The British Army’s Hindu chaplain, who was appointed for the first time in 2005, Acharya Krishan Kant Attri uses Lord Krishna’s advise to Arjuna during the Mahabharata to counsel British soldiers going to war.
“I use it all the time,” says the 45-year-old Pandit Attri, who was admitted to Gurkool when he was eight. He learnt all the scriptures during his stay there.
Now he wears a well-tailored blue suit, reserving his pandit’s robes for ceremonies.
Attri was among the first four faith chaplains appointed by the army in November 2005. The other three were Mandeep Kaur (Sikh chaplain), Sunil Kariyakarawana (Buddhist), and Imam Asim Hafiz (Islam).
Britain’s armed forces have 300 regular commissioned Christian chaplains serving 183,000 Christian personnel, but the four new chaplains were the first such appointments in the history of the forces.
Attri says that he uses the Bhagwad Gita to explain the necessity of going to war to British Hindu soldiers deputed in Iraq or Afghanistan.
There are 470 Hindus in Britain’s armed forces.
Attri counsels the soldiers in eight languages but the essence of the message is the same in all of them. “I tell them, ‘God has given you an opportunity to protect your country and maintain peace in the world’. They need to know they are not killing anybody but just performing a duty.”
Attri recalls when he was interviewed at the Ministry of Defence for the job of Britain’s first Hindu chaplain, he was asked what he would say if a soldier did not want to go to war.
Hindu teachings, he responded, offer good guidance, “Duty is our priority. It’s our karma, and we have to face it.” Hindu teachings have armed most of the soldiers he counsels with resolve.
“They know they’ve undertaken a contract to look after the boundary walls of the country.”
Attri feels that the chance to be in charge of the spiritual guidance of the Hindus in the Armed Forces, is “a dream come true”.
He performs army weddings, supports soldiers and their families, and acts as a liaison between Hindu troops and their commanding officers, explaining small but symbolically charged issues: why Hindu soldiers want to wear rakhi, or symbolic red strings, around their wrists, or why strict vegetarians do not want to use spoons that have touched meat at meals.
He has also gone to Nepal to select chaplains for the Gurkhas, and this spring will visit troops in Afghanistan. “I want to see what the soldiers go through, to help me advise them and support the families left behind.”
Attri is the son of a Brahmin sweet-shop owner in Kasauli, in Himachal Pradesh, and came to Britain as a 22-year old priest to serve at the Hindu temple in Newcastle upon Tyne.
He knew no English, nor had any relatives or friends, here , when he landed at Heathrow on a dull February day in 1986. His possessions included a small suitcase full of his student awards, the Vedas, and a few books on rituals.
He spent nearly two decades at the temple, teaching not just Hindu texts, but music and Indian languages.
Now 22 years later his success has come along with the phenomenal progress by the Hindu community.