11/27/2012 03:12 pm ET Updated Jan 27, 2013

An Open Letter To Tulsi Gabbard From A Hindu-American

Dear Congresswoman Gabbard,

Congratulations on your resounding election to the US Congress. Hindus in the United States, and in many parts of the world, celebrate your historical achievement of being the first Hindu-American in the US House of Representatives. Your public confidence in affirming your Hindu commitment is a source of inspiration to a younger generation of Hindus in the United States.

We welcome also your wish to be a strong voice in the Congress for domestic issues of concern to the community of Hindu-Americans. This community reflects a diversity of origins, circumstances of migration and concerns. There is a growing number of Hindu-Americans who do not have ethnic roots in South Asia and who have embraced Hindu traditions as part of their quest for meaning in life. There is a community of Hindus, dating back to the 1960s, who came to the United States from India in search of higher education and who took the opportunity afforded by the Immigration and Nationality Act (1965) to make their homes here and to devote their talents to the service of this country. There are others whose more immediate roots are in Africa, Afghanistan, Mauritius and the Fiji islands.

I wanted, however, to make special mention of a community that is not often visible in portraits of Hindu-Americans -and the community to which I belong. The roots of our community are deeply embedded in the soil of the Caribbean. The ancestors of this community undertook a long and arduous journey from India, beginning in the early nineteenth century, to escape poverty and to replace freed African slaves on sugar plantations. They were the first to plant in the soil of the West the seeds of a Hindu way of life. Fifty-five years before Swami Vivekananda spoke at the Parliament of World Religions in Chicago (1893), Hinduism was being practiced in the Caribbean. It is a story of religious survival in the midst of abject poverty and colonial hostility. In the early 1960s, Hindus from the Caribbean embarked on another significant journey. Driven by political fears and economic uncertainties, Hindus, especially from Guyana, migrated in large numbers to the United States. It is a story of migration with empty pockets, separation from family, and hard work. Their faithfulness to the Hindu tradition is a remarkable statement of commitment. They were among the first to build Hindu places of worship in the United States. In the Queens area of New York alone, there are over 60 temples founded by Caribbean Hindus. The issues of concern to this community are the challenges of urban America that include housing, crime, affordable health care, quality schools, and sustainable work. The domestic concerns of Hindu-Americans should not be limited to a single community. Similarly the international issues of Hindu-Americans should not be limited to a single nation.

Your election holds great promise for another important reason. Here, Hindus constitute a minority and the influential public voices are not Hindu ones. The major national debates, especially those involving religion, are conducted without Hindu voices. Although recognizing that you cannot and should not think of matters of national importance only from a Hindu perspective, yours is a historical opportunity, when the occasion offers itself, to develop and articulate a Hindu perspective in the highest place of debate and decision-making in our nation. Adding a voice from the Hindu tradition to national debates will contribute to its public relevance.

Today, the separation of the religion we practice and the culture that surrounds us is a reality in our lives as Hindu-Americans. The traditionally pervasive influence of Hinduism is relegated to fewer areas of life and risks the danger of being limited to ritual practices in temple and home, with minimal public expressions. This privatization of Hinduism leads to its compartmentalization and growing irrelevance. Our religious traditions become less influential and transformative if they do not guide us in making decisions about the significant political and social issues of our times.

To be Hindu today is not only to carry forward individual traditions, but also to think about the world as Hindus and to draw from Hinduism in formulating responses and acting on the critical issues of our time.

Clarifying Hindu perspectives on national and international affairs offers opportunity and challenge. There is much that this tradition has to contribute. We are struggling today with a divided and polarized political discourse. In such a climate, the Hindu espousal of an epistemological and philosophical humility that is antithetical to the privileging of a single viewpoint, religious or political, is refreshing. Debates about war and peace, abortion, marriage equality, health care, and social programs, can be enriched by new insights from the Hindu traditions.

The intra-religious diversity of the Hindu tradition guarantees that Hindus will not always agree with the positions you advocate. Such respectful conversations, however, will be good and stimulating for our tradition and will contribute to a deeper reflection on what it means to be Hindu today. May you enjoy success in your new role and may your work contribute to the flourishing of our nation.