Last week’s post-election news features Tulsi Gabbard, the “first Hindu-American congresswoman,” who plans to take her oath on the Bhagavad Gita. Gabbard served with Hawaii’s National Guard, and during her time in Iraq, drew strength from the teachings of the Gita; in particular, about the eternality of the soul.
That Gabbard has no Indian heritage has no bearing on how warmly the Indian-American community recently celebrated her election-success. Interviewed about her claims to Hinduism, she stated that her sense of Hindu identity did not derive from birth: “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.”
Firstly, Gabbard’s assertion tells us that Hindu identity is not marked by birth, or ritual, but by a person’s understanding of his or her own practice. In this case, the main clue provided is a reliance on the teachings of the Gita, and encapsulated in her decision to take oath on the Gita. But, what does taking an oath on the Gita mean, what does the Gita stand for?
It is popularly known that M.K Gandhi considered the Gita a synthesis of Hinduism; it replaced all other scriptures for Gandhi. Gandhi explained the war in the Gita as an allegory, and read the war as a struggle between dharma and adharma, and the central message of the Gita to be “anāsakta,” or detachment. By following the true message of the Gita, one would be automatically non-violent. Gandhi focused attention on the 72 verses of Chapter 2, and identified the last nineteen verses of this chapter as representative of Gita’s message. He wrote: “These stanzas are the key to the understanding of the Gita. I would even go so far as to advise people to reject statements in the poem which bear a meaning contrary to that of these nineteen stanzas.”
Ironically, just as Gandhi formulated his political strategy on the basis of the Gita, so did his assassin Nathuram Godse. In his deposition statement, he explains his reverence for “Hindu religion, Hindu history and Hindu culture,” and cites the Gita: “Arjuna had to fight and slay quite a number of his friends and relations including the revered Bhishma because the latter was on the side of the aggressor.”
Also, one of Gandhi’s contemporaries and a prominent figure in the Indian freedom movement, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, saw the message of the Gita to be pravṛtti, or energism. “The Gita,” he wrote, teaches us to “kill even our teachers and our kinsmen.”
Tilak and other extremist nationalists embraced the concept of a political missionary who resorts to violence as part of duty, or dharma. Even Swami Vivekananda, who spoke at the 1893 Parliament of Religions and in favor of peace, said that Indian men needed “...beef, biceps, and Bhagavad Gita.”
So, Gabbard may be inspired by a specific idea in the Gita, but the Gita is a mixed bag. Along with the urging towards equanimity, detachment, self-control and devotion to God, there are contrary messages— the acceptance of war and violence because everyone’s really eternal (Gita 2.21) or because the enemy’s fate is already pre-decided (Gita 11.33); birth caste as having divine origin (Gita 4.13); and inter-caste mixing as problematic (as in Gita 1.40-44). When Krishna presents two distinct paths, gñāna (knowledge) and karma (activity, duty, ritual), Arjuna is confused. Krishna then recommends both, but above all, recommends detachment.
Not doing anything does not free one from karma, and renunciation does not guarantee liberation. There’s more, and that is the path of bhakti (devotion). All of these paths are referred to as “yoga.” All of this feeds into the idea that the Gita is a pluralist text, and that is why it has survived, and flourished.
Looking a little deeper at this pluralism, one finds a very diplomatic liberalism working cautiously with rigid doctrine. The classical Brahmanic model of a person’s life-cycle was that of one path, leading from studentship (brahmacarya) to householding (gṛhastha) to renunciation (sanyāsa) and then to forest-dwelling (vanaprastha). By contrast, according to the Gita, anyone at any stage in life can strive for liberation. The classical Brahmanic organization of society was the varṇa (caste) system, in four categories: the brahmin, kṣatriya, vaiśya and śūdra.
While this is not overturned by the Gita, because Krishna declares that he has created the system based on guṇa, or nature, liberation is not denied to anyone. When several systems and practices are explicated, and debated, it seems as though choices and recommendations are being presented; as it turns out, Arjuna has no real choice. He is a kṣatriya warrior and can not choose the sattvic path of non-violence, nor become a renounced saint – he has to follow his duty and role as a warrior. Krishna specifies that it is better to do one’s own duty well than another person’s duty badly.
This, then, is a text that does not interfere with status quo, and does not privilege one path over another, as well as presents a solution away from oppression. This, diplomacy, in my view, is the secret to the Gita's success. A perfect fit for democrat Gabbard.
In fact, the Hindu tradition presents a wide range of texts - from vedic to tantric and devotional - that may be authoritative for different groups of people. Gabbard’s mother is a follower of the “Brahma Madhva Gaudiya Sāmpradāya” also called the Hare Rama Hare Krishna movement, or the International Society of Krishna consciousness (Iskcon), a group that regards Krishna as the supreme deity.
Iskcon’s leader Swami Bhaktivedānta Prabhupāda published a Gita translation and commentary called Gita As It Is in 1976. The introduction emphasizes that this translation is “authorized,” while many others are not, for there are commentators who “banish or kill” Krishna and “Lord Caitanya has warned us about these unauthorized men.”
Bhaktivedanta’s ideology of Krishna’s supremacy is, naturally, founded on insisting that other deities are less than supreme. The Gita of Gabbard's tradition, thus, goes along with a particular interpretive position, it may be her Gita, but not everyone's Gita.
When the Indian-American community embraces Tulsi Gabbard as one of them, we see how Hindu and Indian identities are being conflated. We also see how a a text – even a text including contradictory messages – can blur sectarian or philosophical divisions and act as a symbol to inspire a sense of unity.
This would be particularly useful in diasporic communities locating their heritage in ideologies, or ideologies that imply a shared origin, or inheritance. Additionally, when public figures like Gabbard isolate a single belief from such a pluralist text as the Gita– in this case, the eternality of the soul – we can also expect this idea to form an impression in the minds of listeners about the Hindu religion on the whole.
The concept of “soul” in the context of Indian tradition is a topic for another essay, or several essays; suffice it here to say that it is no definer of Hinduism. Hinduism can not be reduced to any one ideology, its traditions include diverse ideologies, including atheism. If birth does not define belonging to the Hindu tradition, nor ideology, we see in the case of Gabbard, that it is acceptance by community which finally defines it.
Tulsi Gabbard’s ideas about Hinduism may be disputable, but her acceptance by the community is not. I wonder, if Gabbard’s appearance had been Caucasian rather than Samoan (in its resemblance to the Indian physiognomy), would we have had a slightly different media and community story?
 The Gita according to Gandhi. (1929). Translated by Mahadev Desai. 1933.
 Godse, Nathuram. Deposition Statement of Nov 8, 1948 in Mahatma Gandhi Murder Case, Printed Volume II, Criminal Appeals Nos. 66-72 of 1949, Punjab High Court, Simla. May It Please Your Honour. Gopal Vinayak Godse. Pune: Vitasta Prakashan, 1977. E-text from Center for Research Libraries.
Mani Rao (b.1965 India) is the author of eight poetry books and a translation of the Bhagavad Gita published by Autumn Hill Books (2010) and Penguin India (2011). Her poems and essays are published in journals including Tinfish, Wasafiri, Meanjin, Washington Square, Fulcrum, West Coast Line, and Interim, and in anthologies including Zoland Poetry, W.W.Norton’s Language for a New Century, and the BloodAxe Book of Contemporary Indian Poets. She was a Visiting Fellow at the Iowa International Writing Program in 2005 and 2009, and the 2006 University of Iowa International Programs writer-in-residence. Mani has an MFA in poetry, and is a phD student of Religious Studies at Duke University. Her website is www.manirao.com