When Brokenness Opens the Door to Healing
A college chaplain’s Hindu theology of spiritual care.
Courtesy of The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust International, Inc. Used with permission.
By Vineet Chander
I am in my modest office on campus, sitting in a burnt orange chair, chatting with a student. Despite its slightly uncomfortable seatback, the orange chair is a strategic choice; it allows me to offer the more comfortable seat, a small multicolored couch, to the student. More importantly, the couch is directly beneath my favorite painting—a depiction of the Bhagavad Gita being spoken. During a lull in our conversation, I now steal a glance up at the painting while the student nervously sips from her Starbucks cup and then places it back down on the glass coffee table between us. I gently push the box of Kleenex to her as tears begin to form in her eyes. In the painting, I notice, the warrior Arjuna’s eyes brim with tears, too; meanwhile, a kind, knowing smile plays on Lord Krishna’s lips. What am I meant to offer in this moment? I direct this question—like a silent prayer—to the painting, clear my throat, and begin to speak . . .
If a picture is indeed worth a thousand words, then that painting might be the most succinct way of articulating my theology as a Hindu chaplain. It depicts a moment of profound brokenness—Arjuna has collapsed, exhausted and helpless, in need of guidance—that opens the door for wisdom and healing. Its battlefield setting, a far cry from the idyllic forest landscapes we usually associate with meditating sages, suggests that spirituality can be found in the messiness of the world around us. And, gazing up at the painting, I remember that something much bigger than I can imagine is at play here; there is the inconceivable flow of grace.
In 2008, when I accepted the invitation to serve as Princeton University’s coordinator for Hindu life, it made me the first (and, at the time, only) full-time Hindu chaplain at an American college or university. As exciting as the idea of being a pioneer was, it was also existentially terrifying. There were no blueprints or playbook I could turn to. What did it mean to be a Hindu chaplain at a university? Could I simply mirror what my non-Hindu colleagues were doing around me? Should I attempt to re-create the Hindu temple experience on campus? I found myself doubly marked as an odd man out: amid chaplain colleagues, I stood out as the lone Hindu; among fellow Hindu Americans, nobody seemed to know what a chaplain was.
In my first few weeks at Princeton, I scheduled a meeting with one of the university’s associate deans of religious life, the Rev. Paul Raushenbush. Although I had thoroughly familiarized myself with Princeton’s crisply written job description during the lengthy interview process, I hoped that meeting with Paul would offer insights into precisely what would be expected of me in this new role. After sharing some specific programmatic ideas and suggestions for how I might approach relationship-building, he paused and allowed for some thoughtful silence to fill the space between us before speaking again. “The biggest part of the job description,” he said, grinning and leaning in excitedly, “is writing the job description.”
It has been more than a decade since that initial meeting, but as I’ve continued to reflect on Paul’s words, I am particularly struck by two realizations. First, I have grown to embrace the notion that chaplaincy is constantly evolving, and that the act of writing (and rewriting) that role is more of a fluid process than a static outcome. Second, I have come to understand Paul’s exhortation as a deeper invitation to play the role of constructive theologian and to craft a model of chaplaincy that is both/and, rather than either/or. That is to say, I feel called to help develop a framework that is relevant to the needs of those I am charged with caring for—both faithful to my Hindu tradition, and yet also open to adopting and adapting insights from outside of Hinduism.
What can Hindu theology offer to Hindu American emerging adults as they navigate spiritual formation in the context of the college experience? While that question has been frustrating at times, it has also been a blessing in my life. It has led me to an unexpectedly rich exegetical adventure within my own tradition. In particular, I have been drawn to a framework found within Hinduism’s metaphysical classical Yoga and Vedanta traditions. In these traditions, I find a basis for a theory and theology of care that radically reenvisions the process of spiritual formation and the role of the chaplain or spiritual caregiver in that process.
A long-standing principle of Vedanta is that we cannot approach transcendence before first acknowledging our starting point. Analogizing the spiritual journey to using a map, one of my teachers likens this to locating the “You Are Here” icon before we can plot out our path. In a similar way, before delving into a framework for caregiving, we would be well served to locate ourselves and those we seek to care for.
