Reimagining Shaadis: Meet Sapna, Priest Who Facilitates Same-Sex Marriage In US
Pandita Sapna officiates weddings in the US, tweaking customs to make it more progressive and inclusive.
Weddings were Sapna Pandya’s playground during her childhood years in Maryland. She tagged along with panditji, her grandfather, as he presided at desi weddings up and down the US east coast, “I talked with him about religion and watched him do his ceremonies. My grandma would take over the bhajans after he finished the puja,” fondly reminisces Sapna.
Soaking in the colours and sounds of ceremonies, Sapna formed ‘a special connection with him’, inheriting his puja books and his legacy, becoming a Hindu pandita, after her dadaji passed away eight years ago.
A rare female Hindu priest, Indian American Sapna focusses on LGBTQ weddings in North America. Known as a Queer Pandita, Sapna tweaks traditional rituals adapting them for gay wedding ceremonies, which are shunned by most mainstream Hindu temple priests in US.
How Sapna Became a Pandit
Sapna realized the need in 2010 when she could not find a willing pandit for her own wedding in spite of belonging to a pandit family.
"My wife Sahar and I could not find a pandit to marry us! We asked some friends to help us, after picking out some verses to recite. We had pheras and a nikah.”Sapna Pandya
She felt compelled to honour these traditions for LGBTQ couples who face similar challenges, ”I mentioned it to a friend, who later contacted me for a lesbian couple who couldn’t find a pandit for their Hindu wedding, that set me off on this interesting need in the community,” says Sapna.
For her, weddings are ‘a celebration of equality, friendship, and companionship’.
Sapna's Weddings: All About Inclusiveness
Pandita Sapna designs compassionate and inclusive wedding ceremonies based on values that are important to the couple, such as the gay, trilingual wedding ceremony of Gaurav Arora and Gaurav Mathur.
“Sapna officiated as the pandit for the ceremony in Sanskrit. We had another official, who did the ASL (American Sign Language) part of it. I took vows in English. We wanted the wedding to incorporate ASL as my husband is deaf. He has a PhD in linguistics, hence the amalgamation of three languages was perfect,“ shares India-born Gaurav Arora, an associate professor of Biology at a Gallaudet University, where his husband Gaurav Mathur is dean.
“Among the two of us I am a very religious person. I do Ganesh puja at home. But I didn’t want a religious wedding, he (Gaurav Mathur) wanted it. Especially with LGBT and religion, there is always a conflict,” says Gaurav Arora.
The gay couple chose to incorporate rituals that they had come to like from different Indian cultures – jaymala, shubho drishti, and sisters tying together the grooms’ dupattas in a knot.
The couple now lives in Washington DC with their 10-month-old son.
Unique expressions of love, rooted in their culture and traditions, tweaked by Sapna for same sex couples, makes not only their dream weddings come true, but also makes them feel accepted.
Her own journey as a queer person is an advantage as LGBTQ couples know that she understands - that they, like her, have faced enough ostracism and heartbreaks in their journeys to the mandap, and hence deserve flexible priests.
'Our Traditions Infused With Patriarchy'
The egalitarian ceremonies Sapna produces are progressive.
"So many of our faiths and traditions are full of patriarchy implying that a woman has to belong to man. We want to remove that and celebrate a mutual coming together. There is enough tradition in our scriptures to honour that, it’s a matter of finding them,” says Sapna.
A major in Hindu theology, she goes through the scriptures to incorporate or remove parts based on couples’ preferences.
”A lesbian couple in Austin – one is a Brahmin, upper caste. She wanted to make sure that her wife-to-be wasn’t made to feel that. She wanted me to not impose caste hierarchy in the ceremony,” recalls Sapna, adding, “There are some couples who are progressive. They tell me that they are not going to do kanyadaan. One woman said – I can’t be given to my wife's family, end of it!“
'People Surprised to See A Female Priest'
While officiating same-sex weddings, Sapna has had her share of encounters with parents of brides and grooms who are surprised at seeing a female priest.
People react to me because I am a pandita, such as - ‘her mom wanted a male pandit; I didn’t know women can become priests’. I became a pandita through learning from my granddad and it’s my family’s legacy. Probably if one goes for training at an ashram, then yes, one might not be able to be a female priest. Someone told me we can’t do this because women menstruate!Sapna Pandya
Sapna finds this ‘very Brahminical’, originating from an ideal of purity. "Which one of us on this earth is pure?!” she exclaims.
It is not only LGBTQ couples who seek Sapna for their ceremonies, but other progressive couples as well,” I do mostly same sex weddings, but I have done a few heterosexual weddings too. When they approached me for the first time, I asked them why they chose me. They told me that – ‘we spoke to some pundits, and felt that they didn’t connect with us on a feminist and equality vision and they were not willing to shift the ceremony to our ideals’."
Criss-crossing USA, reimagining rituals, creating custom, progressive, same-sex, Hindu wedding nuptials, Sapna’s is a powerful voice in the AAPI LGBTQ community.
She lives in Washington DC with her Pakistani-American Muslim wife Sahar and their two-year-old child. She works full time in the development sector, creating nonprofits that advocate for minorities, immigrants, South Asians, and the LGBTQ community.
As a desi child growing up in US, Sapna connected with her Indian roots through dance, learning Kathak and Bharatanatyam.
She had ‘love at first sight’ with India when she visited as a 10-year-old, after which she has visited her aunts and uncles there often. Along with rights for Indian LGBTQs, her wish for India is, “The way Dalits and Christians and Muslims are being treated in India; we should not be using this Brahminical superiority to put down other communities.”
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