Understanding, the new mantra Couples, priests adapt ceremony to comprehend meaning of rituals



A few South Asian and interracial couples prefer the priest explaining the meaning of rituals during a traditional wedding. Priests, like Sanjay Saxena, above, right, translate the mantras for the benefit of the guests and the couple. Photo courtesy of SANJAY SAXENA
  Anand Kolipakkam says he understood almost all the rituals performed during his wedding in Hyderabad, nearly two years ago.
  “The priest took the time to tell us what he was saying,” Kolipakkam from Lowell, Mass., says, adding that he was lucky his parents chose such a priest. But even if the priest hadn’t paused for explanations, and neither the bride nor the groom had requested any, Kolipakkam says he would still like all the recitations authentically and traditionally performed.
  “I would not want to have it (wedding ceremony) simplified, I want him to recite all the mantras possible,” Kolipakkam says. “Even if I don’t understand them, at least he’s reciting the right things.”
  When it comes to South Asian weddings, though, the word traditional can mean many things — from adhering to strict religious rituals, to the number of functions performed, the length of the ceremony, or the number of guests invited, and even whether the ceremony is held in the United States or in South Asia.
  Which traditions couples choose to incorporate and what importance religious rituals hold are some questions that arise with first and second generation immigrants residing in the United States. Perceptions of what is authentic and essential differ. While some couples feel the need to understand the implications of their wedding rituals, for others the act of fulfilling the prescribed rituals is authenticity enough.
  “It depends upon the individual,” Kolipakkam says. “Some are curious and want to perform the traditional Indian way, and some want to get it over within 10 minutes.”
   ‘It depends upon the individual. Some are curious and want to perform the traditional Indian way, and some want to get it over within 10 minutes.’

Anand Kolipakkam
Lowell, Mass.
According to Geeta Singhani, a wedding planner based in Needham, Mass., most of the couples she has helped get married prefer to adhere to all the traditions even while celebrating the ceremony locally.
  “Being in the United States, if they wanted to get out of the traditions, they could have,” Singhani says. “But they want to follow it, they do it literally how marriages happen back home.”
  Singhani describes in particular the marriage of clients Penny, a Greek bride and Divi, a Punjabi groom. “They chose to do it the traditional way with the horse, the barat (groom procession), the greet and meet, the mehendi (henna) party, and the true Vedic rituals,” Singhani says. “Exactly whatever happens in Punjabi weddings there (in India).”
  But unlike most ceremonies in India, Singhani describes how the priest presiding over the rituals was speaking in Sanskrit and then translating to English. “The idea is that they wanted to understand why we do this, what is the reason behind the rituals,” Singhani says. “And even the audience was sitting there trying to understand so everyone could know what was happening.”
  Sanjay Saxena, a priest based in Lexington, Mass., who performs Vedic ceremonies for couples, agrees. “Here people are more curious because the guests are not Indian,” Saxena says. “They want the guests to understand.”
  That is perhaps the most pronounced difference between wedding ceremonies in the United States and ones in South Asia.
  Saxena describes how couples ask for an English copy of the vows before hand so they can understand what is going on. “Whoever wants more detailed discussion, I send it as preliminary reading material, as a heads up of what is expected,” he says. Saxena also says he remembers guests weeping during the translation of vows.  “It becomes an emotional and heartfelt ceremony,” Saxena says. “I heard guests weeping listening to commentary and some even ask for a copy of the vows.”
  What makes the vows appealing, according to Saxena, is the difference in collectivistic Hindu philosophy as opposed to an individualistic American culture.
  However, things tend to be more mechanical in India, Saxena says.
  “In India, guests don’t care and know what is going on,” he says. “Here people who come are interested in learning about it.”
   Singhani agrees. “In India everything is so available, you miss out on the whole thing,” Singhani says. “Here people are looking forward to knowing more, are seeking more.”
