Pratima Dharm is the chaplain to the 1000 or so Hindus in the U.S. Army. She earned her commission in 2006 and did a tour of duty in Iraq before returning to the United States to serve at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center.
You immigrated to the United States about 10 years ago and then decided to study at a seminary. What made you study theology?
I have always been interested in religion and theology. In India, however, education is geared towards a career. In those days studying [theology] as a field was not available. I would go out of my way to work in temples and join associations in churches. The point of it all was seva (service), and how you apply the doctrine of seva in the scriptures, whether it be the Bible or the Gita, into real life situations. When I was 9 or 10, I started a program in my school to educate poor children. When I was 14 I came to Bombay to study psychology and continued my social work.
How comfortable were you with studying in a Christian seminary in the United States?
I was comfortable enough because I had studied in a convent school and had been exposed to Christianity. We went to the chapel [at school]. I had many Christian friends who would participate in our festivals and we would go carol singing during Christmas.
As far as the teachings of Jesus are concerned, it’s not very different from [what we learn as Hindus]. That is why Gandhiji was very drawn to Christianity. He would always keep a Bible on his table next to the Gita.[The seminary stint] was an opportunity to exchange ideas. These [Christian] beliefs were actually very complementary. Jesus stresses so much about love in the Bible. That is not so very different from what our scriptures have to say. I tend to concentrate on Jesus’ message of peace and love. Of course there are other social and cultural factors in play, and the different denominations that have sprung out of cultural and religious traditions.
What did you family think about your choice?
My parents have been about doing the right thing. They knew that this path that I was exploring brought me peace.
My family has always been very supportive. Though they come from very traditional backgrounds, they’ve broken barriers of their own, like dowry. When my dad got married to my mom 55 years ago, he refused to take dowry because he followed the teachings of Gandhi. My nanaji (maternal grandfather) was a Gandhian too.
For the benefit of our readers who are not familiar with what a chaplain does, can you tell us what the job involves?
We are there to ensure that all soldiers get an opportunity to exercise their right to express their religious thought. There are soldiers of all faiths in the military, and the chaplains are there to make sure they do so without any hindrance. Part of my job is to hold worship services. As a Hindu chaplain I hold Hindu worship services, scriptural studies, yoga classes. I also do a lot of suicide prevention classes. We have had a lot of PTSD issues because of the wars the United States has been involved in, to the point where suicide prevention has become a necessity in the military way of life.
When you first joined the army you were endorsed by the Pentecostal church. What does that mean?
As a chaplain you need an endorsement. [Editor’s note: Ecclesiastical endorsement is the Church’s affirmation that a person in chaplaincy is performing (or will perform) a valid ministry.] Some of the basic requirements are that you need to have completed a seminary degree, you need to have completed a certain number of credit hours. We go through different exams, we turn in papers, we get interviewed. It is a very lengthy process that can last up to three years.
Didn’t you need to be a Christian to represent the Pentecostal church?
You have to be a Christian. You have to go through the entire process of baptism and ordination. I went through that. Then they had a process that took five years of training; I studied Hebrew, did Jewish studies. I studied the Old Testament, the New Testament, languages [like Greek and Latin] and other spiritual studies. Hinduism is not a subject that is tackled in the seminary.
When you enter the seminary it is a very different world. [But] it was a very positive experience for me. It added to what I already believed in. My background is in the Sanatan Dharma, the Vedas, the Shrutis, the Puranas, the Gita. My parents raised me very traditionally, but I was also given the freedom to explore and seek the Truth.
How did the endorsement from the Chinmaya Mission come about? Did this happen after you returned from your tour of duty in Iraq?
No, I returned from my tour of duty in 2008. Chinmaya Mission happened in May 2011. When I was stationed in DC in 2010, after a stint in Georgia, I came in contact with the Chinmaya Mission. I had been exposed to them as a student in Bombay. I met their members here, some of whom had served in the army. In May they interviewed me and found me a suitable candidate [to be a Hindu chaplain].
Were they looking for a Hindu chaplain?
No, I approached them.
Why did you want to change the chaplaincy at this point?
I wanted to return to the place I belong. My journey brought me here. Emotionally and spiritually, mainly spiritually, I came to a place of peace and balance and felt I needed to go back to my roots.
Do Hindu scriptures support this kind of position? Is there any historical or cultural precedent for the role of a chaplain?
The word chaplain does not exist but to me the role is more important—what we bring to the job, what services we perform. As I look at it, seva is part of my role, no matter what I do. When I am taking on the role of a teacher, where I am educating my soldiers about the value of life, I am dipping into my scriptural knowledge, and also Christian or Jewish traditions. My main focus is service and we have enough examples of that in the Hindu tradition. When I get up in the morning and go to Walter Reed and work with soldiers who have lost their limbs in an IED blast, the theme and the intent I take to them is my own integrity, my own honesty that I am there for them fully. That situation is very sacred and those things are present in every [religious] tradition.
Now that you are a Hindu chaplain, have your duties changed in any way?
Not at all, except I do Hindu services now. I believe that there is one God and I worship Him. Our deities are different; for me it is Krishna, for some it may be Rama or Jesus, or Allah. I was raised to believe we must honor everybody, however they choose to believe. What I love about Hinduism is that it such a broad religion, a way of life. It is not an organized religion where unless you go to the temple you are not connected to God.
What kind of questions do you get asked by the people you serve? What do they come to you for?
