Tulsi Gabbard’s ties to secretive cult may explain her perplexing political journey


Editor’s Note: This article was originally published on October 16, 2022. Caroline Sinavaiana-Gabbard, 78, was killed in Samoa on May 25, 2024 Tulsi Gabbard has staked out extreme positions on LGBT+ rights, spread disinformation about Ukrainian biolabs, and claimed she was being shadowbanned by Big Tech while using her vast social media footprint to label Joe Biden a “warmonger”.

In one breath Gabbard expresses a desire to bring love and aloha from her native Hawaii to the world, in the next she is fanning conspiracy theories on Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show.

Last week, Gabbard announced she was leaving the Democratic Party, claiming it had become “an elitist cabal of warmongers driven by cowardly wokeness”.

The decision came as little surprise to anyone who has followed her political trajectory from 2020 Democratic presidential candidate to darling of Russian propagandists and the American far-right.

To understand her ambitions, her aunt Dr Caroline Sinavaiana Gabbard tells The Independent in an interview that it is necessary to look to her upbringing in a secretive cult called the Science of Identity Foundation (SIF) whose members show absolute loyalty to a reclusive guru, Chris Butler.

A former member toldThe Independent the group’s teachings are virulently homophobic, often anti-Islamic and misogynist, and how they were forced to worship Butler, who is considered to be akin to a God.

Sinavaiana Gabbard says her niece’s career is all about the pursuit of power, and her bid for the presidency in 2020 was the culmination of four decades of Butler’s efforts to seek political influence.

Dr Caroline Sinavaiana Gabbard says her niece Tulsi Gabbard is heavily influenced by reclusive Hawaiian guru Chris Butler (Supplied)
Dr Caroline Sinavaiana Gabbard says her niece Tulsi Gabbard is heavily influenced by reclusive Hawaiian guru Chris Butler (Supplied)

“Once again I find my niece’s apparent penchant for parroting extremist toadies such as Tucker Carlson and vile ‘strongmen’ such as Vladimir Putin, to be problematic and deeply troubling,” Sinavaiana Gabbard, a retired professor of English at the University of Hawaii, told The Independent.

“​It gives me no pleasure to ​note that Tulsi’s single governing principle seems to be expedience, which is in effect no principle at all.”

‘Tulsi, our friend’

In her keynote address to the Conservative Political Action Conference back in February, Tulsi Gabbard described the various ways she had been smeared by her political opponents.

“I’m sure you’ve all heard them before,” Gabbard said. “Russian asset. White supremacist. Bigot. Racist. Extremist. Traitor.”

Gabbard was given several standing ovations by the grandees of the Republican Party for her scattershot attacks on cancel culture, the power elite, and “Biden-Clinton-neocon-neolib foreign policy”.

Gabbard is a veteran who served a tour of Iraq, still serves with the National Guard, and has spoken about how witnessing first-hand the horrors of war led her to take an anti-interventionist stance on US foriegn policy.

In statements after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Gabbard contended that Ukraine was not worth protecting because it “isn’t actually a democracy,” and that the US-funded “biolabs” could result in the release of “dangerous pathogens”.

This baseless claim echoed Russian propaganda that the United States was funding labs in Ukraine to make illegal biological weapons for use against Russia.

Republican Senator Mitt Romney responded by saying Gabbard was spreading “treasonous lies”.

Tulsi Gabbard, a former Democrat congresswoman for Hawaii (Fox News)
Tulsi Gabbard, a former Democrat congresswoman for Hawaii (Fox News)

Gabbard was not deterred, telling Jesse Watters on 15 March that freedom of speech in the US was at similar risk to Russia, which has banned all criticism of the government and imprisoned tens of thousands of protestors.

“It is striking when you see Putin propaganda and you line it up against Biden propaganda,” she said.

Politifact rated the statement a “pants on fire” lie.

Her pro-Kremlin talking points led to Russian state-TV introducing her as “Tulsi, our friend.”

After airing part of her Fox interview, a panelist asked: “Is she some kind of Russian agent?”

Gabbard went on to guest host Tucker Carlson’s show in August.

Gabbard’s political donations have also come under scrutiny over her pro-Russian positions.

