Whose religion is it anyway?
California school books are up for grabs by Hindu-baiters.
Whose religion is it anyway? California school books are up for grabs by Hindu-baiters. By Ramesh Rao Just as we thought that debates about Indian history, Hinduism and the nature of the Indian polity had been effectively buried by the efforts of Arjun Singh in India and that Indian Americans who had been incensed about a variety of academic and media presentations on these matters had fallen silent through fatigue and disappointment, we have a new controversy on hand. It is the old controversy but in a new context. This time it is because of the depiction of India's ancient history and India's Hindu religious and spiritual practices in school textbooks for use by sixth grade school children in California. Hindu-American parents and activist groups had been able to participate in the procedural deliberations for review of the sixth grade social studies textbooks by California's School Board of Education (CSBE) and had been able to leverage their locus standi as Hindus and as parents residing in California for the SBE to initiate the review and accept some of the changes proposed.
Then the spoilers came into the picture and at the last minute, a petition by Harvard's Wales Professor of Sanskrit, Professor Michael Witzel, with about forty-six co-signatories, landed on the desks of the members of the CSBE. Defamatory in content and mocking and disparaging in tone, it scared the CBSE into halting the review process and call for a reappraisal of the process. The letter disparaged the Hindu parents and activists as the American handmaidens of Hindu nationalist groups in India. The Hindu nationalists, the petition charged, had sought to "rewrite" history and that the heinous project was derailed by the expert and active intervention of secular, academic and objective "South Asia" scholars. On the Indo-Eurasian Research List, managed by Michael Witzel and Steve Farmer (a long time associate of Professor Witzel), they charged that the expert historian that the CSBE ad hoc review committee had hired, Professor Shiva Bajpai, had Hindu nationalist sympathies.
Known for his abrasive and sarcastic put-downs on various India-centred discussion lists, Professor Witzel had inserted himself into a variety of debates on these matters in the past. His muscle as an Ivy League professor was sought to be leveraged by the US-based RSS/ BJP baiters who wrote him asking for his quick intervention in California's school textbooks vetting process. The petition indicates that the detractors knew little about the nature of changes proposed and reviewed by the CBSE. Yet, it did not stop them from calling those who had sought the changes "Hindu nationalists" who sought "politically motivated changes".
What the CBSE does not know is that the person who has drafted the petition has previously disparaged the most sacred of Hindu practices and mocked and derided those who sought to do independent work in the field. What was also not known to the CBSE is the penchant of this person to play hard and fast with facts as it pertained to those whom he had accused publicly of being amateurs but privately had invited to do their doctoral work in his Ivy League institution.
The details in this saga are many and most of them not very edifying. What is important though is the fact that it is a matter concerning a minority religion (Hinduism) and the cultural context and practices in ancient India portrayed and explained for sixth grade students in an American school system. Hindu traditions of scholarship and public debate, we know, were based on careful, vigorous, skillful and expert debate. So, by tradition, Hindus should have no objection to anyone - insider or outsider - studying Hinduism or criticising Hindu traditions and sacred texts. The question here, however, is whether such debate, in the US, should happen in graduate school or in sixth grade classrooms where the teachers themselves are most often untrained and inexpert in matters of "world religions" and "world cultures". Discussions should happen where students can distinguish fact from opinion and by those trained to make sophisticated and nuanced observations. School children are not experts on religion and cannot be expected to make such distinctions. Should it, therefore, not be the case that the process of writing textbooks is guided by neutral and sympathetic scholars and not by biased and hostile ones?
The Hindu groups' request for review of the textbooks was no different from the request by Jewish Americans. The CBSE accepted the changes recommended in the description and explanation of Judaism. Accordingly, California sixth-graders "will soon learn that Romans, not Jews, crucified Jesus". The Jewish lobby points out that because of its intervention, students will also learn that "the biblical story of Exodus commemorates national liberation, not Jewish tribal unity; and that the Jewish God is a god of justice and mercy, not just reward and punishment".
