Hindu American community leaders such as HAF joined a broad coalition in demanding that the U.S. Senate call for a vote to confirm Murthy, who will now be the first Indian and Hindu American to serve as Surgeon General.
The appointment was not a smooth one, however. Murthy’s nomination was confirmed by a vote of 51-43, after months of uncertainty. Despite confirmation hearings marked by Murthy’s elaborate discussion of his policy focus on mental health, obesity, and vaccinations, the nomination was endangered by a sustained attack by the National Rifle Association (NRA). The NRA sought to torpedo Murthy based on tweets he had sent calling for background checks on gun owners in the wake of the Connecticut school shootings that left 26 dead. HAF, along with a broad coalition of health advocates and community leaders, worked to organize supporters, call Senate offices, and build momentum behind the nomination.
Many commentators are describing this breakthrough into public life as a first, but that honour actually goes to a half-Samoan surfer who achieved it exactly a year ago. Although Hindu Americans had distinguished themselves in most areas - running major companies and universities, leading the way in IT and medical research, winning Nobel prizes and Olympic medals, directing blockbuster movies, even zooming off into outer space - up until her, one achievement had eluded them: serving as a Member of Congress. But then, a year ago this month, a Hindu woman came out of nowhere in Hawaii's 2nd congressional district to hand a resounding defeat to her Republican opponent and make history by becoming the first Hindu member of Congress. This was Tulsi Gabbard, a thirty-three year old who was born in Samoa to a Catholic father and a Hindu mother and moved to the fifty-first state when she was two years old. She sounds a formidable operator: as a member of the Hawaii National Guard she served in Baghdad as a medical operations specialist before completing officers' training and going to Kuwait to train the country's counter-terrorism units. On the other hand she has taken Washington by storm as a glamourous and highly photogenic figure, while when at home she likes nothing better than to hang out on the beach, get into those waves and surf.
Given her military background, it comes as no surprise that Tulsi’s favourite scripture is the Bhagavad Gita, which is the story of another warrior – an everyman figure called Arjuna - being instructed by the god Krishna in how best to conduct himself on the battlefield of life. What follows is a spiritual teaching that advocates selfless action, the practice of yoga and service to God and humanity. In the bewildering complexity of the Hindu religious scene, the Gita is one text which many different sects, especially followers of Vishnu, accept as divine revelation and it has been central to the making of modern India. Mahatma Gandhi was first introduced to the text by one of his Theosophist friends while he was studying law in England and it became the single most influential scripture in his life. He wrote more about it than any other subject, started each day with a reading and saw many of its ideas as pivotal to the Indian freedom movement. In this he was helped again by English Theosophists: prominent members of the Society such as Annie Basant and A.O.Hume made important contributions to the cause of independence. Tulsi – she is named after the basil plant that is sacred to Vishnu - sees the Gita as central to her life too. And to the delight of Hindus worldwide, in January 2013, she was the first person to take the oath of office on the scripture.
All this sounds fine and dandy, but many Americans were not happy with the religion of their new congresswoman. Back in 2007 when the Hindu spokesman Rajan Zed was asked to open the Senate with a Hindu prayer, the American Family Association called the very idea ‘gross idolatry’ and urged its people to protest; members of the fundamentalist group Operation Save America duly interrupted the proceedings by barracking from the gallery. The representative from Idaho said this ‘backdoor Hindusim’ was further evidence of the rot begun by Congress’ admission of its first Muslim member, adding that “none of this was what was envisioned by the Founding Fathers." Former presidential candidate Rick Santorum joined in the fray by claiming that equality is ‘a uniquely Judeo-Christian concept that doesn't come from the East and Eastern religions.’ (Oh yeah? Try telling that to the Palestinians, Rick.) Others even went so far as to claim that the congresswoman’s faith is incompatible with the Constitution. Her response was highly pertinent. "When I volunteered to put my life on the line in defence of our country, no one asked me what my religion was." Among Tulsi’s favourite Gita verses are the ones that teach that the soul which pervades the body is indestructible and imperishable; she has said she found them a great source of strength while pursuing the ill-fated military policies her homeland chose to follow in Iraq.
And then there are the more insidious reactions to the increasingly visible presence of Indians in America. Following 9/11 there were many sporadic attacks against them, verbal and physical. In August 2012 six Sikhs were murdered and four others badly wounded when a white supremacist and US army veteran entered a gurudwara in some small town in Wisconsin and opened fire with an automatic handgun. In November 2013 a twitter storm went viral when a Gap advertising poster in a Brooklyn subway featuring a bearded and turbaned Sikh model was defaced with racist slurs. The caption ‘Make Love’ was changed to ‘Make Bombs’ and ‘Please stop driving our taxis’ was scrawled across the advertisement. The social media buzz was so intense that within hours Gap had tweeted a condemnation of the graffiti worldwide. It seems that the followers of Guru Nanak are particularly vulnerable to hate attacks since many Americans assume that because the men wear beards and a turban, they must be Muslim.
To the outsider, it may seem extraordinary that a nation made up solely of disparate immigrant groups (discounting the dispossessed and marginalised original native Americans) should be so insular, but American parochialism is an old story. A less ugly and more amusing example than those quoted above is the classic comment of Miriam Ferguson, the first female governor of Texas. In 1924 she cited the Bible when arguing against Spanish being used in schools in the Lone Star state: “If the King’s English was good enough for Jesus Christ, it is good enough for the children of Texas”. (Given how Spanish has spread throughout the US in the years since, and the fact it is predicted to be more widely spoken there than English by 2050, poor Miriam must be turning summersaults in her grave). So Tulsi and her faith will no doubt bring a little wider vision to a country that needs more knowledge of the outside world and has never understood India, nor, truth be told, ever really wanted to.
