WASHINGTON: Robert Oppenheimer quoted from it after he witnessed the world’s first nuclear test; Philip Glass cited in an opera in the form of a libretto; and it was Hollywoodized in the Robert Redford-directed movie, Legend of Bagger Vance. From Henry David Thoreau to Ralph Waldo Emerson to Aldous Huxley and Herman Hesse, western acknowledgment of the influence of the Bhagawad Gita has been copious.
But come the 21st century, People of Indian Origin abroad and Indian emigrants long thought to have been variously westernized, deracinated, or culturally subverted, are swearing by – and literally, on — the Gita, in a candid and comfortable display of faith. Last week, as the Obama administration zeroed in on a pick for the vacancy on the U.S Supreme Court caused by the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, all eyes were on DC Appeals Court Judge Sri Srinivasan. Almost every report referred to him as potentially the first Indian-American and even the first Asian-American to make it to the Apex Court, but several also pointed out that he would be the first HINDU judge in the 227 year old history of the venerable court that has seen a total of 112 justices.
How did they identify him as a Hindu? Well, aside from the fact that his name and ethnicity makes it fairly obvious, there was also the well-publicized display of Judge Srinivasan taking oath of office on the Bhagawad Gita when he was sworn in as the Appeals Court judge in 2013. Nor is her the only one. Others who have gone the same route recently: U.S Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, U.S Ambassador to Sri Lanka Atul Keshab (who also served in the U.S Embassy in New Delhi and on the India Desk in the State Department in Washington), and Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard from Hawaii, a self-professed American Hindu, who presented the copy of the Gita she took oath on to Prime Minister Modi. And in distant Australia, Daniel Mookhey, a labor politician of Indian-origin in Australia’s New South Wales.
While Srinivasan and Murthy, two of the highest ranking public officials of Indian-origin in the U.S, have been taciturn about discussing their religious faith, others newer to the faith have spoken more freely. Gabbard, who derived her Hindu faith from her Euro-American mother, has said she hopes her presence in Congress would cause others to understand and embrace Hinduism in America. Mookhey, a second generation PIO, is no less outspoken, saying he maybe the first of Indian origin to take oath on the Gita in the Australian Parliament, “but I certainly do believe I won’t be the last; I expect many more of Indian or other origin to do something similar in the future. I see this as a prominent and influential first step.”
Hindu American Foundation hails Srinivasan, Obama’s potential pick for Supreme Court
So what gives with taking oath on the Gita, particularly in the U.S., when the practice has been discontinued in India itself for several decades – contrary to popular belief and Bollywood portrayals? Says Suhag Shukla, Executive Director of the Hindu American Foundation: “Seeing officials swearing on religious books other than the Bible, like the Gita or the Quran, is a fruit of America’s promise of pluralism and religious freedom, and the realization of a government that is more reflective this country’s diversity. It’s also an opportunity for the individual taking the oath, to solemnize it with something that gives their life meaning and, hopefully, clarity of vision.”
HAF, which first noted and lauded Srinivasan taking oath of office on the Gita, is clearly chuffed about the prospect of a first “Hindu” Justice of the U.S Supreme Court although Srinivasan himself has been circumspect about his religious background given the sensitivity of the issue. Already, there has been some commentary about whether his Hindu background will play a role in his approach to jurisprudence, particularly on hot button issues such as abortion and gun violence. Says HAF’s Shukla: “If one’s Hindu perspective is a part of the equation applied to the most pressing issues of our time, we are generally going to straddle the middle — landing right of center on some, and left of center on others.”
Just about the perfect prescription for a court that is currently tied 4-4 between the left and the right?