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Raja Gopal Bhattar has conducted over 24 marriages and most were LGBTQ weddings. Highly qualified, Bhattar hails from a lineage of Hindu scholars & pundits!
Raja Gopal Bhattar has been conducting Hindu weddings since 2010 and takes great pride in officiating LGBTQ weddings, interfaith, inter-ethnic, and nondenominational weddings. Their website highlights the testimonials from various couples from many different orientations, ethnicities, and races. They are full of praise for Bhattar’s sensibility and empathy in conducting these rituals. So far, Bhattar has performed 24 weddings, most of which have been for same-sex couples.
Raja Gopal Bhattar, Ph.D.(they/them/theirs) uses gender-inclusive pronouns and identifies as genderqueer. Highly qualified, Bhattar works in various fields and hails from a long lineage of over 20 generations of Hindu scholars and pundits, from the Sri Vaishnava tradition, across Southern India and the United States.
During their undergraduate studies at Boston University, Bhattar took courses on Hinduism and realized that there is no one framework to understand the religion.
What prompted you to conduct LGBTQ weddings as a Hindu priest? Which was the first wedding you conducted?
I conducted the first wedding ceremony in 2010 for a college friend and her husband. She was white and her partner was Indian. The meaning behind the ritual was important to the couple and their families, and they wanted a ceremony that honoured both of their traditions. When I was at UCLA, a lesbian couple, Hindu and Buddhist, had difficulty finding a priest to honour what it means to be a lesbian couple and create a ceremony that affirms their journey. They had deep spiritual roots. When they approached me, I infused Hindu and Buddhist elements as the foundation of the marriage ceremony.
I realized that having the knowledge of the Hindu traditions allowed me a unique way to offer good into the world. It has been part of reclaiming my identity and community in the process. I learned that I know traditions and critical consciousness to understand and explain the significance of the Hindu rituals, which makes the ceremony more meaningful.
What is your basic principle in conducting a Hindu wedding ceremony?
The Hindu wedding ceremony is not just a ritual but a code of conduct. It is to help the couple understand the commitment that they’re making to each other, not just in one life but seven lifetimes. For LGBTQ weddings, when I talk to a queer couple, I say that in the Hindu tradition, we value the soul and connections beyond our bodies which is affirmative of same-sex and diverse relationships.
How is your Hindu service different from a traditional Hindu wedding ritual?
In crafting a ceremony, I address aspects of ceremonies that don’t fit critical feminist and anti-caste worldviews and need to be reclaimed for today’s society. In the Hindu ritual, I try to transcend the heteronormative interpretation of the tradition and provide more inclusive perspectives.
For example, Kanyadan (giving away the bride) may not always be relevant. In a queer and feminist context, Kanyadan treats women as property, which feels antiquated and not in line with our values and the world today. So, I interpret it as Kutumba Angikaranam (family welcoming). It is welcoming a new person into our family. And I have both sides of the family receive a new child into the family rather than giving a child away.
In the South Indian tradition, the bride sits down on her father’s lap, and the groom puts an oxbow on her head, symbolic of the farmer and the cow. “May you be the cow and me the farmer.” While I appreciate the symbolism of the couple working together in cultivating the land and family, it is dehumanizing to tell the bride that they are like a cow. I don’t do that because I don’t believe that it is essential. There are other ways that our wedding ceremonies represent equitable relationships and values without dehumanizing either person in the relationship.
Another ritual of the Mangal Sutra ceremony is during the Laja Homam (sacred fire). Typically, the bride’s brother or sister helps out. Some queer couples say, “my blood families are not even here because they’re not supportive.” For me, in the Hindu tradition, the relationship has nothing to do with blood; it is about community. The role of the siblings is holding a sense of responsibility and care. Thus, I ask them to identify a close friend who is like family to fill that role.
In the heteronormative ceremony, the ritual Kashi Yatra is when the groom leaves the wedding to be a scholar, and the bride’s family has to beg the groom to stay and marry. It is to make the daughter feel that she is lucky to marry him. Instead, it should be he who is fortunate to marry her.
The ritual of Pravaram, where we name the family lineage, is always recited on the father’s side. For me, without the mother or grandmother and great grandmother, the couple wouldn’t be here, so why are we not naming them? So, I start with the women first, the mother, the grandmother, the great grandmother, and parents. It is the female that allows the relationships to move forward. In a queer and feminist context, I honour the complexity of family. And then, I also name the father, the grandfather, and great-grandfather.