Forbes revealed earlier this year that Gabbard’s biggest political donor in 2021 is a pro-Putin apologist.

And in March, it was revealed that Elena Branson, a dual US-Russian citizen accused of spying for the Kremlin, donated to her campaign for reelection to Congress in 2019.

Gabbard has consistently echoed GOP positions on immigration and LGBT+ issues, and recently claimed that Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill was too moderate.

“When I first heard about Florida’s Parental Rights bill, I was shocked it only protects children K-3. Third grade? How about 12th grade—or not at all,” she said.

In 2015, she flew to Syria to meet with the dictator Bashar al-Assad as he was waging a brutal war against his own people.

She has courted Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, whose regime has killed and imprisoned thousands of subjects since assuming power in a coup in 2014.

And the authoritarian-leaning Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi sent a personal emissary to her 2015 wedding in Hawaii.

She also declined to vote to impeach Donald Trump during his first trial in December 2019, instead registering herself as “present”.

Her defection from the Democrats could pave the way for the 41-year-old to potentially run for the Republican nomination in 2024.

Tulsi Gabbard speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando in February (REUTERS)
Tulsi Gabbard speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Orlando in February (REUTERS)

‘They said he could read your mind’

Despite holding trenchant views on all manner of subjects, Gabbard has been vague about her links to the Science of Identity Foundation, and did not respond to several requests for comment for this article.

In an online biography, she describes herself as “interfaith”, and says some of her earliest memories are from the “fragrant aromas of both Christian and Hindu celebrations”.

Science of Identity founder Chris Butler, who Tulsi Gabbard has referred to as her ‘guru dev’, or spiritual leader (Science of Identity Foundation / YouTube)
Science of Identity founder Chris Butler, who Tulsi Gabbard has referred to as her ‘guru dev’, or spiritual leader (Science of Identity Foundation / YouTube)

But in interviews and speeches, she has acknowledged and defended her links to Butler, referring to him as her “guru dev” – or spiritual leader – in 2015.

Butler is rarely seen in public these days, with the Science of Identity Foundation regularly posting decades old clips of his teachings on YouTube.

The foundation did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

In a 2017 interview with The New Yorker, Gabbard said she had never heard Butler “say anything hateful, or anything mean about anybody”.

“I can speak to my own personal experience and, frankly, my gratitude to him, for the gift of this wonderful spiritual practice that he has given to me, and to so many people.”

Butler gave a rare interview for the same New Yorker article in 2017, saying that he did have disciples, but rejecting claims he was an authoritarian.

Butler, who also goes by the name Jagad Guru, or teacher of the world, said he preferred to think of himself as a follower or student, rather than a teacher or leader.

He described his relationship with his devotees as one of love.

Sinavaiana Gabbard remembers learning some 40 years ago that her brother Mike – Tulsi’s father and longterm Hawaiian state lawmaker – had joined the Science of Identity.

The extended family were gathering for Sunday brunch, a weekly feast and cultural institution in Samoa. When Mike announced he and his family had become strict vegetarians, her mother was deeply upset.

Then seemingly overnight, her nephews, Tulsi’s older brothers, had new Sanskrit names.

She says as a child of the ‘60s, she didn’t find this strange, but it was an “unsettling” adjustment for her parents.

She later learned that the whole family were “prostrating at the feet” of Butler, a “white surfer dude”.

Dr Carolina Sinavaiana Gabbard with her brother Mike Gabbard, a Hawaiian state senator (Supplied)
Dr Carolina Sinavaiana Gabbard with her brother Mike Gabbard, a Hawaiian state senator (Supplied)

Tulsi attended a Science of Identity boarding school in the Philippines, according to several sources, and spent her formative years and schooling sheltered from outside influences, her aunt said.

The Science of Identity Foundation (SIF) was formed in 1977 by Chris Butler as a breakaway sect of the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (ISKCON), also known as the Hare Krishna movement.

Its stated aim is to “pass on the ancient teachings of yoga in a scientific, logical, and clear manner so that people can, with intelligence, seriously contemplate upon, consider”.

