Indian-American Pratima Dharm has been a pioneer on multiple counts – last month she was appointed as the first ever Hindu chaplain of a U.S. university and in 2011 she made history after the Pentagon named her as its first Hindu and inter-faith chaplain.
She served in the U.S. military through some of the hardest times faced by its soldiers in the battlefields of Iraq, and she counselled many of them afflicted by PTSD, steering them away from suicide, and helping them reclaim their familial relationships. She also participated in humanitarian aid missions into the Kurdish regions of northern Iraq, an experience that left her with a lasting ties to the people there.
In a conversation with Narayan Lakshman Ms. Dharm spoke of her deep links with India and the principles of Hinduism that she associates with her upbringing in the country, and also shared her thoughts on Hindus in the U.S. military and the kind of leader she hopes Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi will be.
Your appointments as a Hindu chaplain at a major U.S. university, and before that as an inter-faith chaplain in the U.S. army were unprecedented, and made headlines in India. By way of background could you tell us about how you came to take up these roles, and what links you have with India?
I grew up in northern India, primarily Maharashtra and some parts of Gujarat and I ended up doing some parts of my schooling and my college education in Mumbai. So I still have ties with India because I have family members from both from my side and my husband’s side in India. My husband’s family is in Bangalore and Chennai. We visit India so that our children remain connected to all their family in India.
My appointment in the U.S. army came about with my years of training as a chaplain, studying for it in the U.S. I have a master’s degree in psychology from India and in the U.S. I have a master’s degree in theology and years of training to become a chaplain.
I am hoping that many others could follow [the path of inter-faith chaplaincy in the U.S. military] because I have always believed that there should be a freedom to choose whichever religion a person wishes to follow as a path to god, or to understanding their lives or understanding themselves.
There were scores and scores of South Asians that practiced Hinduism [in the U.S. military] even before I became a Hindu chaplain. But becoming a Hindu chaplain facilitates that mood and practice of their faith by the celebration of various Hindu festivals, Hindu sacraments and the Hindu way of life, which is very new here in the U.S.
As I transition out of active duty I have just accepted an offer to get into Georgetown University, which I believe is the first [U.S.] university to have hired a Hindu chaplain.
Could you tell me more about the scores of Hindus in the U.S. army?
There is absolutely a growing number of Hindus, not just from India, but from Trinidad, Guyana, Fiji, Surinam, and the West Indies. There are so many Hindus that come from all over the world and they part of the U.S. military – not just the army but the Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard, and the Public Health services.
All of them have a growing number of Hindus and there is that level or feeling of comfort that it is ok to practice your faith openly.
Do you think that before you came on board or some years ago, it was harder for them to practice their religion freely and if so is that changing now?
What I am referring to is a psychology or state of mind where you can practice your faith but when you live in a majority surrounding that does not understand your faith, most people tend to keep it to themselves.
For example they may celebrate Diwali at home or in temples but definitely not think of doing that in the military, in the sense that they would not be understood.
Since I came on board, I admit that it has been a struggle for me, at least for the first three or four years, just to get that educational piece out, so that [the non-Hindus in the military] could be educated about Hinduism.
All they knew about Hinduism was yoga, which comes from swamijis, gurujis and various sampradayas [religious tradition]. But Hinduism is really deep and is a way of life. It is very different from most Western religions. It does not have the same set of boundaries in that one Hindu may practice differently from the other.
It is really common that your sampradaya may be different or your family social history may be different, and that determines how you practice your Hinduism. That is absolutely alright, because there is so much variation in Hinduism because it is one of the oldest religions and over time it was shaped and it has also taken in a lot.
The tendency in Hinduism has actually been to absorb over time – it has taken in a lot of elements and yet there is room enough for every kind of thought to float and exist at the same time, which is very new for Western religions.
Do you think that Hinduism is gaining more acceptance and is becoming more widely understood in the U.S., or in the military as you’ve seen it?
