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Hindu month in California and the lessons from the textbook controversy

Dr Koenraad Elst June 29, 2013 Analysis/Insights 1 Comment
Hindu month in California and the lessons from the textbook controversy
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Already the younger generation asks what the California textbook affair was. Now that California has been endowed with a Hindu awareness month (in a resolution co-authored by the Hindu American Foundation, , the first one scheduled for this coming October, Hindus are enthusiastic that they will be able to show off their culture. But past experience shows that Hindus are not good at selling Hinduism, both 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.

The California textbook controversy

During the cold part of 2005-2006, the Hindu community in the USA lived in expectation of a school history textbook reform in which Hinduism would get a fairer deal and no longer be reduced to hateful stereotypes. All it took was to use the opportunities provided by the system, viz. to propose edits that were historically and philosophically impeccable and then focus the attention on the dimension of equal treatment in the textbooks for all religions. After all, Christian, Jewish and Muslim lobbies were having a decisive say in the portrayal of their own belief systems, with the irrational or inhumane points whitewashed or kept out of view. Given the fashion of multiculturalism and cultural relativism, it was in the fitness of things that the judgmental Christian account of Hinduism would now be replaced with something more objective, even with a Hindu self-description. But that was not to be.

Two Hindu organizations, the Hindu Education Foundation and the Vedic Foundation, handed in a list of edits they proposed to be made to the extant Hinduism chapter. Some of these alarmed a handful of anti-Hindu pressure groups and a few like-minded academics, among them Michael Witzel and Stanley Wolpert. They pressured the California Board of Education (CBE) to reject the “Hindu communalist” proposals. Though entering the fray as accusers, they were then invited to sit in judgment upon the controversial edits. This led to Hindu protests, and after everyone had his say, the CBE let Witzel and pro-Hindu emeritus professor Shiva Bajpai work out a compromise. Where they did not agree, viz. on most of the really controversial points, the CBE kept the old version, or in other words, it rejected the Hindu alternative. All the anti-Hindu lobbies cried victory. So did the HEF, pleading that 70% of the proposed edits had been accepted. Yes, but those were only the non-controversial points. Wherever an edit had really been debated, the Hindu proposals had been overruled. Briefly, it was a smashing defeat for the Hindu parents.

The anti-Hindu hate group Friends Of South Asia observed in its comments on the proposed edits, they show a replacement of philosophical with religious views, e.g. substituting “God-realization” where the textbooks had “self-realization”. If there is any victory in there, it is that of a sentimental anti-intellectual Hinduism over the more mature (though more ancient) and more skeptical Vedic philosophies. To the enemy’s glee, the edits, while totally impotent in their pretence at replacing the established anti-Hindu views, were successful in settling some intra-Hindu scores. The most demeaning trends in modern Hinduism joined hands, esp. the Arya Samaj cum ISKCON adoption of quasi-Protestant monotheism, hence several replacements of ‘gods’ with ‘God’ or ‘various manifestations of God’, obviously stemming from an aversion to or embarrassment with the polytheistic term ‘gods’. Apart from being untruthful, such attempts at covering up Vedic polytheism are also downright silly for being hopelessly transparent and unconvincing. Any Christian or Muslim seeing a Diwali display (Saraswati, Lakshmi, Ganesha) will recognize Hinduism as polytheistic and idolatrous par excellence, and any denial of it in Hindu-dictated textbooks will only add the extra impression that Hindus are liars.

As the Wikipedia (California Textbook Controversy) points out: “The subcommittee approved some 70 changes but it rejected proposed major revisions from VF and HEF on monotheism, women’s rights, the caste system and migration theories.” Wikipedia is not always reliable, but it is a good measure of the dominant opinion. In this case, it also happens to be truthful.

Hindu claims of victory

One of the odd things about the California textbook controversy is that the Hindu side refused to face its defeat. They went to Court to overrule their defeat at the CBE, then still refused to face their defeat at the Court. I made quite a few enemies by simply pointing out the fact of Hindu defeat. I am giving my feedback in order to spare Hindus a repeat of such defeats. But it seems some Hindus prefer more defeats to a critical analysis of where the past defeats came from.

The best proof of the Hindu humiliation is that a group of Hindus went to court to get the CBE decision judicially overruled. They set up a pressure group, California Parents for Equalization of Educational Materials (CAPEEM). In the phase called “discovery”, where both parties have to make available all documents in their possession demanded by the court, mostly at the request of the other party, some facts on the anti-Hindu lobby came out that ought to have been incriminating. A CAPEEM spokesman reported that a lot of evidence of the close cooperation between the court-appointed “experts” and anti-Hindu groups including Evangelical Churches and terrorist groups came to light.

But that was not enough for CAPEEM to score a courtroom victory regarding the political issue at stake here, viz. the blatant inequality between the Abrahamic religions and Hinduism, which alone gets to suffer a schoolbook description imposed by its declared enemies. For a standard opinion, we may quote from Wikipedia again: “On February 25, 2009, the California Federal Court dismissed all CAPEEM claims and demands regarding content, and (…) the Court left the schoolbooks untouched. On June 2, 2009, the Court finally dismissed the case, with prejudice, meaning it cannot be raised again. (..) With this ruling the case was closed, nearly 5 years after the fact.”

The painful fact remains that all the suspense and the huge expenses incurred for the court proceedings could have been avoided, not by swallowing defeat but by achieving victory and justice to Hinduism in an earlier stage of the proceedings, free of cost. Namely, the edits proposed could have been crafted to such effect that they would have won the day, rather than having been such easy targets, indefensible even during litigation.

