She is neither an Indian-American nor has she ever visited India. But on Wednesday, she became America’s first-ever Hindu-American Congresswoman.
Meet Tulsi Gabbard, a 31-year-old Democrat, just elected to the US House of Representatives from faraway Hawaii. Endorsed by
Hawaii-born President Barack Obama, she defeated her Republican rival by a landslide (80.6% to 19.4%).
A practicing Hindu, Gabbard frequently recites from the Bhagavad Gita. So when she takes her oath in January as a newly-elected member, she will do so, placing her hand on a copy of the Hindu scripture. It will be the first of its kind in the history of the 223-year-old House of Representatives and the Hindu-Americans are excited about it.
Born in American Samoa to a Catholic father and a Hindu mother, Gabbard moved to Hawaii with her family when she was two years old. Her parents gave all their five children Hindu names — Bhakti, Jai, Aryan, Tulsi and Vrindavan. Keen to visit India at an early date, Gabbard has pledged to work for closer US-India relations.
“It is clear that there needs to be a closer working relationship between the United States and India,” she said in recent remarks, quizzing: “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?”
Defending her Hindu faith, which came under attack from her Republican rival David Kawika Crowley during the campaign phase, Gabbard believes her faith would be an asset in Congress.
“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,” commented Gabbard, who was feted by Indian-Americans at a recent fundraiser in Washington.
Gabbard’s victory was a foregone conclusion from the time she easily defeated her rival Mufi Hannemann in a party primary in August. Hawaii, being a predominantly Democrat territory, few doubted her chances against her Republican rival.
“Hindu-Americans have run America’s major companies and universities, won Nobel prizes and Olympic gold medals, directed blockbuster movies, and even flown into space. But one profession has so far been out of reach: Member of Congress,” wrote the Washington-based Religion News Service, ahead of Gabbard being declared the winner.
Although there have been two Indian-Americans in the US Congress to date, neither of them were Hindu. The first, Dalip Singh Saund, who was elected thrice from California back in the 1950s, was a Sikh. The second, Bobby Jindal, who was elected twice, beginning 2004, had converted to Christianity in his early years.
In 2002, at the age of 21, Gabbard became the youngest person to be elected to Hawaii State House. The very next year, she joined the Hawaii National Guard and was deployed to Iraq in 2004 as a medical operations specialist. Awarded the Meritorious Service Medal for her service, she currently serves as a Captain. Between her two deployments to the Middle East, Gabbard served as an aide to long-time US Senator Daniel Akaka.
Gabbard, who fully embraced the Hindu faith as a teenager and follows the Vaishnava path, has said that her faith helped her through her posting in Iraq, where there were daily reminders that she could be killed any time.
“First thing in the morning and the last thing at night, I meditated upon the fact that my essence was spirit, not matter, that I was not my physical body, and that I didn’t need to worry about death because I knew that I would continue to exist and I knew that I would be going to God,” she said.
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