My theology of care begins by being grounded in twin assertions: that all living beings are, at core, divinely spiritual beings; and that, as embodied beings, we must also contend with our engagement, and invariable identification, with the material world. Our individual and collective misidentification with the body and mind, as well as our relentless pursuit of happiness in external objects and objectifying relationships, results in alienation, frustration, and, ultimately, suffering—an existential brokenness that Hindu and Buddhist traditions term duhkha.1 According to this ontology, happiness is, in fact, innate to us; it is duhkha which is the foreign, temporary condition we happen to find ourselves in and assume is our normal state. And yet, the irony is that so often we assume duhkha is our only reality; we deride the idea of anything beyond it as some naive fantasy. Imagine being laid up in bed with an illness for so long that you have forgotten what it is like to be healthy at all. Imagine coming to believe, in fact, that the very idea of health is a pipe dream and that you are the illness. If it sounds like a tragic nightmare, Vedantic teachings tell us, that’s because it is.
How might we return to health? Rather than merely treat the symptoms, we must address the root disease—disconnection from the authentic self. That disconnection plays out internally in the realm of the mind and emotions and manifests externally in our engagement with the world around us. Cultivating practices like introspection, gratitude, and emotional steadiness brings us awareness of the self and allows us to experience sustained fulfilment. Losing touch with the inner self, on the other hand, impels us to seek this fulfillment outside of ourselves. This unregulated engagement, however, only forges deeply ingrained habits and patterns, trapping us in a seemingly endless cycle of expectation, frustration, and further alienation from true contentment.2
What does duhkha have to do with Hindu chaplaincy? For one thing, it humbles and chastens me—if I am to be an agent of care, I must constantly confront my own suffering and commit to my own practices. Like the injunction that every flight attendant has committed to memory, we must secure our own oxygen masks before we can assist others with theirs. In another sense, it also drives my call to chaplaincy. My particular tradition of Hinduism argues that the hallmark of a devotee is para-duhkha-duhkhi—a radical practice of empathy that literally translates to “taking the suffering of the other as one’s own.” As a spiritual caregiver, I feel called “to alleviate suffering in its many forms”—to borrow a phrase from Buddhist chaplain Jennifer Block—both in the tangible physical or emotional pain that it presents as, and on the level of the more subtle existential malaise that I believe is at its root.3
If duhkha offers us the starting point for our map, what might help us to start to plot out the path forward? Classical Hindu texts recommend a regimen of spiritual practice—in Sanskrit, sādhana—as the most efficacious and practical means to cultivate clarity and to break the vicious cycle of duhkha. Texts such as the seminal Yoga Sutras of Patanjali and the Bhagavad Gita elaborate, offering a threefold framework of sādhana: practices of self-discipline (tapas), contemplative study (svādhyāya), and devotion to the Divine (īśvara-praṇidhāna).
I have found this to be a compelling and profound framework that has much to offer to the field of spiritual caregiving. At the same time, I must acknowledge that it seems to be—at least at first glance—culturally incompatible with the way we typically think about chaplaincy. For instance, in classical or orthodox Hindu tradition, a respected teacher (guru) would guide the submissive aspirant in their practices. Adopting this traditional guru–disciple posture, in which the teacher gives directives and holds the student morally accountable, is inappropriate (and likely ineffectual) in the context of college chaplaincy. Instead, as a chaplain, I present myself as a facilitator of sādhana; I use the framework in the spirit of shared responsibility.
Over the years, students have sought my help in addressing duhkha as it shows up in their lives in a variety of contexts—anxiety in the face of academic pressure; struggles with body image and eating disorders; unhealthy engagement with drugs and alcohol; toxic relationships and sexual violence; imposter syndrome and questioning self-worth; and too many more to articulate. They have sat on the multicolored couch in my office (and, more recently, in Zoom meetings) grieving the loss of a parent or grandparent or struggling to make sense of peers or siblings who took their own lives. Students have wrestled with identities and belonging. They have also asked for guidance in establishing, deepening, or better understanding their own spiritual lives. We have strategized, reflected, and celebrated together.
