Seeking Change in How Hinduism and Ancient India are Taught in California: A Glimpse into HAF’s Efforts

For the past decade the Hindu American Foundation has been actively involved in reforming California’s curriculum on Hinduism in an attempt to make sure that educational content in the state is more accurate and inclusive. The approach has been multifaceted. HAF has:

  • Educated key stakeholders and the public at large about the problems with how Hinduism and Ancient India are taught.
  • Spoke out against inaccurate and inequitable portrayals through public comments and testimony.
  • Built and leveraged relationships with key stakeholders, including children and parents, educators, academics, and policy makers.

Timeline of HAF’s Involvement in reforming California curriculum

2005-2006

  • HAF actively participated in the textbook adoption process after it was extended by the SBE.
  • HAF sued the State Board of Education (SBE), and won on procedural grounds. The judge found that the SBE utilized illegal procedures when adopting educational materials on Hinduism. This, in turn, forced the SBE to revamp its entire adoption process and outline in detail every aspect of the process, including more clear-cut deadlines and public notice requirements.

2009

  • HAF submitted extensive comments on the proposed curriculum framework as it pertained to the teaching of Ancient India and Hinduism, as well as contrasting with the way other major religions were taught. The adoption was abruptly abandoned due to the state’s budgetary crisis.

2014-2016

2017

Given that California has the highest Hindu American population in the country, HAF continues to work with Hindu American community members, groups, interfaith allies, publishers, and education officials to ensure that textbook materials on Hinduism are equitable, accurate, and culturally competent.

FAQs: The State of Affairs Post-2017 Hearings

How has the way in which Ancient India and Hinduism are taught in California schools been improved?

While far from perfect (in part due to grossly outdated Content Standards mandated by California law and the persistency of colonial-era narratives), the way in which Ancient India and Hinduism will be taught has seen significant improvements in five major areas:

Inaccurate, stereotyped, and exoticized images and captions removed

Inaccurate, stereotyped, and exoticized images and captions depicting Hinduism and India as poor, primitive, weird, and dirty have been removed and will be replaced with more appropriate images depicting Hinduism as a lived tradition. The Frameworks adopted in 2014 also require removing the common graphical misrepresentation of the “caste system” as a pyramidal hierarchy. All publishers will need to make sure their textbooks comply.

Ancient Indian origins presented as ongoing debate

Textbooks will better reflect that the origins of Ancient Indians and information about their civilization is the subject of both ongoing research and rigorous academic debate. Textbooks previously presented the outdated, race-based “Aryan Invasion Theory” (AIT) as fact (the teaching requirement of the AIT was mandated by the Content Standards approved by the California legislature in 1998). The new textbooks will take into account that AIT has been debunked, based on new linguistic and archaeological evidence, and colonial era terminology stemming from race-based Orientalist theories such as “Aryanism” and “Brahmanism,” has largely been replaced with phrases such as “Ancient Indians,” “Early Vedic,” or “Early Hinduism,” which are phrases more commonly used in modern scholarship.

Core concepts about Hinduism and Jainism explained better

Inadequate or inaccurate descriptions of core concepts and scriptures in Hinduism have been significantly improved upon. For instance, some texts did not even include explanations of dharma, the central foundation of Hindu life. Now they all do. Textbooks will also contain more accurate details about basic Hindu concepts, including karma, moksha, and yoga, and more respectful and accurate descriptions of scriptures such as the Vedas and Upanishads.

In terms of specific sections that adversely reflected on Hinduism, one textbook draft that was rejected by the State Board described the Vedas as a book of “spells and charms” and “secret rituals.” Similarly, the same textbook completely ignored the Upanishads, while misquoting passages from the Bhagavad Gita. Another textbook (also rejected), characterized Indo-Aryans “as people who enjoyed making war” and Indra as the “god of war.” Such interpretations of ancient texts, according to the academics who weighed in, were inaccurate and better material was available to provide students an understanding of the civilization and Vedic ideas.

Additionally, after Jainism was first added to the Frameworks in 2016, textbooks have added accurate descriptions of Jain concepts and philosophy. For example, a section on Jainism from one textbook states in part, “A main characteristic of Jainism was the idea of ahimsa, which is nonviolence to all life. As such, Jainism encourages vegetarianism. The path to enlightenment in Jainism comes through nonviolence.”

Indian societal structures described with greater accuracy and nuance

Textbooks now provide students a framework to distinguish between Hindu religious teachings and Indian social practices, as they relate to Indian social structures, by explaining the difference between varna and jati. Varna is best understood as the Hindu understanding of four personality types based on gunas or inherent qualities, while jati are the thousands of social groups which developed and commonly coalesced around occupation. Textbooks also better describe the historical evolution of Indian society, and how over time, its class structure shifted from being fluid to more rigid, and how perceived notions of hierarchy impacted Indian society. Textbooks will teach about the discrimination and oppression faced by various segments of society, within the appropriate historical timeframe. Textbooks will also specifically mention the contributions of Hindu figures from diverse backgrounds, such as Hindu sages Vyasa and Valmiki, and contain information about the Bhakti movement and other movements that both shaped Hindu practice and sought to eradicate social evils such as caste-based discrimination.

The syncretic relationship of Hinduism with other Indic religions depicted

Most textbooks have removed comparative language which presented Buddhism, Jainism, and Sikhism only in direct opposition to, and in some instances, improvements upon, Hinduism. Historically, and through current times, while there has been occasional social and political conflict between the various communities of Indic faiths, the larger story is one of peaceful coexistence, shared values and cultures, familial bonds through inter-marriage, and syncretism, including commonly worshiping at one another’s temples, and sharing and celebrating religious festivals together.