However, former members have been speaking out about the abusive practices of the Science of Identity Foundation for several years.

‘Degrading language’

Oklahoma woman Robin Marshall, 40, who spent six months at a SIF retreat in Hawaii in the early 2000s, told The Independent recruits were taught to be “highly homophobic”.

“They told us: ‘We don’t associate with f**s’,” using a homophobic slur.

“The hatred, the degrading language, it was just one thing after another.”

Robin Marshall, a mother from Oklahoma, said the Science of Identity Foundation are an abusive cult (Supplied)
Robin Marshall, a mother from Oklahoma, said the Science of Identity Foundation are an abusive cult (Supplied)

She was played recordings of Butler who she says espoused extreme homophobic views.

“They said he could read your mind. They were wholly and fully indoctrinated into this idea that Chris Butler was basically God.”

Marshall says she was aware back then of Tulsi Gabbard as a rising star within the foundation. She said it was “inconceivable” that anyone involved with the group was not being directed by Butler.

“I feel like when you vote for somebody who is heavily tied into SOF, you’re not voting for that person, you’re voting for Chris Butler, as a servant of the servant of God.”

In 2019, the Iowa Informer published an investigation by freelance journalist Christine Gralow that reviewed Butler’s decades of teachings, including the many homophobic references he has made over the years.

In a 2017 Medium post, a woman who has since left SIF described how she was taught that life was an “illusion”, and followers were instructed to only develop a relationship with Butler.

“We were in effect isolated from our parents who did their best to not love us as per his recommendation, and instead looked at him like a surrogate father/messiah figure.”

“What I am concerned about is the control I know Chris Butler has over her, the influence he has over her ability to make decisions, decisions that could become law and impact a whole lot of people,” describing him as an abusive, misogynistic, homophobic, germophobic, narcissistic nightmare.

When Gabbard ran for president in 2020, virtually her entire campaign staff were members of the Science of Identity, Sinavaiana Gabbard told The Independent.

Mike Gabbard is running for re-election to the Hawaiian state senate (Mike Gabbard / YouTube)
Mike Gabbard is running for re-election to the Hawaiian state senate (Mike Gabbard / YouTube)

Indeed, her political career has been guided by her father Mike Gabbard, a Hawaiian state senator, and the former “poster boy” of anti-LGBT+ activism in the island state.

Before she was elected to the Hawaii state house of representatives in 2002 at the age of 21 years old, the youngest legislator in the state’s history, Gabbard worked for Mike’s The Alliance for Traditional Marriage, a political action committee that opposed LGBTQ rights legislation.

After 9/11, Gabbard enlisted in the Hawaii National Guard so she could “go after the terrorists who attacked us”.

Gabbard was elected to the US House of Representatives in 2013 at the age of 33, becoming the first Hindu and Samoan-American in Congress.

She quickly became a regular critic of President Barack Obama for his refusal to use the term “radical Islam”, and a favourite of Fox News host Sean Hannity.

Those views align with tapes of Butler’s Islamaphobic teachings that have been widely circulated online.

The Science of Identity Foundation is thought to have just a few thousand members in the US, Philippines, New Zealand and Australia.

But due to its outsize influence on Hawaiian politics, and possible future presidential candidate, Sinavaiana Gabbard said she felt it was important to speak out about the group - and her niece.

“As a historian and lifelong student of eastern philosophies and religions, I find SIF’s role as uncritical cheerleader, if not patron and primary generator, of Tulsi’s checkered political agenda and intemperate, right wing associations to be troubling in the extreme.

“In any case, I feel impelled to state for the record that in no way whatsoever does Tulsi speak for me, nor my family or culture.”

‘Anti-white racism’

In a statement released to Twitter this week, Gabbard claimed the Democrats were trying to “divide us by racialising every issue”, stoking “anti-white racism”, and actively working to undermine “God-given freedoms”.

“President Biden and Democratic Party elites have pushed us to the precipice of nuclear war, risking starting World War III and destroying the world as we know it,” she said, while spouting Republican talking points about “wokeness” and “elites”.

Gabbard also announced the launch of a podcast series on YouTube called The Tulsi Gabbard Show.

She did not respond to a request for comment.