WASHINGTON, D.C. — In June, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard wasn’t in Hawaii or in D.C., but in Chicago, handing out awards to the winners of the national Dharma Bee, an event in which youths answer questions about their religion.
She praised them, according to a report in an Indian-American newspaper, saying in a rare speech about faith that the youths did not succeed in the competition “because mom and dad asked them to do so, but they have realized and learned the lessons of the Bhagavad Gita (the Hindu scripture) themselves.”
Reflecting Gabbard’s popularity among Indian-Americans nationally as the first Hindu member of Congress, she felt the love at the event. “Everyone wanted to meet her one on one,” said Sreevidya Radhakrishna, one of the organizers of the event.
But there was also politics.
She also met with a number of prominent Indian leaders at a separate dinner, Radhakrishna said. According to Gabbard’s campaign finance reports, she raised about $8,000 that day.
Since taking office to fanfare in the United States and in India, Gabbard’s faith hasn’t been a prominent part of her national image. In contrast, with members of the religious right who are vocal about being driven by their faith, the National Guard veteran has mostly been identified with issues like reducing sexual assaults in the military, or more recently, supporting the reining in of domestic surveillance by the National Security Agency.
But while not publicized, she’s been criss-crossing the nation to speak about her faith. In addition to attending the Dharma Bee, she spoke at the Hindu Youth Awards Gala in Houston on July 13, attended the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin Convention in Chicago on May 23, and is slated to be the keynote speaker at the Hindu American Foundation gala dinner in Milpitas, California, on Sept. 14.
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard watches a contestant in a Dharma Bee in Chicago
From California to Houston to Chicago, Gabbard has been finding enthusiastic crowds of Indian-Americans, who despite the fact that she is not Indian, feel the pride of seeing one of their own for the first time in Congress.
She’s become a role model for Indian-American youths, said Gaurav Ved, the youth coordinator for Hindus of Greater Houston, the organization that held the youth gala.
“We don’t have a Jay Z. We don’t have a Hindu rapper or Christian rap. None of that,” Ved said. “What we have are scriptures written thousands of years ago.”
But now, they have a congresswoman for Hawaii, who happens to be Hindu.
“The Indian-American community has a love affair with Tulsi,” said Sanjay Puri, chairman of the US-India Political Action Committee.
As Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion professor wrote in a USA Today article about Gabbard, her election was also seen as an indication of the growing political acceptance of Hindus. He noted:
“When a Hindu priest from Ohio offered the first Hindu prayer in the U.S. House of Representatives in 2000, the socially conservative Family Research Council denounced the prayer as ‘one more indication that our nation is drifting from its Judeo-Christian roots.’
“When a Hindu from Nevada offered the first Hindu prayer in the Senate in 2007, protesters from the anti-abortion group Operation Save America interrupted him, calling on Jesus to forgive the nation ‘for allowing a prayer of the wicked,’ “ Prothero wrote.
But, he wrote, when Gabbard was elected to office, “the nation simply shrugged.”
Gabbard declined to be interviewed for this article. But in a statement after her victory, Gabbard appeared to understand her symbolic importance, saying, “On my last trip to the mainland, I met a man who told me that his teenage daughter felt embarrassed about her faith, but after meeting me, she’s no longer feeling that way.”
“He was so happy that my being elected to Congress would give hope to hundreds and thousands of young Hindus in America, that they can be open about their faith and even run for office, without fear of being discriminated against or attacked because of their religion,” her statement said.
Gabbard spokeswoman Heather Fluit told Civil Beat that Gabbard’s “Hindu practice has served as a source of strength during the difficult challenges she has faced in her life, including two deployments to the Middle East with the Hawaii Army National Guard.”
But Fluit also seemed concerned about Gabbard only being identified for her religion, saying, “People from Hawaii and around the country are clearly drawn to her unique personal story, message of fresh leadership, and her dedication to serving the people of Hawaii and our nation. Growing up in a multi-racial, multi-cultural, and multi-faith family has enabled her to connect with people across the spectrum.”
Gabbard’s growing relationship with the Indian-American community, comes at a time when Indian-American participation in politics is growing, said Varun Soni, the University of Southern California’s dean of the Office of Religious Life. Immigration from India is relatively recent, he said, with many arriving in the U.S. after 1950.
