San Jose, California - A new controversy about Indian history is brewing in the halls of California schools and the state's board of education.
Over the next six years, they and millions of their peers will read the standardized sixth-grade textbooks on world cultures including Hinduism and ancient India. The chapters they will study are currently being reviewed by the California State Board of Education. California mandates the study of world religions in its public schools.
The debate flared last November, when the state Board of Education held a public meeting to discuss the revisions, one of the final steps in the state's adoption process which takes place every six years.
Madhulika Singh, an Indian-born Yale graduate who has lived in the United States for 23 years, was one of those who raised concerns with the text during the hearing. She told the committee her 11-year-old son was so embarrassed by what he read that he became ashamed of being Hindu.
"There are many children, non-Hindu children, who didn't know much about Hinduism or India until they were exposed to it in the sixth grade. When they learn what they read in textbooks, they are shocked or hate India and Hinduism," she said. "Before they may have been neutral or ignorant of it; that's better than hating it. I don't want my children's co-students to learn all these negative things and make remarks to my children."
The books that Madhulika's son uses in school describe the Goddess Kali, revered by Hindus for her cosmic power, as "bloodthirsty." They call Hanuman, a god worshipped for his loyalty and protection, the "monkey king." One exercise tells students that Hanuman loved Rama (a Hindu god) so much that some believe he appears every time the Ramayana (ancient Sanskrit epic) is read. "So look around — see any monkeys?" the passage taunts.
While several groups, including Jewish and Islamic advocates also requested changes, the majority of the debate came over the Hindu groups' position which has led to ongoing review meetings.
The Vedic Foundation and the Hindu Education Foundation, proposed 153 changes, 131 of which were initially accepted by the committee.
In one example, the current text read: "The Aryans created a caste system." The proposed revision is: "During Vedic Times, people were divided into different social groups (varnas) based on their capacity to undertake a particular profession."
The committee, advised by Professor Shiva Bajpai, a professor emeritus in the History Department at California State University at Northridge, approved the majority of the decisions. But a group of professors, led by Harvard Professor Michael Witzel, denounced the revisions in a letter to the Board of Education. In his letter, Witzel alleged the proposed changes "would trigger an immediate international scandal."
The board appointed Witzel and two colleagues to a special committee, outraging the Hindu groups who believed Hinduism should be described by Hindus. In January, the board decided that both groups would discuss point by point which changes could be made based on historical facts.
In response, The Hindu American Foundation led by Fremont physician Mihir Meghani, has hired a law firm to consider legal action should the state decide to modify the recommendations of the curriculum committee. HAF has retained Olson, Hagel and Fishburn, LLP, of Sacramento, CA, to represent the Foundation in its dialogue with the California State Board of Education, and to ensure that the concerns of the Hindu American community regarding textbook portrayals of Hinduism are conveyed.
HAF Legal Counsel Suhag Shukla wrote "While attacks from non-Hindu academics with no expertise in Hinduism, and whose careers have been consumed by advocating pre-modern theories now engulfed by debate, were expected, I have personally been shocked by the unshakable obsession of so many Indian-Americans to view every effort in this country through the prism of their own political ideologies from India. Almost playing right along a colonialist paradigm, Professor Witzel and his ilk, with one letter to the California School Board of Education (SBE) using the word, “Hindutva-inspired,” have effectively divided fellow Indian Americans into an antagonistic, contentious and dithering populace—divided and conquered we remain"
Dr. Mihir Meghani, president of the HAF commented, "Hindus throughout the United States are watching the process with concern since the results have broad implications for all Hindus".
"For many years, Hinduism was taught from a non-Hindu perspective. All that we are asking is that Hinduism be taught as per state law, which asks that the education 'Instill in each child a sense of pride in his or her heritage; develop a feeling of self-worth…; eradicate the roots of prejudice... and enable all students to become aware and accepting of religious diversity while being allowed to remain secure in any religious beliefs they may already have."