Meet the US Army’s First Hindu ChaplainBy Lavina Melwani • Nov 22nd, 2012 • Category: People
Chaplain Pratima Dharm: A Woman with a Mission
She’s a captain in the US Military, has served in the war-torn hell-hole of Iraq and been awarded several honors, including the Bronze Star – but she has never fired a shot. She was in the combat zones of Northern Iraq for 12 months, surrounded by the cacophony of bombs and mortar attacks – yet she has never carried a gun.
She says simply, “My defense is God.”
Meet Pratima Dharm, 42, the first-ever Hindu Chaplain in the US Army. She has served five years in the US army, has been deployed in Iraq and gone wherever her soldiers have gone. While they have safeguarded the country, she has safeguarded their souls, offering them spiritual strength in tough situations.
She won the Bronze Star for running ten humanitarian aid missions in Iraq for the Iraqi people, especially the Kurdish population. The training she received is the same as other soldiers get but it stops at carrying weapons. Here the soldiers take over and as she says they are very, very protective of her.
‘Hindu Chaplain’. The two words strung together may sound almost like an oxymoron but they are indicative of a changing world, a more global world where people of different faiths work together. The US Army has soldiers of many faiths and for the first time in history it has a Hindu Chaplain to take care of their spiritual needs. Pratima Dharm also happens to be the first woman chaplain of Indian origin.
As a chaplain providing succor to people of varied religions, she is ideally suited for this role as she grew up in the cosmopolitan atmosphere of modern India where temples, churches, gurudwaras and mosques dot the landscape. Growing up in metropolises like Patna and Bombay, she encountered many different communities peacefully living together. Her early education was in Notre Dame Academy, a convent school before studying at Mithibai College and SNDT Women’s University (Shri Nathibai Damodar Thackersay Women’s University). Jesus and Krishna were both names she knew and loved.
India: The Growing Up Years
Indeed, her growing up years exposed her to India’s diverse religions, and she has memories of celebrating Hindu, Muslim and Christian festivals with friends and neighbors. “In India there is barely anything that is not religious or spiritual,” she says. “I mean even the most common person over there, I would say even somebody who is selling chai and pakoda on the street can talk to you so spiritually, so everything around us was spiritual.”
She adds, “Both my parents were very open to other religions and did not believe that Hinduism is the only way, of course we were raised as Hindus but never did I hear a conversation at home, even when I was a young child, that was against any religion. My parents would always encourage me to ask questions about God, and find God for myself through family discussions.”
Asked about her earliest memories of Hindu teachings at home, she recalls the great joy at Janmashtmi celebrations, the pleasure of dedication and fasting, of learning to weave floral malas of white flowers plucked from the family garden for the festival.
“From very early on I would love to fast and the way I was talked to about Lord Krishna, by my mom especially, he seemed like a person to me. It was not somebody very far away, you know, not a distant god, but somebody very personal, a personal friend, somebody who would listen to you, somebody that you could go to for anything.”
As she recalls, “In our home there was a big tradition about making every festival very colorful and very meaningful, through food, through different activities we did, through connections, and through community relationships that we had. It was not uncommon for 200 people to come home over a period of two or three days during the festivals of Janmashtmi, Diwali, Holi or Durga Puja.”
The older generation also did their bit in promoting a spiritual essence, and she remembers stories from the Ramayana told to her by her mother and grandmother. Relatives would come over all the time, and it became a way for information to be passed from one generation to the next, in conversations over food, over customs and over rituals. And the traditions continue: here in America, her mother, mother-in-law, uncles and aunts all make a big contribution in her children’s lives, making them aware of their roots.
Finding God in America
So moving from India to the US, how did Dharm get attracted to the rare field of chaplaincy? “I have a master’s in psychology, and I was very drawn to God since I was a child and so when I got an opportunity to study theology in this country, I pursued that. Chaplaincy was the only field I found where you could integrate theology and psychology very well.”
Indeed, as she points out, theology itself is a difficult subject for how do you study God – a subject simply too complex for the human mind? She says, “I believe that I cannot study God but I can pray and crave His presence. Even as I go into worship, the essence of it is how do I get to be in his presence? To me that is how I understand it – it is very difficult to understand God, and it is easier to obey Him than to understand Him.”
