When Tulsi Gabbard arrived at Lihue Airport, on the Hawaiian island of Kauai, she was greeted with a lei made of vibrant plumeria flowers, a small bottle of coconut water, a bagful of mangoes, and a profusion of alerts on her phone. It was Memorial Day, and Gabbard had agreed to speak at a ceremony honoring veterans at a local military cemetery. Many of the people there would be her brothers and sisters in arms: Gabbard has served, since 2003, in the Army National Guard, in which capacity she completed a tour of duty in Iraq. And almost all the people there would be her constituents—in 2012, Gabbard was elected to the United States Congress, representing Hawaii’s Second District, which includes all of the Hawaiian archipelago outside Honolulu, the capital. Gabbard found her local field representative, Kaulana Finn, gave her a hug, and climbed into her car. “As soon as I land here, I get text messages from people saying, ‘I heard you’re on Kauai—what are you doing?’ ” Gabbard said, grinning. “I don’t think it’s possible to do anything here without everybody knowing about it.”
All politicians must act as if they enjoy patriotic ceremonies, but Gabbard is one of the few who seem as if they were not acting. She is thirty-six, and has a knack for projecting both youthful joy and grownup gravitas. Her political profile is similarly hybrid. She is a fervent Bernie Sanders supporter with equally fervent bipartisan tendencies—known, roughly equally, for her concern for the treatment of veterans and her opposition to U.S. intervention abroad. She is also a vegetarian and a practicing Hindu—the first Hindu ever elected to Congress—as well as a lifelong surfer and an accomplished athlete. On Capitol Hill, she is often regarded as a glamorous anomaly: a Hawaiian action figure, fabulously out of place among her besuited colleagues. “She’s almost straight from central casting, if you need a heroine,” Van Jones, the progressive activist, says. Trey Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican, is one of her closest friends in Congress. He first spied her on the House floor, sitting on the Republican side of the aisle. “This sounds terrible to say, but it’s also true—you know, she’s cute,” he says. “So if you’re sitting on that side, and it’s a boring speech, you’re going to notice.” The night after Gabbard was elected, Rachel Maddow made a prediction on MSNBC: “She is on the fast track to being very famous.”
On the way to the ceremony, Finn stopped at her house so that Gabbard could change into her military uniform, which she had brought along, in a dry cleaner’s bag, as carry-on luggage. Finn gave her a motherly appraisal. “Do you have your headpiece?” she asked, then corrected herself. “Pardon me. I don’t know the proper terminology for military gear.”
Gabbard chuckled and offered the right word: “Cover.” She had hers, and soon she was standing at solemn attention at the Kauai Veterans Cemetery, where the graves were sprigged with American flags and a local Junior R.O.T.C. troop was lining the entrance. It was a hot but breezy day, with birds chirping and a few wild chickens strutting among the tombstones. There was a podium flanked by wreaths in front of a tiled mural depicting a mournful beach scene: a line of battlefield crosses, two empty boots, an upright rifle, pastel clouds in the distance.
Gabbard began with a personal tribute to those whose service had cost them their lives. “Like so many of you, I woke up this morning with a heavy heart,” she said. “Remembering that time in training, or downrange, when things were so crappy that all you could do was laugh, know that we had each other, and embrace the suck. We remember that last roll call, when their name was called with no response.” She talked about how she had never seen her father cry until the day she came home, unharmed, from Iraq. Anyone sitting close enough might have noticed that her eyes were gleaming. But she also sounded a note of political protest. “Too often we have found, throughout our country’s history, we have people in positions of power who make offhanded comments about sending a few thousand troops here, fifty thousand there, a hundred thousand there, intervening militarily here, or starting a war there—without seeming to understand or appreciate the cost of war,” she said. “If our troops are sent to fight a war, it must be the last option. Not the first.”
Friends and supporters sometimes describe Gabbard as “poised,” which may also be a way of acknowledging that she is not particularly spontaneous. She engages audiences with a voice that is slow, reassuring, and faintly hypnotic. Her resting expression is a sympathetic smile, and she has perfected an effective double-hug technique: a warm, long embrace when she meets someone, and an even longer one when saying goodbye, as if to signal that something meaningful has transpired. “We love you, Tulsi,” someone called out when she finished.
“I love you, too,” she called back.
In Gabbard’s telling, her comfort with crowds is the result of hard work, and a philosophical breakthrough. She was unusually shy as a girl, but eventually she realized that her anxiety was not just inconvenient but indefensible. She remembers thinking, “If all of my fears are coming from selfish thoughts, then that kind of defeats the whole point of what I want to do.” So she trained herself to talk to strangers, to “share that aloha with them.” In the Hawaiian language, “aloha” can be a salutation or a valediction, but it also refers to a spirit defined in state law as “the coordination of mind and heart within each person.” (Hawaiian officials are directed to “give consideration to the ‘Aloha spirit’ ” as they discharge their duties.)
