Rajan Zed, the Hindu leader who was the first to offer Hindu prayers at the opening of a session of the United States Senate in 2007, did so again for the House of Representatives on Thursday, June 19.
Although Zed was the first Hindu to pray officially at the Senate, he was not the first in the House. The first Hindu leader invited to give the invocation was Venkatachalapathi Samuldrala of the Shiva Hindu Temple in Parma, Ohio. That was in 2000, and since then several others have been asked to lead.
Before praying, Zed sprinkled some drops of water from the sacred Ganges river around the podium, and then read from the Rig Veda, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad-Gita, all ancient Hindu texts. He prayed, “Lead us from the unreal to the Real; from darkness to light; from death to immortality,” and then urged the Congress to “strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world.”
Although for the most part members of Congress and the nation as a whole have welcomed the Hindu leaders as examples of the diversity of religious expression in this country and the free exercise of faith, some have objected. Some were concerned about the issue of civil religion and whether prayers should play any part in governmental contexts, but for the most part, the opposition came from conservative Christian groups like the American Family Association and the Family Research Council. In fact, when Zed appeared before the Senate, three protesters from Operation Save America attempted a “counter-prayer” from the visitors’ gallery, asking God’s forgiveness for the Senate’s allowing this “prayer of the wicked.” They were removed from the Senate chambers.
In reply the efforts of religious conservatives to argue that the United States is a Christian country, and the guarantees of freedom of religion are restricted to Christians alone, it is appropriate to note Thomas Jefferson’s comment regarding the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom:
“Where the preamble declares, that coercion is a departure from the plan of the holy author of our religion, an amendment was proposed, by inserting the word “Jesus Christ,” so that it should read, “a departure from the plan of Jesus Christ, the holy author of our religion;” the insertion was rejected by a great majority, in proof that they meant to comprehend, within the mantle of its protection, the Jew and the Gentile, the Christian and Mahometan, the Hindoo, and Infidel of every denomination.”