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Cover Story: A Chat with Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard

By VIREN MAYANI Email By VIREN MAYANI
January 2014
Cover Story: A Chat with Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard Raising Hindu Pride in America
Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, who took her oath of office over the Bhagavad Gita, is a shining role model for Hindu Americans.

Traditional Hinduism, often represented by gurus clad in saffron robes and ash on their foreheads, chanting Sanskrit shlokas and performing orthodox rituals, seems far out-of-place in traditional America. Across Hindu homes in America, family shrines featuring images of such gurus, along with images or idols, one or more of a pantheon of deities— such as a fierce-looking durga maa, or the monkey God Hanuman, or the elephant God Ganesha—are quite common. 

Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard takes the Oath of Office
on her personal Bhagavad Gita. Administering the oath
is Speaker of the House John Boehner.

Is it any wonder that many Hindu Americans, and especially the young ones, feel a bit bashful about this aspect of their religious identity, which may seem downright strange to their Ameri¬can friends and acquaintances? Lost in this “quaint” symbolic imagery is the fact that as a demographic group, Hindu Americans, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, are the most educated and best paid group—bar none—in the country. 

The success of Hindu Americans notwithstanding, the community lacked public leaders that could bridge the gap between image and reality, as well as the gap between it and mainstream America. Not anymore. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, the first elected Hindu Congresswoman, proudly embraces her Hindu identity. And in doing so, she pushes acceptance of Hinduism a notch or two in mainstream America. Because, while being a proud Hindu, Gabbard is also the quintessential American—and a highly inspiring one at that. Her profile crackles with energy: Be¬sides being the youngest woman in Congress, she is also one of the first two fe¬male combat veterans there, and the first female of American Samoan ancestry to be elected. When not serving her constituents, she practices capoeira, the Brazilian martial art, plays the guitar and conga drums, and surfs every opportunity she gets (“I feel much more comfortable in the ocean than on land sometimes!” she told Khabar). No wonder Vogue magazine asked: “Is Tulsi Gabbard the next Democratic Party Star?” 

Her popularity with the Indian- American community surged when the photogenic 32-year-old took her oath of office on the Bhagavad Gita. Her “deeply personal decision” has, she feels, created “a feeling of empowerment for an entire constituency” that has so far been under-represented. 

Here are excerpts from our interview with her. 

How are you able to maintain a multidimensional personality? You have the longest list of firsts that I've ever read. How did you pull this off? 

“How can I best be of service?” is the question I ask myself constantly. The answer to that question is what motivated me to run for the State Legislature when I was 21. It’s not only what led me to enlist in the Hawaii Army National Guard while I was serving in the state legislature but to leave my seat in politics at that time and volunteer to be deployed to Iraq. During that time my colleagues and my friends and the people in my community didn’t understand my decision because they couldn’t come to grips with the fact that in their view I was giving up all of this that I’d worked so hard for to go and serve in a combat zone. For me it was a life-changing and life-impacting decision but it was based on a very simple premise, which was, that was where I needed to be and where I could best serve and try to make a difference.

What motivated you to serve on the field and not take a desk job within the military?

If I’m going to do anything in my life, if there’s anything that’s worth my time and my attention and my energy, I’m going to make sure that I give it my all. I love being a soldier. I love serving in our United States Military. I was in a medical unit first, which was incredibly impactful in so many ways—what I saw and experienced in terms of the realities of the hell that war is. And also later on I chose to become a military police officer because of that very choice. The military police for women is the closest we can get to serving at the tip of the spear as they say. I wanted to be where I could best make a difference. 

01_14_CvrStory-TGabbard-kuwait1.jpg


During her service in the military, Gabbard served first in Iraq and later in Kuwait. While in Kuwait, she became the first woman to ever receive an award of appreciation from the Kuwaiti military.

It’s reasonably hard (for a variety of reasons) for Hindus to observe strict Hinduism in their households here. I’ve seen innumerable families, and in comparison, you have a multi-faith family and yet you remained a hundred percent vegetarian all your life and remained a devout Hindu. How are you able to maintain that?

