Opinion

Teaching Hinduism in California schools

Daanish is being blessed by a Hindu priest before beginning his Thaipusam pilgrimage in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia on Jan 24, 2016. Religion News Service photo by Alexandra Radu

(RNS) An open letter to the California Department of Education, signed by a group of academics, many of whom are sympathetic to the Indian left, is threatening to downgrade, and in many cases remove, the terms India and Hinduism from schoolbooks.

Two years ago, Hindu and Indian-American groups began working with the department’s Instructional Quality Commission to ensure a culturally competent and accurate curriculum framework to be passed on to teachers and textbook publishers of sixth and seventh grade world history.


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In collaboration with leading historians and religious studies professors, the Hindu American Foundation and other advocacy groups submitted several recommendations that would give Hinduism accurate and equitable in comparison to other religious traditions. 

Many of the Hindu American Foundation’s suggestions were incorporated, but the process was interrupted with the zero-hour arrival of said open letter by academics collectivized under the rubric of South Asia Faculty Group.

Many of these scholars offering alterations focusing on Hinduism, ironically include specialists in Islamic studies, such as Asad Q. AhmadShahzad Bashir and Chris Chekuri, as well as prominent Indian Americans of the Indian left, such as Kamala Viswesaran, amongst others.  

The demands in their letter were breathtaking: Replace mentions of ancient India with the nebulous “South Asia”; replace “Hinduism” with “ancient religion(s) of India”; remove several favorable references to Hinduism; and unequivocally locate the horrendous practice of caste-based discrimination as an integral part of the practice of Hinduism.

The stated reason for replacing India with “South Asia” would seem benign: Much of ancient India was divided after the end of British colonial rule, into Pakistan and Bangladesh. Using “South Asia” would appropriately identify the region and its similar cultural heritage without subsuming the identity of those post-colonial states. 

But archaeologists and leading scholars confirm that there was an ancient civilization made up of many lands and kingdoms that shared civilizational traits, invoked shared gods and goddesses and built temples and monuments to mark their tenure on those lands. It stretched throughout the Indian plains into the Himalayas and Central Asia, and ancient rulers carried the culture and Hindu religion of that civilization to the far reaches of East Asia, into Burma, Bhutan, Thailand (where the Hindu epic Ramayana is adapted as the Ramakien) and Cambodia (think Angkor Wat).    

Reducing ancient India to the anodyne “South Asia” may be geographically accurate, but scholars know that there was never an entity called “Ancient South Asia.” Ruins of the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations exist in Libya, Israel, Jordan and Turkey, among many other countries, but the names of the civilizations have not been replaced. 

The South Asia Faculty Group uses reverse logic to also try to delete the word “Hinduism” several times in the frameworks. On the one hand, the scholars would replace “India” with a more contemporary “South Asia,” but at the same time, they would delete “Hinduism” even while they argue that the term is of contemporary origin.  

If erasing “India” for “South Asia” or replacing “Hinduism” — because the term did not exist in ancient India — is not confusing enough, these same scholars are excoriating Hindu groups for suggesting that the 50-year-old term “Dalit,” or British-era colonial term “untouchables,” finds no mention in any relevant Hindu scripture. Or for suggesting, as academics should know, that a birth-based hierarchical caste system and caste-based discrimination find no sanction, no prescription and no mention in revealed, Hindu scripture — the Srutis, such as the Vedas.

Why would the professors delete the word “Hinduism,” which a billion people in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and elsewhere call their own — and 3 million Americans embrace — and replace it with a host of terms that have no use in common parlance? Why try so hard to erase India (the Hindu American Foundation launched  #donteraseindia to counter precisely that)? And why would the faculty group preserve “Hinduism” only to link it to caste? 

Some of this is a reaction to the rise of Hindu nationalism in India – an attempt to disrupt the narrative that ancient India was a great civilization that gave the world yoga, meditation, Ayurveda, etc., and the notion that today’s India is the inheritor of that legacy.  

The politics behind these changes are complex, but what is clear is that such deletions and substitutions bear no relevance to actual practitioners of Hinduism.  

California’s decision will have outsize impact. As one of the largest purchasers of textbooks in the nation, most publishers will release books that include the California frameworks, and these will be consumed by countless smaller school boards.

Aseem Shukla, M.D. is co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation (www.hafsite.org), and Associate Professor of Surgery at the University of Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy of Hindu American Foundation

Aseem Shukla, M.D. is co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation (www.hafsite.org), and Associate Professor of Surgery at the University of Pennsylvania. Photo courtesy of Hindu American Foundation

And while academics today are eager to engage in contentious socio-political causes, they must not use the privilege of their position to impose campus politics on a middle school curriculum.  Because what matters is that erasing Hinduism from texts does not erase bullying that Hindu and Indian-American children face stemming from ignorance arising from such deletions.      

