Beliefs Politics

Hawaii Democrat poised to be first Hindu in Congress

RNS photo courtesy Tulsi Gabbard's campaign

(RNS) Hindu Americans have run America’s major companies and universities, won Nobel prizes and Olympic gold medals, directed blockbuster movies, and even flown into space. But one profession has so far been out of reach: Member of Congress.

Democrat Tulsi Gabbard is poised to win an out-of-nowhere bid over Republican opponent Kawika Crowley. Gabbard was leading Crowley 70 percent to 18 percent, according to an Oct. 12 poll by the Honolulu Civil Beat.

Democrat Tulsi Gabbard is poised to win an out-of-nowhere bid over Republican opponent Kawika Crowley. Gabbard was leading Crowley 70 percent to 18 percent, according to an Oct. 12 poll by the Honolulu Civil Beat.

That may change next week in Hawaii’s 2nd congressional district, where Democrat Tulsi Gabbard is poised to win an out-of-nowhere bid over Republican opponent Kawika Crowley. Gabbard was leading Crowley 70 percent to 18 percent, according to an Oct. 12 poll by the Honolulu Civil Beat.

The heavily Democratic district also elected one of two Buddhists to have ever served in Congress, Mazie Hirono, who won her seat in 2006 but is now running for the U.S. Senate.

Gabbard, 31, was born in American Samoa to a Catholic father and a Hindu mother, and moved to Hawaii when she was 2. In 2002, at age 21, she was elected to the Hawaii state legislature. 

The next year, she joined the Hawaii National Guard, and in 2004 was deployed to Baghdad as a medical operations specialist. After completing officers’ training she deployed to Kuwait in 2008 to train the country’s counter-terrorism units.

Democrat Tulsi Gabbard speaks with a citizen. Gabbard is poised to win an out-of-nowhere bid over Republican opponent Kawika Crowley.

Democrat Tulsi Gabbard speaks with a citizen. Gabbard is poised to win an out-of-nowhere bid over Republican opponent Kawika Crowley.

Not everyone would welcome a Hindu into Congress. When self-proclaimed “Hindu statesman” Rajan Zed was asked to open the Senate with a prayer in 2007, the American Family Association called the prayer “gross idolatry” and urged members to protest; three protesters from the fundamentalist group Operation Save America interrupted the prayer with shouts from the gallery.

Then-Rep. Bill Sali, R-Idaho, said the prayer and Congress' first Muslim member “are not what was envisioned by the Founding Fathers.” Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum told supporters this summer that equality was a uniquely Judeo-Christian concept that “doesn’t come from the East and Eastern religions.” Crowley, in an interview with CNN.com, said Gabbard’s faith was incompatible with the Constitution.

Gabbard and her fellow Hindus obviously disagree. 

Namita Pallod welcomes Tulsi Gabbard to her father's Houston home for a fundraiser on October 28, 2012.

Namita Pallod welcomes Tulsi Gabbard to her father's Houston home for a fundraiser on October 28, 2012.

“It is stunning that some people in Congress would so arrogantly thumb their nose at the Bill of Rights,” Gabbard said in an email. “When I volunteered to put my life on the line in defense of our country, no one asked me what my religion was.”

Had America’s Founding Fathers “wanted to found a Christian nation, they would have said as much, but instead they founded it on the principle of religious freedom,” said Mihir Meghani, a co-founder of the Washington-based Hindu American Foundation.

Gabbard, whose first name refers to a tree sacred to Hindus, fully embraced Hinduism as a teenager, and follows the Vaishnava branch that believes in the Supreme Lord Vishnu, and his 10 primary incarnations. Her primary scripture is the centuries-old Bhagavad Gita, whose themes include selfless action, spirituality, war, and serving God and humanity.

“The Bhagavad Gita is often considered a guide as to how to make decisions in difficult situations, when the decision is often not clear cut,” Meghani said. “Hinduism’s innate pluralism recognizes that there are various ways to look at things, and its focus on dharma, or duty, guides those holding positions of power or authority.”

