Punjabis, or those hailing from the northwestern Indian state of Punjab, often have Anglicized nicknames. Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley are Punjabi, and, partially because of a fortuitous coincidence of being Punjabi and having wholesome, relatable Americanized nicknames, were able to rebrand themselves early on with names that were more familiar to the American palate than their original birth names (Piyush and Namrata, respectively).
Perhaps, for Indian American politicians, explaining themselves in the context of religion, particularly one that is foreign to many Americans, is cumbersome, awkward, and ultimately, unnecessary.
Gabbard has spoken to many young Hindus who have reached out to her and said that they often find themselves embarrassed by pop culture’s portrayal of Hindus and Indian Americans.
“Hinduism is largely misunderstood today in part because of how it’s been portrayed in a negative and backwards way,” Gabbard said. “In essence, it’s a monotheistic and non-secular practice. It’s more about spirituality than sectarianism,” she added, describing her sect of Vaishnav Hinduism, Brahma Madhva Gaudy Sampradaya.
Gabbard thinks that Hinduism attracts little attention and therefore, hate speech against Hindus receives little condemnation. Crowley, a Republican, was not reprimanded publicly by the Hawaiian Republican party for his Hinduphobic comments.
“This kind of religious bigotry still exists,” she said. “Being a Hindu in the United States can lead to discrimination in renting a house, opening a business, or doing everyday things.”
It’s because of the prejudice facing Hindus that many candidates either hide their religious affiliation or simply ignore it. Being a Christian—like Jindal and Haley—is helpful in conservative districts. But declaring one’s Hindu faith might work against a candidate, Ramakrishnan notes: “Certainly for someone who is Hindu, it’s a barrier. We have a strong monotheistic set of traditions in the U.S. and for that person to have to explain themselves, especially if they are devout—it might not work.”
But more than outright hostility, Hindus contend with widespread ignorance. Hindus, after all, are a group of people who remain an enigma to the average American, who trust them more than Mormons but less than Buddhists, smack dab in a scale produced by Pew. The same study found the overall sense of Hindus was “neutral.” They weren’t trusted, in other words, but neither were they mistrusted. They weren’t familiar, nor were they quite unfamiliar.
With the maturation of the second generation of the community, however, Ramakrishnan thinks things might change. He points to American-born Hindus who can more easily walk the line between the religion of their parents and the land and culture of their experience.
But the national stage? Ramakrishnan sees little hope for a Hindu in the Oval Office in our lifetimes, pointing to the strong Christian tradition that has shaped American history.
Gabbard disagrees—and perhaps, her roles as vice chair of the Democratic National Committee and a “rising star” of the Democratic Party mean she can afford to be optimistic.
“Absolutely [a Hindu can be in the White House one day],” Gabbard said. “When you look at the national issues that our country is facing, people are not qualified or disqualified because of their spiritual practice. People are looking for someone they can trust.”