(Aseem Shukla, M.D., is an associate professor of surgery at the University of Pennsylvania and a co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation)

 

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Aseem Shukla

47 Comments

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  • Granted, any history is a selection of the facts, the whole notion of the story having a political message or “usefulness” is discordant with the whole enterprise of scholarship, which is (or should be) to let the facts tell the story- istead of the storyteller.

  • The very phrase “any history is a selection of the facts” is telling. Do you know how those facts are selected? It is because Western humanities smuggles in Protestant theology in a secular disguise. This matter comes to the fore when Western humanities tries to study a pagan or heathen tradition, to wit Hinduism, Buddhism, Native American traditions etc.

  • What do present-day people of India call their own nation? What did their ancestors call their ancient nation? What do present-day Hindus call their own religion? What did their ancestors call their ancient religion?

    Seems to me the answers to these questions (with phonetic English spellings if necessary) will quickly, easily, and respectfully resolve the naming “dilemma”, academics notwithstanding.

  • All of these questions you’ve posed are contested on several sides. There have been a plethora of cultures and kingdoms that have co-inhabited different parts of the subcontinent at different times. At times, most of it has been ruled by Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists and such. Even the concept of “Hinduism” is intensely contested in Religious Studies. And these divisions, especially regarding Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus have been sharpened by the 1947 partitioning.

  • Hi Ananth,
    All facts are selected by men. All men are products- more or less- of their respectuve cultures (if they plan to have readers). Objectivity, truth, etc. are mere ideals, which cannot be acheived. Of the traditions you have mentioned, only the Western has even attempted to become self aware and self critical. I welcome your examples of those who are doing a better job of taking an unbiased view. You can cite none that are not a the service of religion. culture, and/or ideology. You need to read more widely.

  • Why is it a joke? Magellan accomplished the mission. Ignorance about navigation, particularly about longitude, made all maps unreliable. Again, ignorance and prejudice are not limited to any one culture. You need to read more.

  • I appreciate your response. I hope the California Department of Education opts to teach & explain these important pieces of the puzzle.

  • Actually, he did. At the time, there was no country called India. The English referred to the area as “The Indies”. I’m not sure what the Spanish called it, but they didn’t call it India.

  • No, he’s correct. South Asia as a term and concept didn’t exist until the last century. Perhaps it is you that needs to read more (about India).

  • Since you use phrase “self-aware”, let us take the very word “self”. In Western theology self is the core of an individual. There is one self per individual. Two individuals do not share a self.

    Hindus use the same notion of self in ordinary conversation. Nevertheless, the more theoretical style of Hinduism (gyana marga) suggests that this notion of self dissolves with more and more spiritual pratice. There is a kind of out-of-body experience. The practitioner stops associating the word “I” with the three-dimensional geometrical figure his body is.

    Now I ask you this: Suppose that you were in charge of writing textbooks on religion for a K-12 public school. Would you approve inserting the foregoing Hindu conception in the curriculum? What pros and cons would you consider?

  • Academia has become a curse on intelligent debate. It needs comprehensive and wide reaching reform. McCarthy would have been too gentle. It’s time to clean house.

  • Hinduism has been defined by the spiritual leadership of Brahmins and military leadership of the Kshatriyas. This system has extended relatively uniformly from Tajiksthan and Afghanistan to Cambodia and Indonesia. The specific God prayed to does not make it a different religion, just like a Mars worshipper suddenly didn’t become a different religion from a Venus worshipper. The biggest exceptions are Buddhism and Jainism. The former is a heresy of Hinduism, and both rely on the concept of Dharma.

    Our culture might be mightily confusing to people from monotheistic traditions used to simplistic answers and easy philosophy, but that doesn’t mean our culture doesn’t exist.

  • ??? Pat yourself on the back, you are the master of surface level thought.

    India is the civilisation that exists from the Hindu Kush to the Himalayas. The fact that there was no country called India is like saying there was no country called Europe; only Rome, the Frankish Empire or the European Union. I guess we should start calling Europe West-Asia too!

    ?

  • India is a civilisation. To put it simply, the name originated from outside (the Greeks, who swept until the Indus and our thousands of War Elephants put a stop to him), as such concepts usually do.

    It doesn’t matter what Hindu philosophy says about the self. The debate on India belongs to Hindus and Indians, not outsiders, atheists, traitors and seditious religious separatists. The CCP is very effective at pushing this concept worldwide for China – something India needs to improve on.

    Academia has gone from being the bastion of civilisational level thought to a meeting place for subversives, who sneakily conspire against honest intellectuals. Like a parent overseeing children, Academia needs supervision from other, wiser institutions.

