The Hindu ceremony, a rite known as a Samskara, has many components. It is quite beautiful and filled with chanting, Sanskrit blessings and rituals that are thousands of years old. In India, it can last days, or weeks. In the west, it typically is at least two hours long.
A Hindu priest, or a teacher/scholar (known as a pandit or pundit), traditionally leads a couple and their families through the sacrament of marriage. However, as an interfaith minister with great affection for, and experience with, Hindu culture and worship, I've been called upon to officiate many weddings that include these rituals and prayers.
When a Hindu bride or groom marries a non-Hindu, they often wish to honor their heritage and families in a way that is sacred and meaningful, and yet simpler and shorter. It is not unusual to create a wedding rich in Hindu rituals that also includes traditions from the other partner's faith and family. I've officiated Hindu-Jewish, Hindu-Catholic, Hindu-Muslim and Hindu-Buddhist weddings, to name a few, as well as a Hindu-Christian African American wedding where the couple walked around the sacred fire and jumped the broom. One or both partners may choose to wear traditional Indian garments, or they may opt for a tux and white dress.
I've been pleasantly surprised over the years to see how amenable families are to allowing me to adapt and blend rituals. I have learned so much from family members who have helped with the preparation of ritual items and have taken the time to explain the proper way to honor -- and spiritually choreograph -- their family customs.
Here are some of the most important elements to consider:
Family traditions. There are universal components in the Hindu ceremony, yet each region in India has different local customs and each family may pray to different gods and goddesses. Ask your family about specific regional traditions. Also, you may want to give parents a chance to offer a traditional blessing within, or just prior to, the ceremony.
Creating a sacred space. One way to honor tradition is to have the ceremony under a four pillar canopy, and raised platform, called a mandap, which represents a temple. While traditionally the couple sits on thrones or pillows, interfaith couples usually stand at the altar. However, they often invite their parents to sit in chairs in the mandap. While florists can configure the structure with flowers, I've often seen them lovingly decorated by moms and aunties who want to create the sacred space for the couple. One dad pre-built a beautiful wooden mandap for the couple that the mom covered with gold material and ribbons.
Lighting the sacred fire. A key aspect of the Hindu ceremony is to light a scared fire, usually created from ghee and woolen wicks, to evoke the God, Agni (Fire), to bear witness to the ceremony. I often ask a dad, brother, or uncle to create the sacred fire. One family wanted to use coconut oil and so the bride's father tended the fire through the whole ceremony. In a pinch, we use a votive in a traditional brass holder.
Garland Exchange. During the ceremony the couple exchanges fresh garlands, welcoming each other into each others families. I like to make it one of the first gestures in an interfaith ceremony. It is a lovely way to establish a connection between the couple and their loved ones.
The Seven Sacred Steps. The highlight is Saptapadi, also called "The Seven Steps." Traditionally, the bride's sari is tied to the groom's Kurta, or a sari shawl might be draped from his shoulder to her sari. He leads, often by her pinkie linked with his pinky, in seven steps around the fire, as the priest chants seven blessings or vows for a strong marriage. By walking around the fire they are agreeing to these vows. With each step, they throw small bits of puffed rice into the fire, representing prosperity in their new life together. This is considered the most important part of the ceremony, as it seals the bond between the couple forever.
A nice way to adapt this into a creative, contemporary ceremony is to light a traditional fire, or a candle, placed on a small table in front of the wedding altar and guide the couple as they take seven steps while seven blessings are spoken in English.
Although this is a ritual that originated for a male and female couple, it can easily be adapted for same-sex ceremonies. I recently married two brides who decided to walk together, hand in hand, one equal to the other. It was beautiful and meaningful to both families.
Here are Seven Blessings adapted from a Hindu ceremony.
These can be timed, and spoken, as the couple walks around the fire.
1. May this couple be blessed with an abundance of resources and comforts, and be helpful to one another in all ways.
2. May this couple be strong and complement one another.
3. May this couple be blessed with prosperity and riches on all levels.
4. May this couple be eternally happy.
5. May this couple be blessed with a happy family life.
6. May this couple live in perfect harmony... true to their personal values and their joint promises.
7. May this couple always be the best of friends.
Some couples end their ceremony with a blessings from the family. Most likely, in the modern interfaith wedding, the couple will end on a kiss!
In some cases, couples decide to have an interfaith ceremony in addition to a traditional Hindu wedding puja. Sometimes it is the same weekend as their western wedding, but more often they will arrange a ceremony at a later date, with friends and family in India -- or wherever the family hails from. These are presided over by a Hindu priest or traditional officiant.
Photo above of Traci and Partha, who were married in an interfaith ceremony and also had a traditional Hindu marriage ceremony in New York City, attended by both families.