Army Appoints Hindu Chaplain (Sort of)

There about 1,000 identified Hindus in the U.S. Army, and now they have a chaplain, Captain Pratima Dharm.

Yes, that is probably fewer than the followers of Pagan paths in uniform. The Buddhists have been recognized too, but a qualified Wiccan officer was rejected.

But there might be more to this story:

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 on active duty in 2006, she was endorsed by the Pentecostal Church of God, based in Joplin, Mo.

But she’s now sponsored by Chinmaya Mission West, a Hindu religious organization that operates in the United States. A Washington, D.C.-area religious teacher who interviewed her for the organization before giving her an endorsement said her multifaith background is an advantage.

“She knows Christian theology, and she has a great grasp of Hindu theology,” said Kuntimaddi Sadananda of Chinmaya Mission’s Washington center. “This means she can help everyone.”

She didn’t convert from Christianity to Hinduism, she said.

“I am a Hindu,” she said. “It’s how I was raised and in my heart of hearts, that’s who I am.”

But — and perhaps it is hard for some Western Christians to understand — she hasn’t rejected Christianity either.

“In Hinduism, the boundaries are not that strict,” she said. “It is to base your life on the Vedantic traditions, and you can be a Christian and follow the Vedantic traditions.”

As I understand it, the Vedanta schools of Hinduism tend toward a sort of intellectual monotheism and reject all that colorful gods-and-goddesses stuff except when interpreted allegorically. So she has blended it with Christianity?

Chinmaya Mission West is an Advaita Vedenta organization.

6 Comments

  1. Rombald says:

    I’m no expert, but I don’t think you’re right about Vedanta. Firstly, there’s Advaita and Dvaita Vedanta.

    Dvaita Vedanta, best well-known in the West in the form of ISKCON, is personal-god-monotheist (Vishnu/Krishna), but doesn’t oppose worship of subsidiary gods, and is very much into all the colourful stuff.

    I suspect the chaplain in this case is Advaita Vedanta, which is pantheist or impersonal-god-monotheist. Some groups, such as the Brahmo Samaj, and perhaps the chaplain’s, tend to interpret this in a Protestant-like way, being mildly against icons, etc. However, probably most, exemplified in the West by the group that publishes “Hinduism Today”, accept all the gods and rituals as paths to merging with Shiva.

    Actually, most elite/intellectual Hindus are one or other form of Vedanta, and therefore, in a sense, monotheist. Popular Hinduism is polytheist, and there is a polytheist intellectual school within Hinduism, but it’s very much in the minority. Hinduism cannot be uncontroversially claimed as a form of paganism or polytheism, as many pagans now do.

  2. Rombald says:

    Another thing is that, in my limited experience, Hindus tend to sympathise with Christianity, but see it as limited and intolerant in its theology. I’ve known several Hindus who often attend Catholic mass, but have no intention of converting.

    Firstly, Hindus often also seem to have a “thing” about Jesus, cherry-picking (dishonestly, in my view) his teachings, and seeing him as some sort of Hindu sage.

    Secondly, at least in the UK, Hindus tend to identify closely with Christian social/marital/sexual values and political tendencies, being strongly against things like promiscuity, abortion, easy divorce, public drunkenness, immodest dress, etc. (although much less extreme than Muslims).

    Thirdly, both Indian and British educated Hindus who I have met like things like church architecture and Christian art, often seeing it as similar to Hindu equivalents.

  3. Pitch313 says:

    If it weren’t for Hindu polytheism, I probably would not be as widely embracing a polytheist myself. Devas and asuras proliferate throughout the Hindu cosmos, and some of the stories about them are both entertaining and illuminating.

    Once I got used to that polytheism-within-a-religion, adapting to polytheism-across-religions for my own Neo-Pagan practice and world view posed not much of a problem. My outlook became–Join the Deva & Asura & Deity Party! Have a Great Time under the shining, glittering, confusing, dazzling, and erotic disco ball of the Ultimate!

  4. [...] The U.S. Army has appointed its first Hindu chaplain. Like the Buddhist chaplain appointed in 2009, it happened through a conversion process (a process that didn’t work for Pagan Don Larsen). Will this continue to open the door for an eventual Pagan chaplain? Thanks to Chas Clifton for the heads-up. [...]

  5. Chas Clifton says:

    Rombald, I see your point, but the only “Vendanta” at all noticeable on the American religious scene is, I think, Advaita Vedanta as in the sponsoring group, Chinmaya West, or the very intellectualized Vedanta Society.

  6. Maggie Beaumont says:

    Interesting that the Army can accept a Buddhist, and now a Hindu, as Chaplains once they’ve proven they can serve by being ‘officially’ Christian with a known-to-the-Army (ie, Christian) endorsing body. But they refused to do the same thing with a Pagan. Are we going through another edition of Pentacle last, the way we did with grave markers?