WASHINGTON — As a child in New Delhi and other cities of India’s northern Plains, Pratima Dharm moved easily through a kaleidoscopic swirl of religions and cultures.
“My neighbors were Muslims, my neighbors were 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.”
She feels the same decades later. The U.S. Army, where she holds the rank of captain, and the United States itself, where she immigrated just months before the 9/11 attacks, were founded on the idea that people can be united while worshipping differently, she said.
Dharm, 40, has been named the first Hindu chaplain to serve the Department of Defense. Hinduism, with nearly a billion adherents worldwide — but fewer than 1,000 active servicemembers, according to Pentagon statistics — was the largest of the world faiths not represented by a chaplain.
Though the Army hasn’t yet publicized her appointment, the rumor has spread among Hindu servicemembers around the world. And Dharm, a chaplain on the medical staff at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, has started getting emails from them.
“I’m already on the job,” she said. “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.”
Still, most of her 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 for soldiers I have never met before is part of the message of Christ as well as [the Hindu teachings] of Vedanta.”
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.”
An Indian-American Army Reserve veteran 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,” said Chaturbhuj Gidwani.
But having a Hindu chaplain available, even if only by email, will make one important group very happy — military mothers who want to make sure their children can practice their faith properly. Sometimes that means explaining cultural fine points.
“Mothers would ask, can you give proper rites to the soldiers?” he said. “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.”
The 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.
“I get emotional when I talk about it,” said Lt. Col. Ravi Chaudhary, a cargo plane pilot and acquisitions officer. “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.”
Dharm 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 the most important thing she came home with was a deeper understanding of what Army chaplains are there for.
It isn’t to advocate for their own faiths, but to bind up the wounded spirits soldiers of any background receive in the brutality of battle.
“You learn to grieve with someone you don’t know on a deep level,” Dharm said. “You watch someone die in front of you and comfort the soldier left behind who had a connection to that person.
“Things of that nature you don’t learn in seminary.”