Book review: Hindu Approaches to Spiritual Care

Hindu Approaches to Spiritual Care: Chaplaincy in Theory and Practice. Edited by Vineet Chander and Lucinda Mosher. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2020.

Reviewed by Deven Patel, Associate Professor of South Asian Studies, University of Pennsylvania

This is a unique book and an urgent one. The subtitle (Chaplaincy in Theory and Practice) and general theory of the bookprovokes a productive discussion about terminology: is “chaplaincy” or “pastoral” too Christian conceptually to makesense for Hindu contexts? Is such language too vague for what’s really at stake in serving Hindu communities? The maintitle (Hindu Approaches to Spiritual Care) covers the significance of the work as a whole, which is about spirituality, care, and about the Hindu communities. The population of Hindus outside of India is tiny in comparison to othercomparable religious groups in America and Europe so it is understandable that there have not been more conversationsabout the spiritual needs of Hindus uprooted from the organic religious cultures their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents passed onto them. Another problem is that as, Religious Studies scholars know well, “Hinduism” is a uniquely situated category of religious experience. Ancient in its roots, diverse and pliable in its manifestation and practiced realities, internally contested in its social and philosophical ethos, modern Hinduism is oddly positioned between the usual binaries of Abrahamic religions of praxis/dogma, theistic/atheistic, public/private, clergy/laity, and(religiously) legal/illegal. As the authors of this book point out, there are no clean equivalents to “chaplains,” “pastors,”even community leaders, broadly speaking, who are charged with helping people through their very real problems.Family members, social networks, religious comrades, and personal gurus usually accomplish these roles in India. Whatabout those who have little to no access to these resources? This book serves as a vital resource and offers tremendous solace to Hindus globally that they need not be alone among the world’s religious communities in receiving the“spiritual care” necessary to overcome the many challenges of modernity.

The editors and authors of Hindu Approaches to Spiritual Care sidestep the usual approach to Hindu Studies—histories, philosophical/theological analyses, ethnographies, and political readings—to reorient those sensitive to Hindu people andtheir cultures away from texts, artistic icons, sectarianism, and ritual practices. Instead, it foregrounds the ideas, leaders andpractices behind the actual service of caring for Hindu people, especially in the diaspora. It emphasizes the diversity ofHindu culture, the importance of “partnering” with non-Hindu spiritual caregivers, and the challenges for caregivers topreserve what is inherently Hindu when delivering care without losing sensitivity to the fact that many of those whomthey serve have been acculturated to a wide variety of norms and carry multiple identities. The Hindu spiritual caregiver mayencounter a Hindu-American, socialized in the Midwest, gay in their sexual orientation, middle-class, with roots from southern India. That same caregiver might find themselves guiding a female, Indian-born but American-raised, Ivy-league educated, cultural Hindu who is antagonistic to the perceived values of Hinduism they learned in school textbooks, yet hankering for understanding about life problems a non-Hindu might not be able to comprehend. Witheach new situation, the spiritual caregiver must be willing to take a studied and dynamic approach to succeed in guiding aHindu person through the difficulties of life. This book begins a process to assist those who, now and in the future, will take on this role. The essays— skillfully collated and organized by the editors Vineet Chander and Lucinda Mosher—speak to the deep knowledge and empathy that the contributors to this volume bring to the subject.

Part One

In Part One of this book, authors make valiant attempts to mine the various scriptural and practice traditions in Hindu culture to locate the “foundations of care” in the ancient sources of  Hinduism. Rita Sherma opens the book by identifying an American Hinduism that requires a network of support systems outside of the family to accomplish whata chaplain might do in other religious communities. As the training of Hindu priests does not include pastoral care, Sherma lays out the blueprint of what a Hindu chaplain might look like in the coming years. Varun Khanna explores whether the contemporary category of “chaplain” is compatible with traditional forms of Hindu leadership. He argues that Advaita Vedanta, a vibrant Hindu philosophical approach to life, not only provides a paradigm for professional chaplaincy but alsosees the chaplain’s mission to serve as an “inevitability” of Advaita practice. Anantanand Rambachan delivers a wide-sweeping philosophical and cultural overview of the roots of spiritual care in the Hindu emphasis on Brahman (the Absolute, the ground of being, everything that is not nothing), which implies Oneness and, therefore, reverence for andan impetus toward serving (sevā) all. He sees in Hindu philosophy an “optimism” about the ending of suffering, citing Krishna in the Gītā as an exemplar of a Hindu spiritual caregiver. Shaunaka Rishi Das offers an applied theology of Hindu care, identifying the foundational concept of Love (bhakti) for God, especially Krishna in the Hindu tradition, as theengine for caregiving. The values to take away for chaplaincy would be to see all equally, to act non-violently, and to teach byexample while demonstrating humility and affection.