When Gabbard entered politics, she was only twenty-one, and in those early years she was a social conservative, pro-life and active in the fight against same-sex marriage. She is now pro-choice and pro-same-sex-marriage: on these and other issues, she has evolved enough to be almost—but not quite—at home in the contemporary Democratic Party, which is increasingly progressive, particularly on issues of gender and sexual orientation. The exact nature and extent of Gabbard’s political evolution is not easy to apprehend, especially since Hawaii is not known for political centrism. It is, by some measures, the bluest state in the country: in last year’s election, Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump there, sixty-two per cent to thirty per cent, her biggest victory anywhere besides the District of Columbia. Many of those Clinton voters were unhappily surprised when, less than two weeks after the election, Gabbard agreed to meet with Trump to make her case for a noninterventionist foreign policy. A few months later, she flew to Syria and met with Bashar al-Assad, who is presiding over a brutal civil war; she and he seemed to agree that the United States should not intervene to stop it.
Earlier this year, a handful of impassioned progressives gathered in downtown Honolulu for an event known as Resist Trump Tuesday, in which they visited their senators and Congress members—all Democrats—and urged them to fight harder. They got a friendly reception at the office of Senator Brian Schatz, and one participant presented some red flowers at the office of Senator Mazie Hirono, who has been battling kidney cancer. But at Gabbard’s office the staffer who met them was warier: he read a list of her recent legislative positions, including her support for a fifteen-dollar minimum wage, then listened politely as they expressed their concerns. (They wanted a more vigorous congressional investigation into Russian collusion with Trump’s campaign, legalization of sex work, action on climate change, funding for the arts.) As they spilled back out into the hallway, they were, for the first time all afternoon, expressing ambivalence.
“Tulsi is great,” one man said. “She’s really good on the positions.”
“Most of them,” a woman replied. “She’s a riddle to me.”
On a steamy summer day in Washington, Gabbard was shuttling between her office, in the Longworth Building, and the House floor, where her presence was urgently but irregularly required, for votes. In keeping with congressional tradition, she has filled her office with mementos of her home state, including a plaque, at the receptionist’s desk, bearing a friendly but blunt message: “ALOHA SPIRIT REQUIRED HERE. IF YOU CAN’T SHARE IT TODAY, PLEASE VISIT US SOME OTHER TIME.” Gabbard flies back to Hawaii whenever she gets a long enough weekend, but she has come to enjoy her circumscribed and frenetic existence in Washington. She lives across the Anacostia River, on the city’s southeastern edge, with her sister, Vrindavan, who is a U.S. marshal, and Vrindavan’s husband, whose responsibilities include the preparation of vegetarian meals. When Gabbard is in town, she finds that she can spend days in constant motion, meeting and voting and meeting some more, while hardly ever leaving the warren of federal buildings. Even her daily recreation is there: she is a member of the famously tough bipartisan workout group led by Markwayne Mullin, Republican of Oklahoma, who happens to be a former professional mixed-martial-arts fighter.
“You lose your phone again, Rusty?”
Like all congressional offices, Gabbard’s receives a steady and variegated stream of guests: curious visitors, hopeful advocates, aggrieved constituents, old friends. On this morning, she had a brief discussion with a couple of missile-defense experts and then rushed over to the Capitol for a series of uncontroversial votes on sex trafficking. The chamber was mainly deserted, except for the tourist galleries, which were full of families, none of whom, it seemed, had been warned about the day’s agenda. “These votes are separated by two minutes,” Gabbard said. “So, if you’re not paying attention, you can end up voting wrong on a bunch of things.”
Gabbard does not consider herself to be especially loyal to any leader or faction. “No one from the D-triple-C”—the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee—“came and recruited me to run for Congress,” she says. “So my situation may be different from others, who have relied heavily on Party support from the beginning.” Gabbard was a long shot when, in 2012, she decided to compete in the Democratic primary against Mufi Hannemann, the popular former mayor of Honolulu. So she sent a small army of volunteers across the islands, planting lawn signs and lining the roads with placards, running a campaign based less on policy than on personality. People who supported Gabbard then have a hard time remembering now what the issues were. One local Democratic activist was drawn to her mainly because she seemed like “a bright, fresh voice.” Gabbard won the primary by twenty percentage points, and then ran all but uncontested in the general election, against a token Republican opponent.
At the 2012 Democratic National Convention, Gabbard praised President Obama, a fellow-Hawaiian, and Vice-President Joe Biden, along with their wives, as “the strongest advocates our military families could ever have.” But, once in office, she declined to play the role of reliable ally. Not long after she was sworn in, she joined with Republicans to vote for a short-term spending bill that most of her Democratic colleagues opposed. (She said that she wanted to insure uninterrupted funding for the military.) And in 2015 she went on Fox News and accused the Obama Administration of not recognizing that “Islamic extremists are our enemy.” By then, she was building a nationwide profile: in 2013, the Democratic National Committee had appointed her vice-chair, a role that marked her as a rising star. But, later in 2015, as the Presidential primaries drew near, she called for additional Democratic debates, a position that seemed to put her at odds with the Hillary Clinton campaign and, not coincidentally, with Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the D.N.C. chair. According to Gabbard, the committee retaliated by disinviting her from the first debate; Wasserman Schultz contended that Gabbard “was not uninvited,” but that she had been asked to focus on the candidates, not on the process.