  • Oh dear oh dear, whose mad e a fool of themselves, eh? Read and weep you ignoramous. (From Wiki).

    The English term is from Greek Ἰνδία (Indía), via Latin India. Indía in Koine Greek denoted the region beyond the Indus (Ἰνδός) river in the Indian Subcontinent, since.Herodotus (5th century BC) ἡ Ἰνδική χώρη, hē Indikē chōrē; “the Indian land”, Ἰνδός, Indos, “an Indian”, from Old Persian Hinduš and listed as a conquered territory by Darius I in the Persepolis terrace inscription).[3] The name is derived ultimately from Sindhu, the Sanskrit name of the river, but also meaning “river” generically.[4] Latin India is used by Lucian (2nd century).

  • I have no problem with describing any culture or groups beliefs, customs, etc. In one African tribe, when a person dies, the whole village is abandoned and rebuilt across a river “( Everybody “knows” spirits cannot cross rivers.) Reincarnation is a given in large parts of the world, and after lives abound. I only have a problem when this is represented as fact, whereas it is really speculation. (Christian “Hell”, for example). It is a fact, however, that the majority disagree with me. They actually “know” the truth- I merely guess.

  • Not over the same land it sure has not. You can ask King Ashoka and his Buddhist Mauryra Empire that conquered all of India about that, not to mention the dominance of the Northern half of the subcontinent by the Mughal Empire after the 10th C.E. And the Dravidians weren’t even Vedic! Jainism and Buddhism are different religions and different cultures, not heresies of Hinduism. Judaism and Islam are as structurally similar to Christianity as Buddhism, Sikhism and Jainism are to Hinduism. You and/or the Hinduvta movement don’t get to speak for Buddhists, Sikhs or Jains any more than Muslims get to speak for Jews or Christians.

  • And if you happen to think monotheistic traditions are all about simplistic answers and easy philosophy, then that says far more about you than it does about monotheistic traditions.

  • It sounds like your so-called ‘wiser institutions’ are just full of “simplistic answers” and “easy philosophy,” wouldn’t you say?

  • The author of one of the hymns of the Rig Veda says:

    ” I am a composer of hymns, my father is a physician, my mother grinds corn on a stone. We are all engaged in different occupations.”

  • Yes history is that. But western scholars do not do that. They are storytellers and fact distorting machines run by vatican money and Islamic halal petrodollars.

  • Yes those 2 religions u hate because only those 2 are larger in demography……………can understand the inferiority complex because polytheism by far not been able 2 match monotheism by any means…………………so chant the greatness of your religion and try 2 justify yourself by every possible feeble futile and childish logic……………just like “Indigenous Indian” theory and “Out of India” theory!

  • Main difference between Hinduism and Christianity is that Hinduism is mostly Myth when Christianity is mostly History.Christ was a Historical character accepted by bulk of Historians which is very unlike Hindu Gods!

  • No my dear Samuel Johnston. We are not quibbling over mere words but their prejudiced ignorance, jaundice and myopia. The term South Asia is a concoction of the West. Even earlier, the area was called the subcontinent of India by the Brits [current population of 64.6 Million compared to India’s 1.3 Billion; England has 130, 000 sq.km and India more than 3 million sq.km; The Hindu scriptures dates back the Indian Civilization to 10,000’s of years with the lost city of Dwarka being around 10,000 BC itself, Romans cannot date back more than 1000 BC or at best 1200 BC when the Trojan War was reported to have happened…If they want to race their civilization to Mesopotamia, even that does not go beyond 5000 BC…The US (west) civilization/culture is generally seen as a recent phenomenon…..] and not South Asia as the trouble mongers (distortions) are striving in California presently! Should we laugh at their ignorance or pity their foolhardy arrogance!

  • Dear Bhattacharya,

    If you are serious about intellectual debate, please refrain from belittling the knowledge and opinions of others, just back up your own arguments with facts or records….We are all products of distortions and suppression of facts first by the Moghuls and then by the Brits and then by the Nehruvian pseudo aristocracy……Our knowledge (educated in missionary schools in India (especially Kolkata) is still limited/undiscovered vis-a-vis the realities of the universe?????

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/south_asia/1768109.stm

    As a starter please take a look at this article/link above..which traces this lost city to 9000 years..Hopefully, you will realize this article was not influenced by Saffron but BBC….unless BBC also has been saffronized…then we go to the next level of arguments and presentation of facts…

    Bw!

