Thursday, July 04, 2013

Of Textbooks and Hindu Culture


Dear Dr. Elst, 

A friend sent me your article of June 29, 2013 that exhumes the California textbook controversy in an apparent bid to warn Hindus against getting too happy about being granted a "Hindu awareness month" in California.  

In your introduction, you point out  

"Hindus are not good at selling Hinduismboth because they misjudge their audience and because they don’t know their own tradition very well. The California textbook affair was a painful case in point."

I read your article carefully, and while I can completely agree with you that some of the edits presented were weakly or inaccurately worded, I am disturbed now as I was then, at the sheer animus and transparent contempt with which authorities on Hindu culture -- whether they be western academics or Indian intellectuals -- present their critiques of those with whom they disagree.

In your article, for instance, you use the terms "silly" "gullible" given to "weasel expressions" in connection with Hindus -- without specifying whether you extend that to apply to ALL Hindus or just the few engaged in the textbook confrontation.

You excoriate the "NRI community" and ask if they have

in all their years in the West somehow managed not to learn that caste is the one thing that most Westerners know and hate about Hinduism?"

And you make the scathing observation that 

"Hindus have achieved more than just a defeat. They have established for a long time to come the impression that Hindus are untrustworthy, wily schemers with a reactionary and obscurantist agenda."

That, Sir,  is quite a staggering catch-all dumpster to consign the entire community of Hindus to -- you do refer to "Hindus," over and over again, not just the members of the editorial team or those who sought a legal settlement.    

I see the California textbook case as emblematic of a lot more things than the "defeat" of  Hindu activism.  There is a lot more at play in the theater of public perceptions than Hindu ineptness and naivete. I'll give you an instance from a recent program I overheard on a recent Sunday religious broadcast on public television.

A young modern-looking Muslim woman environmentalist was talking about the inspiration for her work.  She said her inspiration was the Prophet himself.  "A lot of people don't know that Prophet Muhammed was the original tree-hugging environmentalist," I heard her say.  How so, the interviewer asked. She said there was a story in the Koran about the time the Prophet hugged a tree and spoke to it as though it were a living entity. Her passion to convey this positive aspect of her faith was evident. I have no opinion on this matter since I have not read the passage in question -- but it is not unreasonable to assume that this might have struck some viewers as a slightly preposterous representation of the Prophet's priorities.

Now, if she had been a young Hindu woman offering a creative interpretation of her scriptural tradition, one can almost guarantee she would have been the butt of much scornful public and private derision in academic circles.  Which is why it seems to me that blaming or despising Hindus for the hateful mindsets of certain worthies at the Universities of Harvard and Chicago -- is somewhat like blaming African Americans for being black.  

I am taking the liberty of copying below an excerpt from my online comments on Outlook in response to the Witzel / Thapar article -- and following that, an oped I wrote at the time that was never accepted for publication. ( No surprises there).

Please know that I hold you in great respect and esteem for your scholarship, your integrity,  and your intensity.  But I don't think I have ever read a piece by you quite like this one, in which the points of substance that you do make are embedded in such a crackling cumulus of anger and scorn. 

Please do me the honor of reading my views below, bearing in mind that I stand outside the fray of intellectual supremacy and scholarly absolutes.  I speak merely as a parent.  

In terms of the actual impact of those textbooks however, I represent the perspective from Ground Zero.  I have observed firsthand what passes for cultural education in public schools. "Defeat" is for those who choose ignorance. Parents like myself will always find a way to educate those who choose differently -- textbook or no textbook.   

With sincere regards, 

Chitra Raman


February 2006

The first question I had after reading this article was-- What exactly is meant by "Hindutva?" To me, the word suggests knowledge, consciousness and pride in what it means to be Hindu. As a parent, my hope is to convey that sentiment to my child. Is that evil?

On St. Patrick's Day at school my daughter is asked to wear green clothes, eat green apples, green doughnuts, read about the tradition, make artwork with that theme. Does this amount to inculcating " Irish ism ?" Or, in order to participate in performances onstage with her class choir, when she is made to sing selections from the Catholic Mass and many other works with an overtly religious motif, should I do a Paul Revere among my fellow Hindus warning of a hidden conversion agenda in schools? Let's shelve the paranoia, shall we?

Professors Witzel, Thapar and their supporters have selectively picked on and repeatedly rehashed for ridicule just a few elements from many changes proposed by HEF and VF. Fine, if certain edits are not entirely acceptable as proposed, let there be further dialogue and investigation of mutually acceptable resolutions; let the theater of debate be opened to more experts with impeccable credentials. And let those who cry "politics" and "hindutva" at every excuse cooperate in keeping unilateralism out of education. 

