Tulsi Gabbard’s ties to secretive cult may explain her perplexing political journey

Insider/October 18, 2022

By Yoonji Han

Tulsi Gabbard has strong words for anyone who asks about the religious sect she grew up in.

The former congresswoman and her staffers have repeatedly claimed that media interest in the Science of Identity Foundation (SIF) and its guru's influence on Gabbard amount to "Hindu-phobic bigotry."

Gabbard lodged a similar line of attack when she announced on Tuesday that she is leaving the Democratic Party, accusing the party of being "hostile to people of faith and spirituality."

"I can no longer remain in today's Democratic Party that is now under the complete control of an elitist cabal of warmongers driven by cowardly wokeness, who divide us by racializing every issue and stoke anti-white racism," she said on an episode of her self-titled podcast.

Gabbard, who made history in 2012 when she became the first American Samoan and practicing Hindu in Congress, also denounced what she said were Democrats' "open border" policies and anti-police rhetoric.

Gabbard has historically been reluctant to publicly speak about her spiritual journey in SIF, which has roots in the Hare Krishna movement that exploded in the US during the 1960s and 70s. But her upbringing in the religious group — as well as her spiritual ties to its leader, Chris Butler — has left many wondering how it has shaped her beliefs, political and otherwise.

SIF evolved from the Hare Krishna movement

The Hare Krishna movement was started in 1966 by AC Bhaktivedanta, a 70-year-old Indian man who landed in New York with just 40 rupees to his name. Bhaktivedanta preached and chanted in Tompkins Square Park in the East Village, tapping into the countercultural spirit of the 1960s.

The movement swiftly became the largest branch of Gaudiya Vaishnavism, part of the Hindu school of thought. Hare Krishnas believe that chanting mantras, vegetarianism, and yoga can awaken the sleeping soul and enable them to experience an eternal connection with Krishna, the supreme god.

Chris Butler was a young yoga teacher and surfer in his early 20s when the Hare Krishna movement reached Hawaii. He had already amassed a small following of his own, but found it difficult to attract new followers against the mainstream movement.

In 1971, Butler met Bhaktivedanta and agreed to a trade: He would turn his disciples over, and become an initiate of Hare Krishna. Butler gained a new name, Siddhaswarupanada, which means "one's spiritual form which is full of bliss."

But Butler clashed with his guru. Deviating from Hindu principles, Butler married and instructed his followers not to shave their heads or wear robes, while Bhaktivedanta chided him for his non-orthodox teachings.

When Bhaktivedanta died in 1977, Butler splintered from the Hare Krishna movement to start the Science of Identity Foundation. He began to further deemphasize traditional Hindu texts and practices, and began to expound his own controversial views.

Butler taught that homosexuality is evil, using virulent homophobic rhetoric, and that public schools and the outside world were not to be trusted. Children of followers were homeschooled, and some — including Gabbard — were later sent to schools the SIF created in the Philippines.

The SIF amassed a tightly-knit community of around a thousand followers in Hawaii, Australia, New Zealand, and Southeast Asia. Among them were Mike and Carol Gabbard, who would name one of their daughters after "tulasi," the Sanskrit word for the holy-basil herb that appears in the Bhagavad Gita as an offering to the Lord.

Some ex-members describe the SIF as an abusive cult

Tulsi Gabbard and her siblings were raised as Hindus and vegetarians, she told the Indo American News before her first run for Congress. She grew up largely among fellow disciples, singing or chanting sacred Hindu songs on the beach, the New Yorker reported.

Gabbard met both her first husband and her current spouse, freelance cinematographer Abraham Williams, in SIF, according to New York Magazine.

While Gabbard has described her experience growing up in the group as one that was seemingly positive, some other ex-members have described themselves as survivors of a cult.

"I was raised to believe Chris Butler was God's voice on earth, and if you questioned him or offended him in any way, you were effectively offending God," someone who identifies as a former member of the SIF wrote in a 2017 Medium post. "Questioning the leader was spiritual suicide, which was seen as worse than death."

Another former member told New York Magazine that Butler was vulgar and vindictive, excoriating people for small slip-ups like driving poorly or failing to clean water cups properly.

Butler has denied these claims, and Gabbard told the New Yorker that these experiences didn't chalk up to her own: "I've never heard him say anything hateful, or say anything mean about anybody," Gabbard said. "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."

Both Butler and Gabbard also said the foundation is a resource, not a religious organization, though Butler acknowledged that he does have "disciples" as "Jagad Guru," or "teacher of the world," the New Yorker reported.

Gabbard's identity politics and multiculturalism

Gabbard has often downplayed the influence of Butler, telling the New Yorker that she has "had many different spiritual teachers, and continue[s] to." But she acknowledged that he had shaped her Hindu identity, referring to him as her "guru dev," or spiritual guide. Gabbard also told the New York Times in 2019 that Butler and his work still guide her.

The way Gabbard has presented herself to the public is caught up in the "fraught" ways America has come to understand multiculturalism — the idea that we should honor all cultures and faiths, according to Radhika Parameswaran, professor of cultural and media studies at Indiana University, Bloomington.

"What multiculturalism doesn't take into account are issues of social justice, inequity, or histories of oppression. Or, if it does, it does it in a very tokenistic, surface way," Parameswaran told Insider. "When you think about somebody like Tulsi Gabbard and her adoption of Hinduism… you also have to peel back the layers and look at the way religion can be used as a tool of oppression."

While it would be speculation to determine another person's private beliefs, Parameswaran said she doesn't see how Gabbard's spiritual background could not have had an influence on her or her politics.

Criticisms of Islamophobia and anti-gay rhetoric

In addition to his homophobic attitudes, Butler has espoused hostile views toward Muslims, calling them "demons."

Throughout her career, Gabbard has made herself a prominent ambassador of American Hinduism, forging relationships with Narendra Modi, the prime minister of India, and other Indian leaders. She has drawn criticism for defending Modi's party, which has been accused of being complicit in widespread violence against Muslims. Some have also directly criticized Gabbard for stoking Islamophobia with public statements she has made linking Islamic beliefs with acts of terrorism.

Gabbard has also been accused of flip-flopping on her stance on gay marriage: After acknowledging her past work with a known anti-gay organization that promoted controversial conversion therapy, Gabbard publicly renounced her previously-held anti-gay views. However, in April 2022, Gabbard defended Florida Governor's Ron DeSantis's "Don't Say Gay" bill, which has come under fire for being discriminatory.

As of time of publish, Gabbard's team did not provide a comment to this story when requested.

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