In each of these interactions, I seek to walk a fine line as a mentor who both challenges and nurtures the students.4 I draw from the tripartite sādhana framework I describe here, but I also reimagine it in the context of chaplaincy. My aspiration is to help students to confront the suffering—to acknowledge their own duhkha—and to invite them to break the cycle for themselves.
Tapas: The Behavioral Realm
Sneha, a first-year student hailing from the Midwest, asks to meet at an off-campus coffee house.5 After some initial reticence, she tells me she is struggling with the party culture on campus. Before coming to Princeton, she was not sexually active and never drank or experimented with recreational drugs. Here, she says she finds herself stuck in a seemingly endless loop of going out on Saturday nights, drinking heavily, engaging in casual sex (“hooking up”), and then deeply regretting it by Sunday afternoon. She describes feelings of shame, self-loathing, and helplessness. Lately, things have been impacting her academic performance, as well; the situation makes it hard for her to focus on assignments, and she feels she is falling dangerously behind. It also triggers some unhealthy eating habits that Sneha tells me she developed at a stressful time in high school.
In a series of conversations (and fueled by more coffee!), we explore Sneha’s relationship with concepts like intention, decision making, and control. We walk through how she experiences Friday afternoons, Saturday nights, and Sunday afternoon—identifying her thought patterns and self-talk at each stage. Sneha begins to notice healthy and unhealthy patterns, observing self-destructive tendencies and rationalizations that she often falls back on. I gently prompt her to try to unpack where she thinks these might be coming from. She begins to articulate a healthier, more balanced engagement with social life—one aligned with her stated values—which she says she would like to shift toward. I ask her to imagine herself as a concerned but nonjudgmental friend observing Sneha from afar, and to role-play what such a friend might wish for Sneha. Together, we start to develop an action plan for Sneha to work toward where she wants to be and explore how she would like to hold herself accountable and receive support from others.
In this interaction with Sneha, I saw an opportunity to lean into tapas, the first component of the framework. More ascetically oriented Hindu texts tend to translate tapas as “austerity” and generally associate it with practicing severe bodily penance or hardship, undertaking extreme fasts or vows, and other methods of radically championing the will over the body or senses. Other traditions, however, tend to take a more pragmatic or “gentler” approach. They interpret tapas as a way to recognize the mind’s habituated tendency toward prioritizing immediate pleasure (preyas) over long-term good (shreyas), and eventually to discipline or retrain the mind by modifying one’s behavior and disrupting unhealthy habits. In this spirit, I help students use tapas as a way of reflecting on their decision-making and behavioral patterns. I invite students to interrogate their own experiences of discipline, boundary-setting, and healthy and unhealthy behavior. When it is appropriate, I challenge students to develop a healthy tolerance of the type of hardship or discomfort that often accompanies self-discipline, helping them to see themselves as distinct from, and not beholden to, the cravings or discomforts before them.
Since so many college students struggle with self-acceptance and perfectionism, I also see my role as encouraging them to “look at their errors as a door to awareness” and “invitations to grow spiritually.”6 I reinterpret tapas, in these instances, to represent a larger process of moral reasoning and self-development—including stumbles and apparent failures, especially if they are accompanied by reflection and learning. Here, I aim to be reflective rather than prescriptive; I don’t seek to replace their agency, but rather to encourage them to engage that agency with thoughtfulness and intention. As I tried to do with Sneha, I invite students to replace their tendencies toward self-judgment and shaming with curiosity, self-care, and awareness.
Svādhyāya: The Cognitive Realm
Abhi is a senior and one of the leaders of the Hindu student group on campus. We meet weekly to read and discuss the Upanishads together as part of a one-on-one text study. In one session, Abhi unexpectedly breaks down and begins to cry. He explains that he has been interviewing for jobs but hasn’t yet received an offer, while many of his classmates have. We talk about how hard it is to make oneself vulnerable and to face rejection and we reflect on the dangers of comparison. As Abhi opens up, he shares that he often feels lonely; despite being a part of many student activities and having a very active social life, Abhi says that he doesn’t feel like he has close friends. He describes himself as exhausted—pressured to play the role of the happy and successful student or the “life of the party” but left feeling hollow and empty inside. He wonders if the last three years have been in vain and if he is a failure.
