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How Does California Teach about Hinduism?

How Does California Teach about Hinduism?

Author: Vamsee Juluri
Publication: San Francisco Chronicle
Date: March 6, 2006
URL: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2006/03/06/EDGU9GJCQH1.DTL&hw=hindu&sn=014&sc=247

State textbooks contribute to ignorance about Hinduism

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.

I therefore 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 naïve 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).

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