My very first Hindu Memorial Service

In the field of hospital chaplaincy, one of the best aspects (among many) is that opportunities are presented continually that challenge the chaplain to go above and beyond the type of care he or she can provide to the patient, family and hospital staff.

Also, in hospital chaplaincy, you meet people with a whole spectrum of personalities and faith traditions. In all of this, there are certain encounters that leave an impeccable imprint in the chaplain’s life and the chaplain is no longer the same again.

I had the honor of meeting someone [let’s refer to the person as DEji] like that and get to know and serve DEji in the last few months. In the days leading up to DEji’s death, our conversations revolved more and more around Hindu philosophy. It was clear to me that DEji was convinced of the Soul’s Immortality – a core Hindu belief. DEji would be beaming with joy as we recited and meditated on the Shanti Mantra DEji had chosen at the beginning of the visit.

Little did I know that I will end up having the honor to conduct a Hindu Memorial Service to celebrate DEji’s life. I’ve always assisted with other memorial services at the hospital but had not put together a Hindu Memorial Service, let alone conduct it in a hospital setting. Saying that I was extremely nervous is an understatement.

I began reflecting upon my conversations with DEji and started jotting down notes as to how I envisioned a Hindu Memorial Service in the hospital sanctuary would look like. DEji had really made it easy for me to pick which scriptural verses I would use but I also had to design the service in a manner that would stay true to its Hindu-ness while serving the largely non-Hindu attendees.

I was able to design the service, design the service program and set up the sanctuary in time for the service this evening. I was nervous when I arrived this morning at the hospital  but continually reminded myself to refocus and meditate internally on the chants and verses I had picked for the service. This helped a lot. So did the support and confidence exhibited in me by my coworkers and family.

I did not want to let DEji down. There is an inexplicable shift that happens within when one is in the presence of an actively dying person. DEji taught me a lot in the last days of life.

Almost two years ago to this day, I was very close to quitting Clinical Pastoral Education as I underwent something personally traumatic. That same day, I had been assigned to participate and decorate a (relatively) joyous occasion at the same place in which today I held my first Hindu Memorial Service.

As I picked up the rose petals two years ago, I was fighting with God. Oh, I was so angry. Today, two years later, as I picked up the rose petals, I expressed deep gratitude for the honor to celebrate someone as amazing as DEji, to be able to stand in a place of worship at a hospital and recite Shanti Mantras.

If anyone had said to me two years ago that today I would be able to pull this off, I would have definitely laughed. – not at the idea of it but due to the size of self-doubt I harbored within.

The Divine works in most amazing, incredibly surprising ways. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to serve as a hospital chaplain, as a chaplain of the Hindu faith and as a Hindu chaplain. I am also deeply grateful for every single person who continue to support me in any way or form.

Until next time,

Namaste

पूर्णमदः पूर्णमिदं पूर्णात्पुर्णमुदच्यते
पूर्णश्य पूर्णमादाय पूर्णमेवावशिष्यते
शान्तिः शान्तिः शान्तिः

oṃ pūrṇamadaḥ pūrṇamidam pūrṇāt pūrṇamudacyate
pūrṇasya pūrṇamādāya pūrṇamevāvaśiṣyate
oṃ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ śāntiḥ

That is Whole. This is Whole.Wholeness arises out of Wholeness. If Wholeness is taken away from Wholeness, Wholeness remains. OM Peace, Peace, Peace

Nine Nights of Shakti – Celebrating Navaratri

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Aarti Time Photo Credit: Anand Desai Photography

Navaratri is  one of my most favorite Hindu festival. This year, Navaratri will be celebrated from 13th October to 21st October.

So what is Navaratri really? It, arguably, is the longest religious worship through rhythmic movements. It is the festival of nine nights when, through dance, the Goddess (the Female aspect of Divinity)  is worshipped. Most people seem to have forgotten that it is not just a dance; it is a form of worship. In Gujarat,  it is also called ‘Garba’. Garba comes from the word Garbha which literally means the womb. This festival is the celebration of the Shakti (The Primordial Power), the female aspect of creation that gives birth to the entire universe and sustains it.

Garba is performed in circles. The reasoning behind this is that the circle is a representative of the on-going, continuous cycle of birth and death. Just like the participants in the garba enter and leave the circle, in the same way people come and go in the circle of life. Irrespective of this, the circle continues.

The more I try to understand why we (Hindus) do what we do – be it any form of worship ritual, chanting, meditation – the more I realize how much we seem to have distanced ourselves from the true essence of worship.  These days the value of garba during Navaratri appears to be reduced to wearing fancy folk attire and dancing to tunes that are not even devotional songs. It really pains me to hear the singer suddenly switch from singing a song in praise of Devi to singing ‘Pari hoon main.’ For real? Like really?