I tell Abhi that I can hear the exhaustion and sadness in his words and assure him that it is okay to feel the way that he is feeling. Abhi closes his eyes and we sit in restful silence for a few minutes. When Abhi opens his eyes, we delve into the feeling of emptiness that he has mentioned; I tell him how I have experienced his time at Princeton and his leadership in our community and express my curiosity around his questioning his time here. I also ask him to tell me about when he has felt fulfilled or nourished in his life. We explore this together, referencing some verses from the Bhagavad Gita (which Abhi recalls from attending our Gita study) that encourage one to derive contentment from within. “Do you feel like you have an inner life?” I ask Abhi, “What does it look like? What would you like it to look like?” We talk about the next few months—his final months at Princeton—as an opportunity for Abhi to grow in self-awareness and to develop a source of stability and strength for himself that is not dependent on external circumstances. We begin to touch on some practical strategies for Abhi to craft a routine of self-care and contemplative practices that inspire him, and we agree to follow up regularly.
In the sādhana framework, cultivating thoughtfulness and intention necessitates building the muscle of discernment (viveka). That is to say, we cannot address duhkha only on the behavioral level; we must also engage the cognitive dimension. In this spirit, I draw from the second constituent of sādhana, which is known as svādhyāya. The most literal translation of the Sanskrit compound svādhyāya renders it “self-study”—a term that lends itself to multiple related meanings, including contemplative practice (“studying the self”); sacred text study (“study about the self”); or a customized regimen of study and meditation (“one’s own study”).
I often find that students report a dissonance between their outer and inner lives. The types of feelings Abhi shared are not uncommon. I have heard some of Princeton’s most brilliant and hardworking students express self-doubt and anxiety around imposter syndrome. Students who appear to have robust social lives admit to feeling crippling loneliness. Teenagers positioned as the envy of all their peers on social media berate themselves as worthless in private. “Empty,” “rudderless,” “stuck,” even “dead inside”—these are descriptors that are repeated with alarming frequency and shockingly matter-of-factly.
Faced with this particular manifestation of duhkha, I encourage students to create time and space for self-reflection. I invite students to come up with their own plan of leaning into introspection, quietude, reflection, and self-development. Here I am more friendly tour guide than all-knowing master, pointing out various resources on the spiritual landscape but allowing them to craft their own course. I offer myself as a sounding board and try to ask lots of questions—Do you have an inner life? What does it look like for you? How do you get there?
At the same time, I seek to help them guard against the traps of escapism or spiritual bypassing—indeed, I remind them, they must continue to act in, and engage with, the exterior world, while simultaneously making the time to go within.7 And while svādhyāya is sure to engage and develop the intellect, it is not meant to be a mere cerebral exercise; rather, the goal of such study is realization and the gaining of knowledge and inspiration.8 According to Hindu commentarial tradition, intaking knowledge through scriptural reading (shravanam) is merely the first step. To alleviate suffering, such knowledge must also be deeply reflected upon (mananam) and assimilated and applied (nididhyasanam).
Īśvara-praṇidhāna: The Devotional Realm
A non-Indian graduate student, Aisha, is part of a cohort of students I take to India for an immersive yoga and spirituality trip over winter break. Aisha’s experience with the religion of her birth—including a few years in a strict religious school—left her feeling alienated from religion, and she became an atheist as an undergraduate. Now, she describes the India trip as “life changing” and says that it has reawakened her spirituality. Back on campus, she dives into Hindu Life Program activities and asks for my guidance in navigating her newfound path. In our regular meetings, Aisha excitedly describes the joy she is experiencing and asks many questions. She also confides that she is struggling with self-doubt; the idea of a loving God/Goddess that attracted her heart so much in India now makes her worry that she is unworthy of such love.
