On a judicial body whose members’ faiths have often been discussed by observers trying to understand their rulings, Srinivasan would bring a different experience.
He was sworn in on the Bhagavad Gita, a Hindu holy book, when he started his current job on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit. “Hindus Laud Judge Srinivasan for Taking Oath on Gita,” the Hindu American Foundation’s news release read at the time.
In what way would a hypothetical Justice Srinivasan bring Hindu tradition to bear when making decisions about religiously charged issues like abortion and gay rights? What do Hindus believe about contraception or the death penalty?
Srinivasan did not respond to a request for comment about his own religious beliefs, and his prior judicial record gives few clues.
Hinduism, the faith of less than 1 percent of the American public, includes many gods and a belief in reincarnation. While it is distinctly different from the Protestant, Catholic and Jewish faiths of prior Supreme Court justices, several religious leaders and academic experts say that the religion might be well-suited to the high court — because it is a highly pluralistic faith, with no dogmatic guidelines that every Hindu community agrees on.
“There is no such thing as a Hindu belief about, say, abortion or stem cell research right now which would influence any particular case. Any Hindu who occupies a judicial position will interpret the law as it is, rather than through his or her religious viewpoint,” said Vasudha Narayanan, an expert on Hinduism in America who teaches at the University of Florida. “There is no Hindu baggage, as such, at all.”
Yes, Hindu holy texts offer judgments about topics like homosexual relationships and capital punishment.
But there is no central figure, like the Catholic pope, who offers interpretation of those texts for all Hindus. And across the vast spectrum of sects among the world’s 1 billion Hindus, even the texts themselves vary.
“There isn’t a Hindu Bible. There are multiple texts, depending on the tradition,” said Shana Sippy, a Carleton College instructor who wrote her dissertation on Hindus outside of India. “There isn’t one text. There isn’t one book that every single Hindu goes to. There isn’t one story that every single Hindu knows.”
In a Pew poll, only 12 percent of American Hindus said that their scriptures should be taken literally, and 60 percent said scripture is not the word of God.
“It’s hard to generalize about Hindus, because Hindus are as diverse or perhaps more diverse in their religious and political views than any other tradition that I’m aware of,” said Raymond Williams, a religion professor at Wabash College.
That’s not to say that the religion’s 2,000-year-old texts don’t address modern-day issues. But for every scholar that says Hinduism condemns abortion or homosexuality, there are gurus who find the opposite in a different verse. “You can find almost anything in the wide variety of Hindu text,” Williams said.
Christian judges in America — including Scalia, whose son praised the justice in his eulogy for bringing his deep Catholic faith to bear on his decisions — have frequently discussed their beliefs.
Narayanan said that in India — where about 80 percent of the population is Hindu, and where a relative of hers served as a Supreme Court justice — Hindu precepts come up more rarely in debates about secular law.
“It’s very different from, say, appointing someone from one of the more Christian backgrounds, perhaps, in which people may have – may have – specific viewpoints,” Narayanan said.
Hindus in America — 91 percent of whom are Asian, mostly of Indian descent, and 87 percent of whom are immigrants, according to a 2014 Pew research study — do have distinct political beliefs. They tend to be wealthier and more highly educated than most religious groups, and more than 60 percent lean Democrat while just 13 percent lean Republican. In the same poll, significant majorities said they favored gay marriage and legal abortion.
Vikkan Chopra, the president of the Hindu Temple of Metropolitan Washington, said that most members of his community in the D.C. area embrace Hindu holidays, food and other customs, but rarely see their faith as linked to their politics.
“Yes, they are Hindus. They do maintain those cultures with their family, their Hindu friends. Otherwise, they’re so Americanized,” Chopra said.
As for Srinivasan — it’s impossible to say where he falls. And that might be just what Obama is looking for. With Republicans in the Senate vowing not to approve anybody, Obama’s strategy seems to be to pick a nominee with a moderate, unobjectionable record, whom the White House can pressure Republicans to say yes to.
Srinivasan, like most of the others on the shortlist, has not staked out any positions on the hot-button issues the Supreme Court is likely to take up.
When he was confirmed to the D.C. Circuit, he told the Senate Judiciary Committee, “I do not have an overarching, grand, unified judicial philosophy that I would bring with me to the bench if I were lucky enough to be confirmed.” He said he had written only two published pieces in the past 20 years.
The Senate approved Srinivasan’s appointment to the prominent D.C. appeals court in 2013 by a vote of 97 to 0, so senators may be hard-pressed to say why they would vote against him this time around.
Srinivasan, who was born in India and immigrated to Kansas with his family as a child, would be not only the first Hindu but also the first Asian American on the court.
“We’re all so excited about that possibility,” Narayanan said. “That kind of recognition kind of paints the Hindu Indian American into the fabric of the United States. It’s really a whole different level of having arrived in the States.”
Sippy compared a potential nomination for Srinivasan to the appointments of Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish justice, in 1916 and of Thurgood Marshall, the first black justice, in 1967.
She envisioned the pride the Indian community in the United States might share if Srinivasan is nominated. “If he becomes a Supreme Court justice, there will be Indian American cultural celebrations where kids will dress up as him, just as they do as Indira Gandhi and famous scientists. He will become among those figures who are held up as what it means to be an immigrant.”
And while his religion might not influence his jurisprudence, she said, his judicial role would inspire fellow practitioners of his religion.
“You can be American — a sense of seeing yourself in a position of power and prestige and respectability,” she said. “To think about that is profound.”