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  California Textbooks Controversy: Politicization of an Academic Issue by Hindu-Haters
PART I: The Uphill battle faced by Hindu Americans
 
 

 

By: Vishal Agarwal
January 31, 2006
V
iews expressed here are author’s own and not of this website. Full disclaimer is at the bottom.

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1. Locus Standi of HEF and VF:

It is a well known fact that India and Hinduism are given a less than fair treatment in American school textbooks. Articles have been published recently showing how unfair the treatment of Hinduism is vis-a-vis other religions, and how faulty and prejudiced the coverage of ancient India is in these textbooks. Teenage school students of Hindu American community have also written articles on how they have felt belittled by the negative and hostile coverage of their heritage in school classrooms.

A few months ago, a Hindu organization named Vedic Foundation (VF) initiated an online petition objecting to the derogatory depiction of Hinduism in proposed sixth grade school textbooks for the state of California. Another organization named Hindu Education Foundation (HEF) supported this petition, and almost 6000 signatures were collected online.

In addition, 1000 additional signatures were collected in person from Hindu parents in California.

Numerous other parents such as myself, who are not members of either organization support them on this particular issue though we may not have signed any petitions or letters for them.

In addition,

  • More than three dozen Hindu and Jain organizations (supported by people originally from India, Nepal, Carribbean as well as from the United States itself), Educational societies (such as ESHI) and more than 100 academics have given supporting letters to HEF and VF. The latter list includes 39 prominent archaeologists, and 50+ academics specializing in history, religious studies and other allied fields.
  • Professionals from fields such as Psychiatry have appeared at the California Department of Education on their (HEF and VF) behalf testifying why these corrections are necessary for the welfare of students.
  • HEF has also worked with Schools in the Bay Area, with school teachers, school superintendents and with hundreds of students. Many parents, teachers and others came to testify on their behalf at the public hearings of the Board at Sacramento.
  • Major Indian American organizations such as National Federation of Indian Associations, Federation of Indo-Americans, Indo-Americans of the Bay Area, Indo-American Friendship Council, etc. have provided written support to the efforts of HEF and VF to my knowledge.
  • Hundreds of Hindu Americans (500 in the second half of November 2005 alone) sent faxes to the State Board of Education (SBE) and California Department of Education (CDE) supporting the efforts of VF/HEF and opposing intrusion of some Hindu-hating academics in this matter.

The California Department of Education and State Board of Education have well laid out procedures for inviting and considering public comment on the content of proposed textbooks. HEF followed this duly laid out process along with Vedic Foundation over a period of several months.

Since no other organization came forward to rectify the depiction of Hinduism and Ancient India, HEF/VF submitted some edits to the Board pertaining to Hinduism and Ancient India. The Board accepted them, and got them reviewed by bona fide academic scholars per their procedures.

Of course, no organization, including HEF can represent all Hindus. Just as no organization can represent all Muslims or Christians or Jews. VF and HEF have also not made the claim of representing all Hindus. They are just two organizations of Hindus.

But all the above support for their work establishes sufficiently the locus standi of HEF and VF in this entire matter relating to the issue of Hinduism and Ancient India in the proposed school textbooks.

2. What are Hindu groups trying to achieve through their proposed edits?

Hindu groups want sixth grade children to get a fair and accurate portrayal ancient Indian history and of Hinduism, that also conforms to CA State Law, Education Code 60044(a) and Subsection (b)], and the “Standards for Evaluating Instructional Materials for Social Content (2000 Edition) which clearly state the following guidelines for textbooks:

“1. Adverse Reflection. No religious belief or practice may be held up to ridicule and no religious group may be portrayed as inferior.”

2. Indoctrination. Any explanation or description of a religious belief or practice should be present in a manner that does not encourage or discourage belief or indoctrinate the student in any particular religious belief.”

It is very clear that these standards are violated very often when Hinduism is discussed by most of the textbooks.

