America is becoming more Hindu, there is no doubt about it. Phil Goldberg’s book, American Veda, traces the history of the influence of Hinduism on American life over the past two and a half centuries. Similarly, Lisa Miller, in her Newsweek article We Are All Hindus Now, (Published Aug 15, 2009)shows how American thought and practice is moving in a direction that can best be described as Hindu. For the most part, however, this influence has occurred without an outright acknowledgement of or public association with anything identified as Hinduism.
Last November, Tulsi Gabbard became the first Hindu elected to the United States Congress when she handily won her first election to a federal office. The election in Hawaii not only reflects the character and charisma of Tulsi, but also an acceptance, at least in her Congressional district, of Hinduism.
As Americans without familial connections to India have adopted Hindu beliefs and practices, so too have Hindus in America embraced American life and simultaneously adapted Hinduism, with its ancient mooring in India, to the American landscape. Tulsi was born to a Hindu mother of American Samoan ancestry and a non-Indian, Christian father who had adopted some Hindu practices. Raised a Hindu, she, like most Hindu, Jain and Sikh Indian Americans, questioned her beliefs, studied them, read scripture and made a conscious decision to maintain her religion and practices. She explained, “Hari nama, the holy names of God, and the transcendental wisdom of the Bhagavad Gita have always provided me with wisdom, spiritual strength, direction and purpose in life, as well as solace and comfort when faced with the possibility of death at any moment.”
Hinduism, or Sanatana Dharma—an ancient, living, vibrant system of religions, traditions, beliefs and practices, encompassing not only India but every country in the world and with over one billion adherents—could only survive in such numbers for so long with an inner strength that rests on universal truths adaptable to a wide range of people and the ability to inspire people to greater acts.
Recall that Mahatma Gandhi was inspired by this same tradition to take ancient Hindu and Jain principles of ahimsa to a political level. Tulsi takes inspiration from that same tradition when she acknowledges, “I learned early on that I was happiest when I was using my life in the service of others.… The spirit of karma yoga has been the motivating factor for everything I do in my life. The more I engaged in activities that weren’t just for myself, the happier I became, and the more I wanted to do.” That inspiration led her to found the Healthy Hawaii Coalition, teaching schoolchildren about caring for the environment and maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle. That inspired her to run successfully for the Hawaii State Legislature, give up her “safe seat” to join her Army National Guard team for a year-long deployment in Iraq, run successfully for the Honolulu City Council and win a challenging Congressional election.
When Tulsi took the oath of office, she did so on a Bhagavad Gita, cementing this ancient guide to action in American and Hindu history. Her oath has added meaning because the Bhagavad Gita has deep meaning for Tulsi, guiding her and continuously inspiring her to do seva, or selfless service.
This is another defining moment for modern Hinduism, because it should serve to remove any doubts about the ability of a proud, public, practicing Hindu to reach a prominent post or position in this country. Unfortunately, despite inheriting such a rich heritage, many Indian Americans have shamefully tried to minimize their tradition and hide their Hindu identity from anyone who could potentially think ill of them or misunderstand their beliefs, while others have maintained everything Hindu but decided to call it something else. And worse yet, some have chosen to abandon their heritage altogether.
Governors Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley are prominent examples of the latter. Instead of seeking inspiration from their Hindu and Sikh backgrounds, respectively, they sought shelter and support in the faith of the majority of their neighbors. They, in some sense, are the opposite of what America is—their contribution to America’s melting pot or salad bowl was thereby negated for the most part. Their decision was in fact bad for America, as America is, at its core, becoming more and more pluralistic. Lisa Miller wrote that Americans are more accepting of multiple paths to God and the belief that “many religions can lead to eternal life.”
Tulsi Talks About Taking the Oath on The Bhagavad Gita
I was raised in a multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-faith family. My mother is Hindu; my father is a Catholic lector in his church who also practices mantra meditation. I began to grapple with questions of spirituality as a teenager. Over time, I came to believe that, at its essence, religion gives us a deeper purpose in life than just living for ourselves. Since I was a teenager, I have embraced this spiritual journey through the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita.
I chose to take the oath of office with my personal copy of the Bhagavad Gita because its teachings have inspired me to strive to be a servant-leader, dedicating my time and energy on a daily basis in the service to others, karma yoga. My Gita has been a tremendous source of inner peace and strength through many tough challenges in life, including being in the midst of death and turmoil while serving our country in the Middle East. When I was deployed to Iraq, the only real shelter for me was my bhakti yoga practice and the Bhagavad Gita’s message of the eternality of the soul and God’s unconditional love.
Like Mahatma Gandhi, I believe that we cannot overcome the divisive challenges facing our communities, countries and world if we do not recognize and respect all others as children of God, despite our differences of nationality, race, ethnicity, religion and so forth. These principles of karma yoga and bhakti yoga, therefore, can be a uniting principle for all people, regardless of their religion.
I look forward to working with my fellow Congressmen and women to improve the economy, stop wasting our limited resources, protect the environment and ensure that our children will have a bright future. Of course, since I’m a practicing Hindu, the unique concerns of Hindu and Indian Americans are very near and dear to my heart. My door will always be open to them.
Pluralism is acknowledging and celebrating the diversity around us, and thriving more because of it. It is the legacy of ancient and modern India. It is the essence of Hinduism, and, in the broadest sense, its branches—Jainism, Sikhism and Buddhism. It is the thread that ties together India’s various cultures, religions, beliefs, practices and races.
Kudos to Tulsi for being public, open and proud of her Hinduism and for sharing with the rest of the world the core message of Hinduism that inspired her. Tulsi’s victory is a proud moment for Hindus, because it reminds us that we can reach similar levels of society with a public Hindu identity. Tulsi’s oath should be emboldened as individuals to examine our beliefs, seek inspiration from our heritage and look for the practical application of our spiritual tradition, just as Tulsi found motivation for her karma yoga (pursuing God or Truth through good work) in Hinduism.
Her oath-taking was an even prouder moment for all Americans because it reflects the best that America can offer the world—pluralism.
Mihir Meghani, M.D., an emergency physician living in Fremont, California, is a co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation. His article originally appeared in India-West.