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Georgetown University’s New Hindu Priest Is Ready to Serve

St. Giles Cathedral, Edinburgh, Scotland. May 11, 2016. Sharan and members of the Edinburgh Inter Faith Association meet with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon for the blessing of new members of the Scottish Parliament. Courtesy of Vrajvihari Sharan

In February, Georgetown University president John DeGioia announced that the country's oldest Catholic university would take steps to address diversity issues, including creating a new African-American studies program, a racial justice research center, consciously hiring more faculty of color, and the appointment of a diversity czar.

One of the changes included hiring a new director of Hindu life, Brahmachari Vrajvihari Sharan. Sharan will also act as Hindu chaplain on campus.

Similar positions exist at universities like Princeton and Yale, but Sharan is the first Hindu priest to take up such a role, according to the Washington Post, and has undertaken priest training across India as well as while at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where he earned a doctorate in Sanskrit.

"Part of the foundation of the Jesuit faith is interfaith understanding...it's what really interested me [about the job]," Sharan told NBC News.

"On campuses with small Hindu populations, Hinduism has become known predominantly through large hallmark events like Holi," Dena Bodian, director of Jewish life at Colgate University and a member of the executive committee of the National Association of College and University Chaplains, told NBC News. "Having a Hindu chaplain is a wonderful opportunity to be able to offer both practitioners and outsiders an opportunity to delve much more deeply into the tradition."

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Sharan said that other Hindu chaplains around the country are well-informed and trained in matters of higher education, but that Georgetown's Campus Ministry thought the level of interest and commitment in deepening their faith demonstrated by the Hindu Students Association (HSA) "warranted [his unique] experience."

Megan Patel, a junior majoring in culture and politics and co-president of the HSA, said she felt her school is "in tune with the growth of the Hindu population here on campus and responded to the needs of its students" for a full-time staff member dedicated to helping them with their holiday programs and Sunday puja services. Approximately 100 students attend the organization's major holiday events, Patel said.

Patel also noted that having a trained priest who is familiar with Western culture and customs is helpful for students who grew up "culturally religious," celebrating holidays and keeping with traditions because their parents told them to without having anyone explain the significance and meaning behind any of it.

While pursuing his doctorate at Edinburgh, Sharan served as the university's Hindu chaplain as well as consulting for approximately 30 temples across the United Kingdom, being part of a committee welcoming Queen Elizabeth to campus, and conducted a Diwali puja ceremony in the United Kingdom's Parliament, he said. He admitted though that the "focus is different in the U.S." than it was on his previous campus since the University of Edinburgh was not a faith-based institution and not as diverse as Georgetown.

"Growing up in a society that is well informed with Christianity and Abrahamic traditions it will be part of my job to [come up with] analogous, coherent answers [to questions about the religion,]" he said.

"My single most important duty is sharing my knowledge of scriptures without any denominational bias or vested interest," Sharan added.

Patel is excited about the new phase of Hindu life on campus and said that, like the university as a whole, her organization wanted to recognize its diversity as well "whether that means diversifying our prayer book or celebrating festivals from all over the globe." Sharan noted that his doctorate in Sanskrit combined with his training in rituals and traditions puts him in a particularly special position to navigate that.

"Translations [of the Gita] have author and intended audience bias...saying follow x or y path, but the scriptures are actually quite open-minded," he said, referencing a characteristic he wants to encourage in students seeking counsel.

"Isolating your faith and keeping aloof are not in the scriptures," Sharan added.

"You won't be looked down on as a student of faith, but encouraged to deepen your understanding of it," Sharan said about what finds the most important aspect of the Campus Ministry's work at Georgetown. Patel said she has "found some of [her] greatest mentors to be chaplains of faith traditions different than [her] own." She said Sharan's role is to be beneficial to all students on campus curious about the Hindu faith, not just those that grew up in it, as part of his new job duties include serving as chaplain for a freshman dormitory.

Sharan's appointment also signals Georgetown's commitment to diversity in their diversity initiatives, not just focusing on one minority group, gender, or religion, according to Bodian.

"Hiring a chaplain is also public statement that extends beyond welcome, hospitality, and student support," Bodain said. "While many campuses have faculty or staff advisors of Indian student groups or Hindu students, a chaplain is capable of working with the community in distinctive ways."

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