  But for a young couple from Boston, Dheeraj and Rishtee Badra, curiosity is what led them to have their wedding in India. Dheeraj, who grew up in Philadelphia, came here from Delhi when he was nine, while Rishtee, who grew up in Michigan, came here from Bihar when she was four.
  Rishtee Badra says she remembers her sisters’ wedding in the United States, where all six days of functions were condensed into three hours. “We’ve seen how quickly the weddings wrap up here,” Rishtee says. “It didn’t seem authentic and neither of us was excited about doing a reception in the morning and the ceremony at night, all in one day.”
   The grand celebrations in New Delhi though, left both husband and wife surprised. “We didn’t realize that [at] each function that we had, there would be 200 to 300 people,” Rishtee says. “It turned into a bigger deal than we expected. Everything was on a grander scale in India, we didn’t realize it would be so lavish.”
  For Dheeraj, though, where the ceremony took place and how it was conducted didn’t really matter. “Once I realized I want to marry Rishtee I let my parents decide the rest,” he says. “Once I picked a person, more or less it was all formality.”
  And that perhaps extends to the rituals too.
  “To the best of our knowledge, it was a Bihari pandit and a Bihari wedding, just like my parents’ wedding,” Rishtee says. “The ceremony was long, from 11 p.m. to 2 a.m. The pandit (priest) was hired from a small village where my grandmother was from.”
  And did the couple understand what the pandit was saying? Did they want to?
  “He couldn’t translate word by word or else it would take six hours,” Rishtee says. “But he took the effort of explaining some important paragraphs in Hindi, which was nice. He was accommodating, he would have translated as much as we wanted him too.”
  For Dheeraj, this is where intellectual and practical differ. “From an intellectual standpoint it was interesting to learn how weddings are conducted in my culture, but from a practical standpoint, it didn’t matter. To me none of them were necessary, I would have been happy without it.”
  For Rishtee, though, understanding the implications of some basic rituals, the pheras (circling a fire) and kanyadan (giving away the bride) for instance, was important. She equates the remaining Sanskrit chants to the reading of psalms at a Christian wedding.
  “It’s more ritualistic, a lot of things are just dogmatic, just maintaining tradition,” she says, emphasizing that one does not need to understand everything being said to appreciate it. “I wouldn’t have been happy if the entire ceremony would have been in English, it loses its integrity if it’s not done in the original medium.”
  Integrity is also lost, says priest Saxena, when people in the United States request him to shorten the ceremony. “My ceremony takes 90 minutes, from the time they (the couple) are seated to the time they are let go,” Saxena says. “Sometimes they ask you to do it in 60 minutes, and I say, ‘Absolutely not.’ It is a sacred ceremony, it can’t be rushed through.”
  Meanwhile, priest Krishna Bhatta from Ashland, Mass., offers his clients the option of a 90-minute ceremony and a 3-hour ceremony. “The  three hour one is a very detailed ceremony,” he says. “It is for people without urgency, for the sake of religion or for the sake of their parents, it is for those who don’t want to hurry.”
  For Erja Sarfraz of Cambridge, Mass., though, it’s not about time limit but about incorporating all the elements one loves. For instance, she describes her wedding cake.  “It was gorgeous, with three layers and real flowers,” she says. “It was strawberries and cream, one layer was chocolate and one was vanilla.”
  Though a wedding cake is traditionally part of a Christian wedding, Sarfraz says she was excited to be able to incorporate that in her Muslim wedding in the United States.
  “I think people just get tuned to the culture they live in, it (the cake) doesn’t even stand out, it blends in,” says Sarfraz, who was born and raised in Pakistan and came to Boston for her undergraduate studies. “Every culture has a wedding style and I got some ideas from living here,” she says.
  Ideas that she likes to blend in with her own tradition, without replacing them.
  “I enjoy and love my culture too much,” she says. “People back home get sick of the same traditional things all the time, while people here cherish it.”