for ISKCON News on Nov. 16, 2012
In the US elections on November 6th, former Honolulu City Councilwoman and Democratic State Representative Tulsi Gabbard became the first practicing Hindu to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Congresswoman Gabbard, 31, won with 168,466 votes to 40,697 (81% vs 19%), a landslide 62-point lead over her Republican opponent Kawika Crowley.
The incoming congresswoman for Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District is not of Indian extraction. She was born to state senator Mike Gabbard, an American Samoan, and Carol Porter Gabbard, a Caucasian American, in Leloaloa, American Samoa, before moving to Hawaii at the age of 2.
But Congresswoman Gabbard (hereafter referred to as “Tulsi”) has been a practicing Hindu since her teens. Specifically, she is a Vaishnava. According to India Abroad, she is a student of Sidhasvarupananda, who was himself initiated into the Brahma Madhva Gaudiya Sampradaya by ISKCON Founder A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada.
She describes the Bhagavad-gita as being her primary scripture, and follows the path of Bhakti yoga, or loving devotion to God.
Tulsi has never made her religion a major issue in her campaign. She has focused instead on the issues: helping small businesses to create jobs; promoting renewable energy and local agriculture as foundations for the economy; and protecting medicare and social security from budget cuts.
She also called for the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan. And she emphasized that to get things done, the culture of self-centeredness, greed, and corruption that can be prevalent in politics had to change—needed changes that ring true for students of the Bhagavad-gita.
The Gita’s teachings on Bhakti-yoga and Karma-yoga have informed Tulsi’s life and career. “Karma” means action and “yoga” means in connection or union with God; thus Tulsi aims to act in the loving service of God and humanity.
“I learned from an early age that true happiness comes from being of service to others and not just living for oneself,” she says.
At the age of 19, Tulsi co-founded Healthy Hawai‘i Coalition (HHC), for which she taught children about caring for the environment and maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle. She also worked with at-risk youth.
At 21, she became the youngest person to be elected to the Hawai`i State Legislature, in 2002. Representing District 42 in West Oahu, she served on the Education, Higher Education, Tourism, and Economic Development committees.
In 2003, she joined the Hawaii National Guard. When her first term in the State Legislature was coming to a close in 2004, she learned that the soldiers of the 29th Brigade Combat Team she had trained with were being deployed to Iraq but that her unit, the Medical Command, were to stay behind.
Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard offers a lamp to Lord Krishna at the ISKCON temple in Honolulu (Hawaii State Governor Neil Abercrombie is to her right)
“It did not take me long to realize there was no way I could stay home and watch my brothers and sisters in uniform march off to Iraq without me,” she says.
Tulsi sacrificed an assured re-election to the State Legislature to go to Iraq with her team, at 23 becoming the first elected official in the State of Hawai`i to ever step down from public office to voluntarily serve in a war zone.
Tulsi served for 12 months near Baghdad as the 29th Brigade’s Medical Operations specialist. Later, in 2008, she was deployed to the Middle East for a second tour of duty as a Military Police platoon leader charged with training the Kuwait National Guard’s Counter-Terrorism unit.
But while surrounded by danger, she knew where to find solace.
“I was able to achieve a profound sense of comfort in the midst of death and turmoil, by turning to my regular daily practice of japa meditation and contemplation of the Bhagavad-Gita,” she says.
She recalls that one of the first things she saw when she arrived in Iraq was a giant sign at the gates of her base that read, “Is today the day?”
“Seeing the sign was a daily reminder that this could be the day that I have to leave this world,” she says. “It forced me to constantly remember and contemplate upon the truth of my identity.”
Two verses from the Gita in particular came to Tulsi’s mind. “That which pervades the entire body you should know to be indestructible,” Lord Krishna says in chapter two, text 17. “No one is able to destroy that imperishable soul.” And in text 23 he says, “The soul can never be cut into pieces by any weapon, nor can he be burned by fire, nor moistened by water, nor withered by the wind.”
Tulsi would also reflect upon and take solace in Krishna’s statement in the concluding chapter of the Gita: “Always think of Me, become My devotee, worship Me and offer your homage unto Me. Thus you will come to Me without fail. I promise you this because you are My very dear friend.”
“So first thing in the morning and the last thing at night, I would meditate 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,” says Tulsi. “Because I knew that I would continue to exist and I knew that I would be going to God.”
At the end of her first tour of duty, Tulsi was awarded the Meritorious Service Medal. After her second, she was the first woman ever to be presented with an award by the Kuwait Army National Guard. This makes her the first US female war veteran to be elected to Congress.
After returning from Iraq, Tulsi served as a legislative aide with Senator Akaka in the U.S. Senate for two years; and after her second tour of duty, she served on the Honolulu City Council.
“Throughout all these endeavors, I have always tried my best to serve the people and make a positive impact,” she says. “This spirit of servant leadership is what I hope to bring to Congress.”
Congresswoman Gabbard with Hindu supporters
Tulsi will also bring a strong desire to unite all peoples in reaching the goals she considers important—and a deep understanding of how to do it.
“We cannot overcome the divisive challenges facing our communities, country, and world if we do not recognize and respect all others as children of God, despite our differences of nationality, race, ethnicity, religion, and so forth,” she says. “The principles of karma yoga and bhakti yoga therefore can be a uniting principle for all people, regardless of their religion.”
She adds: “As a Congressional representative, I hope to be able to play some small role in increasing people’s respect, understanding and love for one another despite our differences.”
Tulsi believes that people of every religion in the US want the same thing—elected officials who know they are servants of the people and not of special interests.
“They want leaders to help improve the economy, stop wasting our limited resources, protect the environment and ensure that our children will have a bright future,” she says.
As well as doing her best herself, Tulsi hopes to inspire others to be servant leaders. She’s already an inspiration to fellow Hindus, who see her fully embracing Sanatan Dharma and trying to apply the principles of the Bhagavad-Gita to every aspect of her life.
As she says, “No matter where I go, I have my japa mala—meditation beads—with me, so whenever I have a spare moment I rest my mind and heart in the Holy Names.”
Seeing this kind of dedication has encouraged other Hindus in their own faith.
“I recently met an Indian man who told me that his teenage daughter had always felt embarrassed about her faith, but after meeting me, she now feels proud,” Tulsi says.
“The man told me he felt that my being elected to Congress would give hope to hundreds and thousands of young Hindus in America and that they can be open about their faith, and even run for office, without fear of being discriminated against or attacked because of their religion.”
The quotes and other background info in this article were drawn from materials provided to ISKCON News by Congresswoman Gabbard’s office.