A few months later, Gabbard resigned her D.N.C. position so that she could endorse Clinton’s opponent Bernie Sanders; she argued that Clinton was a committed military interventionist, and that Sanders was more trustworthy on “issues of war and peace.” The endorsement unnerved some of Gabbard’s allies, who assumed that Clinton would be the nominee. “Some of my friends and colleagues were looking at me as though I had just—they were preparing for my death, essentially,” Gabbard remembers. They told her, “When she”—Clinton—“wins, you’re going to suffer for many, many years.” (At least two potential fund-raisers abandoned Gabbard; in an e-mail, which was forwarded to John Podesta and subsequently made public by WikiLeaks, they accused her of being “disrespectful to Hillary Clinton.” )
When Clinton won the nomination, it posed a problem for Gabbard, until someone came along to solve it: Donald Trump, whose victory insured that Sanders supporters would pay no substantial price for having abandoned Clinton. Gabbard says that she was “shocked” when Trump won, and “concerned, in so many ways.” But, while some of her friends spent weeks fighting depression, she had a more levelheaded reaction. “I’m a pretty pragmatic person,” she says. “It was, like, ‘O.K., there’s a lot at stake. We are where we are—let’s figure out how we move forward.’ ” And so, when Steve Bannon called and asked her to meet with Trump, at Trump Tower, she accepted. (The Hill reported that Bannon “loves Tulsi Gabbard,” and that he viewed her as someone who “gets the foreign policy stuff, the Islamic terrorism stuff.”) Gabbard insists that she never considered the possibility—which seemed plausible, in those unpredictable days—that Trump would offer her a position in his Cabinet. Her claim is not entirely believable, but it spares her from having to answer the question of whether she would have accepted such an offer.
Gabbard says that she and Trump talked mainly about foreign policy; as a candidate, he had suggested, however inconsistently, that he would curb military interventions. Gabbard recalls that she found the meeting encouraging. “I walked out thinking that there may be some opportunity to work with this Administration to shift our foreign policy in a more positive, less destructive direction,” she said, and then paused. “Less hopeful, now.” In April, after Trump ordered an attack on a Syrian airfield, Gabbard accused him of behaving “recklessly,” and suggested that he had fallen under the influence of “war hawks.” More often, though, she has seemed reluctant to antagonize Trump. Given the overwhelmingly Democratic makeup of her district, this approach cannot be explained by electoral calculation, and it has complicated her relationship with some of the grassroots activists who might otherwise be inclined to support her.
When Gabbard appeared in Syria, last January, many wondered whether she was carrying a message to Assad from Trump. She says that she was not, and that she didn’t even tell the incoming Administration that she was going there. She met twice with Assad, who wanted to convince her of the threat posed by groups like ISIS and Al Nusra. She travelled with her husband, Abraham Williams, a cinematographer, who made a couple of stark but stylish videos of the trip: Gabbard talking to university students in Damascus, assuring them that she wants to stop the United States from supporting “terrorist groups”; Gabbard touring the rubble of a destroyed church with a local pastor, who said that Christians were being targeted by “rebels” loyal to the Islamic State. The videos conveyed the impression that these outsiders had brought chaos to Syria, and that the only path to peace was to put down the insurgency. Upon her return, Gabbard gave an interview in which she intimated that she and Assad—who is known to viciously punish dissent—had negotiated an agreement to bring democracy to Syria. “I challenged him, and talked to him about having fair and open elections, objective international observers, and making it so that the Syrian people can determine the future of Syria for themselves,” she told a reporter. “And these are things that he agreed to.”
Gabbard’s trip was widely regarded as a political disaster; Adam Kinzinger, a Republican congressman from Illinois, called Assad a “mass murderer,” and accused Gabbard of having “legitimized his genocide against the Syrian people.” After reporters revealed that the trip had been funded by a pair of Lebanese-American businessmen with ties to a pro-Assad political party, Gabbard agreed to repay her travel costs. And yet, instead of distancing herself from this episode, she has embraced it. In April, after a sarin-gas attack in Syria, Gabbard said that she was “skeptical” of claims that Assad’s government was to blame. Howard Dean, the former D.N.C. chair, responded on Twitter, “This is a disgrace. Gabbard should not be in Congress.”
“The problem is there’s no engine. Just a mysterious plot device.”
Gabbard is a member of the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees. But she is still trying to build support for her signature piece of legislation, the Stop Arming Terrorists Act, which would prohibit federal funding for “Al Qaeda, Jabhat Fateh al-Sham, and ISIL, or any individual or group that is affiliated with, associated with, cooperating with, or adherents to such groups.” Its main aim, as Gabbard describes it, is to force the C.I.A. to stop aiding militants in Syria. The current version of the bill has fourteen co-sponsors, eight Republicans and six Democrats, but it has not received a vote. Gabbard’s interest in foreign policy sets her apart from other ambitious Democrats, many of whom have difficulty articulating a clear position on Syria, and virtually all of whom would rather attach themselves to the kinds of domestic issues—stopping Trump, fighting poverty, combatting discrimination—that thrill the Democratic base. In this and other ways, Gabbard’s counterintuitive approach can make her seem unusually principled, or maybe just unusual. The United States has been prosecuting a war on terror for more than sixteen years; Gabbard is one of vanishingly few Democratic politicians who are eager to talk about it.
