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When Hawaii Congresswoman Tulsi Gabbard penned a searing opinion piece in The Hill earlier this month accusing politicians of inciting religious bigotry for their own political gain, many national political observers were surprised because she specifically took aim at several of her Democratic colleagues, including U.S. Sens. Mazie Hirono and Kamala Harris.
Hirono and Harris had been questioning a judicial nominee about his membership in the Knights of Columbus, a Catholic fraternal society that has taken stances against gay marriage and abortion, and whether that would influence his work as a judge.
“For too long in our country, politicians have weaponized religion for their own selfish gain, fomenting bigotry, fears and suspicions based on the faith, religion or spiritual practices of their political opponents,” wrote Gabbard.
Political analysts said Gabbard was likely trying to distinguish herself politically as she prepared to announce her bid for president amid what is shaping up to be a crowded field of Democratic contenders.
At least one longtime political observer in Hawaii saw another message in Gabbard’s piece: a warning to competitors not to question her own religious views or background or risk being labeled religious bigots.
“That was a shot across the bow,” said Jerry Burris, a veteran Honolulu political columnist and author. “That is what it was about. It was a protective thing.”
Gabbard made headlines as the first Hindu elected to Congress in 2012 and chose to be sworn in on the Bhagavad Gita, a sacred Hindu text. Her Hindu religious identity has helped propel her political career within a Democratic Party increasingly focused on the need for diversity, and it has allowed her to attract political support and campaign contributions from Hindus and Indian-Americans. In 2014, she traveled to India, where she met with Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
But beyond the Hindu label, Gabbard has often refused to talk about her religious upbringing and her relationship to a local and controversial religious leader named Chris Butler and his organization called the Science of Identity Foundation.
With the launch of her national campaign for the presidency, questions about her religious background and the Science of Identity Foundation are likely to intensify.
The foundation has in the past intersected with Hawaii politics, including support for a movement against legislation to legalize gay marriage that included Gabbard’s parents. That history has fueled questions about what influence, if any, Butler has had on Gabbard’s political views and aspirations.
Some former adherents of the religious group have also accused Butler of running a secretive and controlling organization that focuses on worshipping Butler. Butler and the foundation vigorously deny those claims, but the controversies surrounding the group could prove a political liability for Gabbard in a presidential race in which candidates are often picked apart and religious affiliations are sometimes scrutinized.
Gabbard, who identified Butler as her “guru dev,” which roughly translates to spiritual master, in a 2015 video, didn’t respond to an interview request for this story, which included a detailed list of questions about her religious background, her relationship with Butler, and any influence he has had on her political career.
She dismissed the idea she was part of any sort of political initiative tied to Butler in an interview with The New Yorker in 2017. “It’s a whole lot of conjecture,” she said.
THE EARLY DAYS OF A GURU
In an old, green Quonset hut on Oahu’s Sunset Beach, young people chanted at an altar adorned with candles, flowers, pictures of Krishna and their spiritual leader, a 22-year-old surfer who went by the name Sai Young.
“Sai knows everything, we know nothing,” said a young follower. “We are just fools with no knowledge.”
Another follower explained that Young instructs them on what to do: “We don’t ask why; we know that if Sai tells us to do something it is for our own good.”
Asked if they would kill themselves for Krishna, if they were so ordered by Young, a devotee responded: “For sure, we’d do it if Sai told us to.”
The year was 1970 and the scene was detailed in a story by the Honolulu Advertiser’s religion reporter who was there to find out more about the young people who were practicing Krishnaism, a form of Hinduism.
It was a turbulent time in American history marked by political upheaval and a counterculture movement that included illicit drugs, dalliances with eastern religions and genuine soul searching about the meaning of life.
Nearly 50 years later, Young now goes by Jagad Guru Siddhaswarupananda Paramahamsa. But locally he’s best known by the name his parents gave him, Chris Butler. His father was a prominent doctor on Oahu known for his liberal political views.
