In the 1990s, historians Gary B. Nash, Ross Dunn, and the late Charlotte Crabtree helped to establish the National Center for History in the Schools, the organization that would create the National History Standards.
However, what was a labor of love for educators passionate about a comprehensive understanding of world history, turned into an ideological battle, with right-wing activists accusing the standards of being an “indoctrination.” Nash, Dunn, and Crabtree faced enormous backlash, and many states ended up capitulating to conservative activists. They later wrote about their experience in the tell-all History on Trial.
But in the wake of the battles over the National History Standards, a new effort to understand history from a multicultural lens emerged. Some of this approach was marked by a genuine attempt at inclusion, while some of the sentiment behind it seemed to reify the idea of diverse cultures being tokenized within classroom curricula. Indeed, the term multiculturalism became panned by the early 2000s because it was seen as a condescending approach to accommodate diversity, rather than a genuine attempt at inclusion and understanding.
In states with rapidly diversifying populations, culturally competent instructional content isn’t just about political correctness; they’ve become demographic necessities. School administrators, textbook publishers, and teachers have all had to weigh the demands of changing or contested scholarship with the desires of diverse communities that each want stories told their way.
Muslim American groups in the early 1990s began pressing for changes in the way Islam was represented in textbooks and other materials, but after 9/11, they found increasing backlash from groups who claimed a whitewashing of Islam’s sometimes violent contact with other cultures. This wasn’t necessarily just a right-wing backlash, but right-wing groups – primarily those motivated by notions of Christian chauvinism – were the loudest in the fray. Textbook publishers in turn began to steer towards content that was both incontrovertible and innocuous, though in the process they began to dumb-down information at precisely the time when comprehensive and nuanced knowledge was the most needed. Similarly, issues of race, class, sexuality, and gender have all been in the crosshairs of curriculum battles across the country.
The right to define
The most prominent aspect of many of these curriculum battles is the right of self-definition within the contexts of K-12 curriculum, and ongoing — and likely irreconcilable — conflict between academic constructions of various identities versus the interests of those who live them. These battles often begin within academia and in activist circles (or an overlap of the two), but too often get imported into K-12 curriculum, where educators and administrators are often too overwhelmed to deal with the complexities of these debates.
It should be noted that within these rights to define, there has been dialogue and tensions within communities on not only the articulation of identities, but who gets to articulate them.
The Hindu American experience in curriculum reform is admittedly late-coming in comparison to other groups, and it has been impacted by several important factors: the diversity of the Hindu community itself, shaped in part by their concentration in states like California and Texas; the different perspectives of Hindu organizations on what constitutes education reform; and the politics of the Indian subcontinent that have shaped American ideas about Hinduism for the better part of two decades.
For starters, it’s undeniable that the majority of the approximately 2.5 million Hindus in the United States are either Indian immigrants or the descendants of Indian immigrants, but that majority does not imply interchangeability between Indians and Hindus. In fact, close to 350,000 Hindus come from the West Indies, while a growing population of self-identifying Hindus do not have any South Asian heritage. Even among Indian Hindus, the diversity of culture and language has shaped their experiences in the United States. And despite the overarching media narratives of Hindu affluence, a substantial portion of the Hindu American community are of modest or limited means, ranging from the Gujarati small business owners in Mississippi to the Guyanese blue-collar workers in Schenectady, New York, to the Bhutanese refugees in Alameda, California. The Hindu American experience is diverse, complex, and not unified by a single narrative. Similarly, essentializing the Indian American experience through a Hindu-centric lens minimizes the contributions of Indian-American Sikhs, Muslims, Christians, Jains, and others who proudly identify with their hyphenated identities.
As such, teaching about Hinduism — already a challenge because it doesn’t fit neatly into the prototypical “world religions chart” — is problematized by the diverse communities of Hindus across the country, and how educational content aligns with their traditions and experiences. Moreover, the teaching of Indian history becomes challenged by what communities often want told from their experiences. Additionally, the changing consensus on certain aspects of Indian history — particularly ancient history — has made publishing content and teaching about India all the more of a challenge. The push for more centralized standards — a la the National History Standards — would have likely helped, but the hyper-politicized nature of education reform, particularly in the age of Common Core, has made that outcome virtually impossible.