When we meet, Aisha and I talk about how to keep the magic and spontaneity of the India trip alive as she negotiates her connection to divinity. I try my best to reciprocate Aisha’s enthusiasm by encouraging and affirming her and sharing whatever resources and recommendations I can. At the same time, I gently caution her to temper her zeal with patience, self-care, and awareness of where she is at and what she needs—after all, the spiritual journey is not a race to the finish line but a meditative and meandering walk with twists and turns and breaks along the way. We then broach the subject of her feelings of unworthiness and doubt. Drawing from my own devotional theology, I share passages and narratives that emphasize the radical nature of grace and the inherent dignity and worthiness of every soul in the eyes of the Divine. Over time, as Aisha opens up more, she shares that her self-doubt stems from feelings of guilt about her earlier rejection of God and her anger toward religion. I encourage Aisha to continue to process and heal this trauma, inviting her to incorporate self-forgiveness into her evolving spiritual practices. I remind her how proud I am of her and assure her that, wherever her journey takes her, her new spiritual community and I are here to support her, without condition or judgment.
The traditional commentators suggest an esoteric dimension to sādhana—it is designed to culminate in the aspirant developing an experience of connection with Īśvara, a somewhat open-ended term in Hinduism for God, however we may understand him/her/them. There is only so much that we can do on the behavioral and cognitive levels; ultimately, the rupture of duhkha can only be repaired on the affective level, when we experience the love and grace of our divine source. Thus, along with tapas and svādhyāya, my theology of care also draws from the third constituent of sādhana: devotion to the Divine, or īśvara-praṇidhāna. It is informed by the stance that God is both perfectly imminent and fully transcendent; one with us in spirit but eternally and infinitely greater; at once omnipresent and all-pervading, intimately present within us as the indwelling supreme Self, and our perennial refuge and beloved object of worship.9
I see part of my role as helping students to reawaken or rediscover their own healthy relationship with that greater one. At the same time, as my experience with Aisha illustrates, I recognize that this relationship is necessarily a complex, multilayered, and deeply personal one. As a caregiver I may certainly encourage the unfolding of that relationship, caution against potential pitfalls, or offer guidance and fill in knowledge gaps when asked. But I must be careful to avoid imposing or projecting my own process on to what is, I believe, a vibrant and dynamic connection shared by the Divine and that student.
Practically, I offer myself as a resource to help think through what a dynamic relationship with God (or the universe) might look like. For some, this might include, for example, ritual worship, reciting prayers, devotional singing and music, or observing holy days. It might also include, however, less explicitly “religious” activities—time spent in nature, contemplative journaling, experiencing the love of family and friends. A few years ago, I worked with a student who discovered “bullet journaling” as a deeply spiritual experience that he likened to writing to his best friend. Another student shared that while visiting her local temple leaves her feeling vacant, returning to the Indian classical dance study of her childhood connects her to the Divine Mother. A colleague considers early morning swims in the university pool her time with God; I’ve asked her to “pray” for me while doing laps on more than one occasion. Whatever the particulars, in every interaction, I seek to ask “Who or what is Īśvara for them?” As a chaplain, I strive to meet the student to whom I am offering care where that student is.
This tripartite sādhana framework mirrors and complements existing models of pastoral care from outside the Hindu context.10 I hope that it continues the work that others have done to contribute to, and complicate, the landscape of pastoral care. I am especially thinking of Buddhist chaplains in the West. Zen priest and abbot Pat Enkyo O’Hara, for example, argues for a model of “compassionate care [that] is as natural as your spontaneous gesture while at ease,” centered around a “rather ordinary quality that can be quite challenging to acquire—true presence.”11 In this unapologetically Buddhistic model, the caregiver’s presence allows her to authentically “accompany individuals as their awakening and freedom from suffering unfolds.”12 Likewise, Danny Fisher, coordinator of the Buddhist chaplaincy program at University of the West, analogizes the chaplain’s duty to the simple act of creating wind “so that the clouds can be removed and the clear sun can shine.”13
In those early days of my chaplaincy at Princeton, Fisher’s refreshingly decentered view of the chaplain would likely have struck me as rather odd. Fixed as I was on defining my role, my focus was necessarily on figuring out what I ought to be doing. Perhaps without even realizing it, I had internalized a definition of chaplaincy—rooted in Christian normativity—that envisages the chaplain in the traditional mold of a pastor. The process of rediscovering (and reimagining) Hindu concepts like sādhana has offered me an alternative framework within which to situate my work. Today, I see myself not as a savior or a fixer, not as a religious authority or arbiter of community norms, but as one who holds sacred space and facilitates a dynamic process of facing duhkha. While I may call myself a caregiver, I see myself as—or aspire to be—an instrument of care, a conduit through which the clear sun may shine and compassion and grace may flow.