By harping on politics as being the driving agenda of HEF and VF, and expending much verbiage on "exposing" their "hindutva" affiliations, Professors Thapar and Witzel transparently reveal their own priorities to be political. If it were not so, their article would have focused more upon the specifics of those textbooks, and less on character assassination of the opposition.

I think of the climate in the US after 9/11, when airwaves and print were overtaken by apologists for Islam, when spokespersons for that faith were given a fair opportunity to proclaim Islam a religion of peace, to interpret the Koran in the proper light. Despite all the seething in private, I don't remember anyone from Harvard or anywhere else jumping in with their own selective and subjective excerpts from the Koran. It seems only we Hindus need external help to fathom our own faith and culture, and to tell us who we really are. 

This is not a video game, where a participant can walk off with a higher score and gloat about how many "hindutva" phantoms he slew. These are our kids, and this is our culture. We will not vanish at the flick of a switch. 


February 23, 2006                                                               


Tempest in a Textbook

What exactly is the point of studying history? 

The English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote:

"If men could learn from history, what lessons it might teach us! But passion and party blind our eyes, and the light which experience gives us is a lantern on the stern which shines only on the waves behind."

The current controversy engulfing California’s six-year review of its school textbooks is a classic study in history-induced hysterical blindness. 

Christian, Jewish and Muslim groups had long been providing input under the California Department of Education (CDE)’s provision for public comment. In 2005, two Hindu groups participated for the first time.

Procedurally, the Hindu Education Foundation (HEF) and the Vedic Foundation (VF) did nothing different from the other groups.  But the sandstorm of debate over changes proposed by HEF and VF make some wonder if they were attempting something uniquely insidious. Why else would Harvard Professor Michael Witzel leap out of the super stratum of Sanskrit Studies to save the status quo for sixth-graders?

My perspective on these dueling agendas comes from an awareness of ground realities. As the parent of a middle school student with autism, I know what it means for a child to be different from the mainstream; and how real and imagined differences can affect interactions with the peer group. I know how hard it can be to change a school culture rooted in ignorance – a culture that subtly or overtly designates certain children for condescension, ostracism, and neglect. 

People wrangling over this issue ought to drop to their knees and see eye to eye with a sixth-grade student. Childhood happens once in a lifetime. It should be a time for the formation of ideals, not the fomenting of ideology.  Middle school is when children establish self-worth and find their unique place in the social tapestry. A child from a spiritual tradition intrinsically different from the mainstream is doubly vulnerable to attitudes that might leave her isolated, silenced and adrift. It is therefore essential for the course of study to reflect a thoughtful and non-judgmental approach.

A non-judgmental approach by CDE was very much on display in their calm acceptance of edits submitted by the Jewish, Christian and Muslim review panels.  No outcries of “political motivation” or “whitewashing” impeded the finessing and hairsplitting of text supplied by those groups. No Harvard scholars were summoned to vet the universal acceptability of those edits.

In sharp contrast, a spokesperson for HEF and VF was obliged to defend the edits relating to Indian history and Hinduism -- for several hours behind closed doors -- before an arbitrarily appointed panel led by Professor Witzel.  HEF and VF were subsequently pilloried for their apparent affiliation with “Hindutva” organizations. Some of their edits were derided and rejected in articles, letters and statements to the press by fellow Indians. 

Given the diversity of the Indian Diaspora, differences with the edits were only to be expected. But the scornful, adversarial and defamatory manner in which they were expressed is unfortunate. It makes what should be a constructive dialogue toward enriching educational content into a mean-spirited offensive. In the process, participants often lose all sense of proportion about the fact that this is, ultimately, a conversation about the minds of children.

In a letter to India Abroad, Vijay Prashad  (LettersJanuary 13) sneered at the “banalities of stereotypical greatness” that he believed underlie the proposed changes and stated “Scholars are not in the business of marketing and public relations.”  

I wonder if Dr. Prashad watches television programs on PBS and the History Channel on the tireless quest for archaeological substantiation of Biblical narrative.  I would like to know when he last sat in on a Social Studies class in middle school where the teacher poured reverent unction upon the endless glories of Greek Civilization.  Why must Hindus be singled out as oddly deviant for wanting acknowledgment of the positive aspects of their cultural heritage? 

One recalls George Orwell’s Animal Farm:  “All animals are equal…but some are more equal than others.”

