage counselling from their priest before the wedding. This enables the religious community to hold power over which kind of love or type of relationship will be given such validation. While it can be radical and liberating to break away from these norms, sometimes the lack of recognition from the community can make it difficult to seek support or even understand our own needs and limitations. Gender also plays a role in this context, where polygamy is accepted in some religions, while polyandry is not. Those assigned female at birth are often socialised into prioritising one relationship, usually the one with their husband, over all others.
The silence around polyamory in most religions, buries any exploration outside of monogamy, and contributes to the maintenance of mono-normativity. Individuals who feel connected with their religious beliefs can find themselves extremely conflicted about exploring multiple relationships. This can lead to confusion, guilt, difficulty in communication and maintaining boundaries in relationships.
G: I think organised religion today has a particular interest in promoting monogamy. In order to adapt to today’s world, religions have to demonstrate their compatibility with modernity, modern forms of governance and the global market system, all of which are invested in mononormativity.
For many religions which previously tolerated and promoted polygamy (it was only in 1955, that the Hindu personal laws made polygamy illegal for Hindus), it is now seen as a mark of progressiveness, commitment to women’s equality and modernity to uphold monogamous ideals. In the context of majority and minority dynamics, mononormativity becomes a way of asserting the superiority and apparent secularism of the majority Hindu community, pitted against Islam which is always framed as the backward ‘other’ of this progressive modernity. (Of course, none of this is to suggest that religiously sanctioned polygyny is a form of non-monogamy that I would defend, or that all versions of Islam sanction polygyny).
Engaging with Empathy
What would you like members of your religious community to know about non-monogamy to engage sensitively with the subject?
G: I would want any community I am part of to approach the subject of non-monogamy with curiosity rather than with presumptions and thoughtless condemnation. I would suggest approaching the idea of polyamory in particular, in a way analogous to friendship– understanding that multiple relationships are possible, healthy and can add warmth and richness to each other. Highlighting aspects of Christianity that emphasise acceptance and love as key virtues, is also a good place to start. There are emerging resources speaking of polyamory/non-monogamy and faith, but a lot of these resources are centred in context to American society. It would be interesting to see adaptations of these resources to the Indian context.