Sapna Pandya was just looking for an “easy A” in college when she took a Hinduism course. But the “easy” class changed her life, and piqued a curiosity about theology and inclusivity that reshaped her career focus. Today, she is known for her efforts as a queer pandita serving the LGBTQ community, but she’s actually a far more powerful voice for all immigrants.
Nurturing Childhood Curiosity
Born in Washington DC and growing up in Maryland, Pandya connected with her Indian roots through dance, studying both Kathak and Bharatanatyam. Visiting India at the age of 10, she described it as “an instant long-lost love at first sight. … It helped to crystallize this idea that there’s a whole other place there with people who look like me.”
But ultimately, it was the Hinduism course that influenced her life path. The professor challenged assumptions about Hinduism being polytheistic and instead discussed a monistic view, or “one truth depicted through various deities,” as Pandya described it.
“It really did a number on me and I loved it,” she said. “I ended up majoring in religion and taking a lot more courses with the professor.”
Pandya gives her family credit for being open-minded and encouraging her curiosity when it came to religion. It also helped drive her to be an advocate for immigrants, public health issues, and inclusivity for the LGBTQ community.
“I was never given that pushback or that questioning, and, looking back, I really had to marvel at that, especially because … women are often questioned, especially in conservative cultures, about what they know and their authority. But I never got that from my family. I could question and they would say ‘tell me what you learned,’” she added.
Honoring Her Grandfather
When her grandfather, who was a priest, passed away eight years ago, Pandya chose to honor him by becoming a pandita, or marriage officiant. But she chose to focus on conducting marriage ceremonies for the gay and lesbian community. It was something, through her own experience of planning a wedding with her Pakistani Muslim wife, where she had first-hand experience in recognizing a need.
“I didn’t even feel comfortable going to the temple to see if a priest would marry us,” she recalled., “My wife didn’t feel comfortable going to the masjid and asking an imam, so we asked our friends and we basically wrote our own ceremony.”
Pandya enjoys getting to know couples before they marry. And she encourages them to create their ceremonies as unique expressions of their love for one another, and to not feel like they need to adhere to patriarchic norms.
“I try to give more of a feminist and egalitarian lens to it. All religious traditions … have patriarchy baked right in and I try to bake it right out,” she added with a laugh.
Legacy of Advocacy
Pandya has decades of experience working with and creating nonprofits that advocate for minorities, immigrants, South Asians and the LGBTQ community. Her efforts have focused on testing for the HIV/AIDS population, tackling public health and poverty for disadvantaged South Asians and other minority populations, and diligent work to shed stereotypes around “typical” South Asian families and the assumption that all are wealthy doctors and engineers.
Most recently, she has helped with fundraising and other efforts for Desi Rainbow Parents & Allies. Recalling her parents’ experience in learning how to support their LGBTQ child, she was drawn to help the program. Desi Rainbow exists to support parents and loved ones who want to learn about how to support their gay, lesbian or transgender loved one and advocate for their needs.
In 2010, Pandya also started a nonprofit, Many Languages One Voice, to serve the immigrant community in Washington DC on issues such as language justice and to foster more immigrant civic participation in the community.
Pandya took the past two years off from work to focus on raising her child, but would like to leverage her background in running nonprofits to serve others in the LGBTQ and immigrant communities again. As she charts her future, she also appreciates being recognized by the McDonald’s “We Are APA” campaign, for her journey and efforts to help others. “It was so great to talk to the people at ‘We Are APA’ campaign because it uncovers stories that are against what is the norm and the ‘model minority’ of the Asian Pacific American communities,” she said. “I appreciate the fact that there’s a spotlight being put on folks that wouldn’t be the stereotypical stories shared in the APA community.”
This story appears in the June issue of SEEMA Magazine, check it out here