At a time of growing divisiveness in America, where too many are “other-izing” those who may look different, worship different, or hold different political views, it is more important than ever to live aloha, to love and treat all others with respect, to be inclusive rather than exclusive. The divisiveness that threatens the fabric of our nation — whether due to race, religion, political ideology, gender, sexual orientation, or other — must end.
One reason I’m grateful to call Hawaiʻi home is that the people of these islands embrace diversity and celebrate the colorful fabric of race, ethnicity, and religion that make up our people, place, and culture.
The people of Hawaiʻi elected me, a Vaishnava Hindu, to join the most diverse congressional delegation in the country — a Hindu, a Jew, and two Buddhists. This speaks volumes about the people of Hawaiʻi, where people live aloha and the dream of Martin Luther King — where a person is judged not by the color of her skin, ethnicity, or religion, but by her character.
I grew up in a multi-faith household, happily oblivious to sectarianism or the idea of having to choose one religious “team” over another. My mom was a practicing Hindu and my dad was a Catholic who practiced yoga meditation and karma yoga. My earliest memories are of the bright colors, beautiful sounds, and fragrant aromas of both Christian and Hindu celebrations. My siblings and I grew up studying from both the Bhagavad-Gita and the Bible; going to Mass, and then coming home to a yoga kirtan.
The foundational principles of my upbringing, which taught me that true happiness can only be found in dedicating one’s life in the loving service of God and His children, have inspired me throughout my life. Those principles inspired my environmental activism as a teenager, as well as my service in the military, in local, state, and now federal office, and my pursuit of peace, equality, and justice — here at home and around the world.
As a child, I learned the invaluable truth that when I set aside my own selfish interests to instead help others and care for our planet, I experience a deep satisfaction and happiness unlike anything else in the world — even catching an awesome wave in perfect conditions!
As a teenager, this path of bhakti yoga and karma yoga, cultivating a personal loving relationship with God and dedicating my life in the service of God’s children and our planet, became the foundation, guiding principle, and prime motivating force of my life.
While I take my spiritual practice seriously, it is not something I wear on my sleeve, nor is it something I’ve spoken much about in the public arena because it is ultimately a deeply personal relationship for me. But as I look around and see divisiveness, hatred, bigotry, and violence pervading our country and the world, the message of love that we hear from Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita and Jesus Christ in the New Testament, and so many other scriptures, is exactly what we should be speaking out about — because only love can defeat hate.
After my 2012 election, I made a personal decision to take my congressional oath of office on the Bhagavad-Gita, a scripture that has always provided great wisdom and strength to me in my life. After doing so, I was amazed and surprised to hear from thousands of Hindus from across the United States, and even around the world, flooding my office with calls, sending me messages via social media, email, and letters, expressing their joy and pride in seeing for the first time someone being elected to Congress who shares their spiritual principles. Many conveyed how this moment was very freeing for them, and how they felt they no longer had to hide who they are.
I will never forget looking into the eyes of a young girl from Texas who shared with me how she’d always been embarrassed about being a Hindu — especially amongst her non-Hindu friends. Like so many other Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jews, Atheists, and “others” — she felt that she’d have to hide or change her religious identification. “Now,” she said, “I no longer feel that way.” She no longer felt she had to hide her beliefs, faith, or identity, and she could be herself and pursue whatever goals she wants to in life.
Sadly, however, religious bigotry and attempts by the media and political opportunists to foment fear of Hindus and other minority religions persist. During my 2012 and 2014 elections, my Republican opponent stated publicly that a Hindu should not be allowed to serve in the US Congress, and that Hinduism is incompatible with the US Constitution. Despite those comments, the Hawaiʻi Republican Party endorsed my opponent and didn’t criticize or denounce his bigoted comments at any time. In the 2016 race for Congress, my Republican opponent said repeatedly that a vote for me was a vote for the devil because of my religion.
Our nation was founded by people fleeing religious persecution, risking everything for the freedoms that form our foundation and seeking a place to be free to worship as they chose or to not worship at all. It is a freedom enshrined in our Constitution, and that every member of Congress takes an oath to protect — a freedom that many heroes have given their lives to defend. Nothing is more important to our democracy than this freedom.
Our history has been shaped by leaders like James Madison, a faithful Episcopalian, John F. Kennedy, a practicing Catholic, and many others shaped and motivated by their personal faith and spirituality, but equally vigilant to uphold the constitutional separation between church and state.
Today the United States is home to more than five million Jews, three million Muslims, and three million Hindus. Nearly 23% of Americans don’t identify with any spiritual path or religion. At a time when some Americans are fueling extreme divisions of “us vs. them” hate-filled rhetoric, bigotry, and even violence, we cannot afford to stay silent. We must push back against those who perpetrate such bigotry and embrace the freedom and diversity that makes our country great.
It’s up to each of us to change the narrative, to speak out against those who are trying to worsen the fear and divisiveness that is pervading our country. It is up to each of us to treat all people with aloha and respect, to protect the freedoms in this country that ensure people can live their lives as they please without fear that their religion or spiritual path, or lack thereof, will be held against them.
The essential response to the call for divisiveness is aloha, love, respect, and compassion. We cannot stand on the sidelines and allow anyone — in the media, in politics, in business, or in our personal lives — to undermine our religious freedoms and foment fear of those who are different. We must stand strong, together, to defeat these dark, hateful attacks with the light of love and aloha.