Who are We?
What do we do?
How California's Textbooks Contribute to Ignorance About
2006-03-11 Published by Hinduism Today Gathered by
Hindu Press International
SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA, March 6, 2006: HPI note: The
following opinion piece by Vamsee Juluri appeared in the San
Francisco Chronicle's Open Forum page.
Has Hinduism been insulted in California history textbooks? Will
the state be forced to change the six new social studies
textbooks' depictions of this religion? The state Board of
Education is scheduled to have the last word on the matter this
week when the full board votes on adopting the new texts. In the
meantime, Hindu parents are outraged, academics have
counterattacked and the local Hindu community is at war, all at
a moment when President Bush is saying that India and America
are "global leaders and good friends." I am an academic, but I
feel the moral obligation to line up with the outraged parents
and demand a change in the textbooks for California
middle-school students. This manufactured ignorance of Hinduism
and Indian culture has not only hurt the feelings of immigrant
children, but has also had a geopolitical cost for the United
States by delaying what should have been a natural alliance
between the two secular democracies. That alliance has finally
begun to flower, with President Bush and Prime Minister Manmohan
Singh's historic nuclear agreement. Despite the opposition from
various quarters, the president's visit has achieved at least
one thing. It shows that the two countries are serious about
working together on issues ranging from security and trade to
education and culture. The future of this relationship, however,
depends on rejecting old frameworks and mistaken assumptions.
The ugly misrepresentations in the textbooks are a part of that
old error, and have no place in the future.
disagree with the academics, some of the world's leading experts
on South Asia, India and Hinduism, who have preferred to see the
demands for changes in the textbook as part of a "Hindu
extremist conspiracy" rather than an issue of correcting past
errors. I am no supporter of religious extremism, where it
exists, but that's not the issue here. The issue here is the
need to correct three mistakes,
First, there is a problem with the California textbooks defining
Hinduism as the religion of caste and gender discrimination.
This has been opposed by the Hindu community for a number of
reasons, including fairness (other religions are not defined
largely by their faults) and, of course, accuracy. I am not
naive to suggest these problems did not or do not exist, but
there are more useful ways to address them than in the first
lesson schoolchildren ever have about a religion's beliefs.
Second, the term "Hinduism" refers to a complex diversity of
traditions that are difficult to unify or summarize in terms of
founders, dates and origins. But this is Hinduism's virtue, not
a problem. The story of Hinduism in California's textbooks, to
begin with, is out of sync with how Hinduism is lived by its
followers. For example, many textbooks, even in India, talk
about Hinduism as the religion of "Aryan invaders." The
critiques and counter critiques of this are complex, but what is
relevant here is that no one ever dwells on this "Aryan" origin
in their religion, their prayers or their religious practices.
Third, the dismissal in some of these textbooks of Hindu "myths"
is plainly insulting. If Hindus think about Elephant Gods
writing epics and Monkey Gods leaping over oceans, they are
neither ignorant nor are merely celebrating their "stories." For
devout Hindus, these are not characters from a fairy tale; these
are the Gods (and "Gods" does not deny the fact that Hindus also
think of "God" in the singular).
The need to correct these mistakes is great because there has
been a history of stereotyping and misrepresentation of
Hinduism, from Katherine Mayo's vicious 1927 book "Mother
India," (which Mohandas Gandhi, no foe of criticism, called a
"drain-inspector's report," designed only to give a graphic
description of the stench from open drains) to the 1984 "Indiana
Jones" movie with its bizarre fantasies about Indian dining
customs. Stereotypes such as these have kept India from being
better understood in the United States, and perpetuating them is
not in the interest of either nation.
This is what being a scholar has taught me. As for what my
religion has taught me, it is that religion, any religion, is
like a mother. It has made us who we are and is there for us to
better ourselves and the world around us. To use the name of a
great religion as a synonym for vileness, as a few scholars have
done in this debate, is not just unscholarly, it is very
hurtful. I am tempted to say to them, what you are doing here is
savaging the mother of a civilization.
Vamsee Juluri is an associate professor of media studies at the
University of San Francisco and the author of "Becoming a Global
Audience: Longing and Belonging in Indian Music Television,"
(Peter Lang, 2003).