Reacting to Christian fundamentalists protesting Hindu opening prayers…as a Hindu American

Pranav Guru
10 min readJul 2, 2021

Some things are so rare, they happen only once in a lifetime. But rare things that happen twice in a lifetime? Even rarer.

For example, every man lives to see Halley’s Comet — a periodic comet visible from Earth every 74–76 years — at least once in their life. But in 1985, Albert J. Parisi’s piece for The New York Times — entitled “TWICE-IN-A LIFETIME VIEWER REJOICES AT HALLEY’S RETURN” — covered an 80-year-old retired museum curator Philip J. Del Vecchio as he became one of the few documented people to live through two witnessings of the comet in a single lifetime.

That list also notably includes the iconic American author Mark Twain. Born on November 30, 1835 (just two weeks after the comet became visible), he wrote in his 1909 autobiography, “I came in with Halley’s comet in 1835. It is coming again next year, and I expect to go out with it. It will be the greatest disappointment of my life if I don’t go out with Halley’s comet.” Ultimately, Twain died on April 21, 1910, exactly one day after the comet was seen to have returned.

Now, unfortunately, I wasn’t even born in the year 1985. So by God’s grace, I’ll be fortunate to see the comet in the year 2061. It’ll only be my first time, but as a space buff it would surely be worth the wait.

There has, however, been one thing I have seen twice in my lifetime. A lifelong practicing Hindu, I’ve had the privilege of seeing two Hindu opening prayers conducted in the chambers of the U.S. Congress. The first was conducted by Venkatachalapathi Samuldrala before the House of Representatives in 2000, with the second by Rajan Zed before the Senate in 2007.

That’s the plus side. On the minus side, both these events were criticized by conservative Christian groups and even interrupted by protesters.

And while I’m not politically outspoken and I can’t attest to how the announcement of these prayers and their subsequent condemnations made American Hindus generally feel, I can say that in the immediate aftermath;

You’re left shaking your head and hoping that bad news doesn’t happen in threes.

Especially after you break each of these incidents down;

Let’s start with the first-ever Hindu opening prayer in the history of the U.S. Congress: Venkatachalapathi Samuldrala.

Venkatachalapathi Samuldrala in 2010 visiting the Iraivan Hindu Monastery in Kauai, Hawaii

On September 14, 2000, then-U.S. Representative from Ohio Sherrod Brown offered Samuldrala a chance to serve as a one-time guest chaplain and offer a prayer to open House proceedings. According to rules of the House, a Representative can invite one guest chaplain per Congressional term. Brown, now Ohio’s U.S. Senator, offered Samuldrala the opportunity as a result of the latter’s work with the Shiva Hindu Temple in Parma, Ohio.

In his prayer (which had been planned on the same day as the late Atal Bihari Vajpayee — then-Prime Minister of India — delivering a speech to the joint houses of Congress), Samuldrala prayed for forgiveness and righteousness, directly mentioned the Representatives in the building, and ended with an invocation from India’s scriptures;

“May all be happy

May all be free from disease

May all realize what is good

May none be subject to misery

Peace, peace, peace be unto all.”

Needless to say, the blowback was quick.

On September 21, 2000, the Family Research Council (FRC) — a right-wing Christian activist group — issued an article entitled “Religious Pluralism or Tolerance?” Having read the FRC’s article so you won’t have to, here are some memorable moments;

  • “What’s wrong is that it is one more indication that our nation is drifting from its Judeo-Christian roots.”
  • “Our founders expected that Christianity — and no other religion — would receive support from the government as long as that support did not violate people’s consciences and their right to worship.”
  • “They would have found utterly incredible the idea that all religions, including paganism, be treated with equal deference.”
  • “Many people today confuse traditional Western religious tolerance with religious pluralism.”
  • “the United States is a nation that has historically honored the One True God”

These are among many quotables in this article that made me — among others — shake my head in borderline disgust.

Fast-forward to July 12, 2007, when history repeated itself. The Senate was about to have its own first opening prayer conducted by a Hindu guest chaplain. This time, it would be none other than Rajad Zed, an Indian-born priest from Reno, Nevada and member of the organization Interfaith Relations from the Indian Association of Northern Nevada.