To answer you very honestly it will be years before it is understood more fully. There are a lot of perception [issues] and my work is to work on the perception part of it and it can be a struggle because sometimes you can feel frustrated that it is a big task. But I feel a call – that it has to be done. I feel it is a natural place for me to do that and I felt no regrets doing it. I pray that that would create the space for many more Hindus to practice their faith and not feel conscious about it. That has been the idea behind it.
Was there an option for you to continue this work or did you choose to leave active service and move into a university setting?
I joined the army during the war and during a war you owe them a minimum of eight years of service, which I have done.
You are referring specifically to which war or year?
The present war, which has been going on since 2001, in Afghanistan, and [more broadly] the war on terror since 9/11.
Where were you deployed to?
I was deployed to Iraq, for a year.
Were you directly exposed to the pressures of combat operations there? If so, what did you experience, and what was your role in that context, as an inter-faith chaplain?
Absolutely, yes. My role was exactly to take care of my soldiers, my command and all the soldiers that fell under it, which is almost 5,000 soldiers. It was also to take care of my soldiers who were spread out throughout the battlefield, and the battlefield was really huge – it was spread throughout Iraq.
So I would go either by road or by flight to reach out to the soldiers, to take care of them. There was a lot of combat stress that you deal with in a war zone and when you take care of your soldiers you work with them on many, many issues.
Suicide prevention is one of the highest areas of concentrated education and training, especially within the army, because it has such a high rate of suicide particularly due to the effects of this war, which has been very long.
It has taken its toll, physical and emotional, on the soldiers, and on their families as well. As a chaplain I do a lot of individual counselling as well as counselling for families. Trying to save marriages was honestly the bottom line because we wanted to make sure the soldiers were happy, peaceful, in a fulfilling relationship so that when it comes to the mission, they are mission-ready, emotionally, physically, and spiritually.
That is our job. So we come up with different programmes to enhance that, because the battlefield breaks you down, a lot.
We also do worship services. I did a lot of humanitarian foreign aid missions for the Kurdish people, almost 12 of them, to provide them with medical supplies, toys, musical instruments, clothes, shoes, books, school supplies and a gamut of things we took to them. It was very well received.
Given your faith and background rooted in Hinduism, how do you help people deal with the fallout of war that you mentioned?
I was trying to make sense of the war within my faith condition. War is not untoward even though India particularly has not gone to war for thousands of years against any country.
Really you have the start [of India engaging in warfare] with the Mahabharata and the Ramayana – so we did have wars and we have a historical basis for that.
It is also very much part of the Bhagwat Gita – how we make sense of war and what is your duty towards that. We do have a lot support for that from the Hindu tradition, to make sense of war. For me, that was my basis, to go to war and to be able to offer the best of myself.
In terms of the Bhagwat Gita, [the basis for war] is explained by the words of Shri Krishna to Arjuna trying to bolster him and try to see the real from the unreal. Hinduism gives us that basis to live in this world.
You have the four pillars of Hinduism – dharma, artha, kama, and moksha – those are the pillars on which the entire faith stands. It is a guide to us [about] how we live in this world – we are called to do our duty, we are called to find a purpose in this world.
We are also called, in our daily duties, as we perform our dharma, to always remember where we come from, and that is the only reality that we meditate upon, the ultimate truth, the Brahman.
That is our strength, to always be mindful of that. When we forget, we have conflict and there is an unsteadiness as to how we respond to the current situation.
War, similarly, is very much a part of this world. Hinduism, like other religions, teaches that there is no war beyond that, other than the reference that we see in the puranic scriptures to the battle between the devas fighting with the demons.
But really, the guiding principle is to live in this world as if things are temporary. This too shall pass and we are here to do our duty.
That basis is so much present in the words of Lord Shri Krishna. I am from the Vaishnava tradition and the words of Lord Shri Krishna are so meaningful to me.