The unease with which Hindus feel about educational content stretches back five decades, but the push by Hindu American groups, representing a variety of ideologies and interests, to make their voices heard in education reform is a more recent phenomenon. Some Hindu groups have tried to push for a history that glorifies Indian civilization and claims Hinduism has existed untouched, unscathed, and unchanged for thousands of years. Many others, like the Hindu American Foundation, have long promoted the idea that cultural competency and scholarly consensus don’t have to be mutually exclusive. HAF’s approach, shaped in part by its second-generation outlook, is geared towards a history and depiction of Hinduism that’s simply fair and on par with other religions. In short, there is no “common” Hindu approach to education reform, and the diversity of approaches can be both an asset and a liability, especially when those different voices enter into the same forums at the same time.
But even as different Hindu groups and individuals weigh in on what they believe to be the best way to represent the faith in American classrooms, the politics of homeland continue to loom large in the United States. Sectarian violence in India over the past three decades, highlighted by a violent Sikh separatist movement in the 1980s, anti-Sikh riots in Delhi in 1984, an Islamic insurgency and ethnic cleansing of Hindus in Kashmir in 1990-1991, the tearing down of Babri Masjid in 1992, and Hindu-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002, have all loomed large over the Indian American Diaspora. Even lesser known conflicts, like Sikh-Muslim clashes in Punjab, Hindu-Christian clashes in Orissa, or Christian-Muslim clashes in Assam, have occasionally made headlines in the United States. Sadly, these flashpoints not only have undermined India’s reputation for pluralism, they have impacted relationships among Indian Diaspora communities. The rise of a conservative political movement in India that has used Hindu iconography (often lazily called Hindu nationalism) as a means of rallying voters has also created angst and tension among different Indian American religious groups.
The politics of India, in fact, frequently mobilize groups that have long been antagonistic towards Hindus. Ironically, some of these groups opposed to Hindu efforts at education reform are not uniformly on one ideological side; they are either left wing or right wing, with neither side having a progressive understanding of the lived experiences of Hindus in America. Ironically, Indian American activists who have embraced the term South Asian as a means of including other subcontinental identities often focus their critique on Hindu majoritarianism in India, either oblivious or indifferent to sectarianism in neighboring countries like Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, which have all seen significant violence as a result of religious nationalism.
The 2005-2009 experience
While subcontinental politics have provided a backdrop for the way Hindus – and Hinduism – have been seen in the realm of education reform, most educators and a growing number of textbook publishers already began eschewing prior depictions of Hinduism and India as archaic, offensive, or simply caricature. One teacher in California said she stopped using textbooks after her first visit to a Hindu temple, and her realization that the way her 6th grade students were learning about Hinduism was in direct contradiction to the way it was lived. Teacher education programs and noted historians also began calling for better ways to understand Hinduism as a living tradition whose philosophy transcended social practices in the Indian subcontinent.
In California, however, the state’s history and social science standards of learning were last updated in the 1990s. While the California Department of Education allowed various groups – including right-wing Christian activist David Barton – to provide input on the standards (and subsequent curriculum frameworks), Hindu groups were left out of the process. As such, the California standards of learning for 6th grade guide schools – and textbooks – in the state only requires students to: “discuss the significance of the Aryan Invasion,” “explain the major beliefs of Brahmanism,” and “outline the social structure of the caste system.” The problem is that the Aryan Invasion theory was largely debunked by the 1990s, a point that Dunn made to the CDE’s History Social Science committee during discussions of the revision. However, according to Bradley Fogo of the Stanford History Education Group, the CDE chose to listen to other committee members, who insisted on keeping the Aryan Invasion language. Secondly, the term Brahmanism is a term that emerged from 19th and early 20th century European Indology, and lost its currency among most religion scholars by the mid-1980s. More importantly, no Hindu uses the term to describe the early periods of Hinduism. Lastly, the discussion of caste wasn’t so much problematic as it was the time period discussed and the overemphasis on it in relation to other aspects of Hinduism. Taken together, the idea of Hinduism in 6th grade textbooks becomes reduced to caste, cows, and karma, with the majority of pages dedicated to caste (a term that conflated two separate concepts – varna and jati).
