Washington, Jan 4: When Tulsi Gabbard from Hawaii took oath of office on the sacred Bhagavad Gita as a member of the US House of Representatives, she not only created history as first Hindu lawmaker but has electrified intellectuals and liberals in US.
Tulsi, who has never visited India, was administered the oath of office by the John Boehner, Speaker of the House of Representatives, on Gita.
Why take oath on Gita? "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," she explained about the oath as Congresswoman bringing cheer to nearly 2.3 million Hindus in US even though she is not Indian or of Indian heritage. Her father Mike Gabbard is currently Hawaii State Senator and mother Carol Porter Gabbard is an educator and business owner.
"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," Gabbard said.
Gabbard embraced Hinduism as a teenager. Her primary scripture is the centuries-old Bhagavad Gita, whose themes include selfless action, spirituality, war and serving God and humanity.
"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. In so doing, have been blessed with the motivation and strength to dedicate my life in service others in a variety of ways," she said.
Tulsi was born in 1981 in Leloaloa, American Samoa, the fourth of five siblings. At the age of two, the family moved to Hawaii. As a member of Hawaii National Guard, she was deployed to Baghdad as a medical operations specialist in 2004. After completing officers' training, she deployed to Kuwait in 2008 to train the country's counter-terrorism units.
And her record as lawmaker has been exceptional. At 21, she became the youngest person elected to the Hawaii Legislature. At 23, she was the state's first elected official to voluntarily resign to go to war. At 28, she was the first woman to be presented with an award by the Kuwait Army National Guard.
But what has caught the attention and support of the American intellectuals and the liberals is her belief in selfless service that is required to heal the divided US.
"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 life in the service of others and to my country," Gabbard said after the swearing-in ceremony on Thursday.
Taking this point, the USA Today columnist Stephen Prothero says her swearing was a teachable moment - a Hindu moment and a time to shed some light from Asia onto American politics.
Prothero, who 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, says, "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."
In an interview to Huffington Post, 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?" Gabbard told the post. "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."
However, Tulsi has not visited India so far and she is looking to make her first trip as an elected member of the House of Representatives.
"As a Vaishnava, I especially look forward to visiting the holy sites of Vrindavan," she had told a news agency in an earlier interview.
Tulsi's spiritual lineage is the Brahma Madhva Gaudiya Sampradaya. She is a disciple of Siddhaswarupananda Paramahamsa. He is a co-founder of the World Vaishnava Association, an umbrella organisation of over 30 India-based and world-wide missions adhering to and promoting Vaishnava teachings.
Hawaii is comprised of a majority of Christian with 10-15 percent of Buddhists. The number of Hindus is relatively small and only two Hindu temples in the entire state - the Iskcon Temple on Oahu and the Aadheenam Temple on Kauai. Her religion, Tulsi said, was not an issue for the election. Neither it has been a negative factor in her electoral campaign, she noted.
What defines Tulsi Gabbard is her belief that the government should not impose some people's "so-called morality" on others' private lives. And this is what many Indians need to understand and implement in Indian context.