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Hersh Khetarpal, An Exceptional Hindu Pandita In A Male-Dominated Profession

Hersh Khetarpal, who has conducted several interracial and same-sex weddings, believes in making wedding rituals participative and inclusive.

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 comprising 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 interviewed Khetarpal to discuss her work and experiences as a female priest.

Khetarpal’s early life experiences in the US

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 her marriage, she moved to the United States of America at 18 years of age, to join her husband who worked at NASA in Huntsville, Alabama. Since then, they have moved to Florida, San Diego, Phoenix, and finally to Chicago, where they have lived since 1987.

In the U.S., she attended school at 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.

Khetarpal’s father initiated her spiritual journey

In 1992, when her father visited her in Chicago, he asked her if she was willing to impart the knowledge he had given her, to others. She replied affirmatively. His next question was about her and her husband’s huge house. “Do you consider it yours?” She replied no, to which her father responded, “Yes, it just belongs to nature.”

That year, he helped his daughter convert their home in Chicago to an ashram using the same model he had 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, whom she considers her guru.

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She first conducted weddings for her family

Her husband who is 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 officiate 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.

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 performed the wedding, shocking everyone around. She also officiated the same-sex wedding of her youngest daughter Priya in 2009.

Tailoring rituals to promote equality is her hallmark

Khetarpal has taken up the cause of queer and transgender unions and has performed many of these weddings. She modifies the rituals for such weddings by promoting equal participation of the partners.

Khetarpal is officiating a same-sex marriage.

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 partners provide the puffed rice to the fire and promise each other equal responsibility.

In a marriage between two men, there is no mangalsutra. When two women get married, they apply sindoor 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.”

Non-Hindus often appreciate her inclusive wedding rituals

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. He saw how the sacred fire was the witness of the Hindu wedding during the saat pheras, which are seven circles for togetherness in seven lives. Impressed, the Imam asked for a copy of the Hindu marriage manual. This gesture humbled her.

She says she has often been 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.”

Simplified and participative rituals are her USP

Khetarpal says that Hindu rituals at every stage of life are beautiful, but lose their significance without understanding and awareness. “These rituals should be simplified, so the next generation feels comfortable with it.”

Though female priests are considered exceptions in the male-dominated profession, Khetarpal is popular among younger people. Partners of mixed race approach her to do their weddings. She spends time explaining the rituals and counseling them about what marriage is all about.

During the wedding, the couple plays an active role in the process. The ceremony is held in English so that the couple understands the scripture, the promises they make to each other, and the vows they take. They connect with Khetarpal and are actively engaged in their wedding rituals.

Witnessing the love between these couples gives her joy

For her, the most beautiful part of the wedding is the “heart prayer” that the couple repeats after her. With this prayer, she announces the couple as married and gives them blessings.

In Sanskrit, it is called Hridya Sparsh. “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 (sic),” she says.

She preaches love and acceptance above everything

Earlier in April 2022, Khetarpal conducted a couple of same-sex marriages in Mexico. She recalls how people came to her afterward and complimented her for performing specific 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. (sic)”

Priests must explain the significance of rituals, she says

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 past, weddings were a long affair, and couples hardly used to participate in them, only following the priest’s instructions. “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.”

Naturally inclined towards teaching, she has many followers

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 tied around their wrists, she explains how it symbolizes divine protection. When made aware of its importance, the ashram’s people return to her to get the mali. “Even the non-Indians keep it until it fades away.”, she says.

She explains the rituals like the sacred thread ceremony and the wedding ceremonies. She performs funerals as well. 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.

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.

Volunteer efforts help her ashram function

Khetarpal says that most of her students are women who are retired doctors, engineers, and working 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.

Published here first.

Image courtesy: Annapurna Pal from americankahani.com

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About the Author

Annapurna Pandey

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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