They come to us for individual counseling based on individual issues. We also do a lot of marital counseling, relationship counseling. The issues can be really universal. Of course, having studied different religions, it has given me a broader window into a person’s perspective, a better understanding of who they are and where they are coming from. I only suggest, ultimately it is their choice.
As a Hindu chaplain, do you only counsel Hindus?[I counsel] everyone. And that is true of any Christian, or Muslim, Jewish, or Buddhist chaplain.
You are not restricted to any one religion then.
Not at all. Unless there is a worship service going on. [Though] it is not uncommon for Christians, or Buddhists, or Muslims, or anyone to sit in a service that is not of their religion. In the military way of life, we may be of different religions but we have so much opportunity to interact that we are a team first. I have had so many Christians wanting to be a part of Hindu services, scriptural studies, or yoga. I delve into the meditative aspect of yoga, the part that has to do with the emotional and spiritual side of a person.
Given the polytheistic nature of Hinduism, have you had any sort of backlash from members of other faiths?
I don’t look at Hinduism as a polytheistic religion. I would be one of the first persons to challenge this. We have lots of deities that have been allowed at a later Vedic period to enter the Hindu way of life. That is, if you are interested in making Krishna your focus, then do so. If your [object of devotion] is Santoshi Ma, then make her yours. But God is one, and that’s there in the Vedas. When Westerners came to India the message they took back is that Indians worship many gods. Allowing many deities to exist is comforting to us. For a Hindu it is not a big deal. For the Westerner it is heretical, pagan. When I read the Shrutis, it is very clear to me that Hinduism also has one God, that we call the Brahman or the Ultimate Truth. In the Jewish tradition that would be Yahweh, in Islam it’s Allah. Most Indians don’t think twice about it. We get up in the morning, we say a prayer to our [specific] God, but we know that [our prayer] is going to the Ultimate Truth.
You left for your tour of duty in Iraq when your younger daughter was very young.
She was four-and-a-half months!
How did you bring yourself to leave her?
I put a stone on my heart. It was a very, very difficult thing to do. But I believe in performing my duty. I am a Rajput and when we give our word to somebody, we keep it. And I gave my pledge of allegiance to this country and my sense of being a citizen is to give back to the country.
Didn’t you have a choice, though, on whether to serve or not?
Yes, I did have a choice. [But] to me the main motivation was what a great opportunity it was to serve such a great nation. I truly believe in the American Constitution. It is one of the finest pieces of writing. And the way this country chose freedom and justice and equality is commendable. I have benefited so much from this country.
How has your family dealt with your moving around?
They have been a pillar of strength. I couldn’t have done it without my mom. My children are really connected to her. She has helped me, no questions asked. I just handed my whole house to her and went off to war.
Have they been in one place the entire time you have been in the Army?
They have moved with me. They have moved five times in five years! I am so glad for my husband, who is Indian, but surprisingly supportive! My inspiration is the strong, powerful women I came across in Bombay in my formative years. Having a husband who understands that I am a strong, independent woman helps a lot.
Could you share a memorable experience from your job?
Oh, there were so many! When I landed in Iraq, my battlefield circulation took me to Kurdistan. The people there lived in the mountains and they had gone through a lot of wars that had created political instability and poverty. So I started clothing drives. Once I provided 300 flutes to a school. They were ecstatic and seeing that joy [was indescribable].
So many things came out of these humanitarian missions. I was invited to speak at a Roman Catholic church there. This church is believed is to be as old as the church in Rome. It has 10,000 members and I had arranged to supply their community a lot of food and water. This was in a town called Zhako.
Because of the humanitarian mission I had a 7-8 month-old relationship with the community. These people look upon Indians very favorably. We were at a service when the priest called me from the audience to come up and preach. I was extremely touched but very hesitant because their customs are very different. I had covered my hair out of respect for their tradition and had asked all the women soldiers to do the same. He said, “Preach from John 6: 50-54 ‘Jesus is the bread of life.’” And I did. And he translated it into Kurdish and Aramaic, one of the oldest languages in the region.
I think the people stayed out of curiosity to hear a woman preacher. But once I started speaking they listened keenly. I went into the history of the Kurdish people, connected it to their lives and that seemed to touch them.
It is just wonderful to experience other cultures and their approaches to God. Hinduism also teaches us to respect other religions and not become dogmatic.
Your name is so suited to the profession!
I know! I got the name from my husband. His name is Dharmendran Rajendran and in their family the wife takes the husband’s first name. I was so happy to take his name because [Dharmendran] does mean “one who lives by the faith.” I chopped his name because a lot of people couldn’t pronounce it. When I became a citizen, I was allowed to change my name at the end of the process. When the officer offered me the option I excused myself for a few minutes and went outside to get my husband’s permission to shorten it; after all, it was his name! I said, “I hope you won’t be offended because the first five letters still retain the meaning of the name.” And he was kind enough to say “Go ahead.”
It seems so prophetic now that your name aligns so well with what you do.
I see what you’re saying because Chinmaya Mission also noticed it. And my first name, Pratima, means “Image of God.” My father gave me this name and I was called “Ma” throughout my childhood.
I have always had a leaning towards God. I believe this name has come from Him and He is behind every part of my life. I have just submitted to Him. That’s all there is to it. Without Him I wouldn’t be a chaplain. He comes first in my life, Before my children, before my husband, before my parents, it is my God. n
Chaplain Dharm has been awarded the Bronze Star Medal, Army Commendation Medal, National Defense Service Medal, Iraq Campaign Medal, and the Global War On Terrorism Service Medal.