Now don’t get me wrong. I love Bollywood music. Just ask people who know me. But there’s a time and a place for it.

Here’s the thing, though. One of the best aspects of practicing Hindu worship rituals is its uniqueness. I struggle with trying to understand why do we have to ‘compromise’ our way of worship to essentially make it more appealing to others? Whoever these others are. The irony here is that most people who are not familiar with Navaratri are more than willing to learn about it. Everyone is welcome to join garba, provided they fully understand what they are really participating in. It’s only fair.

Year after year, I go for garba. I get frustrated. I come home and vent to all those who will listen. The following year, I go back again.  

With almost every step I take during garba, I remind myself of what it really is all about. The moments are filled with awe and sincere devotion to That which is, which always will be.

Wishing everyone that celebrates this festival season, a very Shubh and Auspicious Navaratri. May Maa Ambe surround you all in Her Unconditional Love.

Until next time,

Namaste

या देवी सर्वभूतेषु बुद्धिरूपेण संस्थिता ।

नमस्तस्यै नमस्तस्यै नमस्तस्यै नमो नमः ॥

yā devī sarva-bhūteṣu buddhi-rūpeṇa saṁsthitā |

namastasyai namastasyai namastasyai namo namah ||

To that Devi Who in All Beings is Abiding in the Form of Intelligence,

Salutations to Her, Salutations to Her, Salutations to Her, Salutations again and again.

Clinical Pastoral Education and Self-Awareness

As part of the training to become a professional chaplain, one of the most important aspect is Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE). Honestly, in my opinion, CPE is THE most important training necessary for people who wish to serve as a chaplain.

The website for Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center writes the following description for Clinical Pastoral Education :

Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) is graduate-level theological and professional education for ministry that takes place in a clinical setting. 

In addition to learning skills and expanding knowledge related to ministry in a healthcare setting, students are invited to learn about themselves and how their personal histories, faith perspectives and individual gifts influence their pastoral and professional functioning. 

The clinical method of learning used is a dynamic and creative process that combines action (the actual practice of ministry to persons) and reflection (using resources such as written reports of visits, discussion and feedback from peers and the CPE Supervisor, and application and integration of didactic material). An ongoing learning cycle develops that enables students to develop and expand their ministry skills and knowledge while also deepening their self-awareness and self-knowledge. Out of this expanded self-awareness and ministry experience, new ministry and relational choices and responses are available to the student.

Each “unit” of CPE, whether Level I or Level II, consists of a minimum of 400 hours combining no less than 100 hours of structured group and individual education with supervised clinical practice in ministry. 

– See more at: http://wexnermedical.osu.edu/patient-care/patient-and-visitor-guide/clinical-pastoral-education#sthash.OMS79jPP.dpuf

I successfully completed 4 units of this training in roughly 2 years time. Being mindful of one’s unintentional prejudices, one’s emotional response to situations and people, being aware of one’s self is critical when it comes to spiritual caregiving.

Now, about that self-awareness and self-knowledge piece : Where have we, those of the dharmic faith traditions, heard this before?

When I started my first unit of CPE and began to really understand what it all meant, the first set of teachings that I turned to write my papers were those of Ramana Maharshi. His teachings on self-enquiry especially as highlighted in Who am I? was a huge help as I began to put words to my feelings and personal experiences. It tackles big questions such as the nature of the mind, path of inquiry to understand the nature of the mind etc.

Self-awareness and self-knowledge are not ‘new-age’ concepts as many believe. They are very ancient teachings encapsulated in the teachings of the Upanishads. The constant inquiry – Who I Really Am. Through Nachiketa from Katha Upanishad, we learn about who/what dies, what is the nature of death and what happens to one after death. Through the Brihadarayanka Upanishad, we learn about the nature of Self and also how to go from being ‘self’ to realizing the Self.

Undergoing the Clinical Pastoral Education training has helped really define this self-inquiry process for me as it has thrust me in to the direct study of the Vedas, the Upanishads and help look at how my study and practice of Vedanta helps me in my work as a chaplain.

I highly recommend this training process to all who are interested in becoming a chaplain – employed or volunteer; especially to practicing Hindus. It’s a win-win situation.

Until next time,

Namaste

Those who depart from this world without knowing who they are or what they truly desire have no freedom here or hereafter. But those who leave here knowing who they are and what they truly desire have freedom everywhere, both in this world and in the next. Chandogaya Upanishad VIII.1.6

Being Hindu – The Journey To Finding A Place To Study Hinduism

As I have mentioned in earlier posts, I work as a chaplain in a healthcare setting. Just as many other professions that fall under the healthcare category, there is a process of becoming Board Certified for a Chaplain.