“The early community was focused on building temples and community centers. Now that we have a bit of history, people are interested in supporting candidates and educational institutions,” Soni said.
Puri agrees. “The second and third generations are coming to the realization that besides business, there are other avenues to pursue … They do want to engage politically.”
Gabbard appears to be tapping into this. And along with her support in Hawaii and among veterans, Indian-Americans have become a significant part of her fundraising.
During last year’s race, Gabbard’s campaign told The Huffington Post that support from Indian-Americans accounted for only about 3 percent of her campaign contributions.
Her campaign did not respond to questions this week asking how much of the money she’s raised this year — $121,000 in individual contributions, or $233,000 total including political action committees — has come from Indian-Americans.
But according to campaign reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, she raised about $8,000 on June 16, the same day as the Chicago Dharma Bee. The contributions included $1,000 donations from Dr. Bharat H. Barai, of Munster, Ill, Chhotalal Pate, a business owner from South Barrington, Ill., and Amrit Mittal, an insurance agent from Western Springs, Ill.
On June 21, Dr. Mihir Meghani, an emergency room physician in California, hosted a fundraiser for Gabbard at his home in Fremont, Calif., according to Meghani’s Facebook page.
Tulsi Gabbard speaks to reporters after her election to Congress.
A tally based on Gabbard’s FEC reports show that she received 29 individual contributions from people with California addresses and Indian names that day, totaling about $16,000. Among the top donors that day were Meghani, who gave $5,200. Karl Mehta, a partner at a venture capital firm, Menlo Ventures, donated $2,600. Vanilla Singh, a professor at the Stanford University School of Medicine, Amit Sharma, a Hewlett Packard manager, and Shefali Duggal, a former board member of the Indian-American Leadership Institute who served on the finance committee for President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, each gave $1,000.
The June 16 and June 21 contributions total $24,000, about 10 percent of what she’s raised this year and a sharp uptick from the 3 percent the campaign estimated as having been donated by Indian-Americans last election cycle.
UPDATED: Dr. Meghani in an email on Friday cited a number of reasons why she supported Gabbard, including her service in the military. He also said, “As a Hindu American, she has taken the best of what the 5000 year old Hindu religion has offered and practices dharma in performing her duty to the people of Hawaii, studies scripture to guide her in making decisions, practices non violence towards innocent beings, respects the religious and cultural diversity of this country, and serves as a great role model for people of this country.
“My wife and I supported Tulsi because it is our duty to support good people looking to make a difference and though she did not run for office as a Hindu American, now that she is there, she is by default one of the most prominent Hindu Americans and can represent the interests of not only the people of Hawaii but of Hindu Americans as well,” he said.
Duggal did not answer questions about the Fremont fundraiser, but said in an email, “There is tremendous enthusiasm (both within our community and beyond) surrounding Congresswoman Gabbard and most definitively what she illustratively brings to the Congressional table.”
“Amongst many other things, this includes being a Hindu, although it does encompass infinitely more than that alone. Tulsi authentically embodies the next generation of leadership within Washington and throughout the United States,” Duggal said.
To Suri, the USC professor, it’s no surprise Gabbard hasn’t been more vocal about her faith in Congress, saying Hinduism is not a proselytizing religion, but one that believes there are several paths.
As he wrote in a Huffington Post article about Gabbard: “Unlike other major religions, Hinduism is a decentralized tradition with no underlying creed, ritual, pilgrimage, liturgy, worship, language or canon that is authoritative for all Hindus.”
One of Gabbard’s most extensive interviews about her faith came in a conversation with Prothero, the religion professor. In his USA Today article, Prothero wrote that Gabbard was raised by a Hindu mother and a Catholic father, state Sen. Mike Gabbard. She was exposed as a child to both the New Testament and the Bhagavad Gita. As a teenager, she embraced a Hindu identity and took the Gita as her guide.
The Gita, Prothero wrote, is a small portion of the Indian epic the Mahabharata, which at 100,000 verses is longer than the Bible, the Illiad and the Odyssey combined. The Gita, he wrote, “appears on its face to be a book about war — a bloody battle between two rival clans: the righteous Pandavas and the unrighteous Kauravas.”
Taking place on the eve of battle, Arjuna, a member of the righteous Pandava family, knows it is his duty to fight but struggles with the idea he will kill kinsmen and teachers. Arjuna’s charioteer, who is the Hindu god Krishna in disguise, tells Arjuna that he must fight, but without desiring the fruits of his actions.
Prothero, according to the article, asked Gabbard by email how the lesson applies to politics. “Gabbard replied that the Gita teaches her to try ‘to maintain my equilibrium in either success or failure.’ She then turned to Mahatma Gandhi: ‘The world’s most famous Hindu, Mahatma Gandhi … worked tirelessly for the welfare of his country and all of humanity without any thought of personal gain, leaving his ultimate success or failure in God’s hands,’” the article said.
Prothero also asked Gabbard how the scripture applied to her experiences in the Middle East. “She initially said that the Gita isn’t really about war. The central topics of the Gita are, she said, ‘enlightenment, love for God, selfless service, and how each of us can succeed in our struggle on the battlefields’ of life.’ She then added that during wartime, she ‘found great comfort and shelter in the Bhagavad Gita’s message of the eternality of the soul and God’s unconditional love,'” the article said.
To Soni, it remains to be seen how Gabbard includes the lessons of the Gita in her political career. He noted in his Huffington Post article that as a political figure, “Gandhi interpreted (the Gita) to mean that one should not be motivated by the desire for personal rewards but instead should aspire to act righteously for the benefit of others.
Sori wrote that the Gita “is not only instructive for her as a Hindu but also for all members of Congress … In an age when billions of dollars are spent on campaigns that never seem to end, Mahatma Gandhi’s commentary on the Bhagavad Gita offers politicians a powerful alternative — to act righteously, decisively and courageously without regard to personal or electoral gain, and to recognize that the real political reward is righteous.”
Gabbard did not respond to a request to describe how her faith affects her positions in Congress. She has said in past interviews she wants to improve relations between the U.S. and India.
Jay Kansara, associate director of government affairs for the Hindu-American Foundation, said Gabbard recently joined a bipartisan coalition of 27 House members who urged Secretary of State John Kerry to address the plight of religious minorities in Pakistan during his upcoming visit to the country.
Gabbard has joined the Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission, a bipartisan coalition of members concerned about international human rights issues, he said.
Zee Media, a news organization in India, also reported that Gabbard joined more than 100 House members in asking the FBI to track hate crimes against Sikhs, Hindus, and Arab-Americans as it does other minority groups.
She also co-sponsored a resolution to issue a U.S. postal stamp to honor Diwali, the “festival of lights” marking the Hindu New Year, according to a Gabbard press release.
Beyond those political considerations, Gabbard’s importance to the Indian community, stems in part from public embracing of her faith. Her use of the Gita in taking her oath of office was important symbolically.
Indian-American governors Bobby Jindal, of Louisiana, and Nikki Haley, of South Carolina, have been seen as having downplayed their ethnicities for political reasons, Puri said.
“Indian-Americans see politicians being defensive about their heritage or their roots. And then you see a young woman, Tulsi, who is not Indian-American but talks about feeling a closeness for Indian values. That is a dynamic that’s made (Indian-Americans) feel like this is someone who they want to support,” Puri said.
And, Puri said, Gabbard seems to be returning the love through her appearances. “There’s a love affair between Tulsi and the Indian community. It takes two to tango. It takes two to clap. It takes two to shake hands.”
Ved applauded Gabbard for not picking politics over her religion. “It’s really cool to see someone who has stayed true (to their faith),” Ved said. “You don’t need to switch your team to get elected. If I want, I can run for mayor of Houston without selling my soul.”
For younger Indians, the attractive veteran is someone they can relate to more easily than people of an older generation, said Radhakrishna, the Dharma Bee organizer. “It’s having somebody out there who’s not a typical Indian,” she said.
Ved noted that younger Indian-Americans growing up in America lose the morals and ideas of India.
Gabbard “preaches the same things we heard when we were growing up. And she’s helping us realize if you believe in this stuff, it’s really powerful,” he said.
“You see her, and you think, ‘Dude, you’ve got to be like her.”
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