Prior to the event, longtime Senator from Nevada and then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid announced he was inviting Zed to commence Senate proceedings through prayer. Earlier that year, Zed had become the first to offer Hindu prayers before the Nevada State Senate (March 19) and Nevada State Assembly (May 7). Unlike Samuldrala, the topic of discussion in the chambers of Congress that day wouldn’t be centered on Indo-American Relations (instead primarily focus on the War on Terror).

In light of the announcement, the Americans United for Separation of Church and State (AU) took a subtle, carefully-worded dig at the Family Research Council in reference to their involvement in the aforementioned Samuldrala prayer controversy, stating, “Now the FRC gets a chance to really make amends. We challenge the group to issue a public statement affirming religious diversity in America and welcoming Hindus to our rich tapestry of faiths. If we must have such prayers before Congress, they should respect religious diversity. Surely the FRC has no problem with that?” While the FRC had no comment this time, others did.

In the days leading up to prayer, members of the American Family Association (AFA) — another conservative group advocating for Christian fundamentalism — contacted various sitting Senators to protest against the prayer, which they believed to be non-monotheistic. When the Senate decided to proceed with its plans, multiple Christian protesters entered the U.S. Capitol. Ultimately, three would be arrested.

Rajan Zed with U.S. Senator from Pennsylvania Bob Casey during his opening prayer to the U.S. Senate

Just like Samuldrala, Zed’s faith and decision to pray before lawmakers would be targeted. But unlike Samuldrala, who largely took on a low profile after praying before the House in 2000, Zed would be invited to serve as a guest chaplain multiple times after his own big moment before the Senate. Since 2007, he has delivered Hindu prayers before State Senators, State Assemblies, State Houses-of-Representatives, County Commissions, and City Councils.

On August 27, 2007, Zed prayed before the California State Senate. The AFA retaliated once again, with its founder Donald Wildmon claiming, “We’re not opposed to the ability of people to worship their own gods or god, but when it comes to our civil government…it’s always been the recognition of the God of the Bible. Every religion is not equal. That’s my belief. That’s logic.”

Obviously, the list of infamous quotables targeted both these aforementioned gentlemen go on. Unsurprisingly, no other man has delivered a Hindu invocation before the U.S. Congress since Zed.

But contrary to what you must be thinking at the moment, I harbor no anger. And I would encourage all people, including the Hindu American communities, to not be angry. After all, when Samuldrala and Zed chose to emphasize the concepts of being peaceful and selfless in their prayers before our lawmakers despite the attacks they had received, it proves resentment is not the answer.

I bring up these (relatively old) incidents and the unflattering responses they received not to incite emotion or call for immediate action. Instead, I bring attention to the conversations they’ve started about the role of pluralism in America.

For all the blowback Venkatachalapathi Samuldrala and Rajan Zed received, the positive feedback was just as — if not more — immense.

Then-Rep. Sherrod Brown publicly supported Samuldrala’s 2000 prayer from the beginning, referring to it as “a great day for Indian-American relations.” He went on to add, “The United States is also home to an Indian-American community of 1.4 million people. I requested the House Chaplain and Speaker to invite Mr. Samuldrala to give today’s prayer as a testimony to the religious diversity that is the hallmark of our great nation. I want to thank Mr. Samuldrala for his thoughtful prayer that reminds us that, while we may differ in culture and traditions, we are all alike in the most basic aspiration of peace and righteousness.” An outspoken practicing Lutheran Christian himself, he responded to the FRC’s criticism of Samuldrala stating, “I’m disappointed the Family Research Council doesn’t understand what this country is all about. This country was founded on freedom of religion and religious diversity.” His spokesperson added that it was “unfortunate that the Family Research Council interprets the Constitution to say that religious freedom means Christian supremacy.”