The typical textbook narratives have almost always grossly misrepresented Hinduism.
In the mid-2000s, the Council on Islamic Education conducted an assessment of California textbooks and found that in some, “coverage of Hinduism and Buddhism is folded together in this text, but Hinduism gets the shortest shrift, both in terms of beliefs and practices, as well as history.” They also noted that description of Hinduism was closely linked with Indian social practice without any mention of Hindu philosophy. In their analysis of one textbook, they observed:
Brahmanism is given as an alternative name to Hinduism, and again reinforcing the importance of the caste system, links it with religiosity in Indian civilization after the Aryans. The gods are described and named, and major beliefs include the illusory nature of this world, reincarnation, and the single universal spirit called Brahman. The concepts of karma and dharma are related to the caste system and reincarnation with the goal of moksha, or salvation. The section on Gupta rule and the Mauryan Empire includes their promotion of Hinduism, mentioning that the rise of Buddhism meant the decline in the popularity of Hinduism. The section describes ways in which the Hindu Gupta rulers supported religious development, including Buddhism and Jainism in addition to Hinduism, and again emphasizes the centrality of the caste system to Hinduism and stable social order in the empire. Discussion of women in the Gupta social order links their low status to Brahmanism, stating, “This was not good news for women…” in a rather striking example of tempocentrism.
The Council on Islamic Education wasn’t the only group pointing out these glaring issues. Soon, several Hindu American groups, including the Vedic Education Foundation and Hindu Education Foundation, worked with the CDE to address what they argued were stereotypical and inaccurate depictions of Hinduism and India in textbooks. However, at the behest of South Asian activists based in the Bay Area, a group of professors led by Harvard’s Michael Witzel – who at the time was the leading proponent of the Aryan Invasion theory – wrote to the State Board of Education claiming that Hindu nationalists were revising Indian history. While it appeared Witzel’s group never actually saw the proposed edits, the CDE backtracked on the edits, and brought in Witzel for closed-door consultations.
Over the next few years, several Hindu American groups – including HAF – filed suits against the State Board of Education, claiming that the process through which the backtracking was done violated the state’s open meetings law. The lawsuits produced mixed results. While it forced the State Board of Education to formalize its adoption process and cover legal fees for the Hindu American Foundation, the judge, in spite of the textbooks being adopted through an illegal process, refused to throw them out. Moreover, both the content standards and frameworks remained in place. An attempt to revise the state’s curriculum frameworks was stopped in 2010 by the General Assembly due to the state’s financial woes.
The lawsuits did more than just highlight disparities in the way Hinduism was covered – they led to conversations among educators on how to deal with religious minority communities that had long complained about accuracy. As California’s content standards and frameworks remained mired in the past, more educators – and textbook publishers – looked forward. More schools simply ignored textbooks, while textbook publishers held off on making any new California versions until new content guidelines were adopted.
Curriculum reform in California since 2014
HAF spearheaded an effort joined by teachers groups, and faith and civil rights organizations to pass a bill that would have updated the state’s content standards. The bill, SB 1057, passed almost unanimously in both chambers of the state legislature before being vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown in September 2014. Hindu American community members turned their attention to the resumption of the state’s curriculum frameworks adoption, which would essentially be the document teachers draw from to teach about various subjects. However, as many teachers in California note, it’s a largely ignored document because of its size and lack of clarity.
Still, because California is home to the largest community of Hindus in the country (numbering about 1 million), having an inclusive, accurate, and culturally competent history and social science curriculum would seem like a mandate for the state’s Board of Education. Since the revision process started, HAF and other Hindu American groups – representing diverse views and constituencies – worked constructively with the California Department of Education’s Instructional Quality Commission to ensure a culturally competent and accurate draft narrative was adopted.
It should be noted that prior to submitting any public comments, HAF asked for input from professors of religion and history, so that there was an academically sound argument for why changes were being requested. Given that these frameworks are for 6th and 7th grade teachers to guide their teaching to middle school students, HAF’s requests were in line with academic consensus and best practice pedagogy. Its primary goals were to note that: 1) the origins of Indian history are contested, as evidenced by current scholarly battles; 2) caste in India developed over many centuries and needed to be contextualized for a better understanding of how a social practice arose – often in contradiction to religious teachings; 3) that Hinduism’s core philosophies, including its inherent pluralism, were included in the frameworks; and 4.) that the contributions of women and members of low castes – including important Hindu sages and saints – be highlighted.