I would urge Indian American parents and conspiracy theorists alike – to actually take the time to examine materials and curricula in American elementary and middle schools.  I looked at a textbook on Asia with a two-page photo spread of the city of  “Bombay.” The picture shows an unpaved street with an autorikshaw emerging from a tangled nest of bicycles and pedestrians; shops are crammed together on either side, there is garbage on the streets, and a cow in the foreground. The following pages have not a single picture of urban development, nor any visual evidence of cultural, ethnic and artistic diversity.  And we wonder why some Americans continue to ask stupid questions about India.
More recently, I sat in on a parent orientation by a 7th-grade social studies teacher greatly popular for his cache of slides and personal travelers tales from the many countries he has visited. This teacher showed slides from EuropeAfrica, the Middle East, and Asia.  When it came to India, he showed exactly three slides: Mount Everest, the Taj Mahal, and a fetid slum behind the Taj Mahal. His comments on India were limited to overpopulation, squalor and poverty. It was not so much his brevity, but his choice of slides that spoke volumes.

It is reasonable to demand that history not be “sanitized” or cosmetically “fixed” in a manner that is dishonest. On the other hand, what if supposedly “objective” teaching involved pouring young minds into the concrete molds of long-held stereotypes? What if negative aspects were selectively presented as the defining attributes of an ancient civilization to the exclusion of other significant information? 

Where the Semitic faiths are involved, schools have no difficulty in separating social evil and religion. A conscious attempt is made to balance the negative with a instances of something redeeming.  Narratives of slavery and segregation are tempered by accounts of courageous activists and social reformers, both Black and White. The “facts” of western history involve repetitive patterns of misappropriation, genocide, enslavement, and other irreversible tragedies visited upon native populations by European explorers. How much of that truth is presented to children?  In fact, the image evoked by the word “pioneer” is one of heroism and self-denial. School texts do not connect certain dots to suggest that exploitation and subjugation of foreign nations for economic gain is the “Christian” way.

In contrast, the caste system often is presented as a central and prescribed tenet of Hinduism, rather than a social injustice perpetrated by Hindus.  While it may be dishonest to pretend that caste discrimination was solved by language in the Indian Constitution, it is not wrong for children to know that the Indian Constitution takes a stand against it. After all, American children do learn that the 13th and 14th amendments abolished slavery and gave blacks the right to vote. In reality, long after those noble intentions were committed to paper,African Americans continued to suffer psychological enslavement and abuse at the hands of whites. 

One of the central limitations of the review process is that no new content may be added in the process of review.  This means that even if the original material is shallow and simplistic to begin with, the best that reviewers can do is to change or omit -- not add.  And so, rather than condemning the HEF and VF outright on the basis of selectively extracted edits, we might consider the possibility that their goal was not todeny certain realities, but to achieve parity of treatment for Hinduism with texts on other faiths.
While on the topic of parity, one of the edits that was criticized relates to the treatment of Hindu women in ancient times. We are reminded of irrefutable proof that women in ancient Indiawere indeed inferior in status to men. The question is, why should this appear as a particular attribute of Hindu culture when it was – and continues to be -- universally true of almost all societies till date? What would account for the peculiar absence of any mention of the status of women in Islam?

The fact is that every religious tradition has a template for the obedient and righteous woman. But anyone who contends that women were not valued in ancient India may as well admit to illiteracy.  Ample evidence to the contrary exists for anyone able to read original texts.  To cite just one example, the ancient work "Tripura Rahasya" attributed to the sage HaritAyanA concerns the worship of the Supreme Being as Goddess.  It has as its centerpiece a brilliant dialogue between an ignorant man and his wise wife, who schools him in some of the most abstract concepts of philosophy.

Finally, we come to the problem of the peripatetic “Aryans.” Did they or did they not invade India?  The question is not what you or I believe, but whether this matters to sixth-graders. Why not introduce them to opposing views on the subject while we await conclusive evidence and / or a truce among scholars?  It hardly matters, since science has formally declared the perception of “race” to be a fiction. The DNA of individuals who look unmistakably African American may reveal up to 80 per cent European ancestry, while others who consider themselves “white” may, in the biological sense, be less than 90 percent European (Scientific American, December 2003)

The late Martin Luther King Jr. remarked in an open letter to clergymen --  “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” (Letter from Birmingham Jail, Apr. 16, 1963, “Why We Can’t Wait” ). 

Fifty academicians filled with the utmost good will signed their support of Professor Witzel’s obsessive intrusion upon matters far removed from his realm; some later admitted they had not actually read the edits that they were supposed to be protesting.  When all the finger pointing subsides, one fact will still stand: If our children lose, nobody wins. 

( End of Commentary)