Depending on your faith, there are a few professional organizations through which one can become certified. If you’re Catholic, then you may be choose to go through National Association of Catholic Chaplains. If you’re Jewish, you may go through National Association of Jewish Chaplains. Most other Christian denominations and other faiths may choose to go through the Association of Professional Chaplains.

Here’s the thing : There is probably only one Board Certified Chaplain (that we know of) who identifies as a Hindu in all of the United States of America! Think about it!

So, my goal is to become Board Certified through APC.

There are 4 major requirements to be eligible to write papers and qualify to even appear in front a certifying committee for APC:

  1. Successfully complete 4 units of Clinical Pastoral Education with an accredited program. – I have successfully finished my 4 units of CPE
  2. Be endorsed and provide an endorsement letter from the faith to which one belongs.– I received a letter of endorsement letter from Hindu Religious Endorsing Body (HREB) as part of the Hindu American Chaplaincy initiative by Hindu Mandirs’ Executive Conference and Hindu American Foundation.
  3. To complete 2000 hours of actual chaplaincy work after finishing 4 units of CPE. – In progress
  4. To have a Master’s of Divinity or a Doctorate in Ministry. – This degree has to be within your own faith tradition.  <– This is the biggest obstacle I’ve been facing.

I mean, ever since I started my CPE training, I have been looking for a place to study Hinduism at a Master’s level. I have not been able to find a particular place where I could just sign up and finish my master’s level education in Hindu studies. I have been stunned about the lack of postgraduate level of Hindu Studies in the USA.

The challenge is not to learn about one’s faith intelligently, but to really study and apply to the field of chaplaincy and of course to one’s own life. In the Hindu tradition, throughout the ages, we have been taught in ashrams and gurukulams. The down side of this – It is not considered ‘accredited’ in the academic world. It has been so frustrating at times that I’ve literally broken down in tears.

Being Hindu all your life does not count academically. As my search continued, I knew I could not just sit around and not study the Hindu Dharma.I have been taking Hindu education wherever I can find it. I started to ensure I studied deliberately from organizations such as the Chinmaya Mission and Arsha Vidya Gurukulam. While I was not able to physically be at these organizations, I was able to do a lot of Vedanta study through recorded lectures and of course, YouTube. I did reach out to the teachers to ensure they are aware of my path and I found them to be extremely helpful and supportive. I also took all the online courses in Hinduism offered at Oxford Center for Hindu Studies – University of Oxford.

I had not worked for pay in the last 3 years. It was not that I was not applying for chaplaincy positions in the area but the lack of a Master’s degree and in most cases just the sheer lack of knowledge about someone of a Hindu faith has been a major hurdle in getting employed.

Currently, I am in talks with a local seminary where I can transfer all these credits and wrap up a Master’s degree through them.

To me, it’s extremely unfortunate and sad that there are not many academic organizations that one could study Hindu Scriptures in a way that teaches you to apply these dharmic principles to daily life.Most recently, I’ve been told that starting Fall 2015 the Graduate Theological Union will be offering an MA in Hindu Studies. That’s a step forward.  Even then, there is SO much that needs to be done to make the study of Hindu Dharma a solid presence in the world of theological education.

As for me, the journey continues.

Until next time,

Namaste.

The highest education is that which does not merely give us information but makes our life in harmony with all existence. – Rabindranath Tagore

Hindu Mandir Executives’ Conference

I know I was supposed to update this blog yesterday, but I’m so ill. If anyone has been following my twitter to the right of this post, you would know that I was away to attend Hindu Mandir Executives’ Conference.

This was my first chance to pitch for Hindu Chaplaincy to the Hindu Mandir (temple) leadership in all of North America. There were about 250+ people in attendance, while others tuned in to the live stream of the conference.

It was a great place for networking as well meeting some very cool and influential people. I had the opportunity to briefly meet with the Pujya Swamiji from Parmarth Niketan Ashram as well got to have great conversations with the Swamijis from Kauai Hindu Monastery.  Talking to them reiterated the fact as to how these Swamijis are adapting to the changing times of the world we live in. They are all eco-friendly, scientific as well as avid tech users.

When I took the stage to speak about my work as a volunteer Hindu Chaplain, I had the opportunity to explain how the mandirs can help educate and finance the position of a Hindu Chaplain in their respective local communities – in their hospitals, universities etc.

The response I received was really good. People did reach out to me to know more about chaplaincy. To me, this is a good start. The key would be to keep this momentum going and spread the word, raise finances from the Hindu community itself.