We made sure commission members understood our concerns and worked in a constructive and positive manner to ensure that the Hindu American community had a voice in the process. Other Hindu organizations representing diverse constituencies also have been active in the process. While each of the groups have the same goal of seeing a more accurate depiction of Hinduism, the scale and scope of suggested improvements in the frameworks have varied. In other words, the Hindu American community’s involvement in California cannot be reduced to a homogeneous or monolithic effort. Instead, these efforts reflect Hinduism’s diversity and pluralistic ethos.
What made this effort more encouraging was the number of scholars – professors of religion and history – who made independent (or jointly signed) recommendations that aligned with what HAF and other Hindu groups were seeking. These scholars wanted a more accurate, accessible, and culturally competent document that emphasized Hinduism’s role as a living tradition. They also pushed for an understanding of world history as a period of exchange and interaction, and that such interactions must be treated with nuance to respect diverse perspectives and social histories.
Similarly, the Hindu American community’s efforts drew widespread support from a diverse coalition of over 100 interfaith and civil rights leaders, as well as members of cultural and educational organizations, who collectively urged the Instructional Quality Commission in November to represent Hinduism, Jainism, and India accurately and equitably in the framework. The community’s efforts also had the backing of historians, religion professors, and other academics.
In December, the commission released a draft that many felt was closer to becoming a more inclusive document. However, in March, the commission’s new recommended revisions – which included a set of last-minute edits from a small group of South Asia faculty members – undid many of those positive changes and seemed to ignore the recommendations of a much larger body of educators, academics, and community members. These edits maliciously sought to erase Hinduism and India from many parts of the sixth and seventh grade sections of the framework, and relink caste with Hindu religious beliefs, for example. There were two key issues that HAF, other Hindu groups, and even other academics had major problems with: the process by which the edits were accepted, and the political nature of the edits, which seemed to be based on pitch battles happening overseas in India.
One of the primary challenges over the past few months is to communicate what’s really happening: the ideological and political battles within academia and within the Indian subcontinent are being awkwardly superimposed onto American K-12 classrooms. What has been more challenging is that the opposition to a more constructive understanding of Hinduism has come primarily from other Indian-American/South Asian activist groups. Some Sikh groups, for example, which have tried to re-version Sikh theology and present a history of Sikhism completely independent of (and implicitly superior and in opposition to) Hinduism, have charged that Hindus are trying to erase their history. Ironically, those same Sikh groups in this process have pushed for changes that would have whitewashed their own history, including pushing for the removal of the Dasam Granth, a work purportedly written by Guru Gobind Singh, because of its references to Hindu deities. Sikh groups also want their own connection with caste – an issue that is salient to all faith groups in India – removed, while some Dalit groups have pushed for Hinduism to be the sole source of caste and caste-ism.
Similarly, groups and scholars associated with the Indian Left (not to be conflated with progressives) have used the bogeyman of Hindu nationalism to depict any Hindu American group as right-wing. More problematically, they’ve engaged in a shrill and often duplicitous campaign to try to smear any Hindu American efforts at education reform as sinister. From this lens, the Indian Left continues to view Hinduism with skepticism and hostility, and that animosity has made it virtually impossible to have constructive discourse.
Finding space to heal
The politicized nature of the frameworks process, and the activity of South Asian activists and scholar-activists in the Bay Area, have made dialogue and progress even more difficult. Whatever version of the frameworks the State Board of Education chooses, the divisions within the Indian American diaspora won’t easily be reconciled. Some have suggested mediation among groups, and while HAF is willing to discuss anything with any group, such attempts must be reciprocated. Moreover, there needs to be an acknowledgment that in the United States, Hindu American children – regardless of where they are from – are a religious minority and need to feel safe in their classrooms. And their experiences must not be minimized or diminished by others. That would involve reflexivity and a tacit understanding that self-definition doesn’t need to come at the expense of others. In California and across the country, HAF will continue to work constructively for a better understanding of Hinduism, more culturally competent curriculum, and most importantly, fostering a climate where pluralism is the norm.