Butler was reported to have about 45 devotees back in 1970. The Science of Identity Foundation told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser for this story that there are are now thousands of people in the United States and in dozens of countries around the world who practice his teachings.
Gabbard’s parents, Hawaii Sen. Mike Gabbard and Carol Gabbard, became followers of Butler’s teachings and she was raised within the tight-knit religious sect, though Mike Gabbard has said in recent years that he has returned to Catholicism. Carol Gabbard was secretary of the Science of Identity Foundation from 1990 to 1999.
The foundation says on its website that it “teaches the practice of meditation and kirtan — along with the timeless yoga wisdom — to help individuals achieve greater spiritual, mental, and physical well-being.” Butler in the past has described his teachings as nonsectarian. His lectures have such titles as, “Do You Really Exist?,” “The Body is Not Constant, But You Are,” and “Many Bodies Within a Lifetime.”
Butler and the Science of Identity Foundation likely wouldn’t have attracted much media attention over the years if it weren’t for the reported connections of adherents to political issues. In the late 1970s, a new political party called the Independents for Godly Government appeared in Hawaii and fielded more than a dozen candidates in local races. A three-part series published by the Honolulu Advertiser in 1977 found that the candidates had hidden their connections to Butler.
The candidates were “participants in a powerful but little-known spiritual movement whose devotees win thousands of votes in politics, handle millions of dollars in business and follow a black sheep guru chanting the name of Krishna, the All-Attractive,” the newspaper reported.
Asked to explain the reticence about discussing their religious faith, one of the candidates, Bill Penaroza who ran for Congress, said at the time: “It was a practical problem. Most people would misunderstand it. In a campaign the way everything is set up it’s a marketing thing, a burst of media.”
Candidates said they were particularly concerned about the negative stereotypes that came with being labeled a Hare Krishna.
Four decades later, in 2015, Gabbard would hire Penaroza’s son, Kainoa Penaroza, to be her chief of staff. The hire raised eyebrows in local political circles not just because of the Science of Identity connection, but because he lacked political experience. Others with ties to the foundation or its affiliated businesses have advised and worked on Gabbard’s staff, including her mother-in-law, Anya Anthony, who has served as her office manager.
Independents for Godly Government didn’t have much success in political races.
Burris said that despite the peculiar secrecy, he didn’t recall anything nefarious about the group and remembers them as focused more on a lifestyle than religion.
“There were a lot of people like that in those days,” recalled Burris. “All they wanted to do was surf and eat vegetables and be healthy.”
Their agenda included things like slow or no growth and self-sufficiency for Hawaii, ideas that remain mainstream in today’s Hawaii politics. But the group’s virulent stances against homosexuality were much more controversial.
Carol Gabbard told the Honolulu Advertiser in 1991 that the Science of Identity Foundation was one of the founders of a group called Stop Promoting Homosexuality, which was led by Mike Gabbard prior to his election to the state Senate. Mike Gabbard became one of the leading opponents of gay marriage in Hawaii, a crusade that was embraced by Tulsi Gabbard before she ran for Congress in 2012 and changed her positions on LGBT issues.
The congresswoman’s views and past statements on homosexuality have come back to hurt her as she launches her presidential bid, with an old video and quotes being resurrected by the national media. The onslaught of negative media coverage prompted Gabbard to release a videotaped apology last week.
Questions about Butler’s influence on political candidates persisted throughout the 1990s and 2000s. A 1992 Honolulu Weekly article explored Republican state Sen. Rick Reed’s alleged ties to the organization and Butler’s influence on his politics. The issue cropped up again when Mike Gabbard, then a Republican, ran for Congress in 2004 against Democratic incumbent Ed Case, a race that prompted a profile of Mike Gabbard in Honolulu magazine.
The magazine reported that when it emailed Mike Gabbard asking him to clarify his relationship with Butler’s group, Tulsi Gabbard jumped in: “I smell a skunk,” she wrote back. “It’s clear to me that you’re acting as a conduit for The Honolulu Weekly and other homosexual extremist supporters of Ed Case.”