One afternoon in Hawaii, as Gabbard made her way to visit a Filipino-American veteran at home, she explained that locals sometimes identify one another by asking, “What high school did you go to?” This is a complicated question for Gabbard, who is not quite a native Hawaiian. She was born in American Samoa and moved to Hawaii in 1983, when she was two. She was both a tomboy and a nerd, a combination that caused her no problems in the local schools, because she didn’t go to one: Gabbard was mainly homeschooled. Her first political passion was environmentalism, an interest derived from her first recreational passion, which was the ocean. She lives on Oahu’s east side, and whenever she is home she likes to start her day on the water. On the morning after Memorial Day, she and Williams woke up before dawn and drove to an unmarked beach so that they could take paddleboards out to an island they like. As the sun rose, they ate mangoes and lychees on the sand. Williams, who is twenty-eight and solicitous, monitored a group of tourists nearby, making sure they didn’t get too close to a monk seal and her pup, playing in the surf.
One of Gabbard’s friends describes her parents, fondly, as “fuckin’ hippies,” and it was her father who encouraged her to turn her interest in the ocean into a political cause. Politics was a family vocation: Carol Gabbard, Tulsi’s mother, won a seat on the State Board of Education in 2000. For a decade, Mike Gabbard was Hawaii’s leading opponent of the gay-rights movement, an energetic and often brusque activist who stood ever ready to denounce what he called “the radical homosexual agenda.” In 1999, after one of the main characters on the teen drama “Dawson’s Creek” was revealed to be gay, Mike Gabbard flew to North Carolina, where the program was filmed, to lead a protest.
In 2002, when Tulsi Gabbard was only twenty-one, she ran, as a Democrat, for the Hawaii State House of Representatives, alongside another first-time candidate: her father, who sought and won a seat on the nonpartisan Honolulu City Council. She is eager, now, to explain that she and her father had entirely separate political lives. “He was talking potholes and trash and sewage, and I was talking about education and environment and other issues,” she says. “We’d see each other every now and then.” In fact, the two Gabbards co-founded a pair of nonprofit organizations: Stand Up for America, a patriotic pro-military group, and the Healthy Hawaii Coalition, which promoted environmentalism, and which secured a government grant to send Gabbard into schools dressed as a pollution-fighting superhero named Water Woman.
In her first political incarnation, Gabbard balanced liberal environmentalism with a pronounced conservative streak. In 2003, she voted against a bill to oblige hospitals to “provide emergency contraception immediately” to survivors of sexual assault, because it did not contain a “conscience clause,” to allow providers with a religious objection to opt out. She supported government surveillance efforts, warning that the “demand for unfettered civil liberties” could make the nation vulnerable to terrorists. And she joined her father’s battle against what she called “homosexual extremists.” In 1998, Mike Gabbard had successfully pushed for an amendment to the Hawaii State Constitution, to permit the legislature to ban same-sex marriage, which it did. Six years later, Tulsi Gabbard led a protest against a bill that would have legalized civil unions for same-sex couples. That same year, in the Hawaii State House, she delivered a long, fierce speech against a proposed resolution meant to target anti-gay bullying in public schools. She objected to the idea of students being taught that homosexuality is “normal and natural,” and worried that passing the resolution would have the effect of “inviting homosexual-advocacy organizations into our schools to promote their agenda to our vulnerable youth.”
As Gabbard was settling into her political career, in 2003, she did something surprising: she joined the National Guard, and, when her brigade was shipped to Iraq, she volunteered to go, even though her name was not on the mandatory-deployment roster. She served as a medical-operations specialist on a base in the Sunni Triangle, and also as a military police officer, before attending officer-candidate school in Alabama, where she excelled; a second deployment took her to Kuwait. She often cites her time in the Middle East when asked to explain her political reinvention. By the time she ran for Congress, in 2012, Gabbard was presenting herself as a more or less orthodox progressive, pro-choice and pro-same-sex-marriage. “Experiencing as a woman, firsthand, the impacts of countries that are acting as moral arbiters for their people—it really caused me to rethink the positions I held,” she says. This realization was well timed, because it enabled her to win a Democratic primary in a state that was increasingly blue. (Mike Gabbard, who is now a state senator, defected from the Republican Party and became a Democrat in 2007.) At a meeting in 2012, she apologized to L.G.B.T. activists in Hawaii for “very divisive and even disrespectful” things she had said. But Gabbard has seemed unusually conflicted about sexual orientation, an issue on which young Democrats are typically united and enthusiastic; she has been inclined to tolerate same-sex marriage but not to celebrate it. “Just because that’s not my life style, I don’t think that government should make sure that everybody else’s life styles match my own,” she told me, over the summer. Perhaps her views are still evolving, because in a recent conversation she said that “gay marriage should be celebrated.”
The new version of Gabbard is better suited to the era of Bernie Sanders, whose Our Revolution group endorsed her. (She was also chosen to be an inaugural fellow at the Sanders Institute, founded by Bernie’s wife, Jane Sanders.) She supports single-payer health care and a fifteen-dollar minimum wage; her 2016 critique of Clinton, as too close to corporate and political élites, now sounds less like apostasy and more like the conventional wisdom of a changing Democratic Party. Gabbard is also a symbol of demographic change: she is from Hawaii, where nonwhites make up about three-quarters of the population, and she is the product of an interracial marriage—her father is Samoan, and her mother is white. Gabbard is, prominently, a religious minority, the first representative to swear the oath of office on the Bhagavad Gita, a central Hindu text. She releases yearly holiday videos celebrating Diwali, the grand Hindu festival of lights, and has cultivated a close relationship with Indian-Americans. In 2014, she travelled to India, where she met with the controversial Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has become a political ally, and she is now a co-chair of the Congressional India Caucus.