In order to truly understand God in all His manifestations, she studied Judaism which is the Old Testament study of Hebrew, the New Testaments in Christian theology and her emphasis was also on practical theology and spiritual formation. As she points out, in our Hindu yogic traditions, the emphasis is on understanding the self, and psychology also emphasizes the study of the individual. She believes that the Bhagwad Gita, the teachings of Sri Krishna, can be applied to our daily lives in powerful ways.
“How does one go through grief, how does one go through anxiety, and as we read His teachings and we understand it, it gives us a lot of courage to go through life, and get self-knowledge,” she says.
“So once I understand who I am, what makes me happy, what makes me sad, I allow that to the other person, to my patients or my soldiers that I come across in my ministry. Their story perhaps may be different than mine, but the basic principles are the same, so it’s about allowing the other person space to process their own story, and offering them understanding, offering them care.”
Though people are of different faiths, Dharm is able to distill the commonality, the core that connects because of her grounding in Vedanta. She says, “I have to give them what I have, but I also have to have the ability in me to accept what they have. It is an exchange. And sometimes I may not be able to give something to the person or may give little, but the main thing is I am open to that and within chaplaincy it is a very pluralistic environment with study of human relationship and relationship between person and God, relationship between persons, relationship between cultures. So in that pluralistic environment one has to be very open.”
The Making of a Hindu Chaplain
Interestingly enough, Dharm, who is Hindu, received her training in a Protestant seminary and was endorsed by the Pentecostal Church of God because there were no other options at that time. She underwent baptism and also wore a cross even though she is a Hindu. Basically, to become a chaplain in the army, one had to go through a seminary and at that time there were none that offered Hindu studies.
“All the Hindu studies that I did were on my own and I worked in the temples and gaining experience that way and of course growing up in India,” she says. “There was no opportunity; even now I don’t think there is any seminary in the western world that offers Hindu studies or offers Sanskrit as a language. They offer Hebrew, German, Latin, Greek, but they do not offer any of the Indian languages.”
Fortunately, while working at Walter Reed Medical Hospital, she was endorsed by the Chinmaya MissionWest in becoming the first Hindu Chaplain. She had to do certain examinations and courses but her long path in Sanatana Dharma made her the right candidate to become the first Hindu chaplain. She was once again able to go back to her Hindu roots.
Having their own chaplain is something new and wonderful for the approximately 1000 Hindus in the American Armed Forces, for they now have someone just like them who can address their spiritual needs. Dharm’s day consists of visiting patients, soldiers, marines, and sailors, for she ministers to every faith. She says, “We have many soldiers that are amputees and some of them have come really very scarred from war. My daily duty is being with them, understanding them, processing what is going on with them, and making sure that they are getting the best care possible.”
She often finds soldiers have many issues, especially those who are coping with injuries. “There is excruciating amount of pain that the soldier goes through, especially in the first three or four months in the healing process.” The role of chaplain is a peacemaker between physicians and patients, a sounding board with families, taking care of psychological moods and spiritual needs of the patients. Dharm also holds yoga classes for her soldiers, Hindu worship services and other projects which have to deal with her being a staff officer as well as a chaplain.
At Janmashtami, Special Services in the US Army
At Janmashtami, she held a special prayer service with images of Radha- Krishna and Ganesh. She says the Hindus were overjoyed, happy to the point that they were emotional, and had tears in their eyes as they had never heard of a Hindu service in the area where they worked. She says, “So it is a start, it is a beginning. I am sure that there have been other beginnings in the past, but I opened it in a way that others can also participate, people of other religions who are interested in joining and attending this program.”
Dharm emphasizes the point that she is not a Hindu priest so does not perform sanskaras such as the birth of a child, marriages or deaths for the Hindu soldiers but generally conducts the worship services and festival celebrations.
What would she do if a soldier is dying and asked for the last rites?
“Whatever situation they are in, and especially when they are passing away that is the most sacred moment for those who are around the soldiers,” she says. “Everyone in the military knows that that is the one moment where everything stops when there is a soldier dying. And if that is the desire of the soldier I would be more than honored, more than willing to do it.”
Indeed, besides imparting spirituality to the soldiers, a chaplain’s tasks include everything that is relevant to a soldier’s life such as suicide prevention and combat stress training to even dealing with their personal lives with marriage workshops and marital counseling for individual soldiers. This is where Chaplain Dharm’s psychology training comes in very useful.