3. How are CA Education Code 60044 a&b violated by proposed textbooks?

  • Buddhism is typically represented as an advance or an improvement over Hinduism even though the California State education policy guidelines clearly imply that one tradition cannot be privileged over another. These same textbooks do not present Islam as an improvement over Christianity, nor do they describe Christianity as an advance over Judaism.
  • 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 glowing narratives about Abrahamic faiths (Islam, Christianity and Judaism) in these and corresponding texts from other grades.
  • In contrast to other faiths, it appears that only Hinduism oppressed women, and that there is nothing good in Hinduism relating to women. Even if negative remarks are made about treatment of women in other faiths, they are promptly hedged with positive statements. In the case of Hinduism however, any positive achievements of women are ignored.
  • The oppression of lower castes is continuously discussed, whereas corresponding treatment of non-believers (or even believers with a different skin color) in traditional Christian and Islamic societies is left out. For instance, it is well known that Arab and Persian Islamic societies ill-treated Muslim slaves of African lineage. The immense contributions of low-caste Hindus to Hinduism is conveniently ignored.
  • Hindu sacred narratives are referred to as ‘stories’, ‘songs’ or ‘myths’, whereas Biblical and Koranic narratives are presented as historical facts. Hindu holy books are referred to as ‘stories’ whereas Koran and Bible are called ‘scriptures’.
  • 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 or a pig”).
  • 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 the point.
  • 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.

Some of these textbooks, such as the one by Glencoe/McGrawHill actually indulge in racist and hate-speech against Hindus, in my opinion. This textbook for instance has an entire page on the role and status of women in Hindu tradition, in which not one of the 20 odd sentences says anything neutral or positive.

Everything is negative. It is not that these instances were not high-lighted to the SBE/CDE officials by Hindus. However, all attempts have met with blank stares.

4. What criteria did the Hindu groups adopt when they proposed these edits?

In addition to Education Code 60044(a) and Subsection (b), quoted above, the Hindu groups used the following criteria and considerations while preparing our list of corrections:

  • The textbooks are meant for impressionable school children in the sixth grade. These students are not graduate students who need to or who could assimilate nuanced and diverse viewpoints on each matter.
  • The treatment of Hinduism and ancient India in these textbooks is introductory. Therefore, it is essential that just as for other religions, these textbooks should focus on more essential, doctrinal aspects of Hinduism, rather than dwelling on clichés about women and Dalits. The narratives for these sixth grade students should be marked by a positive attitude and sympathy for the tradition being studied. Hinduism seems to have been singled out for a negative and unsympathetic treatment although it is probably the last time most students will ever learn about this religion.
  • Hinduism is not a history centric faith like Abrahamic faiths. Therefore it is all the more important to include emic (“insider’s”) viewpoints in its discussion rather than focus on etic or outsider historian perspectives. However, this is not seen to be the case, and questionable historical theories such as the Aryan invasion theory and its variants have been used to explain the very genesis and the very nature of Hinduism
  • The textbooks in question end their narrative around 550 AD for ancient India. This means that practices such as Sati and untouchability which were marginal before 550 AD should not be mentioned in what is clearly a brief description of Hinduism in these textbooks. 
  • Further, Hinduism is not derived just from the Vedas. Traditions of Hindu tribals and other communities that were not necessarily Vedic fused with the Vedic traditions to give rise to Hinduism. To a great extent, these former traditions are found in Mahabharata, Puranas, Ramayana and in non-scripture based religious practices all over the Indian subcontinent. By focusing obsessively on the disabilities of ‘low-caste’ Hindus, the textbooks are in reality denying the role of these communities in the genesis of Hinduism.
  • The audience of these textbooks is predominantly non-Hindu, and it may be necessary to put across Hindu doctrines to these students in using terms that are used in Abrahamic faiths. For instance, the sixth grade student in California is very likely to confuse the word ‘Brahmin’ (Hindu priest) with ‘Brahman’ (Supreme Being), and therefore words such as ‘Supreme Being’ or even God may have to be used.
  • There are specific problems that Hindu students, as members of a marginal religion (in the American society) have to face in a classroom filled with students following one or other Judeo-Christian-Islamic (=Abrahamic) traditions. Hindu students are often ridiculed for their beliefs, and the shoddy treatment of Hinduism (and ancient India in general) in these textbooks is one of the biggest cause of this.

Many edits of VF-HEF were motivated by these considerations, after they interacted with hundreds of parents and professionals (including a psychologist who testified before the Board on the negative effect the current textbooks could have on Hindu children).

5. What were the roadblocks faced by Hindu groups in proposing their corrections/edits?

  • The textbooks are written very shoddily in general, and the edit procedures of SBE do not allow re-writing the text. They merely permit changing a word here and there, or deletion of a few sentences. Addition of sentences is normally not permitted. Rewriting is also not permitted It is within these constraints that HEF and VF had to write their edits. To the reader many of these edits may appear rather trivial, but the truth is that this is all they could expect to change in the current textbooks within the constraints of SBE editing rules. A long term solution would be to re-write these textbooks in a much more improved manner, but VF-HEF did not have the luxury of doing this in the current textbook adoption cycle.
  • Secondly, members of the Board were not aware about Ancient India and Hinduism to the same extent that they are aware with other religions. They initially did not understand why Hindus could object to Judeo-Christian terms such as ‘Salvation’ in referring to Moksa.
  • Representatives of other religions have been working with the SBE/CDE for decades and have succeeded in ensuring a correct portrayal of their traditions over several textbook review cycles. In our case, this was the first time a Hindu organization participated in the process.
  • Certain communities such as Muslims have established relationships with some of the publishers of the textbooks themselves. This enables them to prevent inaccurate and insensitive material entering into the textbooks even before they reach the SBE/CDE for consideration. Hindus do not have this access to publishers. Of course, this has often led to grotesque consequences, such as the Houghton-Mifflin textbook actually doing Islamist propaganda!
  • In recent months, CDE/SBE have actually employed Hindu-hating scholars in suggesting which of our edits are good or bad, despite several appeals to the Board against doing so by hundreds of Hindus.

Unfortunately, these well-meaning efforts of Hindu organizations have met with considerable opposition from groups and individuals who have not opposed any of the 500 edits of the Jewish community, 97 edits of the Islamic community and numerous other edits pertaining to other religions and cultures.

Why have some people opposed the modest edits of Hindu groups to shoddily written textbooks? The response to this question involves speculation of course, but we may list the following causes–

  • Ignorance: Many critics are not aware of all aspects of the controversy. Some academics who wrote against Hindus had not even then seen the proposed edits or even the textbooks. They merely acted on the basis of a defamatory and speculative anonymous letter. Several people believe, out of the goodness of their own hearts that Hinduism and India are already described nicely in the textbooks. This is really not the case.
  • Prejudice: Certain vested interests do not want Hinduism to be projected with the same empathy and sympathy as their own traditions. Certain groups and individuals supposedly bear an active hostility towards Hindus and this is becoming more and more evident these days in protests against our efforts.
  • Politics: Certain people want to import politics from the Indian subcontinent and view this issue from their own politicized perspectives. A Leftist political academic has alleged that Hindus want to portray a rosy picture about India so that India can attract more foreign investment!
  • Arrogance: Some academics cannot countenance the fact that Hindus themselves can have a say in how their own traditions are depicted. One academic who initiated a letter against us has gone on record to say that Hindus in the United States are ‘lost and abandoned’!

These people have singled out Hindus primarily to vent their opposition and hatred towards us in my opinion. I think that it is unfortunate that people who have never done anything in the past to ensure a correct, accurate and sympathetic portrayal of our heritage are now trying to play a destructive role when some Hindu organizations are actually trying to remedy the situation.

In the next few parts of this article, I will analyze the hateful and political nature of this opposition to edits proposed by Hindu groups to what are clearly biased, prejudiced and inaccurate textbooks.

6. Meanwhile, what should concerned people do?

People should FAX letters stating the following:

  1. The endorse changes proposed by HEF and VF to correct the prejudiced statements and errors in proposed textbooks.
  2. They object to the discriminatory treatment of Hindus by the State Board of California in addressing community concerns.
  3. They are alarmed by the fact that these textbooks project Hinduism as an inferior religion compared to Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Buddhism. They are appalled by the fact that these textbooks focus obsessively on negatives of Hinduism and whitewash the record of other religions.
  4. They are concerned that the textbooks contain numerous errors of historical facts.
  5. SBE should reject unwarranted intrusions from academics such as Michael Witzel who are not sympathetic to our traditions. Instead, sympathetic scholars and practitioners of Hinduism should be consulted.
  6. They are concerned that these textbooks will have a negative impact on the minds of Hindu American students who read them.

All concerned people should write to the Board, whether Hindu or non-Hindu, Indian or non-Indian, CA resident or non-resident. The letters should be faxed (emails are not advisable) to the following people:

Ms. Glee Johnson, President of the California State Board of Education
Fax: 916-319-0176 or 916-319-0175 (no email available)

Dr. Ruth Green, Immediate Past President of the California State Board of Education
Fax: 916-319-0176 (no email available)

Mr. Alan Bersin, California Secretary of Education addressed to his Secretary (with a request to forward) at kheinrich@ose.ca.gov , fax 916-323-3753

Part II: The hateful Michael Witzel petition of 11/08/05

Part III: Yankee Comrades- Their Conspiracy Theories and Pseudo-Academics

Part IV: Hating Hindus in a ‘scholarly’ way

Vishal Agarwal

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Previous by:
Vishal Agarwal

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