The mothers’ lineage or matrilineage is a new thing I add for both queer and inter-faith (Jewish-Hindu, Buddhist- Hindu, Christian-Hindu) or ecumenical weddings.
The ritual Saptapadi is not about who goes on the right or left but about walking together. Seven steps are conventionally about living together and producing children for the continuation of family lineage. Some queer or heterosexual couples say they do not want children. I interpret it as the couple committing to supporting each other and building a stronger community. The intention is still there, and yet the interpretation is different. For me, that’s the difference.
How long is the wedding ritual you perform? What do you wear for the wedding?
Typically, the ritual is 45 min-2 hours long, depending on the elements incorporated and the couple’s various cultural and spiritual traditions. I wear my Hindu traditional attire, the dhoti, for the wedding and usually queer it up with my genderqueer twist.
Have your spiritual foundation and religion helped you in your journey?
Being genderqueer, I spent so much of my young adulthood running away from religion. Growing up in an orthodox temple community, I never felt I could be a good Hindu and honour my gender and sexual identities. Then, I realized that faith has always guided me in my journey.
I tell people that I don’t think I would have had the strength to understand and accept who I am as a genderqueer person if not for my spiritual foundation and religious tradition. And I wouldn’t know the importance of my spiritual roots had it not been imperative to navigate a homophobic and transphobic world. Within a Hindu context, there are spaces for LGBTQ+ identity in our mythologies and scriptures. There are so many different opportunities for us to think about LGBTQ identity, within our tradition, that often gets overlooked or intentionally whitewashed.
Do you feel interpretations is a vital part of Hindu tradition?
What it means to be a Hindu is based on how we live. As a Vaishnavaite, I grew up in the tradition of Sri Ramanuja, who represents the Vishishtadvaita tradition where we believe that Atman (soul) and Brahman (Source of All Creation) are connected yet separate or contextualized dualism. Everything is complex and everything is possible. There are spaces for both ends. For example, the first word in Rig Veda is Agni, also referred to as Dwimatre- of two mothers; child of two women, which today, we may call a same-sex lesbian couple. It does not fit into the heteronormative norm that is often espoused in our communities. But interpretation is a vital part of Hindu tradition. Ekam Sat Vipraha Bahuda Vadanti (There is one truth but the wise speak in many tongues).
Have you noticed any interesting new trends among couples with regards to their wedding ceremonies?
In the last two years, there has been a shift from just same-sex couples wanting ceremonies to more and more heterosexual couples who emphasize a progressive approach and a feminist perspective to a wedding. They see their relationship with each other as equals, and they want someone who can explain the meaning behind these different rituals.
Especially when the service is happening with a mixed religious crowd, they don’t want people to sit there for an hour without knowing what has happened. They want people to be engaged. And so, having grown up in the US, I have the language ability to translate rituals in a way that makes the experience more inclusive and meaningful.
Have you faced any backlash for conducting LGBTQ weddings? If so, what kind? How have you responded to them?
I’ve had some family members challenge my interpretations of the scriptures and some families of couples have questions like “Are you sure this is ok in our religion?” But usually, they can understand my view and approach. As an educator, I take all the feedback and resistance as opportunities to engage in dialogue and be clear in my values and practices.
Are you attached to any temple?
No. Having grown up in temples, I have lots of experience within temples. Still, Hinduism doesn’t require any temple affiliation for legitimacy. You may have heard of the recent resistance from a temple in Canada against a priest who recently officiated a same-sex wedding. I choose to be independent as a way to maintain my sense of agency.
Recently, Sri Ranganathan Kurrukal, a priest from the Canada Kanthaswamy Temple based in Toronto, received multiple death threats by text, phone, and social media. He has been accused of committing a crime for officiating a traditional Hindu wedding between two women.
Do you feel conducting weddings is a part of your life purpose?
Yes, I believe I am living my true purpose of helping people reclaim our spiritual tradition and the inherent values of inclusion and equity within our culture. I also enjoy getting to meet couples and families around the country and helping to make their wedding journey accessible and intentional.
Image source: Facebook handle of Raja G Bhattar, PhD https://www.facebook.com/rgbhattar/
Annapurna Devi Pandey teaches Cultural Anthropology at the University of California, Santa Cruz. She holds a PhD in sociology from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, and was a postdoctoral fellow in social anthropology at Cambridge read more...
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