By: Vishal Agarwal
December 20, 2005
expressed here are author’s own and not of this website. Full disclaimer
is at the bottom.
The State of California in the United States adopts new textbooks every
six years. The adoption of these textbooks if preceded by a well laid out
and a lengthy process of review in which members of different resident
communities in the state also get a chance to participate and offer their
comments on the contents of these textbooks. California is currently
undergoing closure of one such cycle of textbook reviews. The textbooks
that will be adopted in the next month will be then used in public schools
for the next six years. Grade VI textbooks on history contain a long
section on Ancient India, together with descriptions of Hinduism, Buddhism
For several decades, Hindu Americans and Indian Americans have been
dismayed at the slanted, erroneous and prejudiced descriptions of their
heritage in these textbooks. This time however, they organized themselves
and approached the State Board of Education in California to rectify these
errors, before the textbooks were formally adopted and the text was
frozen. These groups of Hindu Americans meticulously followed the
procedures of the State Board in offering their comments, suggestions and
edits to the texts that were submitted to the Board for reviews.
However, just when these
corrections were about to be accepted, a group of traditional
India-bashers (e.g. Michael Witzel), non-scholars (e.g., astrophysicist
Rajesh Kocchar), Indian Marxists (e.g., D N Jha, Romila Thapar),
non-specialists in ancient India (e.g. Sudha Shenoy, Homi Bhabha),
scholars alleged to have demonstrated Eurocentric bias in the past (e.g.,
M Tosi of Italy) and obscure linguists wrote an arrogant and
pompous letter (on Harvard University letterhead, signed by Michael Witzel
with endorsing signatures from 46 other ‘scholars’) to the State Board,
addressing themselves as “all equally famous world class specialists” on
ancient Indian history. The letter alleged that all these Hindu groups
proposing edits in the textbooks under review were dangerous Hindu
nationalists who were somehow connected with the slaughter of 1000 people
in Gujarat, and whose friends in India routinely discriminate against
millions of Indian minority members and Dalits!
The letter argued that the official hegemonic historiography of Indian
communist historians found in India’s NCERT history textbooks should be
used as the standard for what California textbooks should say on the
subject, forgetting that the state of California has its own standards to
determine what the textbooks should say and what they should omit. As an
example of such an ‘official historian’, the letter specifically referred
to one of its endorsees namely Romila Thapar, as the ‘most famous
historian of India’ to fortify its claims.
It is a forgone conclusion then that Thapar lent her weighty name to argue
for retention of the wording of these Californian textbooks unaltered.
Perhaps, she does not appreciate the fact that California textbooks must
be revised every six years to reflect advances in the field of history,
because her own textbooks written for NCERT as long back as 1966 are still
being used today in 2005 (!) with very cosmetic changes, and in innocence
of latest archaeological, linguistic and genetic data that necessitate the
periodic revision of historical narratives. Thapar forgets
that the governments in the State of California or in Washington D.C., are
not dependent on support from friendly Marxists and Communists that she
can expect them to enforce her ‘official’ and slanted narratives as she
has managed to do for four decades in unfortunate India (with yours truly
being one of these unlucky students who had to read her political
propaganda masquerading as ‘history’).
So, let us see now what these books actually say. I want to emphasize that
the examples given below are a small sample of the nonsense
found in these textbooks.
The Oxford University Press text titled ‘The
Ancient South Asian World’ authored by two scholars including the
renowned Harappan archaeologist Jonathan Mark Kenoyer has the following
Page 81: “The Vedic peoples discriminated against the Dasa, a group of
people who spoke a different language that did not sound at all like
Sanskrit. The Brahmins sometimes made fun of the Dasa and said that they
spoke as if they had no noses. (Pinch
your nose and see what you would sound like.) The Dasa had wide flat
noses and long curly black hair, and the Brahmins claimed that they had
darker skin and called them uncivilized barbarians, who didn’t know how to
COMMENT: Though the authors reject the Aryan Invasion Theory in the
earlier pages, they seem to hold on to part of it—the so-called “Aryan” or
“Indo-Aryan” people and their language, Sanskrit without providing any
rationale for it. From chapter 11, some of the South Asians are referred
to as Indo-Aryans to set them apart from the native inhabitants of ancient
India who are identified as Dasa. There is no conclusive evidence proving
that the Aryans and Dasa were racially distinct. The invitation to
students to imitate the alleged speech pattern of the Dasa is uncalled
for. The statement “Pinch your noses…” is frivolous.
