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Delhi-born Pratima Dharm is Pentagon's first Hindu chaplain

June 03, 2011 12:18 IST
Forty-year-old Pratima Dharm, a captain in the United States Army who migrated to America from New Delhi months after the horrific 9/11 attacks claimed nearly 3,000 people, has created history by being named Pentagon's first Hindu chaplain.

Although neither the US Army nor the US department of defense has officially made public her appointment, Stars and Stripes, a Washington, DC-based newspaper that reports exclusively on the Pentagon, said the appointment was a done deal and that Hindu service-members would now have their own chaplain.

"Hinduism, with nearly a billion adherents worldwide -- but fewer than 1,000 active service-members, according to Pentagon statistics -- was the largest of the world faiths not represented by a chaplain," it said.

Dharm is currently a chaplain on the medical staff at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center. She was quoted by Stars and Stripes as saying, "I'm already on the job. There's this tremendous sense of hope and relief that there is someone who understands their story at a deeper level, coming from the background I do."

Most of Dharm's time at Walter Reed is spent reaching across faiths to minister to anyone who needs it. That's a key responsibility of military chaplains, she said.

"Some of them come back having lost their buddies, some of them come back having lost their limbs, and things have changed for them forever," she said. "To be able to sit down and show compassion to soldiers I have never met before is part of the message of Christ as well as [the Hindu teachings] of Vedanta."

The newspaper said Dharm speaks easily of Christian teachings. A unique aspect of her story is that until this year, she wore the cross of a Christian chaplain on her battle fatigues. When she started active duty in 2006, she was endorsed by the Pentecostal Church of God, based in Joplin, Missouri.

But she's now sponsored by Chinmaya Mission West, a Hindu religious organisation that operates in the US.

A Washington-based religious teacher who interviewed her for the organisation before giving her an endorsement, said her multi-faith background is an advantage, Stars and Stripes said.

It quoted Kuntimaddi Sadananda of Chinmaya Mission's Washington Center as saying that Dharm "knows Christian theology, and she has a great grasp of Hindu theology. This means she can help everyone."

Dharm denied that she converted  from Christianity to Hinduism, telling Stars and Stripes, "I am a Hindu. It's how I was raised and in my heart of hearts, that's who I am."

But the newspaper said she hasn't rejected Christianity either -- something that perhaps is hard for some Western Christians to understand.

According to Dharm, "In Hinduism, the boundaries are not that strict. It is important to base your life on Vedantic traditions, and you can be a Christian and follow the Vedantic traditions."

She recalled how as a child in New Delhi she had "moved easily through a kaleidoscopic swirl of religions and cultures."

"My neighbours were Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Jains, Hindus, Christians," she said. "My close friends in school represented all the different faith groups, and it never occurred to me then that we were different or there was anything strange about it."

Stars and Stripes said that Chaturbhuj Gidwani, an Indian-American army reserve veteran explained that there was nothing strange in the way Dharm was flexible within her Hindu traditions. He said that during his years in the service, he was always comfortable meditating in Christian services and talking to non-Hindu chaplains about spiritual matters.

"Hinduism has a strong interfaith philosophy," he said and that now having Dharm available, even if only by e-mail, would make military mothers very happy because they could now count on their children practising their faith properly.

Gidwani said,  "Mothers would ask, can you give proper rites to the soldiers? For example, if I die, I don't want to be buried, I want to be cremated. I don't want to eat beef, I want vegetarian food."

Lt Col Ravi Chaudhary, an air force officer who led the Pentagon action group that established Chinmaya West as a chaplain-endorsing agency, said Dharm's story is testimony to American pluralism and democracy.

Chaudhary, a cargo plane pilot and acquisitions officer, in remarks cleared by the US Air Force and provided to both Stars and Stripes and, said, "I get emotional when I talk about it. When you consider Pentagon bureaucracy… when people here saw that in a fundamental way this is an expression of American values, people moved so quickly to accomplish this."

It was Chaudhary who alerted the community on June 2 to Dharm's appointment and the article in Stars and Stripes, saying in an e-mail, "It is my honour to introduce Chaplain Pratima Dharm, the first Hindu chaplain in American military history."

He described Dharm's appointment as "a monumental milestone," and said, "We wish Captain Dharm our collective prayers as she takes on the challenge of supporting our brave service members, civilians, and their families, who are serving all over the world."

"We are still looking for more candidates, to serve across the services," Chaudhary, younger brother of former Minnesota state senator Satveer Chaudhary, noted.

Anju Bhargava, herself a pioneering woman Hindu priest and the only Hindu in President Barack Obama's inter-faith White House Council, was elated about Dharm's appointment. "It's exciting news; we are making history!"

Bhargava, who is the founder and head of the Hindu American Seva, said, "Not only is she the first Hindu chaplain in the department of defense, but a woman."

Dharm, according to Stars and Stripes, spent a year at a forward operating base near Mosul, Iraq, in 2007 and 2008. She received a Bronze Star and an Army Commendation Medal, among other awards, but most importantly she came home with a deeper understanding of what Army chaplains are there for.

The newspaper said this deeper understanding was that it "isn't to advocate for their own faiths, but to bind up the wounded spirits of soldiers from any background."

"You learn to grieve with someone you don't know on a deep level," it quoted Dharm as saying. "You watch someone die in front of you and comfort the soldier left behind who had a connection to that person."

And that "things of that nature, you don't learn in a seminary," she added.

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC