A Hindu moment in Congress

USAToday January 3, 2013

Column: A Hindu moment for Congress

Stephen Prothero9:09p.m. EST January 3, 2013

Hawaii’s Rep. Tulsi Gabbard was raised by Hindu mother and Catholic father.
As a child she was exposed to New Testament and Hindu’s Bhagavad Gita.
Her new colleagues should note Gita’s message of “selfless service”.

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.”

But on Thursday, when Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, the first Hindu ever elected to the Congress, took her oath of office on the Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gita, the nation simply shrugged. “I believe strongly in embracing diversity,” Gabbard told me in an e-mail interview, and for now at least this “aloha spirit” is spreading to the mainland.

Raised by a Hindu mother and a Catholic father in “a multiracial, multicultural, multifaith family,” Gabbard 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 is a small portion of the Indian epic the Mahabharata (“Great India”), which appears on its face to be a book about war — a bloody battle between two rival clans: the righteous Pandavas and the unrighteous Kauravas. In fact, at some 100,000 verses (longer than the Bible, the Iliad and the Odyssey combined) the Mahabharata is the world’s longest reflection on war.

The Gita itself is a manifesto on duty that takes place on the eve of the bloodletting. Arjuna, a member of the righteous Pandava family, is about to march into battle. As a warrior, he knows it is his duty to fight. Yet he also knows that if he fights, he will kill kinsmen and teachers alike. What to do? The answer comes from Arjuna’s charioteer, who also happens to be the Hindu god Krishna in disguise. And what Krishna says is that Arjuna must fight. He must do so, however, without desiring the “fruits” of his actions.

I asked Gabbard how this teaching might apply 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.”

When I pressed Gabbard, who was deployed twice to the Middle East with the Hawaii Army National Guard, about applying Krishna’s words to her own battlefield experiences, 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.”

As a religion professor, I see her swearing in as a “teachable moment” — a Hindu moment. But it could also be a time to shed some light from Asia onto American politics.

The problem in Washington today is that legislators almost always act based on how they think their actions will help or hurt their political careers. An antidote to our epidemic of partisanship can be found in the “great tradition of conciliation” in which American statesmen from Thomas Jefferson to John Kennedy put the good of the country above the interests of self, party, or region. This tradition could be revived, if only we would heed the words of George Washington, who warned against the “mischiefs of the spirit of party,” or of Patrick Henry, who exclaimed, “I am not a Virginian but an American.”

It could also be revived by an infusion of the Gita’s principle of selfless service. If Democrats and Republicans could learn to cast their votes without first (and foremost) calculating the costs and benefits to their personal careers, Capitol Hill would start to look a less like a battlefield between rival clans and more like the arena of compromise and conciliation our Founders intended it to be.

Stephen Prothero is a professor in Boston University’s religion department and the author of The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation.

Leave a Reply