It’s a matter of distilling the teachings of the Bible, which I was brought up with because of my father, who’s a practicing Catholic, and the teachings of the Bhagavad Gita because of my mom, who’s a practicing Hindu. And the essence of both these Scriptures come back to the same place—loving God and doing your best to serve and make a positive impact on those around you. These are two principles that are simple and can be applied in your everyday life. And they are obviously in alignment with each other. 

You make a great case for co-existence and religious tolerance, illustrating that people can truly be democratic in practicing their diverse faiths while being in one household. 

The sectarian conflicts that have occurred throughout history and that continue today, really are based more on labels than they are on the actual teachings of any major religion. So for me, it was a matter of taking these teachings and these Scriptures that I’d studied growing up and finding a way to apply them in my own life and always strive to do that rather than looking at these teachings as a ritual or a family tradition or a cultural tradition. These teachings are real and we can apply them in our own way whether you own a grocery store providing food to people, work in a post office delivering mail, whether you are a physician providing care to people and making them well. No matter what our profession is or path in life, these principles are simple enough to be practical even in, especially in today’s modern-day society. 

Let’s talk about your education. Growing up, you were home-schooled and then you went to an all-girls missionary academy in the Philippines. Where did you find the roots for your motivation to do what you’re doing? Did it come from home schooling? If so, who was your teacher besides your mother? 

The foundation for the path that I’ve followed was laid in my youth. Both of my parents taught us at home. My dad is an English major, so he focused in that area and my mom took care of the math and sciences. Both of them are teachers by training and brought their own individual background to making sure that we received a quality education. Whether it was experiences at home in Hawaii, or the time that I spent in the Philip¬pines, there were lessons that were taught from the books, but there were bigger life lessons that helped to illustrate some of the spiritual lessons that they tried to instill in us. I’ll never forget the first time I got off the plane in Manila and was driving in the traffic. I was still quite young and seeing for the first time those squatters in cardboard shelters by the road, children knocking on your car window, looking emaciated and hungry, and begging for food and money—being exposed to these different experiences throughout my childhood and in many different places gave me a deep appreciation of both what is important in life and the urgency of needing to act and serve with purpose, and not taking for granted some of the things that we very easily take for granted in our comfort¬able lives here.

You practice the martial art of capoeira. From Hawaii to the Philip¬pines and from there to the Brazilian capoeira, how did that happen?

I’ve never been to Brazil but I was do¬ing martial arts both in Hawaii and the Philippines. I did taekwondo; I learned Filipino stick fighting, Tai Chi, and various other arts. I took a break for a few years but in my teenage years wanted to get back. I really love martial arts. I was looking around and came across this group of people practicing martial arts to some interesting-sounding music at a park in Hawaii. I thought I’d give it a try. Capoeira was a martial art practiced by slaves in Brazil who were attempting to form a rebellion against their plantation owners. The best way they found to maintain their fighting skills was to disguise it with music and dance and acrobatics. It’s done to music from an instrument called the berimbau, and there are different rhythms that mean different things. There’s a specific rhythm that sounds like a siren, so if they saw their slave masters or field overseers coming in their direction, they would immediately switch their rhythm to this one that told everyone that the boss was coming, and then they’d switch from the fighting to the dancing and acrobatics. So the origins of the martial art attracted me. I love music—I play the guitar and the conga drums, so the mu¬sic was very attractive to me. I practiced capoeira intensely for two years, and continue to practice it whenever I get the opportunity now.

01_14_CvrStory-Surfing-Tulsi.jpg


“I feel much more comfortable in the ocean than on land sometimes!” she said of her love for surfing. In her downtime she also practices capoeira, a Brazilian martial art and plays the guitar and conga drums.


I understand you’re also an avid surfer.