  • “The Hindu scriptures dates back the Indian Civilization to 10,000’s”——————–Bulk of the historians agree with the fact that most ancient scripture of vedic civilisation was composed(Not written) during 1500-1200 B.C.not before that and that scripture was “Rig-veda”.Aryan civilisation was not a civic civilisation but rather a rural civilisation unlike “Harappan” civilisation which dates from 3000-1500 B.C.as per most of the historians among them many are Indians(Hindus).Because that’s the age of Mesopotamiac(Sumerian) ancient Egypsian and ancient Chinese civilisation also and Harappan civilisation was Contemporary with those civilisations. 15000-10000 B.C is the time duration of middle stone-age period———–prior 2 10000 B.C humankind doesn’t even knew how 2 cultivate land and also nothing about Irrigation———-they use 2 wear bark of trees because they didn’t have ant idea of weaving clothes(No idea of cultivation of cottons also) and they use 2 fill their bellys by hunting animals by their sharp stoned weapons and use 2 eat their roasted by the fire lit by striking stones and also the fruits of various trees.Back then most of the humans use 2 live in caves and that’s not only in India but all over the World.—————-These r basic facts of history and u want me 2 believe that “Ancient Dwarka” was build during that period?And more so lord Krishna were from “Dwapar” age———So there are 2 more ages before that (Treta and Satya) and lord Rama is from Treta so he was a man suppose 2 be of 11000-12000 B.C!Where as “Arian civilisation started in India from Maximum 2000 B.C. as per most of the historians(many Indians and Hindu) not before that!There were no Municipal(Civic) civilisation in India prior 2 “Harrappan” and “Mehergarh” civilisation which were as per history “Dravidian” civilisation and that’s a much proven fact.By the way I was not a student of any English Medium Missionary school but Bengali medium Govt schools and also graduated in history from Kolkata University which is a UCG recognised University from long.At the end a humble request 2 u is that don’t try 2 prove your Nation/Religion/Culture superior from others by declaring others as inferiors.Love your nation but don’t belittle others 2 prove your supremacy all over the world.That’s a very dangerous propensity.Thanks.

  • And in India there is no place called America; it is Umreeka, isn’t it? Therefore there was no place called America.

  • Because Columbus set out to go to India, not South Asia.
    E.g. “It seems clear that the Spanish monarchs also shared at least a part of Columbus’ enthusiasm for spreading the message of Christ. The first
    entry in Christopher’s journal of the maiden voyage stated, “Because of
    the report that I had given to Your Highnesses [Ferdinand and Isabella]
    about the lands of India and about a prince who is called ‘Grand
    Khan’… Your Highnesses . . . lovers and promoters of the Holy
    Christian faith . . . thought of sending me, Christobal Colon, to the
    said regions of India to see the said princes and the peoples and lands .
    . . to see how their conversion to our Holy Faith might be undertaken” (Dunn and Kelly 17,19…)” (via https://rsc.byu.edu/archived/christopher-columbus-latter-day-saint-perspective/years-spain-columbus-finds-sponsor)

    The Dunn and Kelly reference is to the translation of what remains of Columbus’ diary from his first voyage- “The Diario of Christopher Columbus’s First Voyage to America, 1492-1493”

  • Brevity has a cost, it can be sharp – but not all inclusive. Rhetoric, (the bantering to which I was referring), is the victory of words over rational thought. The words themselves are mere tools.

  • “It doesn’t matter what Hindu philosophy says about the self.” This is infantile.
    Self is a concept that applies to all humans. Perhaps one of us is not human?

  • “Christianity is mostly History”. This opinion is about two centuries out of fashion in Western Universities. “Christ was a Historical character”. No, perhaps Jesus was historical, but (the) Christ is an idea tacked on by Christians after Jesus had gone missing.

  • Congratulations, you made an out of context and irrelevant point. Apply for tenure at your local university.

  • EXample of saffron Begotry and Fanaticism—- ” lost city of Dwarka being around 10,000 BC itself”———That means it’s much older than Harappan and even Mehergarh civilization which is the most ancient recognised civilisation of India!This is organised butchery of history and distortion and saffronisation of facts at it’s highest level!

  • 10000 B.C was stone age all over the world.So any question of civil engineering and sanitation doesn’t comes into consideration because most of the people were either nomads or cavemans all over the world and ancient India was no exception!

  • “The Hindu scriptures dates back the Indian Civilization to 10,000’s of years”—-How that could be when oldest Vedic scripture as per most of the historians the “Rig-Veda” was composed(Not written) at 1500-1200 B.C?And the mystery of Harappan inscriptions are still not been solved?

  • “The Hindu scriptures dates back the Indian Civilization to 10,000’s of years”—-How that could be when oldest Vedic scripture as per most of the historians the “Rig-Veda” was composed(Not written) at 1500-1200 B.C?And the mystery of Harappan inscriptions are still not been solved?—You are trying to re-write Indian and World history as per Hindu way?

  • Mrimoy. your ignorance is brighter then the sun Christianity based on history. World created in seven days Woman coming out of a rib, Virgin Mary. Christ coming back after death. Wow how correct you are?

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