A Discussion with Pratima Dharm, Hindu Chaplain, Georgetown University
November 18, 2014
Background: On November 18, 2014, Brittany Neihardt, a fellow in the Doyle Engaging Difference Program and member of the Georgetown College class of 2017, interviewed Chaplain Pratima Dharm, who joined the Georgetown community as the first director of Hindu chaplaincy in October 2014. Originally from Mumbai, India, Dharm moved to the United States in 2001 and later joined the army as a chaplain, receiving a Bronze Star Medal for her service. In this interview Dharm discusses what brought her to Georgetown, her experience interacting with people of diverse faith traditions, and her approach to interfaith dialogue.
You are now the first Hindu chaplain at Georgetown. What does that mean to you as a historic milestone? How do you see your work at Georgetown unfolding?
I am grateful for this historical decision because of the celebration and practice of diversity at Georgetown. Very much in keeping with the Jesuit tradition! The programs I intend to build as a director of Hindu chaplaincy at Georgetown will be built around the students’ needs. I am willing to hear them and I want to be there for them.
What brought you to Georgetown from your career in the Army?
I joined the army during war. You owe the army a minimum of eight years. I’m done. I’m in my ninth year now and it’s time to transition out. The needs of my family are such that I need to be there and not be moving around so much.
How has your educational background in psychology influenced the way you approach interfaith dialogue?
I have always been interested in cross-cultural psychology, and I grew up in India among different cultures. It’s not just one culture. India is made up of many different cultures and different religions. So it’s very important to understand not just your own faith in which you are born and raised in, but particularly the level of compassion needed to understand another human being. It’s important that you understand what other people believe in. And, until we understand that, I think we can’t fully experience compassion and empathy for other people’s needs—and they are human needs, right? So, I’ve always on my own taken the initiative to learn about other people’s faiths and other people’s natures and what drives them, what motivates them, and what factors in their stories contribute to how their lives shape up, and I think religion and culture play a big part.
You must have worked with a range of people with different beliefs, religious traditions, and spiritual backgrounds during your time as an army chaplain. How did you respond to the variety of faith traditions?
Army was a very natural fit for me. And also, at the time I joined the army, it was during war. And so during war, the human need and human conditions are really challenged to the utmost degree possible. Human relationships are challenged. And so, having the background in psychology and theology helped, trying to make sense myself and trying to give an answer. And sometimes, I didn’t have answers. Just being a presence to my soldiers and being there for them were some of the greatest lessons, basically. It taught me to be there fully for people I don’t even know. I would have met them for the first time when I went to war with them. The way I was raised at home, with a respect for difference, really helped. I think the home atmosphere is very, very important. It’s more difficult if you aren’t taught to respect diversity at home. You would just have to learn things. But, it’s easier when you’re taught from the time you’re a baby that people are different and people have to be respected for their unique stories. And, in the army I found very unique stories that I was able to respond to because I had that background. Some of them were so unique that I had to learn on the spot and respond on the spot. But I always focused on this being an exchange from one human being to another. If I thought that the other human being was not a Christian or not Buddhist but just another human being—that made complete sense to me.
In recent years, there have been many conflicts between religious traditions. How did serving in the army affect your perspective on interfaith dialogue?
I would say how the army informs me. I’m not affected by interfaith because I have always lived in interfaith…So, it is not unique to me, interfaith dialogue. Whereas the exposure I’ve had of it in the United States, also in the military, it informs me that it needs to be more informed. That’s what it informs me. And I want to be a part of it because there’s just so much. The interfaith dialogue needs to expand. It’s quite constricted because we need more diversity. There’s not enough diversity. The fact of the matter is we do have diversity. Do we have the time to understand it? Someone has to take the time to understand it. I understand diversity. I come from diversity. I live diversity every day. And there is a lot of scope to challenge the concepts that are in place and stretch it a little bit. And with understanding things will be different. There’ll be more music. More interfaith music and melody.
How do you experience interfaith dialogue on campus?
Well, I see there is a very strong Jesuit voice here at Georgetown. And, it’s great to learn that. And, for me, it’s sort of like coming back home because I went to a Catholic school for almost 16 years of my life…so, I’m very familiar with the Catholic tradition, and this Jesuit tradition is very rich, very well-defined. And I find that they are very open to interfaith dialogue, and that enriches my own experience with the Jesuits. So, not only does my respect for them grow, but I feel like contributing, even if it may be a distinct voice, a voice that is mine. But I feel confident that it is heard and it can find its place. And my voice is not very different from the Jesuits.
If you had to develop one rule regarding interfaith dialogue that you would want people of all faith traditions and spiritual backgrounds to know and to follow, what would that rule be?
To help people according to their need, not your own need...helping people without an intention of getting anything in return. Not helping them because they should start believing like you. Not helping them because they may look like you, or begin to look like you, or act like you. There is no expectation; so you help without having any intention of ulterior motive. You just help people. There is no thing like "Oh, I’m going to help the Hindu first," or "I’m going to help the Christian first," because of some reason. The person in front of you is your greatest opportunity to do ministry. There is no other place, there is no other ministry beside the person right in front of you. Your neighbor is your first step to start. And, start with helping. What is it that you can do for your neighbor? And, I think that is common to all different religions, is to really help people without seeking anything in return.