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.
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.
“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.”