With her brown skin, black hair, and Hindu name, Gabbard is sometimes mistaken for an Indian-American. (She is named for the holy-basil plant, also known as tulasi, a sweet-smelling herb that appears in the Bhagavad Gita as an offering to the Lord.) “Hindu,” of course, refers to her spiritual orientation, not to her national origin, but she is often described as “Hindu-American,” a formulation that blurs the line between faith and identity. Gabbard has grown more comfortable talking about her faith, which she barely mentioned earlier in her political career. But she has resisted telling the story of her spiritual journey. This summer, when I asked her about the teacher who led her to Hinduism, Gabbard grew evasive. “I’ve had many different spiritual teachers, and continue to,” she said.
“There’s not one that’s more important than the others?”
“No,” she said. But there is, in fact, a teacher who has played a central role in her life—a teacher whom Gabbard referred to, in a 2015 video, as her “guru dev,” which means, roughly, “spiritual master.” His name is Chris Butler.
In 1965, an elderly Indian man known as A. C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada arrived in America, and soon began singing and preaching in Tompkins Square Park, in New York’s East Village. For reasons that resist secular explanation, Bhaktivedanta drew a crowd, and the crowd grew into something new: the Hare Krishna movement, which introduced Westerners to the five-hundred-year-old Hindu tradition known as Gaudiya Vaishnavism. The Hare Krishna devotee became, for a time, a familiar figure, and sometimes a figure of fun: a young white man with a shaved head and an orange-sherbet robe, chanting ceaselessly and carrying an armload of books to sell. The Beatles’ record label released a Hare Krishna single, and George Harrison wrote “My Sweet Lord” under the group’s influence. (Although Harrison was never initiated into the movement, Bhaktivedanta once praised him as “humble, meek, polite, and devout.”) From 1965 until his death, in 1977, Bhaktivedanta taught and travelled constantly, while corresponding with seekers all over the world.
By the early seventies, his message had reached Hawaii, where Chris Butler was a young yoga teacher and surfer. Butler, the son of a prominent doctor and antiwar activist who had come from the mainland, was something of a prodigy: a self-styled guru who began attracting followers soon after he dropped out of college. Even so, Butler was awed by Bhaktivedanta, who had a knack for making ancient Indian texts sound like sensible instruction manuals. In his annotated translation of the Bhagavad Gita, readers could learn how to be pleasing to Lord Krishna by eschewing meat and spicy food (which could “cause misery by producing mucus in the stomach”), by working hard, by chanting his name—small, tangible steps that could bring a devotee close to the divine.
In 1971, Bhaktivedanta came to Hawaii, and Butler, who was twenty-three, met him, and made a trade: he turned all of his disciples over to Bhaktivedanta, and in exchange gained a new name, Siddhaswarupananda, which marked him as an initiated disciple and a prominent figure in the growing Hare Krishna movement. It was not always an easy relationship. At times, Bhaktivedanta admonished Butler for non-orthodox teaching, and Butler questioned Bhaktivedanta’s insistence that initiates shave their heads and wear robes.
After Bhaktivedanta’s death, Butler no longer had to choose between devotion and independence. As the Hare Krishna movement fractured, Butler created his own group, now known as the Science of Identity Foundation, and amassed a tight-knit, low-profile network of followers, hundreds or perhaps thousands of them, stretching west from Hawaii into Australia, New Zealand, and Southeast Asia. Butler deëmphasized age-old Indian texts and practices, presenting himself instead as a smart and curious guy who had figured out the answers to some very puzzling questions. In 1984, he published “Who Are You? Discovering Your Real Identity,” which used examples from science to argue that materialism was false, and that the self was real—and eternal. (Krishna and the Bhagavad Gita are mentioned only in passing.) He recorded a series of television specials, in which he resembled a hip young college professor on a couch, surrounded by inquisitive students.
One of those students was Mike Gabbard, who had been interested in Hinduism since the nineteen-seventies: he once corresponded with Bhaktivedanta, asking for advice on establishing a temple, and Tulsi Gabbard’s name reflects the family’s pre-existing spiritual commitments. When the Gabbards moved to Hawaii, in 1983, they joined the circle of disciples around Butler. Tulsi Gabbard says that she began learning the spiritual principles of Vaishnava Hinduism as a kid, and that she grew up largely among fellow-disciples, some of whom would gather on the beach for kirtan, the practice of singing or chanting sacred songs. Gabbard pursued a spiritual education: as a girl, she spent two years in the Philippines, at informal schools run by followers of Butler.
“The system’s not perfect, but, by God, it’s transparent.”
Gabbard recalls her childhood as lively and freewheeling: she excelled at martial arts and developed a passion for gardening; she was a serious reader, encouraged by her parents. But a number of Butler’s former disciples recall a harsher, more authoritarian atmosphere. Defectors tell stories of children discouraged by Butler from attending secular schools; of followers forbidden to speak publicly about the group; of returning travellers quarantined for days, lest they transmit a contagious disease to Butler; of devotees lying prostrate whenever he entered the room, or adding bits of his nail clippings to their food, or eating spoonfuls of sand that he had walked upon. Some former members portray themselves as survivors of an abusive cult. Butler denies these reports, and Gabbard says that she finds them hard to credit. “I’ve never heard him say anything hateful, or say anything mean about anybody,” she says of Butler. “I can speak to my own personal experience and, frankly, my gratitude to him, for the gift of this wonderful spiritual practice that he has given to me, and to so many people.”