Another highlight was the meeting with the Spiritual Care Department of The Scarborough Hospital. It was an insight into how the department serves the multi-faith, multi-ethnic community of Scarborough. This could very well be a model that hospitals in the United States could follow.

I would have liked more time to interact with the youth, people my age but there was so much going on in parallel sessions that it was just difficult.

This past weekend was important for me personally as it allowed the Hindu temple leadership to see that I was doing chaplaincy work and am committed to making everyone see that Hindu Chaplaincy is important and there is a dire need for Hindu Chaplains.

The seeds have been sown.

Until next time,

Namaste

Ganesh Utsav and Healthcare Chaplaincy

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A Very Shubh Ganesh Chaturthi, everyone! May your days be filled with unobstructed life situations and full of sheer bliss and peace.

वक्रतुण्ड महाकाय सुर्यकोटि समप्रभ
निर्विघ्नं कुरु मे देव सर्वकार्येषु सर्वदा

Vakra-Tunndda Maha-Kaaya Surya-Kotti Samaprabha
Nirvighnam Kuru Me Deva Sarva-Kaaryessu Sarvadaa

Meaning:
O Lord Ganesha, of Curved Trunk, Large Body, and with the Brilliance of a Million Suns,  Please Make All my Works Free of Obstacles, Always.

Mentioned above is the Ganesh Mantra. Invoking the presence and blessings of Lord Ganesha is the first step of any rites, rituals, puja (worship). A lot of devotees also begin their daily tasks in the same manner. Personally, I recite this mantra during my morning worship as well as when I step out of the house for the day. As the English translation explains: Asking for all my tasks to be free of obstacles by Lord Ganesha’s grace.

It is extremely important to note that every Hindu deity is symbolic and that devotees understand that images are pointers to the Supreme Reality that pervades everything that exists.

Lord Ganesh is a representation of one who has realized the Ultimate Reality. Lord Ganesh encourages seekers to aspire for and reach the Supreme State through proper spiritual practices.

The large ears and elephant head of Lord Ganesh represent wisdom through sravana – active listening – to the eternal truths of Vedanta and manana – independent reflection upon those truths.

This works as daily reminders for me as I put on the badge of a chaplain when I enter the hospital. As chaplains, the very thing we are taught is to listen to the patients, to really hear what they are telling us. Following that, we are encouraged to reflect in an independent, unbiased manner upon what transpired within the patient room and figure out any lessons learned.

So the manifestation of Ganeshji reminds me every morning what I am to aspire for : Active listening and independent reflection.

May your days be filled sheer bliss.

Until next time,

Namaste

Miracles Happen!

These were the words that crossed my mind when I walked out from my very first Clinical Pastoral Education training class.

Cliched much? I know. But still a fact. Chaplaincy is a miracle in my life. Background story time. And this is one story I love telling over n’ over again.

Okay here’s what happened.

It was last summer – Summer of 2012. I was going through a really rough time personally and professionally. I had lost my job in May 2012 and I had been unable to find another one. I figured apart from applying for any possible positions, I started looking at volunteer positions within major hospitals in the area.

One of the first people to get back to me was the Director of Spiritual Support and offered to train me as a volunteer Executive Secretary. Finishing up the requirements for being eligible to work in a hospital, I showed up on my first day. After a couple of days of background work, I was asked whether I would be willing to visit patients on the floors as we were short of volunteers. I immediately took the chance even though I knew I had no previous experience of visiting patients in hospital rooms. That day was an eye-opener. More on that in a different post.

So after the day was over, my director approached me and asked me if I would be willing to take up a unit of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) and train to be a chaplain. She must have quickly read the confusion on my face because she quickly added, “Trust me, Shama. You have the heart of a chaplain.” I was honored to hear her say that. Silly me, my response to that was: I don’t mean to be rude, but what’s a chaplain? She explained to me in detail and emailed me the application forms. The only thing I could say at that point was to get back to her later.

I came home that evening and spoke to my dad in detail regarding what had happened. He said, “Apply. What better way to be a Hindu?” I did not think too much of that but went ahead and submitted the application. By the way, the application to CPE requires a few short essays regarding your personal life story and personal faith. That was a Friday.

My training started the following Monday. When I walked into the class, I felt like a child on the first day of kindergarten. What transpired in the room during that class has enlivened my days from that time on.

A whole year has passed since then. I am now at a stage in Hindu chaplaincy that we are driving an initiative in North America to educate the community, especially the Hindus, about the rising need for Hindu Chaplains as well as reserving a spot for Hindus in the inter-faith community.

This is just the beginning of the miracle that continues to unfold in my life.

I intend to post every Monday. If there are some events happening that I would want to share, I shall update the blog more than once a week.

Until next time,

Namaste.