Expectations high for first Hindu member of Congress
January 10th, 2013
06:00 AM ET

Expectations high for first Hindu member of Congress

By Dan Merica, CNN

Washington (CNN)-– Just days after Democratic Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii was sworn in as the first Hindu member of Congress, Hindu American advocacy groups made it clear that they hope Gabbard will help represent the nation’s wider Hindu community, on top of her Hawaiian constituents.

Groups like the Hindu American Foundation and the Hare Krishna Society have lists of priorities they plan to present to Gabbard, making clear that expectations are high for the groundbreaking congresswoman.

While many of these groups priorities for Gabbard center on faith – “international religious liberty,” “religious diversity and freedom in America,” and “generating appreciation and respect for Hindu American contributions” – some focus on legislating in general, like being a “voice for moderation and ‘reaching across the aisle’ in Congress.”

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The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life estimates that there are 1.79 million Hindus in the United States and slightly over 1 billion worldwide, making the Hinduism the third largest faith behind Christianity and Islam.

“The human rights of Hindu minorities around the world,” said Suhag Shukla, executive director of the Hindu American Foundation, when asked about her top priority for the congresswoman. “We have gotten a number of congressmen to advocate on behalf of those issues and we will hope that she will to given the fact that this is affecting people of her tradition.”

Additionally, Shukla said that she believes Gabbard will bring a different point of view on U.S. foreign policy and church and state issues. “We will seek her support on any type of legislation that is promoting religious accommodation, anything that support religious pluralism and religious respect,” she said.

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Anuttama Dasa, director of communications for the Hare Krishna Society, outlined a number of priorities in an interview with CNN that he hopes to pursue with the congresswoman.

“The United States is a religiously diverse country, but bigotry, prejudice and violence against religious minorities still exists and harms innocent Hindu Americans and other minorities,” Dasa said. “We hope she will use her position to be an advocate for the protection of the rights of Hindu Americans and other minorities.”

Dasa continued: “We hope that while in office, Rep Gabbard will, a.) serve as a symbol of the positive contributions that Hindu Americans make to our country and b.) bring greater awareness of the contributions that Hindu Americans make to the cultural, religious, and economic strength of America.”

For many in the Hindu American community, Gabbard will serve not only her constituents in Hawaii, but also as a key representative for the Hindu community in America, the Hindu leaders say. Being the first Hindu in congress has both elevated Gabbard’s profile and set that anticipation for her leadership higher than other freshman members of congress.

Shukla, from the Hindu American Foundation, said she addressed these expectations with Gabbard during her campaign and after her win in November. With the number and diversity of Hindus in America, Shukla said she told Gabbard, the expectations of representing all Hindu Americans can be daunting.

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In an interview with CNN, Gabbard said the emphasis that Himdus put on service will influence what she bring to her work in Congress.

Standing outside the Capitol on a brisk Washington morning, Gabbard said: "Those personal experiences and the background that I bring give me great opportunity to be of service not only to the people of Hawaii," but also to the people of the country.

But at the same time, Gabbard said she was ready to get past the labels that are applied to new congressmen and women as the enter the legislative body.

“I served in the Army National Guard, been deployed a couple of times to the Middle East, and one thing that I appreciated so much about my time in the military and being deployed, is that none of these different labels matter,” Gabbard said. “We are all there, working towards the same goal, the same purpose.”

But Gabbard hasn’t run away from her Hindu faith either, a point that Shukla says is inspiring to young American Hindus. After Gabbard won her election, a victory that was heralded by Hindus, the congresswoman was sworn in on the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred religious text and the first member of congress to be sworn in on that work.

"It is a really exciting time, the community has kind of a sense of arrival," Shukla said about Gabbard. "When you have someone from your community that is representing at the highest levels of government, it does firm your position in American society.”

- Dan Merica

Filed under: Church and state • DC • Hinduism • Politics • United States

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