for The Huffington Post on Dec. 7, 2012
"On the one hand, the Gita can seem to uphold a strong adherence to traditional values and an almost archaic view of structured society. Read another way, however, the text offers a refreshingly progressive statement on using spiritual principles like selflessness and equality to guide one's material activities."
As a general rule, Hindu-Americans love milestones and photo opportunities. When photogenic Tulsi Gabbard, the first Hindu elected to U.S. Congress, is sworn in to office with her right hand resting on a copy of the Bhagavad Gita, we will get both. But we will also get something far more valuable: a congresswoman who reads and bases her life around the Gita. I hope that amid all the coverage of the historic swearing in, this won't be lost.
I don't mean to take away from the symbolic importance of Tulsi's decision to swear in on the Gita, or to dismiss the genuine joy that many Hindu-Americans feel about it. It is a formality, to be sure, but it is an important formality. Swearing over a copy of sacred text is a venerable tradition; the book serves as a sort of three-dimensional symbol of truth itself. And if the book is accepted as legitimate, then it follows that the faith that reveres the book is legitimate as well. For a Hindu-American community that has had to endure Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley -- both born into Dharmic faiths, both converts to Christianity as young adults -- Tulsi Gabbard and her Gita are affirmation that our faith is finally taking a seat at the table. That alone is worth celebrating.
Still, I think that if we stop there we sell ourselves short. To me, the more interesting and important questions revolve around how the Gita will play into Tulsi's job in the days that follow her being sworn into office. How will she engage with the text in making the tough decisions her new role will present to her?
Tulsi has been criticized -- some might say unfairly -- for being complicit in the socially conservative views of her Republican politician father, especially when it comes to same-sex marriage and LGBT rights, and then for attempting to distance herself from those views. Some question the sincerity of her "leftward journey" and suggest that it was more about political expediency than a genuine change of outlook.
Can Tulsi's reading of the Gita play a role in this conversation? I think so.
On the one hand, the book can seem to uphold a strong adherence to traditional values and an almost archaic view of structured society. Read another way, however, the text offers a refreshingly progressive statement on using spiritual principles like selflessness and equality to guide one's material activities. What, then, might Tulsi's Gita tell her about the rights of marginalized people? How will it shed light on a government's responsibility to care for the health and well-being of its citizenry? Will the Gita's teachings on the soul and its doctrine of karma play a role in Tulsi's wrestling with life-ethics issues -- when life begins and when and how it can be brought to an end? On a handful of hot button issues, and many others that don't generate as many headlines but are just as critical, how will Tulsi's Gita inform her leadership?
As an avid reader and teacher of the Gita for more than 20 years, and someone who has studied the text through the lens of the Vaishnava tradition (the same tradition of Hinduism, incidentally, that Tulsi adheres to), I am convinced that the text is a manifesto for a revolutionary, even subversive, form of engaged spirituality that triumphs over dogma and blind ritualism. In Krishna's teachings, the spirit of the law always trumps the letter of the law. In his eyes, it is the intention and consciousness behind an action, and not merely the external action or position we espouse, which truly matters. Ultimately, the Gita's core teaching reminds us, we reach our fullest potential when we engage with the world in a spirit of sacrifice and selflessness, motivated by love and absorbed in devotion. I have learned, often the hard way, that the Gita is not a playbook that offers easy, formulaic answers to relieve us the burden of decision-making. Rather, it is a moral and spiritual compass that offers us an amazing perspective with which to wrestle with the difficult questions. I suspect, and hope, that Tulsi feels the same way.
It's early to tell, but I am hopeful. Tulsi has already been candid about having a daily practice that includes meditation, yoga and -- apropos of this discussion -- reading the Gita. There has been much said recently about the fact that Tulsi is not a person of Indian origin and not, therefore, from an ethnically Hindu background. A New York Times op-ed described her as a "half-Hindu", even while mainstream Hindu American organizations like the Hindu American Foundation and Hindu American Seva Charities embrace her and celebrate her victory. This is part of the larger conversation about race and religion, and too important and complex a subject to do justice to here, but I will say this: Far too many of us from an ethnically Hindu background are content to simply leave the Gita on a shelf or display cabinet, to piously gather dust and advertise our heritage. I, for one, am happy that the nation's first Hindu-American member of Congress (brown or not) is someone who reads the book instead. Perhaps we are finally ready to move beyond photo ops.
I look forward to Tulsi Gabbard being sworn in on the Gita. Even more so, I look forward to the day -- 10, 20, 50 years from now -- when there will be so many Hindu-Americans serving in elected government that being sworn in on the Gita won't be exotic enough to warrant blogging about. And most of all, I look forward to witnessing how Tulsi, and the countless others who will hopefully follow her exemplary lead, will engage with this book that I love so much, to better serve our country.