Chris Chapple and Vineet Chander both connect Yoga with chaplaincy. Chapple explains yoga (broadly understood as physical and mental exercises designed to foster spiritual progress) as an effective instrument to release and ease thebody and breath, while improving mental and emotional outlooks, mitigating the pain of death, dying, harassment, stress,and self-doubt across the board. For him, the impact of yoga therapy on chaplaincy is that it offers both a philosophical and ethical foundation for caregivers to share with those for whom they are caring. Chander, in the same spirit, connectschaplaincy with kriyā yoga, which specifically focuses on mental, physical, and spiritual endurance (tapas);introspection and study (svādhyāya); and letting go to a higher power (iśvara- praṇidhāna). In making this connection,he sees the capacity for the caregiver to forge with the person needing advice a greater clarity of purpose and a means to broaden the contexts within which traditional Hindu concepts operate.

The final five essays in Part One speak to the chaplain’s resources to draw from a diversity of traditional and evolvingHindu systems of thought and practice. Viraj Patel locates spiritual care in the context of a Hindu “theologicalanthropology,” focused around the central condition of rebirth (punarjanma) and freedom (mokṣa) from rebirth. The Guru’s role, described by Patel in the context of Swaminarayana Hinduism as rooted in the theology of the Bhagavadgītā,exemplifies the Pastor’s in chaplaincy contexts. Ramakrishnan Parameshwaran turns to one of the great literary canvases of Hindu responses to grief, the Rāmāyaṇa, creatively linking Rāma’s grief with the aesthetics of rasa, especially in itsemphasis on transforming grief to empathy and compassion. Likewise, Gopal Gupta seeks out Hindu sources for dealing with the philosophical problems of suffering and evil in the Vedāntasūtra and the Bhāgavatpurāṇa, both of which offer solutions suited for different types of suffering individuals. Drawing from another stream of classical Hinduism, Rachel Fell McDermott points to Shakta theology as another useful point of reference for the contemporary Hindu chaplain to help the person under their care to “lean” on the goddess is stressful moments. Fell McDermott draws attention to thenecessity for the Hindu chaplain in America to be sensitive to the diverse needs of diverse Hindus they may encounter so that they can also then apply a diverse set of Hindu perspectives to provide relief from suffering. Finally, Madhu Vedak Sharma returns attention to perhaps the most fundamental of all Hindu philosophical perspectives, the Upanishads, toset up a framework of care that focuses on reorienting one’s sense of who we truly are, under surfaces, to find solace in a world filled with confusion.

Part Two

Part Two consists of marvelous first-person accounts of Hindu chaplaincy, the complex interplay of chaplaincy andscholarship in academic contexts, and the urgent social applications of Hindu outlooks to impact a wider world. Swami Sarvaananda’s story, as the first Hindu to be a board-certified chaplain, is compelling as much for its pioneering narrativeas for its inspiring value. Shama Mehta projects us into the hospital setting, where we learn first-hand the challenges oflanguage and culture that face the Hindu chaplain dealing with patients. Joseph Ghanashyam Caruso provides a moving account of a Hindu chaplain’s relationship with a dying Jewish man, explicating the importance of “sacred atmosphere”at the time of death and the power of mantra. This chapter is especially poignant for its applied presentation of a perennial Hindu theme of negotiating, through cognitive and emotional insight and practice, the polarized view of Life and Death, which ultimately induces suffering.

