Published On: Tue, Oct 25th, 2016

What does Trump have to do with the Hindu sacred syllable, om?

Republican nominee Donald Trump was recently invited to a fundraising event organized by a conservative group of Hindu Americans, the Republican Hindu Coalition. A poster from the event, which describes the group as “Hindus for Trump,” portrays the candidate in a posture much like that of a yogi in deep meditation.

It shows Trump, face pointing upward and hands outstretched, rising up from a mass of red, white and blue flower petals in the shape of a lotus. Prominently displayed in the center is the Indian sacred syllable, “om,” decorated with stars and stripes.

Om is the preeminent Sanskrit mantra and symbol of Indian religions, especially Hinduism.
In terms of religious identity, this sign denotes Hinduism in much the same way that the star of David and the Christian cross represent Judaism and Christianity. Om has its own dedicated sign in the scripts for Hindi and other Indian languages.

In global culture, the om sign has come to stand for Indian spirituality in general. It has been widely adopted by practitioners of yoga and meditation.

However, contemplation, transcendence or Indian spirituality would seem to have little in common with Trump’s public persona that has been described by the media as reflecting “narcissism, disagreeableness, grandiosity.”

So, what should we make of this juxtaposition of Trump and India’s “sacred syllable”?

There is no one Hindu voice

Now, against this background, let’s look at what the Hindus for Trump group is doing with its juxtaposition of Trump and om.

Hindus for Trump is closely allied with the Republican Hindu Coalition (RHC). Founded in 2015 by businessman Shalli Kumar, the RHC claims to provide “a single, unified platform for raising voice of Hindu Americans in public policy.”

In my view this raises the following issues:

Although in some contexts om is simply shorthand for “Hindu,” it seems problematic to harness this complex symbol to the single agenda of right-wing political activism among Hindu Americans.

Additionally, this raises another question: Do Hindu Americans really speak with only one voice?

A poster displaying the religions of India at the India Heritage Camp held in New York.
Mary Altaffer/AP

Judging from the protests and the backlash on social media, there are many Hindu Americans besides Hindus for Trump and the RHC who might be inclined to associate Trump with syllables more profane than sacred.

Om’s history exemplifies the fact that Hindu traditions and Hindu identity are complex and varied. “Hinduism” covers an astonishing array of doctrines, practices and lifestyles in India, Asia and around the world.

The jarring juxtaposition of Trump and om reminds us that there is more to Hinduism and its iconography than a political poster can convey.

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