The statement that Dasas were insulted by Brahmins as dark skinned etc. is
based on 19th century racist and colonial interpretations of
the Hindu texts, something that even Indologists and
Indo-European linguists dismiss today.
Regarding the description ‘flat nosed’ which presumably refers to the word
‘anas’ in Vedic texts, numerous scholarly publications that
explains the word in a different way.
In short, the authors have reproduced 19th century prejudiced
Eurocentric scholarship of colonial historians. But apparently the eminent
historian Romila Thapar agrees with this state-of-the-art colonial
Page 81: “The Dasa had, in reality lived in the region for hundreds
of years. Their ancestors in the Indus Valley were the Harappans who had
named the rivers and mountains, and had built the cities that now lay
COMMENT: There are no surviving names of rivers and mountains that
were given by these imagined Dasas. The statement is a figment of
imagination. Thus, like many other textbooks, this one also first casts a
doubt on the Aryan invasion theory (AIT) but nevertheless proceeds to
construct Indian past and religion on the basis of this baseless theory.
Page 87: “The monkey king Hanuman loved Rama so much that it is said
that he is present every time the Ramayana is told. So look around—see any
COMMENT: Hanuman is not the monkey ‘king’. The king was Sugriva.
Students in class might use such an exercise to tease or ridicule their
Hindu class mates and call them monkeys. The text has many more such
The book abounds in many such statements that are erroneous or could
promote prejudice. Thus, on page 155, it is said that “…most Nepalese
are Buddhist” when in reality almost 80% people of Nepal are Hindus.
Likewise, on page 157, the festival of
Onam is confused with Diwali in the following description- “But in
southern India, Divali is the time for worshipping a demon king. According
to local traditions, Vishnu conquered the local demon king Bali, and then
banished him from his kingdom forever in the netherworld. Bali begged
Vishnu.……especially new clothes.”
Let us take the second textbook named
‘Ancient Civilization’, published by Holt. On page 148, the
text says the following about the Vedas: “Though they are mostly
religious, some of the Vedas describe Aryan victories during their
invasion of India”.
COMMENT: Obviously, the text is teaching the Aryan Invasion theory,
and has relied upon 19th century racist and colonial
interpretations of the Rigveda in seeing ‘proof’ of Aryan invasions of
India. Does Romila Thapar subscribe to this theory, considering that she
opposes deletion of such sentences from the text as proposed by Hindu
On page 154 we read: “However, Hinduism also taught that women were
inferior to men. As a result, Hindu women were not allowed to read the
Vedas or other sacred texts”.
COMMENT: No such remarks are made for any other culture or religion
in the textbooks and Hinduism is unfairly singled out and judged per
modern standards, using ideals that have not been realized even in
contemporary societies. It is questionable that women could not read the
Vedas in the entire period of ancient India that this textbook covers.
More than 20 sages of the Rigveda alone are women, the entire 14th
book of Atharvaveda is attributed to a woman sage. Sulabha is even said to
have been the Sage of a recension (shakha) of Rigveda and quotations from
her lost ‘Saulabha Brahmana’ exist in extant works. It is beyond the scope
of the present article to refute the mono-lateral statement in the text.
Even the most misogynist of Hindu lawgivers permitted women to read
Puranas, Mahabharata and many other Hindu texts. And yet, when Hindu
groups in California ask the regional board of education to harmonize the
description of women rights in ancient India with similar descriptions
given for Judeo-Christian and Islamic societies, they are called dangerous
‘Hindu Nationalists’ by Romila Thapar and her ilk.
Page 169 makes the following astonishing revelation: “The Ramayana,
written later than the Mahabharata,…”
COMMENT: Hindu tradition and mainstream modern scholarship holds
that the Ramayana was composed earlier than the Mahabharata (the word
‘written’ in the text obviously refers to ‘composed’ but it would be
perhaps better to clarify that the epics might have been composed orally).
Let us now look at ‘Ancient Civilization’ by
Harcourt School Publishers.
This text starts the description of ancient India by a ridiculous claim
(page 364) that “Hindi is written with the Arabic alphabet, which uses
18 letters that stand for sounds” when in fact everyone knows that
Hindi is written in the Devanagari script which can have 46-52 letters
depending on whether the script is employed for Hindi, Marathi, Sanskrit
or other languages that use this script. The textbook even gives ‘A.D. 9’
as the exact year in which Hindi developed! I wonder how the authors got
such accurate information. No one with an elementary knowledge of scripts
would say that Hindi is written with 18 letters of the Arabic script.