How so? Well, in 1947 America ignored the newly independent India and chose Pakistan as its South Asian ally against the Soviet threat; jilted India rebounded into the open arms of the Russians. This alignment has recently proved very problematic and now finally shifted but America’s visceral distrust of what is now the world's largest democracy still remains. Polar opposites, the two countries are like the two hemispheres of the global brain, each with their own special strengths but congenitally out of synch. This disharmony is more radical than mere political differences, it stems from different worldviews, not least on religion and the material world. Perhaps remembering their own immigrant beginnings, Americans have always been appalled at the living standards of so many Indians and they blame those conditions on Hinduism, particularly the traditional teachings on caste and karma. Despite the fact those who hold it have never been to India or know anything about her religions (even today only a small percentage of Americans hold a passport and only a small percentage of those have ever left the homeland), this attitude is nothing new; but if there was a definite time it entered the national psyche it was with Katherine Mayo and her book Mother India. Mayo had entered public life as a political writer advocating a racially exclusive movement known as White Anglo-Saxon Protestant Nativism, and was opposed to non-white and Catholic immigration to the United States and the acceptance of the recently emancipated African-American labourers. She became known for denouncing the independence movement in the largely Catholic Philippines on racial and religious grounds, but her biggest controversy by far was Mother India. Published in 1927, this was an extraordinary outburst of spleen against all aspects of India and it created a sensation on three continents. Mayo vilified Hinduism, the treatment of India's women, the caste system, the animals and the dirt, as well as the character of its nationalistic politicians. This last was a red rag to a sacred bull at a time demands for self-rule were gathering unstoppable momentum.
Interestingly, Mayo's revulsion was directed exclusively towards Hinduism and ignored Muslim customs. This was probably because the Muslim population generally supported British rule, believing that their interests would be better protected under the Raj than under a Hindu majority in charge of a free India, and the Raj in its turn always felt it had more in common with monotheistic Islam than polytheistic Hinduism. As Mayo was concerned to show that India was in no way ready to govern herself, this bias fitted her agenda. Nor are such national concerns merely historical, they are also significant in the light of the current political situation. Many liberals and intellectuals are increasingly vociferous in their distrust of what they perceive as the overly Hindu agenda of India’s dynamic new Prime Minister, Narendra Modi.
Mayo singled out what she called “the rampant and fatally weakening sexuality” of Hindu men to be the country’s principal problem, and in doing so allied herself with those of her white compatriots who were voicing exactly the same fear about the American blacks. According to her, Indians had sex far too early and most of their manifold problems stemmed from this libidinous excess, not least her absurd statistic that 90% of them suffered from venereal disease. Gandhi, who incidentally took a vow of celibacy in his thirties, responded that Mayo’s book was the report of a drain inspector passing itself off as a truthful account. Sadly, the British authorities welcomed this vitriolic work from a mediocre American journalist who spent only three months in the country visiting a handful of impoverished villages, while they banned an excellent and impartial book `India in Bondage - Her right to Freedom and a Place Among the Great Nations' two years later. This was written by another American, who rejoiced in the name Jabez T. Sunderland and had relatively wide, lengthy and authoritative knowledge of the subcontinent.
It must be added that Mayo’s book did not elicit universal praise in America, whose government was at the time pushing Britain to grant greater rights to the Indians. An academic at Yale, Franklin Edgerton, summed up the dissenters when he wrote: "I hope you and others in India will believe that there are some of us in America who know how to appraise justly Miss Mayo's scurrilous book. We are deeply ashamed to acknowledge her as our fellow countrywoman, and we neglect no chance to deny the truth of the picture of India which she draws." While it has been argued that Mayo’s polemic gave valuable ammunition to social reform movements and proto-feminist womens’ groups, by far its greater effect was to exert a hugely negative and continuing influence on her uninformed compatriots’ view of the subcontinent. This influence served as a guide for US policy makers right up until the 1980s and created subliminal echoes that are still reverberating today. The fact is that a certain type of American views his material supremacy as a reward from God for having chosen the one true path to Him; whether bending the knee in church or opening the wallet in malls, such people consider themselves the chosen people. And even perfectly moderate Americans find their egalitarian instincts deeply shocked by the caste system, (even though they know almost nothing about it), while conveniently forgetting their own civil rights history. Figures in the United States of Amnesia -to borrow Gore Vidal’s witty description - show that the discrepancy between American blacks and whites has not actually improved that much at all since Lyndon Johnson inaugurated the idea of affirmative action way back in the starry eyed 1960s. The recent race riots over the police killings of blacks in Missouri would seem to bear this depressing fact out.
Against this complex and often emotionally charged background, Tulsi Gabbard has kept a cool head, enunciating a diplomatically balanced view of the importance of her role: "Hopefully the presence in Congress of an American who happens to be Hindu will increase America's understanding of India as well as India's understanding of America." One thing is certain: her election has electrified the estimated two million Hindu Americans and marks their coming of age in the ethnic and religious patchwork that is their adopted country. They loved seeing see her taking oath on the Bhagavad Gita last January, as both a stellar role model for second-generation Hindus and a long overdue education for the land of 300 million guns. So on behalf of all solid burghers, we’d like more Basil please but you can hold the Mayo.