Caught Between a Regimented and a Spontaneous Affair by I.J. SINGH Recently I attended two back to back functions for a young couple of mixed religious heritage. First was the church ceremony to solemnize their wedding; a week later it was followed by Sikh wedding rites (anand Karaj) at a gurdwara. It was not the first time I had been to such diverse ceremonies but somehow this time the cultural contrasts got to me. Shouldn't the star-struck couple be asked to make a choice of one religious rite that represents how they wish to live and raise a family? That would be the obvious question, but today I intend to side-step it entirely. I also won't try to parse the magic, the mystery or the meaning of the wedding ceremony; I have done that elsewhere at another time. Let me focus instead on some of the mechanics. The church wedding went by clockwork. The ambience and priorities were set by the required counseling of the couple by the priest. This took several hours while the priest led them through the meaning of a Christian family life and the rearing of children in a Christian household. Such guidance was required for all prospective couples, even if they were of the same faith; it just became more significant if they were not. This, I think is excellent. I look at it as an exercise in continuing education that you find in just about every profession - and just as essential. I would highlight this idea again and again if I could. Then there is a rigorous rehearsal where each step is elegantly and precisely choreographed. Who will stand where? Who will escort the bride? At what exact point in the music will the bridal procession start? The pace at which she marches down the aisle and where exactly is she to leave her escort (usually her father) and join the groom, are explained and practiced. How and where do the bride and groom kneel or stand or do whatever they are to do, is precisely laid out. Ushers and bridesmaids, even the flower girl and the ring bearer, know their place in the scheme of things. And the recessional is just as orderly and well executed. The officiant's role is scripted - down to the last scriptural reading, hymn or homily. There are to be no surprises. Its orderliness would be a movie maker's dream. The whole function, including the music, is so totally planned to clockwork precision that it would make a marine drill sergeant proud. I know there are exceptions. Some Black and evangelical churches display considerable spontaneity - services run on, hymns or speakers get added on to the program; I have also seen guests who have had a few drinks too many bawl and brawl at weddings, forgetting that they are in a church and not a tavern. But those remain rarities. To Punjabis, that most Sikhs are, such an organized performance seems to have the elements of a strait-jacket, and the Punjabi mind wants to rebel. If the church affair is a model of military precision, the Sikh ceremony is, charitably put, laissez faire in all its glory. For the same couple I also attended a gurdwara wedding. The bride very much wanted to emulate the orderliness of the church ceremony; it was easier said than done. With the eagerness and energy that only comes with youth, she had prepared a line by line program specifying five minute intervals of activity on that momentous and defining day in her life. First, the gurdwara granthi was not available and, more importantly, absolutely not willing to counsel the couple on the fundamentals of our faith - not even if an interpreter was present. He didn't see the necessity. I know of one, and only one, granthi in this country who routinely provides, in fact requires, such intercession, and that is Giani Gurdarshan Singh in Maryland. How I wish there were more who performed this essential function. The bride's family instructed their Sikh guests to be at the gurdwara on time. So on the appointed morning at the appointed time, three Sikhs out of an expected 300 and perhaps 99 percent of all non-Sikh invitees had arrived. Ironically, none of the hosts were there. People were milling about not knowing what to do. So it fell on the three Sikhs to stem the panic and keep the others engaged in idle chatter. An hour later the action started. It was a Sikh function, so the first order of business was food and lots of it - mouth watering, sweet and sinfully rich. More and much more food was to come also just a couple of hours later at the end of the wedding function. There had been no rehearsal at all. So the ceremony was bound to have more confusion than clarity. The couple was not sure whether to walk clockwise or counterclockwise around the Guru Granth or what to do with the palla that was meant to unite them. (Palla is a scarf or sash; the bride's father customarily hands each end of it to the bride and groom to hold throughout the wedding rite.) When to sit and when to stand; when to bow and when not, remained mysteries. Who stands at the ardaas and why? So much for the mechanics. The fundamentals - the place of the Guru Granth, role of sangat, a simple gist of the meaning and magic of the lavaan (circumambulations around the Guru Granth which serve to keep the focus on the centrality of Guru Granth and its teachings) - seemed to receive short shrift. Philosophically how exactly does Sikhi view the coming together of two people in a union that we call a marriage? I believe this is clearly explicated in Sikh teaching but often remains far from our awareness. These matters were not at all clearly or simply laid out at this function, even though a somewhat literal and inadequate rendering of the relevant hymns was provided. The granthi gave a lecture on the ceremony but it was in Punjabi and most non-Sikhs endured it with a dazed look and a beatific smile. At the end of the ceremony came parshaad that we Sikhs love. But many, if not all non-Sikhs, wondered if this was something like Communion in a church that might compromise their own belief and faith. In the middle of all this, I got recruited to provide a somewhat disjointedly simplistic English version of what was going on. By that time, of course, the bride's family was in conniptions because the whole affair was already running late and the caterers were antsy that the lunch was getting cold. I am sure many Punjabi Sikhs wondered if the church ceremony had sacrificed the spiritual at the altar of flawless decorum, discipline and seemingly lifeless rigidity. I also know that many, including me, wondered if the Sikh ceremony had lost the spiritual element in tweaking the relative elasticity of time in the mindless pursuit of hedonistic gastronomic pleasure. The bride's Excel file carrying her minute by minute hopes and dreams for the day lay in tatters.