Yes, very much so. I grew up learning to swim in the ocean as a young kid and feel much more comfortable in the ocean than on land sometimes! Every time I go back to Hawaii I go to the ocean for a quick swim. Usually my schedule allows for one week of working in the district every month. During that one week I make it a point to go surfing in Hawaii. Ideally at least two or three early-morning sessions at six in the morning and then I’ll get out and be at the office at nine o’clock to start the day.

01_14_CvrStory-Gabbard-withKerry.jpg

You were in Iraq at a time when there were questions about whether our presence there was justified. What is the most vivid moment that you can share, of your time there? 

That’s a very tough question. One of the tasks that I had every day was to go through a list of casualties, a list of service members who had been injured the day before, looking for soldiers from our unit to see if they had been hurt, injured or worse. This daily experience is something I always remember and keep very close to me because it’s not just a reminder but a slap in the face to remind you what the hellish cost of war is. In any position

Rep. Tulsi Gabbard addresses a crowd of veterans to join Secretary
of State John Kerry in announcing the new Veterans Innovation Partnership.

of leader¬ship that I’m privileged to serve in now if there’s a decision to take our troops into conflict it’s not a decision that can be made lightly. It’s a reminder also of what I had learned growing up, which is the temporary nature of the life of this body and the eternalness of our soul. And that we really don’t know when our time can come. And the urgency of needing to make the most of the time that we’ve been given. It’s incredible in so many different circumstances to seethe courage, selflessness and strength of our service members who got up day in and out and did their job, whether their job was as a medic dealing with very gruesome circumstances and save lives, not just U.S. lives but Iraqi lives, not just the police or military people you’re working with but Iraqi villagers, the people who lived around the camp where we were, who did not have any decent access to any type of healthcare or trauma care, but also treated the terrorists who tried to kill our troops or actually killed our troops. When they were injured they were not killed but taken to the prison hospitals and given the same level of care that our docs gave people like me. That’s one ex¬ample of the incredible qualities that come from everyday people.

What would be your words of encouragement to people in our Diaspora? You’re a decorated soldier, a devout Hindu, a surfer, a congresswoman, a martial artist, and a musician, besides other things. What would you say to our kids to let them know that they can be anything they want to be?

What is most important in convincing yourself that you can be anything that you want to be is to be introspective and ask yourself what you have that you can offer to others. Using whatever talents or interests or skills that you have, answer that question and find a way to do it. Sometimes you might be successful in that specific effort, sometimes you may not be. But always, always stay focused on that answer to your question. Some¬times it changes. And if you are focused on that motivation of service, if there is a change then you will not only be open and flexible to be able to recognize those opportunities and take them, you won’t be as afraid as you might be otherwise. In the process, whoever you are, young or old, man or woman, whatever part of the world you come from, you’ll be surprised about how you have gone to places or experienced or achieved things that you never thought likely or possible. 

01_14_CvrStory-TG-ChildrenCapitol.jpg

Let’s talk about the event that put you on the cover of so many magazines—your taking the oath of office on the Bhagvad Gita. What was the response from people around you when you first declared you were going to do that?

It was a deeply personal decision to take the oath on the Gita, taking very seriously the responsibility I’ve been charged with in serving my constituents in Hawaii as well as my country. I didn’t know what kind of response I’d get from my colleagues, the Speaker of the House, John Boehner, the media and the community as a whole. I was kind of preparing for the best of responses and the worst. It was really heartwarming for me to see in every direction that I turned that people were not only open-minded but were very interested and inspired and were eager to learn more about the Scripture and also about the Hindu practice, which either people don’t know much about or is extremely misunderstood. That continues to be the case now as I speak to different groups and meet different people I feel thereis a genuine interest to learn more. I don’t know if it’s appreciation but  a feeling of empowerment for an entire constituency of people especially here in the United States if not else wherein the world, that there is a voice that represents a community that has been here for quite some time which had not been heard or represented before, at least within the halls of Congress.

On the steps of the U.S. Capitol with students
from her home state of Hawaii.


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