That’s what I gave to the soldiers, and yes, I did counsel Hindus during the war in Iraq. My basis was the Bhagwat Gita.
Iraq was obviously an important part of your life and work earlier. What do you make of the situation there now, for example the rise of Islamic State (IS) and the turmoil that Iraq and Syria have been plunged into?
It is really sad, because that is a chapter that we closed when we came back. War is not something that stops when you have left the war zone. You continue on with what you take away from the war. And you always take away [something] from the war.
It’s something like divorce. Divorce is like a war and a lot of my soldiers faced that. But even when the judge and the couple have signed those papers the war is not over, or the marriage is not totally over emotionally, for both sides. People tend to struggle with the remnants of divorce and its aftereffects for years to come.
Similarly with war soldiers continue to carry a part of that [with them after they have left the battlefield]. With me too it is normal to carry a part of that, and in my case it was the area that IS is in right now, where I did a lot of humanitarian aid missions – the Kurdish region of northern Iraq.
My experience was the different faith groups there existed very peacefully and most of them had an acceptance of each other’s differences – Muslims, Christians and so-called pagans, who are actually quite similar in their beliefs to a lot of sampradayas, even Hinduism.
So it is not sad from the religious point of view but the human perspective. That is, not so much that a person of a similar religion is being affected, but that another human being is getting hurt and they’re not able to live based on what they believe in.
I was very well received [in the Kurdish region] and they have a very positive view of Indian people. I was very surprised to be invited into their homes – they just opened their hearts and homes to me.
That was actually a very beautiful part of my war memories – that I was able to have those connections. The sadness is even more that I am not there [now] as a lot of the work that was done then has been undone. My heart and my prayers go out to the people, that they would be safe. It is quite heart-wrenching to see that.
Looking now at India, what do you think the recent election of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the rise of the BJP means for Hinduism broadly? Do you have any thoughts on the state of Hinduism as it is in India today, both as a religious concept or as a political concept, increasingly?
I am very happy that Narendra Modi is [the Prime Minister], not because he is a Hindu or that he represents Hinduism, but in terms of his righteousness. I pray, given what little I do know of him, that he is indeed righteous.
Hinduism has had a lot of leaders in the past. Historically, our books are really about the righteous leader and the one who is not righteous should not be on the throne.
That is what I carry forward with me – the righteousness that I learnt from within my faith tradition, the sanatan dharma. That is the strength of Hinduism. If that righteousness is carried forward, that will be wonderful, not only because of the righteousness itself but because Hinduism can co-exist with so many different religions.
I pray and my hope is that it will continue, because that is the greatness of India – that it has accommodated so many religions and that is the beauty, the heart and the greatness of Hindus and Hinduism.
That is my war and fight here as well, and the struggle, that Hindus need to be accepted for who they are, without changing and shaping their Hinduism for anyone; or that if Hindus became the majority anyone else had to shape themselves. Really, we have to coexist.
So first, I stick to the fact that I pray that Narendra Modi proves himself and he has so far, and he continues to prove himself on the grounds of being a righteous leader who fights for truth and stands for truth, honesty and integrity.
My grandfather was a Gandhian and we have made a lot of sacrifices. The same thoughts and the values continue with us even in the U.S., that we stand for integrity and honesty. These are also principles given to me from the sanatan dharma, but do I say every Hindu is like that? No. Is every Christian like that? No, but it is a choice that you make, even as a Hindu, to be righteous.
I pray that Narendra Modi would make that as a daily choice, which it seems like he does, and that India would be able to follow true as a nation and be righteous as well. Our scriptures tell us that all the time as a reminder, and people forget in a wave of passion but really, every leader will come and go. Why do we remember Ram today? It is because he was righteous.
It is a very, very difficult place to be in, even Bhishma failed, because he took sides. The beauty of Hinduism is that it teaches us not to take sides. It is such a beautiful religion and way of life that it says ‘You always pick the righteous, you always pick the right path, you always do the right thing. There is no other way but that.’