- Having conducted several mixed and same-sex weddings, she has carved a niche by explaining the importance of the rituals and getting the couples to interact and participate in the process.
Hersh Khetarpal is the founding director of Yog Sadhan Ashram, located in West Chicago, which was established in 1992. She is also a Hindu priestess and has performed about 150 weddings, mainly racially mixed marriages and queer and transgender unions. She does not advertise her profession and is invited to conduct weddings based on word of mouth. I caught up with Khetarpal to talk about her work and experiences as a woman priest.
She grew up at the Yog Sadhan Ashram in Hoshiarpur, Punjab. Her father, Shri Chaman Lal Kapur, was a college principal and retired as the Director of Education. He was also her spiritual guru. “I learned everything from him as a little girl in India,” she recalls.
A year after marriage, she moved to the U.S., at age 18, to join her husband who worked at NASA in Huntsville, Alabama. Since then they have moved to Florida, San Diego, Phoenix, and Chicago, where they have lived since 1987.
In the U.S., she attended Arizona State University, where she studied accountancy. She worked in the corporate sector but did not find it fulfilling. After about 20 years of working, she and her husband bought a small business, a gas station in Chicago. That gave Khetarpal more time to study religion and philosophy.
In 1992, when her father was visiting her in Chicago, he asked her a couple of questions. He asked her if she was willing to impart to others the knowledge he had given her. She replied in the positive. His next question was about the huge house she and her husband lived in. “Do you consider it yours?” She replied in the negative. “Yes, it just belongs to nature,” her father said.
That year, he helped his daughter convert their home in Chicago to an ashram, the same model he always adopted to build numerous ashrams in India. Since then Khetarpal and her husband have been running the ashram. She follows her father’s philosophy: to work for money for a few hours a day and serve humanity the rest of the time. She teaches yoga, meditation, and the scriptures, free of charge. She considers her service as a grace of God. Some people call her guruji. Some call her Hershji. A few people call her Amma. “The divine is all-encompassing and provides us the knowledge to share with others,” she says, quoting her father, her guru.
Her husband, a retired engineer, takes care of the ashram’s management and building maintenance. “I always say he has a magical hand; he fixes things beautifully.” He also takes care of the finances — doing taxes and paying bills. He has also taught yoga classes and accompanies her out of town to do the weddings.
Khetarpal’s transition as a priestess came about at a family wedding. Twenty-five years ago, she conducted the wedding of her nephew in Chicago. Her sister told her they could not find a priest of their liking, so she stepped in. Then she performed the marriages of all her three children. In 2000, she conducted the wedding of her eldest daughter who married an American man. When her son got married in India to a Punjabi girl from Gujarat, she conducted the wedding, shocking everyone. Her youngest daughter, Priya, who is a lesbian, got married in 2009. She conducted that wedding as well.
Inclusive and Informative Ceremonies
Since then, Khetarpal has taken up the cause of queer and transgender unions and has performed many of them. She modifies the rituals for these weddings by promoting equal participation of the partners. In a Hindu marriage, the bride puts the puffed rice in the hands of the groom, and he offers it to the fire doing sat pheras (seven circles) around the fire. In a same-sex wedding, both the partners provide the puffed rice to the fire and promise each other equal responsibility. In a marriage between two men, there is no mangalsutra and between two women, they offer sindoor vermillion on each other’s hair parting. Khetarpal has also done several transgender weddings, both Indian and non-Indian. The Huffington Post cited a gay marriage she officiated thus: “Khetarpal takes pride in Hindu weddings’ beauty, richness, and diversity.”
She recounts officiating a marriage between a Hindu woman and a Muslim woman two years ago, just before the pandemic. An Imam officiated the Muslim wedding. Watching the sacred fire as the witness of the marriage, the saat pheras, seven circles for togetherness for seven lives, the Imam was impressed and asked to get a copy of the Hindu marriage manual. This gesture humbled her. She said she was often bothered by how these “beautiful scriptures” which are “so accepting” and “promote democratic values,” are not appreciated by most Hindus. “Upanishads, Gita, yoga, and meditation promote unity and self-cleansing,” she says. “Sometimes, non-Indians are more appreciative when they see and experience the Hindu practice.”
