A Textbook Debate Over Hinduism
When Abhijit Kurup began learning about Hinduism at his Claremont middle school, he could barely recognize his own religion.
Textbooks portrayed the 6,000-year-old tradition as a religion of monkey and elephant gods, rigid caste discrimination and oppression of women, he said.
“It degraded my religion,” said Kurup, now a UC Riverside freshman. “I felt a mixture of anger, embarrassment and humiliation.”
Kurup has joined other Hindus in a campaign urging the state Board of Education to correct those portrayals in new sixth-grade history textbooks, which will come under review by a board committee today. They have requested changes involving passages on women’s rights, the caste system, the origins of Hinduism and the nature of the divine, among other things.
One requested change, for instance, would say women had “different” rights than men, not fewer.
But their efforts have sparked a heated counter-campaign by scholars and others who accuse the groups of trying to fabricate history and gloss over the treatment of women and minorities in India, where Hinduism is the dominant religion. Some also contend that the requested textbook changes are so similar to those imposed by Hindu nationalist groups in India that California should not put its stamp of approval on them.
As a result, what began as a quiet academic exercise has exploded into a vitriolic debate stretching across the globe, with partisans exchanging charges of religious bigotry and promoting right-wing political agendas.
Harvard University professor Michael Witzel, for instance, has warned that the California school board will set off an “international educational scandal” if it approves the requested changes. “It would install mythology as history and get a right-wing point of view” into the textbooks, said Witzel, a professor of Sanskrit.
Such comments outrage many Hindu community members. They say they are merely seeking a fair and accurate portrayal of their religion and culture, which many believe has been maligned in the West ever since British colonialists invaded India more than two centuries ago.
“This is the first time Hindu groups are trying to protest against 300 years of prejudice,” said Madhulika Singh, a Bay Area computer networking specialist. She says her son told her he didn’t want to be Hindu anymore after studying ancient India and Hinduism in sixth grade.
Indeed, the issue is seen on both continents as the first major test of Hindu political clout in the United States and showcases the growing influence and political savvy of Indian Americans, now one of the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic groups. Led by the California-based Hindu Education Foundation and the Vedic Foundation in Texas, a broad-based group of temples, educators and community organizations has mobilized on the issue, drawing extensive news coverage in the Indian media here and abroad.
On the other side, opponents of the proposed changes include more than 100 South Asian scholars and the Friends of South Asia, a Bay Area peace group.
Glee Johnson, state Board of Education president, said the issue drew more than 1,500 letters and e-mails from the Hindu community last week alone, the highest volume of comment she has received on any issue in her two years on the board.
She said that of all subject areas, the board’s reviews of history textbooks tend to stoke the most fervent community passions. In the past, she said, the board had been pressed to include in textbooks Ireland’s potato famine, the internment of some Italian nationals in the U.S. during World War II and the genocide against Armenians by the Turks during World War I, an event the Turkish government disputes.
In the current round of review, Hindu groups are not the only ones asking for change. According to board materials, Jewish groups have asked for deletion of references to any Jewish role in the crucifixion of Jesus, King Solomon’s use of forced labor and the lack of archeological evidence that the Exodus ever occurred, among other things.
“To many people, it gets very emotional,” Johnson said. “This is not just about academics, but is tied in to people’s view of themselves and their history. What we really need to do is try to be as fair as we can.”
The state board reviews sixth-grade history textbooks, which explore ancient civilizations through the fall of Rome in the 5th century, every six years. Johnson said state-appointed experts had nearly completed their review of newly revised editions last summer when Hindu groups stepped in with a long list of requested changes. To review those requests for accuracy, the board appointed Shiva Bajpai, a Cal State Northridge professor of ancient Indian history.
Bajpai approved many of the changes requested. But in November, shortly before the proposals were headed for final approval, Witzel urged the board to reject them in what he called an “emergency letter.” Witzel wrote that the groups pressing for change were Hindu nationalists who had rammed through similar textbook changes in India that the U.S. State Department had characterized as “extremist.”
The proposed changes are “unscholarly, are politically and religiously motivated ... and will lead without fail to an international educational scandal,” Witzel wrote in a letter endorsed by four dozen international scholars.
The letter ignited a furor -- which state education officials further fanned by asking Witzel and two others to weigh in on the proposed changes already reviewed by Bajpai. The Witzel panel challenged several of Bajpai’s recommendations, setting up a showdown between scholars last month.
“It was a gladiator combat,” Bajpai said. “I’ve never had such an acrimonious meeting in my 48 years of professional life.”
Today, the board’s five-member history-social science committee will review the competing claims and decide which to recommend to the full board for final action at its March 8 meeting.
The most heated debate centers on four areas. Aside from the women’s issue, the Hindu Educational Foundation and its supporters argue that the rigid caste system that eventually developed in India was, during ancient times, simply a way to efficiently organize society and should be portrayed as such. Under this system, social classes were grouped by occupation.
They say textbooks should not portray Hinduism as a polytheistic faith but as one that sees its gods and goddesses simply as different representations of one supreme reality.
The most contentious issue involves the origins of Hinduism. The common historical view, included in all textbooks, is that Indo-Europeans from Central Asia, called Aryans, migrated to India and laid the faith’s foundation. But Bajpai and the Hindu groups hotly dispute the idea of any Aryan migration, citing new DNA evidence for their view that Hinduism developed indigenously. They have asked that textbooks include both views.
Not all Hindus side with them. Vinay Lal, a UCLA professor of Indian history, calls most of their contentions “ridiculous.” Like all religions, he said, Hinduism has its share of uncomfortable truths, and he would prefer that his two children learn to deal with them.
“They will be better able to understand that the essential story of humanity is the story of freedom from oppression,” Lal said. “The onus is on us to do justice to our history.”