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Tulsi Breaks the Religious Glass Ceiling

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I have a running political wish list. The seed was planted in fourth grade when the teachers at my school decided that a mock election which coincided with the 1980 Carter-Reagan national election would be a perfect civics exercise -- bring to life the lessons of government, democracy and America's founding. We made Crayola colored posters, held mock debates and chanted catchy slogans supporting our chosen ticket during recess. For a fiesty, opinionated, girls-can-do-anything-boys-can child of the '70s, I was immediately hooked to the process, the canvassing and the debates.

Fast forward four years. Walter Mondale announces Geraldine Ferraro as his running mate, and in spite of only one election under my belt, I recognized that just her very presence on a national ticket was something historic, a BIG deal. And so started my political wish-list.

Box 1: the first woman vice president.

Over the years, I added more boxes -- first female president, first president of color, first female president of color, first Indian American something or other, and so on and so forth -- all in the hopes of seeing a government that better reflects the growing grassroots diversity of America. In just the past few years, several of these boxes have been checked off. But others, including the election of a Hindu American to any national office, I had reluctantly concluded, just may not happen. I supported a few campaigns featuring truly promising Hindu American candidates, but most did not come to fruition -- neck-and-neck races falling short on game day after thinly veiled statements by the opposition insinuated that the Hindu American candidate's values "didn't match" or "were foreign" to the district. All of that changed dramatically on Tuesday, Nov. 6, when Hawaii's 2nd district elected into Congress the first Hindu American.

My colleagues at the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) and I have long argued that while America seems to have transcended race in politics, there still seems to remain a religious glass ceiling. The most prominent Indian American politicians elected to statewide office have won, but not without overtly and very publicly renouncing the Dharmic traditions of their birth. There's the example of an Indian American running for Congress some years ago who, throughout the campaign, touted his being Catholic as some sort of job qualification. When specifically asked by a reporter if he had converted, someone at the campaign simply replied, "Like I said, he's Catholic." Indeed, geography does matter, as there have been a number of Hindu American candidates in more liberal states where religion was not brought up as some sort of litmus test. Let's not forget, however, that in the race for our country's leadership, the first term Obama campaign sadly found itself quieting rumors that, God forbid, Obama is NOT a Muslim.

In a country founded on a double-edged understanding of religious freedom -- free exercise and separation of church and state -- should the religion of an elected representative really matter? In theory, the answer is no, but practically speaking, it is humanly impossible to check your values at the door. Accepting this reality, I believe that the more variety of worldviews, both religious and not, that influence our public policy, the more representative our government becomes, the more safeguarded our first freedoms remain, and arguably the more nuanced, informed and effective our policies will be.

My hope is that Tulsi Gabbard, as a Hindu American, will bring to Washington and to her style of representation two striking qualities that are as quintessentially Hindu as they are American -- the duty to work toward the greater good and pluralism. Hinduism teaches that each of us is an embodiment of the Divine and this shared quality of divinity makes us part of a world family (Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam). How should this translate to how one governs? See everyone as an extension of oneself, treat others fairly and equally, regardless of race, religion, gender or class, and support actions (i.e. policies) that benefit the greater good, and not special interests.

Hinduism has not only survived, but thrived as a result of pluralism. We accept theologically that there will always be multiple ways in which each of us relate to, commune with and understand God, and that even if someone's way is different from ours, we must not only tolerate such differences, but respect them. At a time when the rhetoric on the Hill paints a picture of a country more divided, than united, I believe Rep. Gabbard will do well bringing her pluralistic voice to the conversation and reminding her colleagues that, similarly, it was our Founding Father's secular application of pluralism that allowed them to work together, setting aside major philosophical and practical differences, to build a great nation. For the many challenges that lie ahead and the various ways in which each of our elected leaders see the way through them, I have full confidence that Tulsi Gabbard, guided by Hindu principles, will respectfully work through differences and find common ground to carry our country forward.

As a Hindu American advocate, I cannot deny the comfort I take in knowing that now on Capitol Hill there is at least one office that will hit the ground running in terms of its understanding of Hinduism and Hindu issues. Ten years ago, at the Hindu American Foundation's first annual advocacy day, we had one Congressman say during an introductory meeting, "Oh, Hindus, right. So are you Sunni or Shia?" Since then, HAF has been actively engaged in providing a Hinduism and Hindu issues 101 to offices on the Hill through face to face meetings, informational pamphlets, white papers, human rights reports, briefings and testimony. Indeed, we've made significant progress in our advocacy, as has the community in the realms of education, technology, medicine and business. Having the first Hindu American serving in the U.S. Congress adds a political milestone to this Hindu American journey.

It is especially significant that Tulsi will be taking her oath on the Bhagavad Gita, a spiritual tome that has inspired billions of Hindus and non-Hindus for thousands of years and around the world. While she may represent a historic first, she will join the legions of influential Americans from the past few centuries who have publicly affirmed the inspiration they received from this ancient Hindu Manual of Life, including Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Mary Baker Eddy, Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, Huston Smith, Allen Ginsburg, among countless others. May her legacy be just as great as those who have come before her.

This blog is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post on the Bhagavad Gita, the ancient text whose wisdom continues to inspire Hindus and non-Hindus alike. To read other pieces in the series, click here. What is your experience with this sacred scripture? We invite you to submit pieces of 600-800 words for possible publication in The Huffington Post to religion@huffingtonpost.com.