Ask Dharm about her biggest challenge in being a chaplain in the army and she cites the stereotypes that exist about Hinduism amongst the mainstream. “I think, as Indians, we have done very well, as we have come out of India and established ourselves in businesses, in professional fields, but as far as explaining our religion is concerned, we have not done it well,” she says. “Indians have established temples and they found a life within the temple, but you know they have kept their professional life, personal life sort of separate.”
While she feels the Indian community has in its own way tried to do its best, the task is a monumental one and for her the biggest challenge is in educating the people who are placed in her path about Hinduism.
“The bottom line I believe is that all religions connect in more ways that we realize or want to give credit to,” she says. “We have more similarities with each other than dissimilarities and even with dissimilarities I would say it is an approach, it is the difference in the way we approach God.”
Dharm remembers her childhood upbringing where there was so much common ground among friends of different faiths – it was not taboo to talk of the differences but it was all done with love and caring for each other. Yes, she does come across some soldiers who may not be open to having a chaplain not of their faith.
She says, “The important part of being a chaplain is that you let others say what they want to say. I have to be comfortable in my faith and allow that person to be comfortable in theirs, but there is always that element of where is the discomfort in a person, and to me as a spiritual doctor or as a chaplain I look at those areas.”
Woman Warrior - Soldier, Preacher, Wife & Mother
As a woman chaplain in the US army, Dharm has been a path-breaker in more ways than one, being a woman, a wife and mother who has often had to put her professional duties before her personal relationships. She served in Iraq, soon after her delivery, leaving behind a daughter who was just four and a half months old.
“It was very difficult because I am a very strong mother,” she acknowledges. “I kept a stone on my heart and I went to Iraq and those are some of the things that I feel that I am doing also as an example to my daughters; I have two daughters, and it is alright for mom to follow her calling and my husband is extremely supportive, he has stepped in so many times, and I also have stepped in for him.”
It also helps to have a very supportive extended family that has been there when needed. Her mother has practically moved with the family to give the children the needed care.
Asked if it is difficult being a woman in the army, Dharm gives high marks to the American culture and to the military which has a large and prominent female population and is hence pro-women. She recalls that in Iraq many of the local Muslim population were surprised to meet her, a female officer, who was always surrounded by men.
Having reached the rank of captain, would she recommend chaplaincy as a viable career to other Hindus? “Absolutely, it is a very, very rewarding career, I think I would call it more than a career – it is a vocation,” she says. “And I would encourage people who truly are passionate about this, about taking their religion, their culture and become ambassadors for that through the military.”
She does, however, warn that the key word here is ‘passion’ because the hours are long and the work is hard. This is not an ordinary 9 to 5 job but a rewarding interaction where you meet and nurture so many different people, helping to bring peace and solace into their lives.
“The best thing is that wherever I go, I am still an Indian,” she says. “I am a US citizen but who I am is Indian, my roots are Indian. I take that as an opportunity to take myself, my culture, my religion, and dialogue with others and to understand their culture and religion because that is just as sacred as mine is to me.”
Pratima Dharm has had a single focus in life, from the time she was a child weaving garlands of white flowers for Lord Krishna. Each day for her is still spent spreading God’s name with thousands of servicemen, be it Jesus Christ, Krishna or Allah.
What would she plan to do after retirement from the army?
“I would continue to serve God,” she says unequivocally. “Wherever I am, even if I am just planting a garden or if I am just cooking a meal for my family, my goal in life is to serve Him. I would continue to do that and I would be so happy. Whether I am in the military or not, even when I am just doing simple things, I know He is there and I am just being obedient to Him every day and serving him, and I will continue to do that even when I retire.”
Asked for any special parting words of wisdom, she says, “I would encourage every Hindu to be proud to be Hindu. No matter whether they are in the Maldives or in the West Indies or they are in Madagascar or they are in India – you know we Hindus have gone all over because of our history. Be proud of it and continue with your traditions – they are beautiful, those traditions, and try to pass them down to your children.”
In Her Own Words: Nurturing the Next Generation
Passing on Hindu traditions was easier in India, where these rituals and customs swirled all around you in the very air one breathed. It is harder to pass these traditions on in the diaspora where there are so many competing influences. Here Dharm tells us about an unusual birthday party in America, and through that small window a larger story about larger truths.
I think for many Hindus living abroad, there is an element of shame and one of the reasons why I came forward and said I want to be a Hindu chaplain is that I do not myself have any shame about being Hindu, about following my traditions. Even in India I see a lot of Indians who are not at all following any of their traditions; for them it is what is the ‘in thing’ to do. Wherever we are, we should have atmaswabhiman - respect for self and what we have come from, and the courage to not give in to the ‘in thing’.