A number of those people have businesses. One of Butler’s followers is Wai Lana, a yoga entrepreneur who is also his wife. Her company, which produces yoga videos, has helped fund the Science of Identity Foundation. Another person who seems to be a follower is Joseph Bismark, the co-founder of a global multilevel-marketing company called QNET, whose products include a small disk meant to protect users from “the harmful effects of electrosmog.” (A decade ago, Indonesian police, alerted by Interpol, reportedly arrested Bismark on charges of fraud; the charges were eventually withdrawn.)
Unlike Bhaktivedanta, whose every utterance seems to have been recorded for posterity, Butler has carefully controlled his public appearances, and has essentially stopped talking to the media in recent decades. But he agreed to talk with me, by telephone, about his teachings and his star pupil. Butler will be seventy next year, but he still speaks with the boyish, wondrous voice of a mind-blown surfer, enriched by a trace of the clipped, singsong accent that, in Hawaii, provides a form of local cred. He often interrupts himself to chuckle, or to interject his favorite rhetorical question: “Right?”
Although Hindu identity plays an important role in Gabbard’s career, the term itself has a complicated history: it is often used as a catchall for widely varying spiritual practices on the Indian subcontinent, and it is neither universally accepted nor reliably defined. “In the Bhagavad Gita, where is the mention of ‘Hindu’?” Bhaktivedanta once asked. Butler, too, finds the term constricting. “I’m not a Hindu, I’m not a Christian, I’m not a Buddhist, I’m not a Muslim,” he says. “I’m an eternal spirit soul—an atma, part and parcel of the supreme soul.” (His followers have generally avoided the term; Mike Gabbard describes himself as a Catholic, notwithstanding his ties to the foundation.) But Butler recognizes the usefulness of a concise, recognizable label, especially in politics, and so he suggested to Gabbard a compromise: “I told her, ‘Why don’t you use the phrase “transcendental Hinduism”?’ ” (Indeed, during a recent conversation in the congressional dining room Gabbard did precisely that.) Gabbard and Butler both say that the foundation is a resource, not a religious organization; there is no official hierarchy, and therefore no system of accountability, besides Butler’s own conscience, and the conscience of those who are devoted to him. In one lecture, he acknowledged the potential for skepticism, offering followers his version of Pascal’s wager. “If I’m not the representative of God, and you dovetail your will with mine, then your life is destroyed,” he said. “And if I am the representative of God, and you don’t dovetail your will with mine, then your life is wasted.”
And yet he allows that he does have “disciples,” who call him Jagad Guru, or “teacher of the world.” “What the Jagad Guru title conveys is that what’s being taught is not just for a certain group of people,” Butler says. “It’s something that everybody can appreciate, and it’s for people all over the world.” A guru, Butler once explained, is supposed to be “a bona-fide representative of the Supreme Lord.” In commentary on the Bhagavad Gita, Bhaktivedanta emphasized that submission was crucial to spiritual advancement. “A spiritual master should be accepted in full surrender,” he wrote, “and one should serve the spiritual master like a menial servant, without false prestige.” Butler is sensitive to the perception that he is an authoritarian; he prefers to talk about himself as a student and a follower, rather than as a teacher and a leader. “My teacher loves me,” he said. (He was referring, in the eternal-spirit present tense, to Bhaktivedanta.) “It’s a relationship of love. And so the students of such a loving guru will love their teachers—it’s natural that you will love that person.” Not coincidentally, he speaks lovingly of Gabbard, whom he’s known virtually all her life. As a girl, he remembers, she had “a real gravity and seriousness that was way beyond her years.” Nowadays, Butler regards Gabbard with fatherly pride, likening himself to a music teacher watching a star pupil excel. “He’s taught one of his students cello,” he says. “And he sees that, oh, this student of mine is now playing cello in the philharmonic orchestra. And it’s beautiful.”
Gabbard is not the first disciple of Butler’s to enter politics. In the late seventies, a rather opaque group called Independents for Godly Government appeared in Hawaii and fielded more than a dozen candidates for local races. The group presented itself as a multifaith coalition of conservative-minded reformers, but in 1977 the Honolulu Advertiser published a three-part exposé identifying I.G.G. as an initiative created mainly, or entirely, by disciples of Butler. One candidate told the newspaper that discretion was part of his political strategy. “I know for a fact that, if I said I was a Hare Krishna, the first thing people would think was I had a shaved head, bells on my feet, and I bothered people at the airport,” he said. “To communicate, I have to keep the doors open.” In Valley Isle, a newspaper based in Maui and friendly to Butler, Bill Penaroza, one of the leaders of the initiative, announced that the group—which hadn’t got any of its candidates elected—was “restructuring.” Penaroza didn’t identify Butler as its leader, but he did concede that he had some influence. “There was an interesting conversation with a friend of mine who I consider to be a very spiritually advanced person, whose name is Siddha Swarup Swami,” Penaroza said. (He was using a version of Butler’s initiated name, Siddhaswarupananda.) “He said he thought we were a little too self-righteous, and that we seem to have limited ourselves to working with people who were of Eastern spiritual disciplines, neglecting many of the people we could probably work with in the more established Western-oriented churches.”
