As Rafale jets joined the Indian Air Force at Ambala Air Force Base, a sarva dharma prarthana or a multi-faith prayer was held during their induction ceremony. The prayer performed by the religious teachers is a unique feature of many important ceremonies of the India’s armed forces, particularly the Army.
A look at the concept of religious teachers in the Indian Army, their training at Institute of National Integration and their evolving role as counsellors for the troops.
Religious teachers of the Indian Army
Armed forces across the world have had the tradition of priests or clerics who accompany the troops. In India, the tradition of having military chaplains who were ministers accompanying the troops in the British era was carried forward even after the independence. Initially, religious teachers from various faiths were recruited by individual units of the Army but, over the years, the process was institutionalised.
The Institute of National Integration (INI) of the Army was established in Pune in 1984 where training of religious teachers for the Army is conducted. The Recruit Religious Teachers for the Army are selected through a separate process, undergo training at the INI, and are commissioned as Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs) with designations like Pundits, Maulavis, Priests, Monks or Granthis.
These RTs upon their commission into the Army get posted with the Army units spread across the country. At the INI, the recruits get trained in tenets of Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism and Sikhism. The recruits are not just trained in their own religion but also receive lessons about others, thus making the training multi-faith in nature.
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The sarva dharma sthal and multi-faith prayers at ceremonies
A very unique feature of almost all the Army units in India, where troops are stationed or trained, is a place called the sarva dharma sthal, which is a place of worship for all religions and faiths. The religious teachers posted are with the Army units as per the composition of individual units and are in-charge of these sarva dharma sthal. Along with being a place where everyone can worship, these sarva dharma sthal are also a symbol of harmony.
All the major ceremonies held at the Army establishments, where troops are trained or stationed, consist of the multi-faith prayer like the one held at Ambala. At the ceremonies, where ‘Presidential Colours’ are presented to the Armed Forces units, a multi-faith prayer is always held. In such ceremonies, the religious teachers recite verses from the religious texts and pray for the troops.
While some important ceremonies of the Navy and Air Force have also had multi-faith prayer in the past, the Naval and Air Force establishments do not commonly have the concept of sarva dharma sthal in their units.
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The evolving role of religious teachers as counsellors
Over the past few years, the religious teachers are being trained in behavioural and social sciences. One of the important issues the soldiers face is the combat stress and the religious teachers are being trained to do group counselling of the troops through lectures, sermons and interactions. If they come across individual soldiers who could use professional help to deal with psychological issues, they can be referred to authorities concerned.
In conflict scenarios, soldiers have to stay away from their homes and families. Religious gatherings where soldiers come together often have motivating talks by the religious teachers which may help in keeping morale high.
A religious teacher from the Army said, “The idea of an all-faith place of worship is arguably only in the Indian Army among the forces across the world. A true symbol of harmony. For example, the death of a soldier is always tragic but the troops have to face it. The religious teachers are also trained in performing these rituals. In cases, when a religious teacher of one particular faith is not available in one particular unit, the teacher of another faith performs those rituals. This only happens in the Indian Army. All the teachers are given brief training of basic practices, notions and rituals in all the religions to which the soldiers belong.”