How Hindu chaplains went from anomaly to necessity
(RNS) – When Vineet Chander accepted his post as Hindu chaplain at Princeton University in 2008, his Hindu community was taken aback by his profession.
“It was incomprehensible to them,” Chander said. “I would like people to look at me like, what are you doing?” Is it a full time job?
Their bewilderment was understandable: Chander, a former defense lawyer, was not only the only full-time Hindu chaplain in any place of higher education at the time; he was the first Hindu in the United States to fulfill this role. In part, Chander said, this is because there have been only a “notable” number of Hindu students on campus since the 1970s.
Another factor is the title of chaplain itself. While Hinduism readily recognizes the idea of spiritual care, chaplaincy has traditionally been associated with Christian ministers and is not easily translated into a Hindu setting.
Hindus traditionally rely on gurus for spiritual guidance, but the rigorous training – often requiring 12 years of study – and the relatively small number of Hindus in the United States, where they make up around 1% of the population, means that there are few gurus with the required skills. qualifications.
“The fundamental challenge is that Hindus often don’t understand what chaplaincy is and non-Hindus don’t really have any familiarity with Hinduism,” said Asha Shipman, director of Hindu life at the Yale University.
In addition, Shipman said, many universities hire chaplains through outside institutions such as mosques, synagogues or church councils. “Hindus have no organization to turn to,” Shipman said.
Shipman got to work to change that. Last year, she and several colleagues founded the North American Hindu Chaplains Association, which will hold its second annual conference this weekend, with around 50 participants.
The conference, which will meet virtually, will include talks on caregiver care from a dharmic and queerness perspective in Hinduism. It will also feature “opportunity sessions” that will allow participants to share their hopes and suggestions for the future of the field.
“This is a nascent field and in many ways it feels like we are giving birth to it,” Shipman said. “I see a great need to increase the number of Hindu chaplains, not only in higher education, but also in health care and other fields.”
Shipman hopes the NAHCA will expand to provide the theological training in Hinduism and Dharmic studies that is currently lacking in US seminaries and universities. The organization also aims to develop a process for chaplains who wish to become board certified.
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In the meantime, the Hindu chaplaincy evolves according to its local practitioners and those they serve. At Princeton, Chander hosts guest speakers, lectures, and ritualistic cults, and also meets one-on-one with his students for spiritual care. Chander said that when he initially tried to hold office hours, which is typical of other chaplains, it “totally failed”.
“The students had no framework or structure for what it meant to go talk to a chaplain, let alone a Hindu chaplain,” Chander said. “This notion was so new and foreign, so I had to change gears.” Chander started meeting students for coffee, a tactic he found much more effective.
At Yale, Shipman said that unlike some of her fellow chaplains, she does not lead a congregation. Instead, it offers a range of spiritual opportunities that include mentoring, teaching students how to lead church services, and hosting celebrations for festivals such as Diwali.
The field of chaplaincy of all kinds has been expanding rapidly in recent years. A 2019 national poll found that 21% of Americans said they had been in contact with a chaplain in the past two years, and chaplains are found in a growing variety of spaces: airports, farms, and even businesses. And as institutional religion declines in the United States, the transformed religious landscape is changing not only where chaplains work, but how.
“There is a way that the growth of Hindu chaplaincy shows an increasing development and evolution of chaplaincy at large, where it becomes much less Christian-centric, and there is a recognition of ‘a real opportunity to have authentic multi-faith approaches to chaplaincy, ”said Chander.
The pandemic has accelerated this trend and opened more opportunities for Hindu spiritual caregivers, Shipman points out: The past year and a half, she said, has brought increased awareness of Hindu meditation and breathing practices .
Shama Mehta is a Hindu-denominational hospital chaplain who was board certified in 2016. “When I started chaplaincy there weren’t many health chaplains that I could. contact who were of Hindu faith, ”Mehta said.
Mehta provides support and care to anyone in the hospital who needs it, including staff. “The more I do chaplaincy, the better I become a Hindu,” Mehta said. “It prompts me to look at things from such a broad perspective and find ways to continue serving others while being nurtured by my own faith, because that’s what allows me to be there for others.”
On campus, the number of young Hindus who feel the need for spiritual guidance has increased – according to Chander, there are now five full-time Hindu chaplains in higher education, a dozen part-time Hindu chaplains and a number of volunteers and affiliates.
Shipman sees a similar pattern to Yale. “The underlying message I hear is that I don’t want to attribute myself to an institution. I’m looking for broader practices, and it can come from many spiritual and religious traditions, ”Shipman said.
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Hindu college and university students, Chander said, often struggle with being a person of color and belonging to a minority religion while sometimes enjoying academic and economic privileges.
“They also take into account social justice issues as they apply within the faith, including critiques of Hinduism and Hindu nationalism with complex and problematic histories like the oppression of castes and classes. , patriarchy and the arming of Hindu teachings and scriptures to an oppressive end, ”Chander said. For all of these reasons, having a Hindu faith chaplain can be essential in supporting Hindu students.
Yet despite the increase in the number of Hindu chaplains, the field faces a funding challenge: many positions, especially in higher education, are voluntary. Shipman said universities should consider fully funding positions, which would prove invaluable for students, both Hindus and non-Hindus.
Mehta points out the simple demographic fact that many Hindus in the United States are the children of Indian immigrants or immigrants themselves and can take comfort in speaking with chaplains like them.
“It’s always heartwarming to see a face that looks like yours, someone who speaks like you, prays and worships like you,” Mehta said. “It is important to be able to express yourself in your own language. “
She says this is one of the many reasons the profession can be so rewarding. “With the right training, both in professional chaplaincy and in Hindu spiritualities, the contribution that a person can make in the field of service is limitless.”