Does history matter? Or shall we all decide to forget about this vast world altogether, numbed by our gadgets and greedy little worlds of meaningless consumption and survival?
We must ask ourselves such questions and remind ourselves because history is not merely about memorizing names and dates and regurgitating them at an exam. It is about the foundation of the story that we build around ourselves, for ourselves, and for others. Without a sense of who we are, and how we relate to those who came before, we are not what we are meant to be at all, in a spiritual, social, or political sense.
I respect the history classroom and care deeply about what is taught in it for reasons that are personal and professional. I was fortunate to have had a history teacher in the eighth grade who said, this might be Shiva, in the Indus Valley, and these are the reasons for this theory to be prevalent, rather than that one. She could just as well have said “class, by-heart (memorize) these dates and names,” and left it there. But she didn’t. She taught us that history is about reason, debate, nuance, and ultimately, about expanding our present, and our future.
And years later, when I read Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj in those fear-filled days after 9/11, I could see why the discourses of the political Right and academic Left, with their invocations of eternal civilizational conflict and noble resistance to American global capitalism respectively, both lacked something human in them, something of the truly historical. If one story was nearly mythic in its Crusades-and-cruise-missiles way of viewing the world, the other was lost in its narrow calculus of good and bad identities too, with the roles simply reversed. Was this history? Was this the only way we could teach history, by reducing human beings to some alien-imposed categories of “identity”?
When I teach Said and Todorov in my Global Media class, that is what we learn to critique in media discourses; a deep-rooted denial of the humanness, the sentience, the agency of the other. We discuss how Columbus spoke about the natives having “no language” and not a “different language.” We see Vasco da Gama’s utter inability to grasp a world outside of his simplistic Christians versus Muslims worldview. We see, ultimately, destruction, and the struggle of human beings everywhere to rise from it and build life and something like civilization once more. If it sounds too hopeful, it is because that is what I think education must ultimately leave us with, especially the young. We must not hesitate to teach them what is wrong, but we must also give them the resources to imagine for themselves what is right.
India and Hinduism in California Textbooks
What does this have to do with the way India and Hinduism have been depicted in California textbooks? Despite their supposed determination to fight caste, gender, and other forms of inequality and injustice, a group of South Asia studies scholars have brought us, in my view, to the edge of an intellectual, moral, and cultural abyss. They are poised to leave California’s children with an account of world history in which the nation, civilization, and vast legacy of life and love known as India will be presented as a mere piece of empty geography, populated occasionally with characters out of some bad movie like Apocalypto or Indiana Jones.
The thousands of Indian-origin American children whose parents build and run Silicon Valley’s businesses, and California’s hospitals, restaurants, schools, and colleges, are about to be left with an even bigger hole in their sense of self than what the old textbooks did. It is hard enough to “fit in,” as one might say, explaining the complexities of Indian identities in a society learning only recently to live with and understand diversity (“Do you speak Hindu”? “Are you untouchable? Do you practice the caste-system?”). What are the terms of reference these textbooks will leave children with? Do they reflect anything of India’s sense of past? No. They will probably now have to feel, after all the new deletions, confused, hesitant and apologetic to even say “ancient India” or “Hinduism.”
It is one thing for academicians to ironic-air-quote-mark words like “Hindu” in their university classrooms and conferences, and quite another to deny a twelve year old child the right to belong to a simple name his parents, grandparents, and a whole community has poured its life and labor into.
How will an Indian-origin child in America answer the question now of “who am I?” That is the most important question really.
Don’t Erase India!
There has been much disinformation and spin emanating ever since I initiated, along with several other scholars, a petition expressing our concern that a branch of the California Department of Education (CDE) had accepted several radically common-sense shattering and fundamentally unsettling edits to the California History–Social Science Frameworks from a group of South Asia Studies scholars.
In November 2015, a group of 15 South Asia Studies scholars wrote in with their recommendations to the Instructional Quality Commission (IQC) of the CDE, suggesting, among other things, that the word “India” be replaced with “South Asia” in most references before 1947, and the word “Hinduism” be replaced with “religion of ancient India” because, according to them, there were no signs of Hinduism being an organized religion before the 13th CE.
I respect my colleagues in academia as scholars and human beings and will not quibble about their intentions. But I will however say that the facts reveal a very different picture from what they seem to think they have been doing here.
What is Really at Stake Here
One, the changes recommended by the South Asia Studies faculty and accepted by the California History–Social Science Projects (CHSSP) in March do raise serious concerns about the rush towards denial and erasure of whole identities in the classroom; minority identities, at that.
Let us take a hypothetical example. For whatever reason, if a group of scholars with expertise on “West Asian Studies” decide that Christianity wasn’t called Christianity in its early days, so its name should be changed to “West Asian Religion.” Where would it leave children from around the world who have a Christian heritage and would like its history presented respectfully in the classroom? Or the names of all references to every country changed to a sterile geographical category every time a history lesson talks about them before they became modern independent nation-states?
That is effectively the fate of “India” and “Hinduism” in the California history curriculum.
When the acceptance of these suggestions by the CHSSP in early March led to an uproar, all sorts of excuses and damage control tactics began to circulate in the media; India isn’t really being erased, it’s just because Indus Valley lies in Pakistan and we can’t call it “Ancient India,” our opponents are casteists and so on.
