They might be homophobic in India, but in the U.S. it is some Hindu priests and groups whoare officiating at same-sex marriages

The Bible may have decreed that no one shall separate what god has joined together, but opposition to same-sex marriage continues to be a mainstay of Christian conservatism in the U.S. Homosexual marriages are legal in the U.S., but a religious ceremony accompanying them is not easy to pull off. Unusually, although opposition to homosexuality has been the rare unifying plank for Hindu, Christian and Muslim conservatives, at least two Hindu groups in the U.S. have gone all out to support same-sex couples and hold their hands as they circle the fire and say ‘I do’, with Vedic chants and chiming bells in the backdrop.

Neeral Sheth and Anu Hazra, both doctors in their early 30s, had been dating for over a decade when they decided to get married earlier this year. Their parents had come to accept their same-sex relationship, but marriage meant opening up to the larger social universe occupied by traditional Hindu families. “A Hindu marriage made the transition easy for them,” recalls Sheth. “I was raised with a strong sense of Hindu religion and culture. It was a bit tough when I learnt that I was gay, because I did not know how it fit into Hinduism. It was only when I realised that there is a distinction between culture and Hinduism that I began to accept Hinduism more.” “There was no other way I could have gotten married,” he adds, “because family support is everything for me. It is about two families coming together, unlike American marriages that focus on the couple.”

“It helped that we understood each other’s temples, customs, and shared the religion. It helped that both of us were Indians and Hindus,” recalls Hazra. Sheth focuses on mental health and Hazra plans to work with HIV positive populations — choices that have also been guided by their identities.

Their marriage in Junewas one of six Vedic ceremonies involving same-sex couples conducted over the last six years by Acharya Hersh Khetarpal, the head of the Yog Sadhan Ashram in Chicago. Interestingly, a deep cultural conservatism had informed her own views on the issue earlier, until a casual dinner-table conversation with her family prompted a new inquiry and a fresh understanding. Khetarpal noticed a distinct unhappiness in her daughter Priya when someone made a negative comment on homosexuality. “We began talking to her, and it turned out that she was homosexual,” she recalls.

Adds Priya, who was then dating Rebecca Parrish, whom she met while volunteering for a non-profit, “My parents were very understanding when I told them about my sexuality, but it was not easy for them. Gradually they began to be more accepting of it.” When Priya and Rebecca (who was born Christian but raised agnostic) decided to get married, the Khetarpals had to open up to relatives and the larger community and, understandably, “that was tougher”. Khetarpal consulted her father and guru who lived in Punjab, and learned the rituals to solemnise her daughter’s wedding.

Priya and Rebecca were married in 2010, in a ceremony that began with a Ganesh Pooja, followed by jaimala and the parents linking the couple’s hands together. The fire ceremony, pheras , sapta padi or seven vows, exchange of rings and tilak followed. The same sequence was followed in Sheth and Hazra’s marriage too. “For women, there issindoorandmangalsutraas well,” Khetarpal said.

For the Hindu American Foundation(HAF), which campaigned against references related to caste, and for more uncritical views on Hinduism in California school syllabi earlier this year, supporting same-sex couples is at the heart of its principles. One of the members of its leadership council, Fred Stella, a white man and formerly a Roman Catholic, has been authorised by a temple in Michigan to officiate marriages. He solemnised the first same-sex marriage supported by HAF in New York this year, between an American-born Indian Hindu and a Canadian-born Christian.

Stella is a Hindu pracharak — “an equivalent of a Christian lay-minister in America,” he says — who routinely officiates ceremonies for heterosexual couples, not all of them Hindus. “Many people who move away from Christianity… retain a broad spiritual orientation. When they have to get married, they feel going to a temple is hypocritical but at the same time, they have an element of spirituality in them. They have taken up yoga, they meditate, and some of them even have a guru. They ask me to do the wedding services.” However, he adds that “the choreography” remains Christian, involving the groom walking the bride down the aisle “and vows and flowers and all that.”

“HAF believes that Hinduism teaches that you are not the body. The ideal is realisation of the soul or the atma within you. All ideas of sex are related to the body. In fact, we find a positive mention of the third gender in the ancient texts,” says Aseem Shukla, co-founder of HAF. Swaminathan Venkataraman, who wrote the position paper of HAF on homosexuality, states: “There is absolutely no reason for a negative view of homosexuality in Hindu texts.”

Khetarpal agrees: “Yogic philosophy says that we are souls and the soul has no gender. I have a daughter who is lesbian, I know god created her that way.” She believes the opposition by Hindu groups in India to homosexuality is due to their ignorance of Vedic heritage. “It was after the arrival of Christianity in India that same-sex marriage became taboo,” she says.

While many Christian pastors in America continue to hold extremely homophobic positions, Acharya Khetarpal and the HAF, with their refreshing new interpretation of the Hindu faith, have elevated the very meaning of “soul mates” for many same-sex couples in the U.S. today.

varghese.g@thehindu.co.in

Hinduism teaches that you are not the body but the soul. But all ideas of sex are related only to the body.

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