The publisher of Valley Isle was a businessman named Rick Reed, who was elected to the State Senate in 1986. That year, Reed, who had worked for a local prosecutor, was accused of leaking confidential state documents in order to discredit a Democratic politician; Reed’s ex-wife told the Advertiser that Butler had been part of the plot. (Both Reed and Butler denied it.) In 1992, Reed challenged Daniel Inouye, the old lion of Hawaiian politics, for his seat in the U.S. Senate, and the campaign brought more scrutiny to Reed’s relationship with Butler. Reed had previously referred to Butler as his “spiritual adviser,” but he told the Advertiser that there was “no evidence I have ever been a member of a Hare Krishna organization, or of Independents for Godly Government.” Reed lost the election, but he successfully fended off the Federal Election Commission, which investigated a Christmas video he had filmed in the Philippines and distributed in Hawaii, allegedly in an attempt to beguile the state’s sizable Filipino-American population. The F.E.C. ultimately ruled that the video was a legitimate (if dubious) business venture, and that the ninety-thousand-dollar loan Reed had received to produce it was not, therefore, an unlawful campaign donation.
In Gabbard, Butler’s movement finally seems to have produced a widely appealing politician, with a national profile. And there are links between Gabbard’s political operation and those of I.G.G., going all the way back to Bill Penaroza: in 2015, Gabbard hired Penaroza’s son, Kainoa Penaroza, to be her chief of staff, even though he had virtually no political experience. Gabbard, like her predecessors, firmly rejects the idea that she is part of a political initiative tied to her spiritual leader. “It’s a whole lot of conjecture,” she told me. She offered a hypothetical comparison. “Senator Brian Schatz, from Hawaii—he’s Jewish,” she said. “His chief of staff is Jewish. So there must be some great plan of the Jewish community in Hawaii to advance this Jewish leader and those around him?”
The difference is that the world of Butler’s disciples is relatively small and dizzyingly interlinked. Reed’s video of Christmas in the Philippines begins with a visit to Toby Tamayo, a longtime employee of the group who helped run a Butler-affiliated school there. Tamayo happens to be the uncle of Gabbard’s first husband, Eddie Tamayo, whom she married in 2002 and divorced four years later—partly, she says, because of the stress of serving overseas. Both of Gabbard’s parents worked in Rick Reed’s office. And the loan Reed received to make that Christmas video came from Richard Bellord, whose son, Rupa Bellord, recently married Gabbard’s sister and roommate, Vrindavan. Richard Bellord himself used to be married to Wai Lana, the yoga instructor who is now Butler’s wife; Abraham Williams, Gabbard’s husband, has helped film her videos. (Williams’s mother, Anya Anthony, is Gabbard’s office manager in Washington; she sits behind the “ALOHA SPIRIT” sign.) Wai Lana’s company is run by a longtime Butler associate named Sunil Khemaney, who is also a business associate of Joseph Bismark’s. Khemaney helps run Gabbard’s outreach to the Indian-American community; he accompanied her on her 2014 trip to India. One person familiar with Gabbard’s operation describes an office divided between disciples and non-disciples: “Everyone wondered who was in the group and who wasn’t. It was taboo—people in the group didn’t talk about it, so no one knew for sure.”
Gabbard’s most pronounced political tendency—her instinct toward bipartisanship—is, Butler says, entirely in keeping with what he teaches. But he says that he does not tell her, or any other disciple, how to vote. “That sense of aloha, or love for others, and the desire to work for the well-being of others—that’s a successful politician, from a spiritual perspective,” he says. “But as far as positions on different issues that come before politicians? That is something that every individual has to deal with on their own.”
When asked about Hinduism, Gabbard often talks about anti-Hindu bigotry. One of her prime examples is Kawika Crowley, her Republican opponent in the 2012 election, who told CNN that he thought Gabbard’s Hinduism conflicted with the American system of government. (Crowley, a smokers’-rights activist who lived in his minivan, lost the election by nearly sixty percentage points.) In an essay about her faith that she sent to me, Gabbard compared herself to John F. Kennedy, who sought to reassure voters who were worried by his Catholicism; he promised to discharge the duties of the office “without regard to outside religious pressures or dictates.” But there is no simple way to distinguish between the religious “dictates” that might make voters nervous and the religious “values” that politicians—particularly Christian politicians—so frequently pledge to uphold. It would be absurd to expect Gabbard to make political decisions without reference to the spiritual path that she has walked all her life. After all, her determination to seek agreement outside her party is, in no small way, a product of that path, and quite possibly a laudable one. Gowdy, the South Carolina Republican, likes to tell Gabbard that she is “the most Christlike member of Congress,” a complicated sort of compliment that says something about the way we try to reconcile spiritual traditions that are ultimately incommensurable.
It is possible, though, to discern something more specific than all-purpose aloha in the shifting political priorities of Butler’s followers. In the nineteen-eighties, Butler excoriated same-sex desire; he wrote, for instance, that bisexuality was “sense gratification” run amok, and warned that the logical conclusion of such hedonistic conduct was pedophilia and bestiality. (He declared, with striking certainty, that “an increasing number of women in the United States keep dogs for sexual reasons.”) Reed, Mike Gabbard, and other political candidates associated with him tended to echo these pronouncements. Nowadays, Tulsi Gabbard takes a different view, and Butler seems to have deëmphasized the issue: there is no mention of homosexuality on the foundation’s Web site, or in his recent teachings. Gabbard says that she and Butler have discussed same-sex marriage—“perhaps, a while ago.” She says, “It’s something that we don’t agree on.”
