Lawmakers’ presence raises questions of religion and nationality for Hindus

January 18, 2013

When Uma Mysorekar looks at the members of the new Congress, the Indian immigrant and practicing Hindu can see that, for the first time, there’s someone who shares her ethnicity and someone who shares her faith.

To her surprise, they are two different people.

Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii is the first practicing Hindu elected to Congress. Rep. Ami Bera of California, also a Democrat, is the third Indian American to serve in the House.

Gabbard, however, isn’t from India, where Hinduism originated and to which the vast majority of its adherents have ethnic ties.

Bera is a Unitarian. His two Indian American predecessors in Congress, Dalip Singh Saund and Bobby Jindal, also were not practicing Hindus. The late Saund, a California Democrat elected in 1956, was Sikh. Jindal, a Republican elected to the House in 2004 who is now Louisiana’s governor, is Catholic.

Gabbard’s presence in Congress creates an interesting moment for Hindus in the United States, a chance to celebrate a barrier broken but also a topic of discussion as they ponder how closely religion and nationality are entwined, or whether they even should be.

Mysorekar is glad to see a practicing Hindu in the country’s halls of political power, no matter the nationality.

Gabbard “is a Hindu representative. It doesn’t matter where she came from,” said Mysorekar, president of the Hindu Temple Society of North America, a temple in the New York borough of Queens that is one of the country’s oldest.

As a non-Indian Hindu, Gabbard is most definitely an outlier.

According to an analysis issued last month by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, there are about 1 billion Hindus in the world. Of those, 94 percent are in India, and 99 percent in the larger South Asia region. The analysis, based on data from 2010, the latest available, estimated the population of Hindus in the United States at 1.79 million. Most are of Indian descent.

Hinduism encompasses a range of beliefs and practices, and there is no formal conversion practice. That acceptance of plurality in the faith — that Hindus come in many forms — would make it “hypocritical” for Indian Hindus to look askance at Gabbard for not sharing their ethnicity, said Smita Kothuri, 38, of McLean.

“How can I hold it against her? I’d be untrue to my religion if I held it against her,” Kothuri said.

Other Indian Hindus agreed.

“I don’t think it makes a difference that she’s not Indian,” said Kinjal Dave, 17, a high school senior in Hillsborough, N.J. “I think it’s the faith that matters.”

The press secretary for Gabbard, a 31-year-old Iraq war veteran, declined a request to interview her for this article but sent along a statement that Gabbard had made upon being sworn into office, for which she used a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu religious text.

“I chose to take the oath of office with my personal copy of the Bhagavad Gita because its teachings have inspired me to be a servant-leader, dedicating my life in the service of others and to my country,” she said.

Gabbard has said that she was introduced to Hinduism through her mother and embraced it fully as a teenager. She also is the first member of Congress to be born in the U.S. territory of American Samoa.

The reception from Indians and the Indian media to her electoral victory has been largely positive, although there has been at least one mistaken media report referring to Gabbard as an Indian American. (She and all her siblings have Indian first names.)

Having any Hindu representation in Congress breaks barriers in a country where, despite religious freedom being enshrined in the Constitution, elected officials overwhelmingly come from Christian backgrounds.

It can be an inspiration to other Hindus who are interested in public office, that their faith and most voters’ unfamiliarity with it will not prove insurmountable. “I think it instills confidence to say there’s been a Hindu there,” said Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation in Washington.

It’s also an opportunity to introduce Hinduism as a faith to people who may have seen it as solely the purview of those who have a connection to India.

Dharmasetu Das knows all about that. The 55-year-old white man, whose original first name was David and who was born in Massachusetts to a military family, has been practicing Hinduism for decades. Now, he lives in San Diego and performs weddings and other ceremonies as a Hindu pandit, or priest.

Das was a teenager when he came across some books on the Hindu faith, and “I felt like this was it,” he said.

He hasn’t come across too many other non-Indian Hindus like himself over the years and is happy to know that there is now one in such a high-profile place as Congress.

“Just opening people’s eyes,” Das said, “it’s a great thing.”

— Associated Press

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