For the first time, Hindu organizations are pushing to change the way their religious history is taught in California schools.
While Jewish, Muslim and Christian groups have long spoken up during the Department of Education’s textbook revision process, Hindus are new on the scene.
Their efforts to alter sixth-grade textbooks about ancient history have inspired vitriolic, all-too-personal debates among scholars and community groups vying to see their versions of history in print.
The debate is noteworthy not just for its contentiousness, but for its far-reaching effects. Many states follow California’s lead in textbook adoptions, so any decision about what children learn here will likely affect public schools across the country.
The state education board is now faced with questions that are difficult to answer:
Who gets to tell the story of a civilization? What happens when even the scholars don’t agree?
“History is probably one of the most emotional and difficult subjects to sort out,” said Glee Johnson, president of the California Board of Education. “People care about these issues. It’s their blood. But it’s not always easy to tell what’s factual in this arena, and when you’re trying to distill world history to sixth-graders you need to be really careful.”
California adopts new social studies textbooks every six years. The state requires students to learn about ancient civilizations, including the origins of Hinduism, in the sixth grade.
In September, several religious groups proposed hundreds of changes to history textbooks the state board was considering adopting. The vast majority of the proposals came from two Hindu groups: the state chapter of the Hindu Education Foundation and the Vedic Foundation of Austin, Texas.
Most of the proposed changes would erase or alter passages dealing with caste and gender discrimination in ancient South Asia. The changes also were aimed to dispute the notion that Aryan peoples from outside India played a key role in the formation of Hinduism.
In one case, the original text read, “Men had many more rights than women.” The Hindu Education Foundation offered to replace that sentence with, “Men had different rights and duties than women.” The group called for the deletion of another passage that said people in the lowest tier of society “performed work other Indians thought was too dirty, such as collecting trash, skinning animals or handling dead bodies.”
In November, Michael Witzel, a professor of Sanskrit at Harvard University, entered the process with a letter signed by nearly 50 other professors. The Hindu groups’ proposals were “unscholarly,” and adopting them, he wrote, would “trigger an immediate international scandal.”
Armed with citations from scripture and academic texts, the two sides went to war. Witzel and his supporters said the Hindu groups were promoting a cultural nationalist agenda that had recently led to controversial textbook rewrites in India. The Hindu groups termed Witzel a racist with leftist leanings and demanded that Harvard shut down his department.
Hindus who support the proposed changes say they have no agenda beyond fair representation of their culture, pointing out that the textbooks don’t always mention discrimination in other ancient civilizations. They also say that detailing a culture’s failings may not be appropriate in a textbook designed for children.
“We’re talking about sixth-graders, who are very impressionable,” said Suhag Shukla, legal counsel for the Hindu American Foundation, which has thrown its support behind the Hindu Education Foundation and the Vedic Foundation. “There are so many positives to every world religion. Sixth grade is not the right arena to pull out all the garbage.”
Further, while the California guidelines state that content standards should “instill in each child a sense of pride in his or her heritage,” some Hindus say the current textbooks make their children ashamed. “My son came home from school one day and told me he didn’t want to be a Hindu anymore,” said Milpitas resident Madhulika Singh. “There were comments in the playground about men beating up their wives and he was very distraught.”
On the other hand, opponents, including other Hindu groups, say the textbook changes promote an inaccurate point of view and conceal discrimination that persists today.
“They’re completely whitewashing history and sanitizing Hinduism,” said Anu Mandavilli, a volunteer for the Bay Area-based group Friends of South Asia. “It’s like saying slavery is hurtful to white children, so let’s not talk about it. …These are extreme ideologies. This is not my Hinduism, it’s not the way my parents brought me up.”
In the face of conflicting information, the state board charged its advisory panel on curriculum in November to evaluate each proposed change on the basis of historical accuracy.
But the scholars don’t always agree on what constitutes accuracy.
“The proposed edits come out of a very sectarian approach to history,” said Witzel, the Harvard professor. “They view all of Hinduism through one narrow lens. … It’s people on the very fringe who want to dispute these points.”
“I don’t think you could find a single scholar of Indian history in the entire United States who teaches at a research university who would support (the Hindu groups’) position,” said Vinay Lal, a history professor at UCLA. “Most people on their side are Indian engineers, physicists, chemists, who think their opinion is just as good as those who have spent a lifetime studying these subjects.”
But Shiva Bajpai, a California State University, Northridge, historian who was hired to evaluate the changes and recommended many of them, said he’s aiming to avoid viewing ancient cultures according to “modern concerns.”
“We should be judging people by the values they held at the time, not the values we hold now. … Inequality is a modern concept, whereas now it’s a burning issue for us,” he said.
In December, an advisory panel to the state board recommended most of the changes that Bajpai had endorsed, even though another state panel of scholars that included Witzel suggested otherwise.
In a move that departs with standard procedure, members of the state board then met with Witzel and Bajpai in a closed session earlier this month to get information on each point of view. The two scholars debated the changes for nearly five hours. Witzel found Bajpai to be “religiously minded;” Bajpai found Witzel to be “close-minded.”
Confronted by what then-board President Ruth Green called a “barrage” of mail from every side, the state board voted on Jan. 12 to create yet another panel, this one consisting of five board members, to conduct a new analysis of the proposed changes. The board could vote on the changes as early as March.