In addition to Sherrod Brown, Samuldrala’s arguably biggest supporters were among members of the AU (Americans United for Separation of Church and State), who you may remember from earlier as they referenced the Samuldrala controversy when the Rajan Zed prayer was announced in the Senate. In the immediate aftermath of Samuldrala’s prayer, they argued the FRC’s protest piece “reeks of religious bigotry”, adding that it demonstrated “remarkable lack of respect for religious diversity.”

Meanwhile, while the AFA and various lawmakers opposed the prayer of Rajan Zed, his prayers have received likely even more positive pieces of feedback from lawmakers and religious figures alike. His aforementioned 2007 prayer before the California State Senate not only occurred without incident (despite having additional safety precautions ordered beforehand by the State Senate’s Sergeant-at-Arms) and was praised by State Senator Elaine Alquist. Additionally, State Senate Chaplain James Richardson (an Episcopalian Christian) and Rev. Louis Sheldon (founder of California’s Traditional Values Coalition) had nothing but kind words to say as well.

Rajan Zed and Pastor Chad Adamik at the St. Paul’s Lutheran Family Church in Carson City, Nevada

It’s important to keep in mind (especially as the 4th of July approaches) that as Americans we can’t be afraid of progress. To truly progress, as I learned at a young age, is to know where you are, where you come from, and where you need to be.

The Hindu American community has come a long way since Rajan Zed’s prayer. In 2013, Representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii became the first self-identifying Hindu elected to the U.S. Congress. As of 2021, two currently-serving members of Congress — Rep. Ro Khanna of California and Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois — identify as Hindu.

President Barack Obama became the first U.S. President to announce a White House celebration of the Hindu festival of Diwali in October 2009.

And best of all? Rajan Zed himself returned to Congress to serve as a guest chaplain before the House of Representatives on June 19, 2014, encountering no incident in the process.

At the end of the day, I also learned at a young age growing up in a Hindu household with immigrant parents from India not to be quick to judge many based on the actions of few.

And so at the end of the day, you can say whatever you want about the Family Research Council or the American Family Association. But it would be disingenuous to judge Christians or even conservatives based on their actions.

As often is the case, loud voices (especially those that convey hate) do hold influences of their own.

The FRC and AFA, in their protest of Hindu prayers in Congress, have spurred additional protests among members of the Christian right. In March 2015, Idaho State Senator Steve Vick attempted to protest a planned prayer from Zed, and ultimately joined two other members in boycotting when the plans went forward. Vick claimed that Hindus “have a caste system. They worship cows” with fellow Idaho State Senator Sheryl Nuxoll — who also boycotted Zed — claimed “Hindu is a false faith with false gods.”

As we’ve noticed, the content of these quotes of protest range are full of misinformation at best. The only way to counter misinformation is by education, whether through the school system or through deep and meaningful conversation.

Additionally, deep and meaningful conversations between people of different faiths are totally possible, whether among people or even among governments. But they won’t be possible without mutual respect and tolerance.

So far, while there has been controversy in how Hinduism is taught in America (case in point, the 2005 California textbook controversy), there has been progress made in educating the U.S. about true Hindu philosophy. We’ve seen how practices such as nonviolence, meditation, vegetarianism, reincarnation, and yoga have become popular among Americans. One place to begin would be to teach that…you’re wrong, FRC. Hinduism doesn’t have many Gods. Just like Christianity, there’s only One. He just takes many forms, because — after all — He is omnipresent.

As a minority in America (racially and religiously), I’ve had my own fair share of being told to “know your place”. But even though that’s a terrible thing to say to someone, it’s important to keep in mind that said ‘place’ is constantly changing. Whether it’s religious texts or history texts, society never stays the same. And neither do people.

And so in conclusion, there will always be those who protest against communities who are not their own (even if they’re having just 15 minutes of fame). But the right solution is never radical emotion or anger.

After all, since 2010, the Family Research Council and American Family Association have both been classified by the Southern Poverty Law Center as hate groups. Since they both have clearly shown they don’t understand Hinduism, this would be the right time to teach them that what happened right there is the spiritual belief of cause-and-effect as it relates to one’s good or bad deeds, actions, and work.

Or as it’s known among all Hindus and all American, Karma.