Unfortunately for Tulsi Gabbard, who has changed her positions on such issues, it’s a quote that has been resurrected numerous times in news stories since she was elected to the seat in Congress that her father vied for in 2004.
In recent years, Butler, who is 70, hasn’t been very visible publicly. The Science of Identity Foundation told the Star-Advertiser he is semi-retired and no longer leads worship services. While headquartered in Hawaii, the foundation doesn’t have a physical office location or a place of worship that is open to the public. The foundation says there is a meditation center for committed practitioners, but doesn’t give out the address for security reasons.
But the low-key presence hasn’t stemmed the controversy surrounding Butler, who threatened to sue the Star-Advertiser if it published allegations of former adherents of his religious philosophy.
Rick Ross, executive director of the Cult Education Institute, a New Jersey-based nonprofit that researches and advocates against destructive cults and movements, estimated he had been in contact with more than 100 people over the years who were involved in the group. He described Butler as a “dictatorial leader” who has exploited followers of his brand of religion.
“He is a hateful person. He is homophobic. He has said horrible things about the LGBT community,” said Ross. “And he is, to say the least, not exactly an icon of either idealistic or ethical living.”
Neither Butler or Jeannie Bishop, president of the Science of Identity Foundation, would agree to interviews for this story. But Bishop and the foundation’s attorney, Anthony Glassman, of Glassman Media Group, based in Beverly Hills, Calif., said in emails to the Star-Advertiser that various allegations that have been made against Butler by former adherents are untrue and suggested that criticism of the foundation and Butler has been motivated by religious bigotry.
Bishop also said by email that “Ross has no background in Hinduism or yoga and has for decades provided a platform for virulent anti-Hindu/Krishna hate and bigotry.”
How all this relates or doesn’t relate to Gabbard and her political aspirations has been a topic of curiosity and debate in Hawaii political circles.
Does Gabbard “sit down and beams come into her head and (Chris Butler) tells her what to do?” said Burris. “I don’t think that.”
But he said Gabbard’s silence on the issue only feeds the concerns. “I think it’s only important to the degree that she doesn’t want to talk about it,” he said. “I think that’s the big issue.”
Gabbard’s aunt, Caroline Sinavaiana Gabbard, said she thinks the stakes are high for her niece. She’s the sister of Tulsi Gabbard’s father, Mike Gabbard, and a retired English professor who taught at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. She said she withdrew her political support for her niece in recent years over political differences and supported Gabbard’s primary opponent in the last congressional race.
Caroline Gabbard said she doesn’t think the Science of Identity Foundation will stand up to national media scrutiny and described the political risk to her 37-year-old niece in stark terms in a social media post shortly after Gabbard announced her presidential run, writing that the cost will “be higher than she can imagine or afford.”
“Some unholy jumble of delusion and hubris, ignorance and lurching ambition, begs the question: to what and whom exactly is Rep. Gabbard loyal?” she wrote. “The fact this remains an open question does not bode well for Hawaii and beyond, and least of all for Gabbard herself.”
Mike Gabbard, in response, questioned the basis for his sister’s concerns about the Science of Identity Foundation, saying he didn’t think she knew much about its teachings. He also said Butler had never influenced him, or as far as he knew, Tulsi, on matters of public policy.
“Over the course of both my and Tulsi’s many years in public office, where is the evidence to support this?” he said by email. “Although I’ve sought spiritual advice from Chris Butler over the years, I’ve never spoken to him about legislative policies and have never been influenced by him in any policy or legislative decisions. Nor has Tulsi, to my knowledge. Even on the issue of same-sex marriage, my adamant opposition was coming primarily from the influence of Pope John Paul II and the Catholic Church, which I had become very active in, not Chris Butler. Tulsi’s position on the same-sex marriage was primarily because of my influence on her.”