Considering that the textbook gives so little information on ancient India
or on Indic religions (with useless fluff abounding on the large margins),
it is almost a joke that four pages (371-373) are devoted to a
fictionalized story (related to the invention of chess) based in India.
But more interestingly, the story obviously includes the typical clichés
of elephants, an oriental despot ‘Rajah’, poor and starving villagers, and
illustrations that would suit Mughal India better than ancient India.
On page 385, the text falls back on the typical unproven and hypothetical
description of a massive Aryan migrations (the new euphemism for Aryan
invasions): “About 1500 B.C., after the Harappan civilization
collapsed, people known as Aryans began waves of migrations to the Indian
subcontinent…”. The page even has a large illustration for the
‘Aryans’ who look more like Jewish tribes leaving Egypt in the Hollywood
movie ‘Ten Commandments’.
Page 387 describes the Bhagavadgita as “….a discussion between a god
and a Vedic warrior” and the preceding page cites three verses that
are not at all representative of the text. Many Hindus would object (with
reasonable justification) to the description of Krishna as ‘god’
(especially since ‘God’ with an upper case ‘G’ is uniformly used to denote
the Judeo-Christian and Islamic Divinity) and it is quite misleading to
classify Arjuna as a ‘Vedic warrior’. There is no mention of Ramayana in
the text at all. Less than one page of text are devoted to the ideas of
On page 403, an illustration depicting a 19th century or early
20th century Maharaja is given as a depiction of the Mauryan
Let us take a brief look at the fourth textbook “California
Visa- Ancient Civilization’, published by McGraw Hill McMillan.
The first few pages narrate the story of Ramayana in a very silly manner,
accompanied with Mughal style paintings, one of which shows Dasharatha (mis-spelt
as ‘Dashrat’ throughout) as a look-alike of Akbar!
The map on page 242 shows “Harappan Civilization, circa 1500 BC”(!)
when in fact the culture was already extinct for several centuries by 1500
BCE. The map also excludes Saurashtra, Gujarat, Ghaggar-Hakra plains,
northern intervening plains (doab) of Yamuna-Ganga from the shaded area
showing the extent of the civilization.
Pages 242-243 attribute the change in the culture of India to the arrival
of ‘Aryans’ from Central Asia. A map in page 244 shows a well defined
Aryan migration route as if there is proof for such speculative
hypotheses. The same map is reproduced in other textbooks as well.
On page 249, this supposed Aryan migration is used to explain the genesis
of Hindu religion, even though this belief is an invention of 19th
century colonial Indology, and has no place in the self awareness of
Hindus and their traditions. The text says – “Over the centuries, Aryan
religion borrowed religious ideas from the people of India. This mix of
beliefs eventually became Hinduism”. Clearly, the text presumes large
scale migrations of Aryans from Central Asia. A more neutral and accurate
description would have been to ignore the reference to Aryans completely
and state instead that the ‘beliefs and traditions of diverse populations
in the Indian subcontinent (together with some external influences) fused
together to give birth to Hinduism as we know today’.
The word is Upanishad is wrongly defined (page 250) as ‘sitting down close
to’, following some modern definitions of the term by Dr Radhakrishnan,
even though traditional explanations and most modern scholars explain the
word differently. The text (and many other texts as well) dwells
excessively on the negative aspects of the caste system and the inferior
rights of women, whereas the chapters on other cultures and religions tend
to give a more balanced view. This is unfair to Hindus obviously.
On page 269, the Mahabharata and Ramayana are described in that order, and
although it is said that the two epics were written at about the same
time, the student may be mislead to belief that the Ramayana came later.
On page 267, it is speculated that Alexander’s invasion “may have lead
to the first Indian empire”. One thought that such ideas were
propagated only in British colonial textbooks on India. Do Indians always
need a stimulus from the west to develop anything new, even the idea of
Or take the text “Exploring the Ancient World”
published by Ballard Tighe. On page 114, the books says : “Also
about this same time, tribes of people called Aryans began to move
into the Indus Valley. These Aryan people came from the area around the
Caspian and the Black seas. […] Eventually some of them crossed the Hindu
Kush mountains into India where they slowly spread over the
subcontinent”. On page 121, the book lapses to the typical Aryan
invasion mode and states: “Aryan tribes fought with each other and with
the people of the Indus Valley who were there before them”.
