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Uproar over US governor participating in 'bhumi-pujan'

November 02, 2011 10:44 IST

The Republican challenger David Williams in the 'Bible Belt' US state of Kentucky, has accused Democratic Governor Steve Beshear, who participated in a Hindu-style groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a $180 million manufacturing plant creating more than 250 jobs in this economically depressed state, as an idol-worshipper and anti-Christian.

A week before the gubernatorial election on November 8, where Beshear is strongly favoured to win re-election for a second term, the GOP nominee, said, "He's sitting down there with his legs crossed participating in Hindu prayers, with a dot on his forehead with incense burning around him. I don't know what the man was thinking."

Williams, the state senate president, who is trailing Beshear in the polls, said he had no problems with Beshear attending the ground-breaking ceremony, but his going through the motions of a traditional Hindu blessing ceremony was "an act of idolatory -- the worship of idols."

He said, such participation "doesn't seem to be in line with what most Kentuckians would approve of."

Williams who declared the ceremony was in stark contrast to his beliefs as a Methodist Christian, said, "I've been in many countries, in Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, and they'll say clap your hands and it summons the gods."

"I did not do that because that is idolatry. And that's what he (Beshear) participates in when he does that," Williams asserted.

He said, "If I'm a Christian, I don't participate in Jewish prayers. I'm glad they do that. I don't participate in Hindu prayers. I don't participate in Muslim prayers. I don't do that. To get down and get involved and participate in prayers to these polytheistic situations, where you have these Hindu gods that they are praying to, doesn't appear to me to be in line with what a governor of the Commonwealth of Kentucky ought to be doing..."

Williams, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader, went on to dismiss charges that he was demeaning Hinduism by referring to it as 'idolatry,' arguing that if anyone had offended Hindus, it was Beshear.

Beshear's campaign slammed Williams saying that the governor was proud to participating in a ground-blessing ceremony of the Indian company that was creating jobs in the state and denounced the bigoted and xenophobic attack by Williams.

The company Flex Films, plans to build a manufacturing plant in Elizabethtown and among the products it hopes to produce include specialty films, polyester chips, as well as inks and adhesives used in packaging and printing machines.

Participating along with Beshear was Elizabethtown Mayor Tim Walker, State Senator Dennis Parrett and Representative Jimmie Lee of Elizabethtown, Hardin County Judge Harry Berry and the CEO and Director of Flex Flims, Pradeep Tyle and Audi Chaturavedi.

The governor's campaign spokesman Matt Erwin said, "These are pathetic and desperate remarks by a candidate facing devastating polls numbers." Williams is trailing Beshear by more than 30 percentage points in the polls.

Erwin said that the project was an outgrowth of "Governor Beshear's first economic development trip to India in the fall of 2010," and that the "blessing ceremony is a traditional service in India for new homes, businesses or other facilities."

The participation by the governor, state and local officials along with Flex Film executives was "to show partnership in the new endeavour," he said.

The Associated Press, which credited The News-Enterprise of Elizabethtown for first reporting on the ceremony said in photos and a video that accompany the story, the governor, is shown wearing a suit and tie and seated on the floor among 12 others, while a larger crowd watches from seats along the perimeter.

It quoted John Stratton Hawley, a Barnard College professor who specialises in religion in India, as saying that it sounded like a ceremony that is common in India for someone establishing his or her home.

Hawley said while the ceremony in India is religious, hosts often invite neighbours of other faiths to participate, and compared the ceremony to a Christian saying grace in a new home.

"He observed the etiquette of his hosts and he accepted their offer that he be a part of their home," Hawley said of Beshear's participation in the ceremony. In that context, he said the forehead mark could have a range of meanings, from cultural to religious.

Interestingly, Beshear is the son of a Baptist preacher and his administration in order to attract investment in his state and to create jobs has offered massive tax incentives of more than $40 million to get potential investors to situate a massive biblical park with a full-size replica of the Noah's Ark.

Hindu priest and activist Rajen Zed, who is based in Reno, Nevada, and created history over four years ago by becoming the first Hindu priest to open a US Senate session with Hindu prayers, said, "Hindus are upset at unnecessarily dragging of a Hindu ceremony of bhumi-pujan -- earth worship -- into an electoral battle for the governor's race in Kentucky."

He said, "It is upsetting to hear that ancient sacred Hindu ceremony was reportedly termed as an act of idolatry."

Zed, president of the Universal Society of Hinduism, demanded that Williams apologise for maligning this Hindu ceremony "because if elected on November 8, he would be the Governor of all Kentuckians, including Hindu Kentuckians."

The Hindu American Foundation also condemned Williams' "blatant attack" against Beshear and Suhag Shukla, HAF's managing director and legal counsel, said, "The words of Senator Williams are not only an affront to Hindu Americans, but all Americans as he conjures up the lowest sentiments of exclusion and bigotry."

"He's shown he's ignorant and intolerant -- two qualities that we hope Kentuckyians will reject at the polls," she said.
Shukla told that Williams' statement " simultaneously manifests deep ignorance about Hindu traditions and unacceptable bigotry."

"Every American is entitled to his or her religious beliefs -- be they exclusivist or pluralistic," she acknowledged. "But because of his position, while he has a right to believe what he may, he has a higher duty -- that is a duty to Kentuckians to equally protect and equally represent. Instead, as someone seeking the highest seat of power in the state Kentucky and already serving as a Senator, he has, without mincing words, stated that in his eyes Christians and non-Christians are unequal. I hope voters show him he's not fit for any office in the good state of Kentucky."

Shukla said, "False gods,' 'idolatry,' 'cross-legged in a pit' and 'red dots'? Seems more like a course on Hindu Stereotypes 101 than words uttered by someone running in a tough election."

Echoing similar sentiments, Samir Kalra, HAF's director and senior fellow for human rights, said, "While it is necessary to condemn Senator Williams' intolerant comments, it is equally important to congratulate Governor Beshear and Mayor Tim Walker for respecting America's religious diversity by participating in the ceremony."

 "Their actions epitomise our nation's great traditions of religious tolerance and pluralism, and they should be celebrated," he said.

Image: Kentucky Governor Steve Beshear

Aziz Haniffa in Washington, DC