I will give you a very small example. I held a birthday celebration for my daughter at our home and invited all the children and I made them celebrate Janmashtami that day. And they got so into it, for they had never been to a birthday party where it was about Janmashtami. It was Janmashtami time and I said this is the only way they are going to learn, so I taught them to make “rui ki mala” (cotton wool garlands) and they got into it and loved it.
Then there was prasadam; they helped me to get it all together and then I took them upstairs to the worship room and they all worshipped in their own way. Some of them remembered some Indian prayers; some of them remembered English prayers.
So we did aarti and had bhajan time and they all made Lord Krishna wear the cotton garlands. They were so into it and they had so much fun that day!
I had the elders share stories from the Hindu tradition with the youngsters who asked so many questions and the elders were so touched because they don’t go to these places or have these opportunities where they can express themselves.
We are filled with stories, all of us.
It is just that we live in an environment where it is so American, (at least to my eyes since I grew up in India it is American, not to my daughters they are American.) So if this is my intent then I have to find ways to make every event meaningful and link their identities to that. They all eventually, as they grow up, will have to decide for themselves. And as I believe that my personal freedom is important, I believe that their personal freedom is important. They have to decide for themselves what path they have to follow. As a parent, I have to give them the best of what I have, and what I have inside of me.
But many Hindus have made it that the celebration of a birthday has to be Western. Even in India we are singing Happy Birthday, but what are the children learning? That it is about gift exchange, it is about singing Happy Birthday in English, it is about wearing a certain dress, it is about special food. But birthday celebrations are more than that, and Janmashtami also is also more than that to me.
And so, when we live in this environment – this is such a predominant one big culture -and if I want to pass down what is meaningful to me, I have to find these ways and not give in to the big culture that is around me, that is telling me to live a certain way, that is defining it for me. I think as an individual I have the freedom to define how I want to be, even in this big culture.
Professions: Could you be the next Hindu Chaplain?
Ask Dharm if Hindu Chaplaincy could be a viable career for Indian youth, and she says, “It is all about being obedient to God, going into prayer and asking God if this is His will for your life. If that is not, do not make it ‘because oh, I am in it because I want to join the military or I am in it because… because it is a vocation’. It is where you are going to be tried and tested and tested over and over again. Very challenging, very difficult job, and again and again I repeat very rewarding, but it is because of God. If it is not a call for you, if it is not your call, then it is not your call. It is not just like becoming an engineer or a doctor. Being a chaplain for me is a calling from God.”
If that first criterion is met, then being a chaplain can be a suitable life career. It is a government job where if you serve for a minimum of 20 years, you retire with 50 percent of your salary for the rest of your life.
The pay scale is very good and while in the army, housing is free, and there is a food allowance. There are a lot of educational benefits and retirees who want to study will get these allowances too. There is a family separation allowance that is given to soldiers on duty. Those who are serving in a dangerous environment are given a certain amount of money every month. To all this add the prime benefit of serving one’s country and protecting the constitution and the rights of all citizens.
A Hindu Chaplain in Kurdistan
Pratima Dharm has had many memorable experiences serving in the US Army but perhaps the strongest memory is the humanitarian aid missions she conducted in Kurdistan, Iraq where she visited an ancient Roman Catholic church which has over 10,000 members and has been there since the time of Jesus and where the language used is still Aramaic.
Dharm conducted several missions, collecting and donating funds, clothing and personal care items to the congregation. The priest invited her to preach – an intimidating task for a woman in a Kurdish neighborhood where women rarely speak in public. As a sign of respect she covered her head and asked her female soldiers to do the same.
She preached from the passage she was given and she recalls: “I prayed to God because it was totally a surprise and I preached for 45 minutes and after that when I was done the people were clapping, they were just stunned and I know that it was God who allowed me to speak and stand there.
By the time I was done my head covering had come down because I was totally into it and the priest told me I was the first female to do that – never had a female preached on that podium. It was a miraculous thing, only God could make that happen for me.”
She adds, “I believe I cannot take a breath without Him. God is so real to me and has taken me through the dangers in Iraq and brought me back safe, kept my children safe, given me a good marriage, good life, good job. I am very grateful to Him, everything is from Him.”
(C) Lavina Melwani
This article was first published in Hinduism Today
Watch a video feature about Chaplain Dharm produced by the BBC here.