One textbook draft, for example, previously stated: "During the 500s BCE some Indians felt unhappy with the many ceremonies of the Hindu religion. They wanted a simpler, more spiritual faith...Some seekers developed new ideas and became religious teachers. One of these teachers was Siddhartha Gautama…"

The group of 38 leading academics pointed out that this way of framing the development of Buddhism inaccurately painted a picture of Hinduism not being a "spiritual faith," in spite of Hindu spiritual movements that both predated and were contemporaneous to the time of Buddha. They also stated that the draft language ignored the existence of ceremonies and rituals in Buddhist practice.

In addition to textbook needing to be accurate the California Standards for Evaluating Instructional Materials for Social Content requires that the Framework and textbooks need to avoid “adverse reflection,” which can result when a religious group is portrayed as inferior.

In addition to inaccuracies, HAF and other groups have also raised an issue about adverse reflection. Could you provide specific examples on how textbooks may have adversely reflected on India and Hinduism and why this is a problem?

California Education Code sections 51501 and 60044 prohibits “the State Board of Education and local school boards from adopting any instructional material for use in schools which contains any matter reflecting adversely upon persons because of their race, color, creed, national origin, ancestry, sex, handicap, or occupation.” The Standards for Evaluating Instructional Materials for Social Content have further clarified that to avoid “adverse reflection,” “No religious belief or practice may be held up to ridicule and no religious group may be portrayed as inferior.”

Much of the adverse reflection was rooted in the images and captions selected for use by textbook publishers. For example, there was an image of monkeys working alongside Indian laborers and an obscure hunting scene with two barechested, loincloth-clad men standing in waist deep water wearing headgear made of dead herons. There were also pictures of cows eating trash, young girls carrying manure, and a photograph of a religious procession with the caption, “This image shows a ceremonial procession. This type of event may have been a way for upper class landowners, merchants, and spiritual leaders to make themselves look more important in society.”

The overall impression created by such exoticized imagery was further compounded by the fact that there was very little historical context — modern photos are juxtaposed with sketches or artwork — all in a section on “Ancient India.” Where chapters move from Ancient India to Mahatma Gandhi in a matter of 7-8 pages, the takeaway for most students is that India and Hinduism are weird, primitive, and dirty.

Schools can only teach about religion as opposed to teach religion. How did you ensure that your edits did not cross the line?

Textbooks had been unacceptably inaccurate and biased—especially in contrast to the way other civilizations, cultures, and religions are taught, so providing edits to reflect Hinduism as it is lived and practiced was critical to achieving the end of accuracy and, in turn, improved religious literacy. To this end, HAF worked with academics and educators for our own submissions, and supported only academically-vetted edits and corrections submitted by a group of 38 leading academics of religion and history that addressed inaccuracies, brought parity to the way Hinduism is taught in contrast to other religions, and suggested changes in order to reflect modern scholarship.

Did others support your campaigns and those of the Hindu community? If so, who?

Approximately 700 supporters (not all of whom spoke because of time constraints), representing a broad interfaith and inter-ethnic coalition, attended the hearing on November 11, 2017 in support of the community’s quest to have Hinduism and India represented accurately and equitably in textbooks. The coalition included preeminent organizations, such as the Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Association, California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, NAACP, Anti-Defamation League, Silicon Valley Interreligious Council, as well as major Indian and Hindu American cultural, social, linguistic, and religious organizations. It included immigrant Hindus from Fiji and the Caribbean and of all caste communities including Dalits. A number of elected officials also supported the community’s quest for accurate and fair representation.

It’s difficult to estimate the exact number of supporters across the country, but there were over 12,000 letters that were sent from California based community members and parents alone and 14,000 signatories to a petition to the SBE asking for accuracy and equality in textbooks.

Some groups have accused Hindu community groups of attempting to whitewash the textbooks by “erasing” certain aspects India’s history, such as caste, amongst other things.  Have you?

No. Roughly 30% of textbook drafts and 10% of the Framework sections on Hinduism and Ancient India contain discussions dedicated to caste. The assertion that caste or its history are being erased is simply not supported by the facts.

Our diverse coalition, which has Hindus from all backgrounds, including Hindu Dalits, only asked that the complexity and evolution of caste be explained and that the contributions of Hindus of all backgrounds be acknowledged.

More importantly, the challenges and discrimination that so many Scheduled and Other Backward Castes face today, and have faced in the past, are real and must be addressed. Furthermore, the issue in the textbooks is not about caste in modern India, but about how caste developed in the Indian subcontinent over the centuries. To say that the construction of caste today has been the same for many centuries is not only inaccurate and false, but goes against virtually every major piece of scholarship and historical records on the issue.

Moreover, it is important to note that Hindu community organizations, often led by leaders from so called “lower castes,” asked for the spiritual traditions and contributions from sages and saints from so called “lower caste” communities to be included and that Hinduism should not be stereotyped and essentialized.

Please also read this piece which offers an excellent perspective on some of the false accusations of HAF and other community groups of erasure: The Myth of Erasure

Did HAF submit any specific edits in this last phase of the process?

In the last phase of the textbook adoption process, HAF, along with all major Indian and Hindu cultural, social, linguistic, and religious organizations, supported the recommendations submitted by a group of 38 well-respected academics who asked for the rejection of three problematic publisher programs and suggested corrections to another textbook draft. The SBE accepted IQC’s decisions to reject two of the three publisher drafts that we had sought rejection of and accept many corrections that were submitted by the academic group.