The truth though is in plain view. The changes made by the South Asia faculty go far beyond merely respecting the present location of the Indus Valley. They include changes like replacing a line about “India and the Muslim world” having experienced prosperity to the “Islamic civilization stretching from the Mediterranean sea to the Indian Ocean” having experienced prosperity. It included whitewashing of imperial conquests by changing a line about Central Asian Turks’ conquest of “Northern Indian states” to a mere “expansion of territory across the Indus river into Northern Indian plains.” Clearly, these moves suggest a worldview closer to the colonial ideology of “terra nullius” rather than any concern for the powerless and the oppressed.
Second, the allegation that “Hindu nationalist groups” have been trying to rewrite history and sanitize caste and gender oppression distorts the truth about what several students, parents, and community organizations have been really trying to accomplish here.
The Positive Truth about India
Nearly three-quarters of the edits submitted by the Uberoi Foundation, Californiahindus.org, the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) and Hindu Education Foundation (HEF) in the present review process have more to do with including positive facts about ancient India and Hinduism (something that the CDE might actually have a duty to do according to state content standards about respecting diversity and cultural heritage). Virtually all of these suggestions were rejected.
So students will learn that caste was rooted in religion (although the same scholars who insisted on this point also argue that there was no “organized religion” called “Hinduism” before the 13th century) and that women and men participated in religious ceremonies “but not as equals.” The IQC had attempted to introduce in the draft the names of Vyasa and Valmiki as examples of revered sages who were not born as Brahmins, but that point was deleted upon the recommendation of the South Asia Studies faculty.
Three, despite all the media smear campaigns that have accompanied the California history textbooks controversy for nearly a decade now, the fact remains that the suggestions made by Hindu scholars and community groups have for the most part remained within the realm of reason and scholarly conversation. In the hundreds of submissions made over the past few months, we do not see fanciful demands of the “ancient Indians had flying chariots” sort.
By all means, the debate on languages, migrations, and “origins,” can continue respectfully on the sidelines of the school history curriculum process, and perhaps one day scholars will agree that indeed many Indians are really from India, and did not invade and occupy it in 1500 BCE!
Until that happy day comes, can we not even add a line in the curriculum cautioning students that the old Aryan invasion theory (or some euphemistic equivalent) that exists in most history books today is being questioned? Or is it better for thousands of children to continue to grow up thinking that modern Hindu Americans have more in common with Hitler’s Nazis (see my earlier article in India Currents on Wendy Doniger and the need to decolonize Hindu history) than the meditating Shiva-like icon of the Harappa civilization?
Is it really an assault on reason and academic rigor to add in a sixth grade lesson plan that modern-day Hindus would recognize elements of their religion in various artifacts of the Indus Valley Civilization such as tree-worship (a suggestion that was rejected)?
The dominant paradigm in academia about Hinduism has a problem and it is avoiding addressing it. Fundamentally, it views Hinduism much as the 19th century colonial racists did—as a savage essence, redeemed and improved upon only by the Mughals and the British, and India as a non-entity, at best a bunch of “plains” that got “expanded” into and civilized up to become a part of the “Islamic civilization stretching from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean.” I hope, sincerely, that my respected colleagues will reflect upon the need to engage in an honest debate on these issues, and give thought to the 12 year old child who will have to live with the aftermath of their theoretical interventions for the rest of his or her life.
Imagine yourself as that child, as you walk into the temple in Livermore or Pasadena, and you see the truth of Indian civilization before you, alive and reborn in this promised land, in this America you take for granted as a home for both who you are and who you want to become. Imagine your instinct grasping the diversity of what is around you, in the pantheon and in the community, taking in the deities who might be children, or women, or men, or even monkeys and elephants, or just abstract symbols, but they are always smiling, always approachable in your mind, as devotees walk around, speaking a variety of languages, just one before the divine, in whatever form they choose …
But your history teacher has not taught you how to relate this immense, rich and diverse cultural world you know intimately with your American education.
In your mind, you will have to reduce it to nothing more than rituals and the caste-system, because that’s all the books will say; not that the Vedascontained the “Gayatri Mantra,” which students chant to this day as an invocation to intelligence, not that the Bhakti tradition produced the “Hanuman Chalisa,” which fills the halls of America Yoga and kirtan culture from coast to coast, nor that Hindu philosophy recognized religious pluralism at a time when intolerant monotheisms slaughtered people for merely calling God by another name. No, none of that is permitted by the dominant paradigm in South Asia Studies apparently, and therefore the children of California will have to once again continue to suppress their hearts and minds, and be forced to choose between the India they know and the fiction of India that the American classroom wants them to know.
I am an Indian who fell in love with America at age 12. In time, I came here, made my home and life here. Each year, I stand before students fresh out of high school, and I see a sense of hope renewed for the world, as pessimistic and despairing as our social-justice infused lessons about what is wrong with the world might sometimes be. We dream, together, of a day when the media and the culture of our daily lives will have better stories about who we are, and go beyond simplistic narratives about consumerism-driven (or political agenda-driven) identities. Today, as we await the California Department of Education’s final decision on the History–Social Science Frameworks, I can only hope that young Indian Americans will not be forced to choose between their parents and their teachers, or their past and their future, and this long nightmare brewed in nothing more than ivory tower snobbery will at last end.
(Read more about the issue at www.scholarsforpeople.org. Several documents noted in this essay including the South Asia Studies faculty letters and summary of changes accepted by the CHSSP are available in the Resources page)
Vamsee Juluri is a professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco and the author of Rearming Hinduism: Nature, Hinduphobia, and the Return of Indian Intelligence (www.rearminghinduism.com)