Jeffrey Long, Brahmachari Sharan, Asha Shipman, and Tahlil Sharma situate Hindu chaplaincy’s vexed and potentially transformative role in higher education contexts. Long recounts the compelling chaplaincy of Swami Tyagananda at MIT and Harvard, which speaks of the challenges spiritual caregivers face in higher education and the division of labor that priestly and chaplaincy service entails. Brahmancari Sharan, as a Hindu monk, priest, and chaplain at the Jesuit Catholic Georgetown University, follows up with a distinctive perspective about the demarcation and interpenetration of traditional and modern roles filled by the guru and the priest (purohita) in Hindu contexts, extending his insight into thecomplex role Hinduism plays in the interfaith discourses on college campuses. Asha Shipman turns the conversation tothe actual physical spaces necessary for college students to sustain the Hindu part of their broader identity. She details her efforts as Hindu chaplain of Yale University to create a Hindu Prayer Room that could sustain tangible activities thatprovide Hindu students a solid sense of place in higher education. Tahlil Sharma bookends the articles on Hindu chaplaincy on college campuses with a fascinating history of the formation of the Hindu Students Organization, Hinduchaplaincy, and the culture of interfaith at the University of Southern California.

The final three essays in Part Two bring the topic of spiritual caregiving to military, prison, and high finance contexts. The editors of the volume, Vineet Chander and Lucinda Mosher, describe the flexibility required to work with delicate and complex issues such as violence, warfare, spiritual progress, and psychological anxiety. Ramdas Lamb account ofworking as a spiritual counselor in prisons, working in interfaith contexts, and Rasanath Das’ work as leadership coach foroverstressed finance professionals demonstrate a Hindu perspective’s usefulness to cultivate a shared humanity in some of society’s most trying crucibles.

Part Three

Part Three, enigmatically labeled “Care at Crossroads,” contains seven essays that reflect the expansive range spiritual caregiving can take. Murali Balaji, recognizing the deep needs of Hindu college students, returns the reader back toacademic contexts but focuses on the Hindu-identifying professor as a special kind of spiritual caregiver. Pulin Sanghvi introduces a notion of the work-life self in relation to other ideas of Self in Hinduism to draw a light to the intense stress that young Hindus undergo while choosing careers and balancing personal, familial, and societal pressures. Raja Gopal Bhattar’s call to give special attention to the spiritual needs of members of the Hindu LGBTQ community emphasizes the need for chaplains to construct an atmosphere of comfort to help ease the enormous challenges these individuals face and helpfully shares a list of tips and strategies to create that atmosphere. Vaishali Gupta Chandrashekhar and Amrutur Srinivasans essays emphasize the importance of focusing on the basic material and worldly needs of those under their care. Chandrashekhar, as a seasoned chaplain for several American universities, offers a bright look at the power of sharing Food to activate programming, provide much-needed comfort, building bridges and broad-based alliances. Srinivasan’s essay emphasizes the outsized importance Hindus give to weddings and theattendant need for chaplains to help with the stress associated with all aspects of this major life event.

The last two essays in this volume lay the groundwork for a future volume that continues the creative intersections among Hindu sources, spiritual caregiving, and addressing interconnected social movements. Gopal Patel’s essay on climatechange trauma, which highlights his work with the Bhumi project, suggests deep affiliations between traditional Hinduspirituality and innovative strategies to meet global needs of the day, climate change being on the top of that list. Similarly, Shrestha Singh’s thinking about dealing with PTSD trauma and healing through the example of Sita confirms the durability of Hindu narratives to meet modern needs but also encourages new ways of looking at old stories.


Essentially, this volume is a collection of pilot essays. As such, each relates to the broad subject of Hindu spiritual care while, at the same time, opening up or joining up with a discrete field of knowledge that has not yet had a Hindu voice contribute to it. The two editors deserve praise for their foresight and diligence in bringing together such a diversity of authors to produce a truly pioneering book. Those who identify as Hindu and those who do not will equally learn a lotabout Hindu cultures and the urgent need to attend their spiritual needs. They will also come away with an empatheticview of a modern community of human beings, shaped by an ancient and ever-evolving culture, trying their best to face thechallenges of inhabiting a complex and often unwelcome world.