U.S. Catholic university hires Hindu priest as chaplain

Brahmachari Vrajvihari Sharan became the first Hindu priest to be hired as chaplain at a U.S. university.Georgetown University

Jesuit-run Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. became the first university in the U.S. to hire a Hindu priest as chaplain.

"Part of our mission and our ethos is our desire to form the whole person," said Rev. Greg Schenden, a Catholic chaplain at the university, the Washington Post reported. A rabbi and an imam are also on staff at the university as chaplains.

Georgetown has about 300 Hindu students in undergraduate and graduate schools. Hiring Brahmachari Vrajvihari Sharan was based on the youths' religious growth, Schenden said.

"It wasn't just to say, 'Oh, we got one here,'" he said. "It was, 'Oh, we need one here.'"

On Aug. 28, Sharan, 31, held his first puja, a weekly worship that students have led for years. He chanted Sanskrit mantras and played the harmonium.

Senior student Neharika Khandavalli said Sharan's service was the best one in three years.

"It couldn't have gone better. All of us students, we're religious and Hindu, but we wouldn't have been able to do what Brahmachari-ji did," she said.

Priyanka Dinakar, a sophomore, said she wants to learn prayers in Sanskrit now that she's older.

"It's such a vast religion. There's still so much to learn. It means a lot. It means the university cares enough to bring a Hindu chaplain for us," she said.

Before assuming the position, Sharan trained as a priest at ashrams in India and finished his PhD in Sanskrit at the University of Edinburgh and taught classes in Wales and London.

During the service, Sharan said, "Our Catholic friends will ask, 'Why do you have so many gods? Why do they have so many arms?' Why, why, why? It feels like you have to be an ambassador for your entire religion. We want to make sure you have some knowledge."

Sharan said Georgetown's decision to hire a Hindu priest is "very, very surprising."

"It's a testament to their commitment and not simply lip service They would like students to leave Georgetown with a deeper understanding of their spiritual self and their place in an interreligious society," he said.

According to Rev. Howard Gray, the university's interim vice president for mission and ministry, "Br. Sharan was drawn to Georgetown by its commitment to interreligious student formation, and by the vibrancy of the university's Hindu community."

He said from its foundation in 1789, the university "has been open to students of every religious tradition."

"The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) deepened the Catholic Church's commitment to vibrant and substantive interreligious engagement, and inspired Georgetown to develop what is now the largest interreligious campus ministry in the country," he added.