Even when women priests are considered exceptions in the male-dominated profession, Khetarpal is popular among the younger people. Partners of mixed race approach her to do their weddings. She spends time explaining the ritual and counseling them about what marriage is all about. And during the wedding, the couple plays an active role in the process. The ceremony is in English, so the couple understands the scripture, the promises they are making to each other, and the vows they are taking. They connect with Khetarpal and are actively engaged in their wedding.
For her, the most beautiful part of the wedding is the “heart prayer” the couple repeats after her. With this prayer, she announces the couple as married and gives them blessings. In Sanskrit, it is called Hridya Sparash. “Prayer to God… Let our thoughts be in harmony … Let our hearts be in harmony …. Let our thoughts, hearts, and minds be in tune with each other …. Let our life blossom with light and joy.”
Through the years, she has conducted numerous regional and mixed ethnic weddings. Despite cultural nuances and variations, she follows basic Vedic steps common to Hindu weddings. She is amazed by the love between couples, even mixed races, especially same-sex couples. “I see they get so emotional,” she says.
Earlier in April, Khetarpal conducted a couple of same-sex marriages in Mexico. She recalls how people came to her afterward and complimented her for performing thorough rituals. She follows the same process for mixed-race weddings as well. “We are all looking for love and acceptance.”
Her role is not just limited to being a priestess at a wedding. She counsels the parents, not just the interracial and same-sex couples, who have difficulty accepting their children’s choices. “I tell them accepting their son or daughter getting married to a black person or Mexican or same sex, that we are the same at the soul level. We breathe the same air.”
The Beauty of Hindu Ceremonies
Khetarpal says the Hindu rituals at every stage of life are beautiful but lose their significance without understanding and awareness. “The rituals should be simplified, so the next generation feels comfortable with it.” In the earlier days, marriages used to be long, and the couples hardly participated in it except by following the priest. “I remember when I got married, it was a long ceremony and we did not understand what the priest said,” she recalls. “It was at night and I was sleeping.” At the time, her father wasn’t conducting weddings. “Rituals are the means to connect to people,” she states. “The role of the priest is to explain the importance of the ritual and how young people can relate to them. For example, the significance of havan, a sacred fire, must be defined, so the people engaged in it understand.”
Khetarpal wants to spread awareness of the beauty of Hindu ceremonies. When her grandkids want to know the significance of the mali, a sacred thread, around their wrists, she explains that the mali, tied around the wrist, symbolizes divine protection. Similarly, when made aware of its importance, people in the ashram come back to her to get the mali. “Even the non-Indians keep it until it fades away.”
Like the wedding ceremonies, she explains the rituals like the sacred thread ceremony. She performs funerals as well. Especially during the pandemic, she conducted several Zoom and in-person funerals when no one else wanted to.
Despite this knowledge, Khetarpal does not feel superior. “I may know a few more mantras, but that doesn’t mean I’m better than you. We are the same.” Her genuine interest in teaching with love and compassion translates to her ashram as well. She has several Indian and non-Indian followers who attend yoga classes in large numbers. Only five to ten percent of them enroll in Gita and Hindu philosophy classes because of the rigor. Since the pandemic, they began scripture classes on Zoom, with 35- 40 people in attendance.
Khetarpal says that as a woman, most of her students are women who are retired doctors, engineers, and professionals. Her lectures combine English with the text’s origin explanation in Sanskrit. The ashram runs on volunteer labor and donations. People bring food, keep the premises clean, plan the rituals, and celebrate every religious activity. With her unique approach, knowledge and inclusive nature, Khetarpal connects with the young and the old.
Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds a Ph.D. in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and was a postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge University, the U.K. Her current research interests include diaspora studies, South Asian religions, and immigrant women’s identity making in the diaspora in California. In 2017-18 she received a Fulbright scholarship for fieldwork in India. Dr. Pandey is also an accomplished documentary filmmaker. Her 2018 award-winning documentary “Road to Zuni,” dealt with the importance of oral traditions among Native Americans.