- My understanding of duhkha in this framework owes much to Edwin F. Bryant, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali: A New Edition, Translation, and Commentary (North Point Press, 2015).
- Ibid., 170–71. Understanding this cycle in full requires a deeper engagement with Vedanta philosophy, including the concept of essential archetypical qualities (known in Sanskrit as guṇas). These archetypes manifest psychologically and create mindsets and psychological dispositions within us, and are in a state of perpetual competition for dominance with one another. Contentment and greater awareness come from cultivating emotional steadiness and mental clarity (sattva). On the other hand, under the influence of a predominance of restless passion (rajas) or ignorance (tamas), we become more and more estranged from our true selves and more strongly identified with materialism. The implications of this in the collegiate context are striking. According to Hindu ideals, places of learning are, by definition, meant to be bastions of sattva; ironically, in a contemporary context, they are too often cauldrons of rajas and tamas instead.
- Jennifer Block, “Toward a Definition of Buddhist Chaplaincy,” in The Arts of Contemplative Care: Pioneering Voices in Buddhist Chaplaincy and Pastoral Work, ed. Cheryl A. Giles and Willa B. Miller (Wisdom Publications, 2012), 4.
- Sharon Daloz Parks, Big Questions, Worthy Dreams: Mentoring Emerging Adults in Their Search for Meaning, Purpose, and Faith (John Wiley & Sons, 2011).
- All names of students have been changed for purposes of confidentiality.
- Danny Fisher, “May You Always Be a Student,” in The Arts of Contemplative Care, ed. Giles and Miller, 177–78.
- Spiritual bypassing, a term coined by Buddhist teacher and psychologist John Welwood, refers to tendencies to use spiritual concepts or practices to avoid confronting unresolved issues. Although originally applied within the context of emotional and psychological issues, it has also been more recently applied to the tendency to avoid social responsibility or activism by invoking spiritual concepts. See John Welwood, “Principles of Inner Work: Psychological and Spiritual,” Journal of Transpersonal Psychology 16, no. 1 (1984): 63–73.
- Bryant, The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, 170–71.
- My theology is primarily informed by the Caitanya Vaiṣṇavite strand of Hinduism, a bhakti–oriented Vedantic tradition. For a concise and approachable overview of this theology, see Radhanath Swami, The Journey Within: Exploring the Path of Bhakti (Mandala Publishing, 2016).
- For instance, the SPOT model of chaplaincy developed by Zen Buddhist communities speaks of chaplaincy on three levels—the “personal, interpersonal, and transpersonal.” Likewise, a proposal for a multifaith approach to chaplaincy argues that pastoral caregivers adopt a “theologically grounded tripartite anthropology” that views people as “embodied (body), animated (psyche), and spiritual (spirit)” beings. See Lew Richmond and Grace Schireson, “SPOT: A Training Program for Buddhists in America,” in The Arts of Contemplative Care, ed. Giles and Miller, 33; Daniel S. Schipani and Leah Dawn Bueckert, “Interfaith Spiritual Care Understandings and Practices,” Reflective Practice: Formation and Supervision in Ministry 29 (2009): 13.
- Pat Enkyo O’Hara, preface to The Arts of Contemplative Care, ed. Giles and Miller, xiv.
- Block, “Toward a Definition of Buddhist Chaplaincy,” 4.
- Fisher, “May You Always Be a Student,” 179.
Vineet Chander is the coordinator for Hindu life and Hindu chaplain at Princeton University. He is currently a doctoral candidate at New York University, where he has been appointed the inaugural Vera and Sam S. Jain Fellow in Vedanta Studies. This article draws from a presentation that he made at the 2020 annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion, from a guest presentation that he made to a class on Hindu ministry at Harvard Divinity School, and from a chapter included in Hindu Approaches to Spiritual Care: Chaplaincy in Theory and Practice (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2019), an anthology he edited with Lucinda Mosher.