In Hawaii’s 2nd congressional district, Democrat Tulsi Gabbard is poised to win an out-of-nowhere bid over Republican opponent Kawika Crowley.

In Hawaii’s 2nd congressional district, Democrat Tulsi Gabbard is poised to win an out-of-nowhere bid over Republican opponent Kawika Crowley.

Among Gabbard’s favorite verses, she said:

— “That which pervades the entire body you should know to be indestructible. No one is able to destroy that imperishable soul.” (2:17)

— “The soul can never be cut into pieces by any weapon, nor can he be burned by fire, nor moistened by water, nor withered by the wind.”(2.23)

Her faith, Gabbard said, helped her through Iraq, where there were daily reminders that she could be killed any time.

“First thing in the morning and the last thing at night, I meditated upon the fact that my essence was spirit, not matter, that I was not my physical body, and that I didn't need to worry about death because I knew that I would continue to exist and I knew that I would be going to God,” she said.

Gabbard said her faith would be an asset in Congress, where she hopes to work on veterans’ affairs, environmental issues, and developing relations with India, the world’s largest democracy and a growing economic and nuclear power.

“It is clear that there needs to be a closer working relationship between the United States and India. How can we have a close relationship if decision-makers in Washington know very little, if anything, about the religious beliefs, values, and practices of India's 800 million Hindus?” said Gabbard.

“Hopefully the presence in Congress of an American who happens to be Hindu will increase America's understanding of India as well as India's understanding of America.”

The two highest-profile Indian-American politicians are both Republicans and converts to Christianity: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal was raised Hindu, while South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley was raised Sikh.

While Gabbard has welcomed Indian-American support, her campaign noted that their contributions account for less than 3 percent of the total it has raised.

Still, her potential election has electrified the Hindu American community, which is estimated to be from 600,000 to 2.3 million, most of them Indian-Americans. Vijay Pallod, who hosted a fundraiser for Gabbard in his Houston home last Sunday (Oct. 28), is one of them.

“She will be good role model for second-generation Hindus,” he said. “I am looking forward to see her taking oath under the Bhagavad Gita in January.”

LEM END SACIRBEY

About the author

Omar Sacirbey

Omar Sacirbey is a Boston-based correspondent for Religion News Service and other publications.

3 Comments

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  • This is wonderful news for Hindus! We need a voice in Congress and much more attention should be given to America-India relations.

  • ‘Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum told supporters this summer that equality was a uniquely Judeo-Christian concept that “doesn’t come from the East and Eastern religions.” ‘

    In the oldest democracy USA still not even one representative from a religion culture tradition thousands of years old … well so much for the Judeo-Christian concept of equality Rick Santorum! What is the equal Judeo-Christian tradition afraid of ?

    Jai ho .. Tulsi Gabbard ki !

  • Tolerant and broadminded Americans elected Tulsi Gabbard without showing racial or religious animosity. Had they known that Gabbard would show her religious fanaticism after election, they would not voted for her. That Bhagavad Gits is a war literature. But Mihir Meghani, a co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation., has said “The Bhagavad Gita is often considered a guide as to how to make decisions in difficult situations, when the decision is often not clear cut,” If we follow that guide we will end in total destruction. Krishna, the prime hero in the Bhagavad Gita, cajoles Arjun to kill his own revered teachers (gurus) and relatives in the Kurukshetra War, as opposed to Jesus’ advice to love enemies and to show the other chin to receive a slap. And again, Krishna is the cause for caste oppression in India where millions belonging to Dalit community are treated worse than beasts. Krishna said in the Bhagavad Gita that he created four fold division of caste (Chaturvarnayam maya srstam). How can he become a role model?
    The souls referred to by Tulsi was actually taken from Christian scriptures. The Mahabharata remained mnemonic, for it was considered sacrilegious to produce a manuscript or print it. But British scholars of Asiatic Society, in collaboration with some Brahmin priests of their choice, produced manuscripts and printed texts by including many new ideas to modernize the Bhagavad Gita. There have been several interpolations in the Maha Bharata.

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