Perhaps in the midst of our post-election pandemonium you heard the news that we have a new member of the U.S. Congress who is a Hindu by faith. Democrat Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District is the first Hindu-American congresswoman. She plans to take her oath on a sacred Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita, at the swearing in ceremony in January 2013. This is a first in American politics.
Those elected to Congress are not legally required to observe religious ceremony at the swearing in. They are granted the option of making an affirmation of support for the Constitution rather than swear an oath. However, many do choose to take oaths of office over Christian and Jewish texts. Minnesota Rep. Keith Ellison, a Muslim, took his oath over a Quran.
Gabbard has done military service with Hawaii’s National Guard, and served in the war in Iraq in 2004. She draws her strength from the teachings of the Gita about the eternality of the soul. “That which pervades the entire body you should know to be indestructible. No one is able to destroy that imperishable soul.” (Chapter 2:17)
When interviewed about her faith, she stated, “My father is of Samoan/Caucasian heritage and he is a deacon in the Catholic church. However, he also likes to practice mantra meditation, including kirtan. My mother is Caucasian and a practicing Hindu.”
Although Gabbard is not ethnically Indian by heritage, she has been warmly received by the Indian-American community and they excitedly celebrated her election success.
The Bhaghavad Gita, often referred to simply as the Gita, is one of several sacred texts in Hinduism. Some Hindu books, such as the Vedas, are even more ancient. Gabbard’s public demonstration of a faith not traditionally associated with our national life tells us how pluralistic the country’s religions have become, that is, more multiculturally diverse.
The pastor at our local Unity of Walnut Creek, a church known for religious inclusiveness, used a quote from the Gita for a theme in his sermon of August 26, 2012:
“To show them special mercy, I, dwelling in their hearts, destroy with the shining lamp of knowledge the darkness born of ignorance.” (Bhagavad-gītā As It Is, 10.11)
What is the Gita all about?
Mahatma Gandhi wrote in The Gita According to Gandhi, in 1929, that it replaced all other scriptures for him and he considered it to be a synthesis of Hinduism. In the Gita, a popular section of the larger epic known as the Mahabharata, Arjuna is exhorted to submit his will to Krishna in the war against his enemies, although they are his own kin.
Gandhi interpreted the war in the Gita as an allegory, describing the war as a struggle between dharma and adharma. He perceived the central message of the Gita to be “anāsakta,” or detachment and the achievement of non-violence.
Gandhi identified the last nineteen verses of Chapter 2, which includes Gabbard’s favorite quoted above, as the most representative of the Gita’s message.
Paradoxically, in participating in the war, Arjuna learns he can achieve non-violent detachment in fulfilling his duty as a warrior.
The story is centered around Arjuna’s crisis of conscience. As a Kshatriya, a member of the warrior caste, he had a duty to fight in defense of his brother’s claim to the kingdom. To do so he is forced to contemplate the act of killing his own cousins who challenge the claim. When he loses heart for the battle, Krishna comes to his aid. This episode of the Mahabharata war was chosen as an example of the most “unspiritual” kind of activity, the killing of other human beings. The Gita is saying that even in what appears to be most “unspiritual,” one can act with pure intentions and thus be guided by Krishna consciousness.
Thomas Merton, in his introduction to the 1968 edition of The Bhagavad-Gita: As It Is, also wrote about the significance of the ancient scripture.
“The word Gita means “Song,” just as in the Bible the Song of Solomon has traditionally been known as “The Song of Songs.” The Bhagavad Gita is, for Hinduism, the great and unsurpassed Song that finds the secret of human life in the unquestioning surrender to and awareness of Krishna … leading to ultimate union with God.”
Merton expands on Ghandi’s message of achieving detachment while participating fully in the action of the world.
“The Gita, like the Gospels, teaches us to live in awareness of an inner truth that exceeds the grasp of our thought and cannot be subject to our own control. In following mere appetite for power, we are slaves of our own appetite. In obedience to that inner truth we are at last free.”