In recent decades, Butler has presented himself less as a Hare Krishna dissident and more as a member of a loosely connected worldwide Vaishnava movement. To explain how he fits in, Gabbard e-mailed me “The Genealogical Tree of Theistic Vedanta,” which depicts dozens of great teachers from across the centuries, most of them Indian; Butler occupies a secure but modest place, at the end of a thin branch. By forging relationships with Modi and other Indian leaders, Gabbard has made herself a prominent ambassador of American Hinduism, and she may be bringing Butler’s previously obscure movement closer to the global Hindu mainstream. Last year, when the Indian government announced the winners of its annual Padma Awards, only two non-Indians were included. One was a former U.S. Ambassador. The other was Wai Lana.
Gabbard’s relationship with India is also a strategic alliance: she has defended Modi’s political organization, the Bharatiya Janata Party, which champions the view that India is—and should remain—an essentially Hindu nation. In 2013, she opposed a resolution on “religious violence” in India that was seen as a veiled criticism of Modi, and she suggests that, whatever the problems faced by India’s Muslim minority, they can’t compare with the tribulations of religious minorities in many Muslim countries. This summer, she came to New York to participate in an Indian-American business forum. She had the bad luck to appear after Anil Kapoor, the garrulous Indian movie star, but she seemed entirely at ease, chatting with the Indian Ambassador about economic partnership and security coöperation. This was Gabbard’s kind of crowd: friendly and relatively nonpartisan. One of the first questioners began by establishing herself as a committed fan. “Congresswoman, I was really hoping you would get a Cabinet position in Trump’s Administration,” she said. “Now I’m hoping for the day when I can vote for you in the Presidential election.”
Gabbard smiled and shook her head at the suggestion. But, in October, she went to Iowa to appear at a Democratic fund-raiser, a sign that she is thinking about the 2020 caucuses, and that she is one of dozens—or perhaps hundreds—of Democratic politicians who think they have a chance to be elected President. For now, she is on the list of possible candidates, though not the short list; her relatively conciliatory attitude toward Trump seems to have diminished her profile among the kind of Democrats who start thinking about primary contests three years in advance. But if Gabbard joins the field she will almost certainly be the most interesting candidate in it. One question is whether her life story will turn out to be too interesting—too unusual—for her own good.
Former disciples of Butler tend to be extraordinarily bitter about the time they spent in spiritual service to him, and extraordinarily suspicious of his motives. This suspicion extends to some of the people who have supported Gabbard but find themselves troubled by the ambiguous role that Butler and his followers have played in Hawaiian politics. Nine years ago, another promising politician had to figure out what to do about a spiritual leader who became a magnet for criticism: as a candidate, Barack Obama defended his pastor, the Reverend Jeremiah Wright, until, finally, he abandoned him. But Wright represented only a small slice of Obama’s life, whereas Gabbard’s life would be unrecognizable without Butler’s influence. Decades ago, her father tried, with some success, to make common cause with Mormons, evangelicals, and other people of faith who shared his opposition to same-sex marriage. His daughter is far more politically skilled, but her task is also far more difficult: she must find a way to make common cause with a Democratic Party that is increasingly secular and increasingly partisan.
Gabbard doesn’t seem too frustrated by the stalled progress of her signature bill, the Stop Arming Terrorists Act; in political terms, it may be more effective as a blocked bill—a symbol of the intransigence she wants to battle—than as an enacted law. And although she remains relatively reluctant to criticize the President, or even to mention his name, she has found plenty of chances this year to voice her disagreement with “the Administration.” Still, in the current climate Gabbard is aware that Democratic voters are drawn to politicians who seem to be leading the resistance to Trump and the Republicans, rather than searching for ways to work with them. Many of her supporters believe that, eventually, the mood will change. “At some point,” Van Jones says, “the country’s going to be tired of people whose only qualification is that they hate the other side.”
Gabbard, more than most politicians, is a celebrity. (At the airport in Kauai, she was stopped by a T.S.A. agent, who wanted a photograph with her. “This is my perfect week,” he said. “My son got married—and I get to meet you!”) And she has one of the most important qualities a politician can have: an uncanny ability to make people believe in her, even if they don’t agree with her. One of her longtime fans on Oahu is Linda Wong, who hosted fund-raisers during Gabbard’s first congressional campaign, and who has grown used to fielding questions about her various acts of political insubordination. “She makes a move, but then I get the phone calls: ‘What is she doing?’ ” Wong says. “I say, ‘I don’t know what she’s doing, but I know she’s thought it through.’ ”
Depending on the day, and the mood of the country, Gabbard’s stubbornly personal approach to politics can seem either refreshing or discomfiting. When she talks about her passion for “service,” she is speaking the language of politics and the military and faith all at once. She is talking about her determination, which is obvious, and her aims, which aren’t, always. “She’s got a servant attitude, a servant’s heart,” Butler says. “Whether she’s in politics or anything else, she’s going to take that same servant’s heart with her.” ♦
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