The book abounds in errors and covers the subject matter very
inadequately. Perhaps that is why the California State Board has already
rejected this text and further details on this book need not detain us
Let us move on to another textbook “Discovering Our
Past: Ancient Civilization” published by Glencoe. On page 244,
the text has a picture of a bearded and turbaned man praying in a typical
Muslim gesture (the two palms facing up and abutting each other) and the
caption says ‘A Brahman’. The text approaches the genesis of Indian
civilization and Hinduism in typical hypothetical terms incorporating the
Aryan migrations, domination of aboriginal Indians and so on and therefore
we need not discuss the details here again.
"History Alive” published by
Teachers’ Curriculum Institute. Overall, this is a very good textbook,
but still retains a few errors similar to the ones present in other
textbooks. Thus, on page 134-135, the text elaborates the reasons for
rejecting the Aryan Invasion Theory, but on page 144, it goes on to add
nevertheless: “Around 1500 BCE invaders called
Aryans conquered northern India. Others believe that traces of Hinduism
can be found in ancient artifacts left by India’s original settlers….Most
likely, Hinduism is a blend of Aryan beliefs and the beliefs of the people
On page 148, it is stated that “To recite
them orally, the Brahmins had to memorize more than 100,000 verses!”.
In reality, most Brahmins memorized one Veda, and all the Vedas put
together have less than 30,000 verses anyway.
Page 167 states that the Gupta period is famous for its illustrated
manuscripts (??) and then erroneously refers to Palm-Leaf books from 550
CE when in fact such manuscripts from the Gupta period do not survive.
Likewise, on page 172, the books says: “The Gupta Empire is famous for
its beautiful paintings….Perhaps the greatest ancient Indian paintings are
those known as the Ajanta cave murals”. The truth is that Ajanta
paintings lie in a region that was outside the Gupta Empire.
Chapter XV of this book deals with Hinduism, and missing again are
discussions on the liberating yogas (jnanayoga etc.) in
Hindu theology, ashrama system, purusharthas and so on.
However, the description of Buddhism in the text is by and large very
accurate and comprehensive.
The textbooks are richly illustrated but the
images are often anachronistic or inappropriate, and captions are often
incorrect. Some examples have been stated above, but it may be worthwhile
to mention that the same erroneous picture is often reproduced in more
than 1 text. For instance, the funny picture of emperor Ashoka (looking
like a modern Maharaja) is found in at least 2 textbooks that I saw.
Likewise, one textbook shows a scene from presumably Western or Central
India with some priests reciting a text, a sacred fire, some villagers.
The caption below it indicates that the Vedas are being recited to the
villagers. This is very unlikely the case because the Vedas are not
recited this way in public, reading out from printed texts. Curiously,
another textbook gives the same picture, but with a
different caption indicating that some Purana or Itihasa text is being
recited for the public. So what exactly is going on? Are all the textbooks
drawing from a common stock of illustrations?
A typical lacuna in most textbooks is inadequate discussion of the tenets
of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism (whereas considerable space is given to
the theology of Abrahamic faiths). In the discussion of Hinduism, most
texts leave out the system of purusharthas (goals of human life),
ashramas (stages of human life, or modes of living), liberating
yogas (Bhaktiyoga, Karmayoga, Jnanayoga, Rajayoga) and other
schools of Hindu philosophy. Many texts enumerate even the four noble
truths and the eightfold-path of Buddha incorrectly. Jainism is typically
dismissed with a brief description – one text actually devotes just 1
sentence to this religion.
Buddhism is typically represented as an advance or an improvement over
Hinduism even though the California State education policy guidelines
clearly mention that one tradition cannot be privileged over another. As
an example, the textbooks do not present Islam as an improvement over
Christianity, nor do they describe Christianity as an advance over
There is an incessant and even anachronistic dwelling on the negatives of
Hinduism, which seems to have been singled out as a religion for unfair
treatment, when one reads the contrasting more balanced, even glowing
narratives about Abrahamic faiths (Islam, Christianity and Judaism) in
these and corresponding texts from other grades. Hindu sacred narratives
are referred to as stories or myths, whereas Biblical and Koranic
narratives are presented as historical facts. Most textbooks also describe
the subtle Karma and rebirth related principles of Indic faiths in a
minimal and essentially caricaturist manner (“according to this theory, if
you do bad deeds, you will be reborn as an insect”). Although it would be
anachronistic to mention and discuss Sikhism in the discussion of ancient
India (although Kenoyer’s text on ancient South Asia reviewed above does
not hesitate to discuss Islam!), one would expect that some space would be
given to Sikh heritage in textbooks on medieval and modern periods.