A news item in The Jewish Times (17 November 2005) says, "when the California state board of education voted… to adopt new social studies textbooks for elementary and middle school students, it required nearly 1, 000 edits and corrections to be made to the materials". Alas, we now know that with the intervention of the Ivy League expert, the changes about Hinduism and Indian ancient history will be decided by the CBSE behind closed doors and under pressure mounted by Professor Witzel and despite the changes accepted after due process by the ad hoc review committee.
The politics is going to be vicious because the chief petitioner has previously expressed bias against Indian immigrants to the US and stereotyped them as "lost" and "abandoned" people. His hostile and scurrilous imprint is all over the Internet and yet those who have co-signed his petition have done so without an inkling about the nature of the changes proposed and the changes accepted after review. Professor Witzel has defined NRIs as "Non Returning Indians", Hindus in North America as "HiNA" - punning on the Sanskrit hina (meaning low born, lowly) - and caricatured Hindu parents in the US training their sons and daughters in Indian classical music and dance as being unaware of the status of dance and music in India in feudal times.
The CBSE and California Department of Education guidelines stipulate that religions and cultures of minority groups be taught in such a manner as to instill a sense of pride in every child in his or her heritage. Does this not make it imperative that the textbooks are not only written to aid this effort but also that scholars who influence the writing of textbooks share this view? The petitioner and his "blind" co-signatories seem to imply otherwise. The co-signatories (among whom are well-known Indian scholars) can be labeled "blind" simply because they were not aware of any of the information contained in the sixth grade school textbooks and they were not aware of the changes sought by Hindu-American parents and activists in California.
One of the signatories of the letter even has a personal interest at stake and ethically, it should have been incumbent upon him to either tell the CBSE of his conflict of interest, or should not have signed the petition. Ironically, this expert had accepted the changes recommended by the CBSE (there is a letter by the publisher of the school textbook confirming this), but now has put his thumbprint on a willful petition to reconfirm membership in the "school of experts". Should academic honesty and academic integrity be discarded just because the controversy revolves around Hinduism and Indian history?
The "experts'" petition refers to the bloody riots in Gujarat in 2002 and cleverly and diabolically seeks to insinuate that the Hindu parents and activists of California who have sought changes in the school textbook are ideologically in bed with the murderers and rapists in Gujarat. This is the kind of political skullduggery that we may expect in Washington DC or in New Delhi, but should we countenance such vile and vulgar practices by academics? The "expert" petitioners also assert that "the revisions that Hindu nationalists are now trying to force into California textbooks have been soundly repudiated in the last two years by Indian educators…." What they don't tell the CBSE is that the Supreme Court of India decided that the changes introduced by the National Democratic Alliance government were not motivated by Hindu nationalism.
That the professor and his comrade-in-arms who have drafted the California petition have acted in concert before and have mocked and insulted Hindu practices and traditions earlier, is not a private matter. It is splashed all over the Internet, despite their efforts later to wipe their slates clean of such material. Their exchange below on the meaning and impact of the word Om is an example of their sense of humour and their scholarship:
Professor Witzel: "Many short mantras (the later biija mantras) like oM have humble origins in the Veda. Him (hiM) is used in the Veda to call your goat … and your wife. Cheers." Steve Farmer: "What if you want to call your goat and your wife simultaneously…?" Steve Farmer: "I will try it on my girlfriend tonight."
As Hindu-Americans, we should be extremely concerned in these days of political and religious upheaval and programmatic proselytism, about how our faith, practices, beliefs and traditions are presented to the rest of the world and especially to our children, many of whom have come home with heads bowed and ashamed because their teachers or textbooks imply that we Hindus don't observe ethical, spiritual and enlightened cultural and social practices. Therefore, the formula should be simple for what our students read and learn in schools: "Explain and describe our history and traditions in the same way that other religious/ cultural/ historical traditions are explained and treated". Is this too much to ask for without being vilified as extremists, militants and worse?.