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The Necessity of a Hindu American Chaplaincy

A New Kind of Dharma Leadership

For American culture to fully exemplify E Pluribus Unum, three elements need to coalesce: (1) the acknowledgment of certain commonly held foundational principles for the wellbeing of all, enshrined in law and the collective consciousness; (2) the acceptance of various expressions of such values in different cultural and religious forms; and (3) the evolution of American forms of the world’s religions.

Without the affirmation of pluralism as a value, America’s claim to represent human liberty is compromised. But without moral and spiritual common ground, the United States will become a nation of “many solitudes” — with fragmented identities and brittle boundaries between its many communities. Just as there are newly emerging systems of American Buddhism, and as many generations of Jewish Americans have forged different forms of American Judaism, I hope to see a day that heralds the coming of an American Hindu Dharma (the traditional term for Hinduism).

Do Hindus Need Chaplains?

“Om,” in Sanskrit here, is the first syllable of any Hindu prayer, a sound used in meditation, and the tradition’s most universal symbol.The Hindu diaspora is a largely well-educated, law-abiding, and financially comfortable community in the United States. Therefore, a sense of invulnerability exists, especially amongst those blessed with good fortune. But everyone, regardless of status, suffers illness, old age, infirmity, and bereavement. Many encounter additional trauma such as discrimination, divorce, and natural and personal disasters.

Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Buddhists can turn to religious communities who are equipped to help individuals transition from what I call “grief to grace.” But to whom does a Hindu in America turn? Throughout Hindu history, networks of relationships provided security. In India, there exists, for most, various psychological, material, financial, informational, and relational safety nets composed of extended families, multi-generational contacts, ashrams (retreat centers), and the support of religious groups associated with one’s family.

In the diaspora, many of these traditional support systems are either missing or inaccessible. It can be due to time constraints from heavy work schedules, family discontinuity (separation, divorce, loss of connection with relatives), community ruptures, geographic distance, and resource limitations in the nuclear rather than extended family. These realities particularly impact second, third, and future generations, as well as those who marry outside the confines of the community.

To be sure, many spiritual resources are available within the American Hindu Dharma to heal the body, mind, and spirit. Yet, without a human hand to hold when life’s tribulations strike, and a trained guide along the way, it is difficult to access this richness of traditional resources. Swamis who arrive on these shores offer wisdom about life and liberation. They are not meant to serve as counselors for life’s myriad and diverse trials and traumas. Priests who come from India and are employed by temples (mandirs) serve a useful function; but their task is to perform complex rituals of worship, devotion, celebration, rites of passage, sacraments, and so forth.

These leaders are not at all trained in marriage counseling, grief and bereavement assistance, or addiction recovery work. The success of the Hindu community leaves an appearance of immunity from problems – as if Hindus float through air as they go through life. So when Hindu Americans experience crises and catastrophes, particularly later generations, they have nowhere to turn except for their elderly parents, who may themselves be in need of care. Who is there to help American Hindus now, on new and distant shores?

From such reflections the idea of Hindu Chaplaincy was born. Hindu chaplains can be priests who take additional training, retired persons who seek to offer service (seva), and those who would like to step forward as new examples of spiritual leadership among American Hindu communities. There will always be a need for priests, as well as gurus, monks (swamis), and other religious teachers. But the vacuum of intensive personal care, compassion, and counseling from spiritual leadership that lies at the heart of the Hindu community in the American diaspora can only be filled by properly trained Hindu chaplains. These individuals would study foundational rituals; Hindu philosophy, ethics, principles and practices; and care and counseling for those in need.

With this vision, and in collaboration with national Hindu organizations in the United States, I began developing curricula and institutional frameworks for Hindu chaplaincy, accessible to all Hindus, regardless of class or gender. The program will not be associated with a single denomination, movement, or guru lineage.

What is a Trained Chaplain?

A professional chaplain is a representative of a particular religious tradition with skills in counseling and caring for those in need or undergoing crisis, a solid background in clinical psychology, along with the wisdom, philosophy, and spiritual practices of his or her particular tradition. Chaplains thereby can assist individuals, couples, families, and faith communities in coping with and surviving difficult or painful circumstances. In the U.S., one finds not only Christian chaplains, but Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim, Native American, Pagan, and Taoist chaplains, among others.

Building on those models, one might a say a fully trained Hindu chaplain would be educated in an accredited institution focusing on:

  • Counseling those undergoing trauma, illness, or ordeals,

  • Scholarly knowledge of the religious tradition (vidya), and

  • Prayer and worship in the tradition (prarthana and vandana)

If ordained, he or she must be able to officiate at sacramental rites such marriage, life-cycle rites, and protective or benedictive ceremonies (samskaras and pujas).

An Evolving Hindu Dharma in America, and its Care

This stained glass window in the Pentagon Chapel commemorates four chaplains from different religious traditions (Catholic, Methodist, Reformed and Jewish) who died while assisting soldiers on the torpedoed USS Dorchester in 1943. Rita Sherma envisions the day when Hindu chaplains play an important role in everyday American life.The American Hindu temple can no longer serve only as a place of worship and social religiosity. It needs to become the primary sanctuary for the Hindu heritage community as a whole. This long-range challenge will take decades, but it must be initiated now. The development of Hindu chaplaincy is an important step in that direction. Hindu chaplains will not only serve as sources of solace in difficult times and counselors in life-crises, but as resources for individuals and families who need to be connected to resources, institutions, and persons who can help with all sorts of questions, issues, and activities.

Additionally, the presence of professionally trained Hindu chaplains will allow for a new kind of Hindu presence at the American interfaith table and in government agencies, educational institutions, and other important organizational bodies. Chaplains can represent their traditions for a host of political, social, interreligious, and charitable functions. For the American Hindu Dharma, this task in now often filled by non-ordained individuals or by ordained priests from India who are unfamiliar with the cultural and linguistic norms of the West. As a result, Hindus have a diminished religious voice in America.

So while respecting the role, dedication, and professional capacity and commitment of traditional priests, an American Hindu chaplaincy will push forward the progressive and universalist edge of the Dharma by opening new doorways to women’s religious leadership and providing access to ordained religious leadership for persons of all castes (jatis) and ethnicities. Such a chaplaincy program will be the first of its kind in the world and could provide intellectual and pastoral space for the application of Hindu principles to contemporary problems and needs, in India as well as the diaspora.