Unfortunately, this is not the case even though California is home to
perhaps 200,000 or more Sikhs. Whereas the Abrahamic religions are
predominantly described from an ‘insider’s’ (emic) perspective, Hinduism
is described from an outsider’s (etic) perspective. The misuse of AIT and
its euphemistic versions to discuss the origins of Hinduism is a case in
Muddying the Waters:
It is precisely these kinds of errors, slanted descriptions, prejudiced
discussions and outdated information in the textbooks (as mentioned above
by me) that alarmed the parents of the Indian American and Hindu American
communities in California. And yet, Michael Witzel, Romila Thapar and
other prejudiced ‘scholars’ launched a Goebbelsian blitzkrieg, labeling
these California residents, apolitical parents who pay their taxes
regularly and contribute to the US society immensely, as dangerous Hindu
fundamentalists linked to murderers and what not.
Even at the time of writing this piece, Witzel and his cohorts are trying
to pressurize the publishers and the State Board of Education into
rejecting these very reasonable changes proposed by concerned Hindu
A pained Hindu resident of California asks if it is unfair to ask that
Hindus expect the same treatment of their heritage in textbooks as members
of other religions? Perhaps according to these self-professed
‘world class specialists’ such as Thapar, Witzel et al, Hindus do not
deserve parity with others.
Numerous instances are known where students of Hindu and Indian origins
have faced humiliation at the hands of their fellow classmates in the
past because of selective negative presentation of their heritage in the
textbooks. I have actually heard of an instance where an Indian student
hid beneath her table out of shame at the end of a lecture dealing with
Does it not pain Romila Thapar to think that the same may have happened
again for the next six years?
After all, her own textbook for Grade VI dealing with ancient India has
promoted subtle hatemongering against Hindus and their heritage for the
last forty years, as I have shown in a journal article. Let
Thapar and her acolytes know then that California does not tolerate such
prejudice and that she can keep her own hatreds and prejudices to
The above negative description of the textbooks does not mean of course
that they have no merit. In fact, with the corrections similar to ones
suggested by me above, the text by Kenoyer could serve the needs of high
school or first year college students quite well. But as it exists (and
even with the corrections), the text is simply too complicated for sixth
grade students in elementary schools.
The textbook by the Teacher’s Curriculum (listed last of all the texts
above) is actually very good, and stands out among the rest for its
illustrations, lucid descriptions, comprehensive detail and logical
flow. In any case, it is vastly superior to the faulty and vintage NCERT
textbook of Romila Thapar for grades VI in Central Board affiliated
schools in India that I had the bad luck of study as a student.
What Should we do:
I urge concerned readers to write to the following
members of the California State Board of Education to voice their
opposition to the attempts by Michael Witzel, Romila Thapars et al to
overturn the corrections proposed by Hindu Americans –
Address to: Secretary Alan
Bersin, CA Secretary of Education
Fax: (916) 323-3753
to: Karen Steentofte, Chief Counsel, State Board of Education
Fax: (916) 319-0176
Address to: Ruth Green, President and State Board of Education
Fax: (916) 319-0176
No email available.
Address to: Sue Stickel, Deputy Superintendent of Schools
Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg
Fax: (916) 319-2145
Get yourself counted, so that prejudiced ideologues
masquerading as scholars do not get the last word.
It is not out of
place to mention here that a week ago, Dr Kalyanaraman wrote an open
letter to 47 signatories, including Tosi, who had urged the State
Board to ignore the suggestions of Hindu groups. In response, Tosi
sent a most shameless, xenophobic response that one could expect of
a seasoned scholar.
Chakrabarti has also cited several relevant examples from Tosi’s
writings in the above book. For instance, in a 1992 paper [TOSI, M.
1992. The Harappan Civilization beyond the Indian Subcontinent, in
Gregory L. Possehl ed., Harappan Civilization, Delhi, pp. 365-378],
Tosi argues: “……it is relevant to establish whether the investments
in people and resources the Indus civilization would deserve should
compare with those directed in the past to the study of ancient
Mesopotamia and, more recently, pre-Columbian Meso-America.”
See for instance: Hock, H. H., 1999; “Through a glass darkly: Modern
“racial” interpretations”, in Madhav M. Deshpande and Johannes
Bronkhorst (eds.), pp. 145-174, Aryan and Non-Aryan in South Asia
– Evidence, Interpretation and Ideology, Harvard Oriental
Series, Opera Minora Vol. 3, Harvard University: Cambridge (MA)
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