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The Bhagavad Gita Comes to Congress

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Recently, Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii's second Congressional district made American history by becoming the first Hindu elected to Congress. Throughout her campaign, Gabbard openly embraced her Hindu identity and affirmed her Hindu beliefs. And to the delight of Hindus worldwide, Gabbard will be the first person in Congressional history to take the oath of office on the Bhagavad Gita.

Unlike other major religions, Hinduism is a decentralized tradition with no underlying creed, ritual, pilgrimage, liturgy, worship, language or canon that is authoritative for all Hindus. Within the plurality of diverse beliefs and practices that constitute Hinduism, the Bhagavad Gita is a critically important theological text with pan-Indian appeal. As a significant section of the Mahabharata, the ancient Sanskrit epic text of mythology and revelation, the Bhagavad Gita has a long history of reverence in India. Accordingly, the most prominent scholars and leaders from different Hindu denominations and schools of thought have offered their own commentaries and teachings on the Bhagavad Gita, including Sankara, Ramanuja, Madhva, Vivekananda, Prabhupada and Sivananda.

Within the tradition of Bhagavad Gita commentary, the focus has primarily been on the Bhagavad Gita as a theological text as opposed to a political treatise. Even those commentators who straddled the divide between religion and politics in their lives, such as Sri Aurobindo Ghose and Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, opted for a spiritual and allegorical interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita instead of a political and literal one. Indeed, even Tulsi Gabbard revealed that the most influential verses of the Bhagavad Gita for her are the theological ones that describe the nature of the imperishable and eternal soul.

Despite the fact that most commentators of the Bhagavad Gita interpret the text through a theological lens, there is profound political wisdom in the Bhagavad Gita, best illustrated by Mahatma Gandhi's interpretation of the text. Gandhi had a deep emotional connection with the Bhagavad Gita, which was first introduced to him by one of his Theosophist friends while he was living in England. From that point on, the Bhagavad Gita became the single most influential text in Gandhi's life, during which time he wrote more about it than any other single subject and started each morning with a reading and commentary from it. Because of his strong personal relationship with the Bhagavad Gita, Gandhi attempted to use it as a fulcrum for the Indian freedom movement and reinterpreted it with a focus on both spiritual and political liberation.

For Gandhi, dharma is the orienting principle that connects the spiritual and political lessons of the Bhagavad Gita. As a foundational Indian concept, dharma is at the root of Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, which are collectively referred to as the dharma traditions. As a Sanskrit word, dharma has no real equivalent term in the English language, and dharma means different things to different people in different contexts. Within the context of the Bhagavad Gita, Gandhi believed that dharma signified righteous conduct, and he was especially attracted to the verses in the Bhagavad Gita extolling the virtues of karma yoga, the path of right action. For Gandhi, one of the central and recurring teachings of the Bhagavad Gita is to act righteously in the present moment without regards to any future rewards:

"Your right is to action alone;
Never to its fruits at any time.
Never should the fruits of action be your motive;
Never let there be attachment to inaction in you."
(Chapter 2, Verse 47: translation by Winthrop Sargeant)

As a political figure, Gandhi interpreted this verse to mean that one should not be motivated by the desire for personal rewards but instead should aspire to act righteously for the benefit of others. For Gandhi, righteous action is not only spiritually transformative for the individual but also politically liberating for the nation, and Gandhi believed that righteous action for its own sake represented the essence of dharma in the Bhagavad Gita.

When Tulsi Gabbard takes her oath on the Bhagavad Gita, its political wisdom is not only instructive for her as a Hindu but also for all members of Congress. Increasingly, Americans believe that their representatives are more interested in short-terms personal victories than long-term political solutions, and this has led to record low approval ratings for Congress. In an age when billions of dollars are spent on campaigns that never seem to end, Mahatma Gandhi's commentary on the Bhagavad Gita offers politicians a powerful alternative -- to act righteously, decisively and courageously without regard to personal or electoral gain, and to recognize that the real political reward is righteous action itself.

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.