Even after the CAPEEM defeat, many Hindus continued to claim victory. On the Abhinavagupta yahoo list, late March 2009, a US-based Hindu wrote to me: “You considered the outcome of the Hindu protests in the above controversy as a complete failure. But I wish to make the record straight as it is better to give the facts rather than making sweeping statements like you have done. We have been successful in correcting some of the horrendous mistakes. Instead of continuing the AIT as it is, the Witzel group was made to accept that the there are two points of view: the foreign origin of the Aryans and the indigenous origin of the Aryans.”

Well of course, there is no indication that the Witzel group ever doubted the existence of the indigenist theory. Only, they think it is wrong as well as politically motivated. He went on: “Though we could not get the AIT / AMT [Aryan Migration Theory, the velvet version of the AIT] deleted, the SBE president Glee Johnson announced that all textbooks will mention the contested nature of the AIT /AMT.”

During a mass meeting, all Hindu parents could come and utter their complaint. They were appeased with sweet words and promises by the SBE spokespersons, only to see it all disregarded in the SBE’s final decision. Note that this gullible Hindu doesn’t quote the actual textbooks, doesn’t prove (or even care to verify) that these promises have materialized. Hindus can be made happy with mere words. The American Hindu continued: “Further the Vedas will be mentioned as Sacred texts instead of calling them as poems, in spite of the opposition from the Witzel group. The gods and goddesses will be mentioned as deities. I hope these three points alone will show that the Hindu protest was not in vain like you wanted to project it.”

Those two points are non-issues. Whereas Hindus apparently can be made to believe that there is a huge difference between ‘gods and goddesses’ and ‘deities’, as big as that between victory and defeat, Witzel c.s. are perfectly aware that these are simply synonyms. If Hindus are silly enough to treat as victory the replacement of a term by its synonym, all the better will they swallow real defeats. As for the Vedas, they are both poems and sacred, in the sense that there are people who revere them. This is a matter of observable status, not of history. Again, no controversy there, so no victory.

The elevation of the Vedic poems to the status of ‘sacred texts’, while descriptively alright, is not that innocent either in the intra-Hindu quarrels. What is meant here, is that the Vedas are not of human origin but are a kind of Quran written by God Himself. In fact, the Vedic hymns are explicitly in the form of human poets addressing the gods (plural), contrary to the Quran where the imagined Allah is addressing His prophet or, through him, mankind. The Vedic poets’ names are given in the Anukramanis and sometimes even mentioned or cross-referred in the hymns themselves. Composing poetry and chanting it was a profession that required payment, so we even have Danastutis in which poets by way of thanks praise their sponsors. Allah never did such a thing. But modern Hindus don’t want to stand upright next to the Vedic poets, freethinkers who never crawled before ancient texts but composed their own. They want to crawl, to turn off their own thinking faculty and rely on texts, much like Christian Creationists. The great thing about Hinduism, at its best, is that it does not ultimately idolize a text but reveres a multiplicity of seers, a type of people that can be born anywhere and at any time. Modern Hindus could be seers, but instead they choose to be scripture quoters, or even just scripture worshipers. At any rate, their enemies do not feel defeated by this denial that the Vedas were compositions by poets.

So I stand by my diagnosis. On all substantive points, the Hindu position was soundly defeated, the Witzel side totally victorious. But by messing up this unique chance at improving the textbooks within the limits of what was possible and at establishing the Hindu community as a trustworthy partner of the education authorities, 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.

The Hindu unwillingness to face facts, not just the complicated fact of the Aryan state of the art but even the very straightforward fact of total defeat, does not bode well. Such denial of reality in an individual would be deemed pathological. Here it affects a great many members of the Hindu community. This fact should be the stuff of some serious soul-searching.

A prediction

It is not as if they hadn’t been warned of this perfectly predictable outcome. All through this process, I knew and wrote that the Hindu side was sure to be defeated. On the IndianCivilization yahoo list, in early November 2005, immediately after the proposed Hindu edits for the CA textbooks became known, I diagnosed some crucial ones among them as wrong and as not having a chance to pass. The enemy can get away with lies, but the power equation is such that Hindus cannot. The smallest mistake they make will be fully and cruelly exploited by the enemy. The enemy was mobilized, and the Hindu proposals doomed, by a mere handful of less-than-impeccable edits:

1) To pretend that the Aryan invasion theory (AIT) has been discarded, was simply untruthful. The Hindu foundations could simply have stated that the issue of Vedic origins is disputed. More importantly, they could have delinked the origins of Hinduism from any theory regarding any “Aryans”, for, as Shrikant Talageri has convincingly argued, even the AIT itself accepts that a large part of Hinduism is of “indigenous”, non-Aryan’ origin. But they had been misinformed by OIT triumphalists, whose “little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. The Hindu tendency to make false claims of victory was one of the causes of the defeat. Several of the edits were premised on the assumption that “the AIT has been disproven”, that “nobody believes in it anymore”, so that the Out-of-India Theory (OIT) has come out victorious. It is these edits which had drawn the attention of Witzel’s group and set the ball of the controversy rolling. Now, the assumption is simply not true. There are strong arguments against the AIT and in favour of an Indian homeland scenario, alright, but AIT proponents tenaciously swear by certain types of evidence (horses, chariots) which the Indian homeland theorists have not yet convincingly accounted for. In fact, till today, many Indo-European linguists don’t even know about an contemporary Indian homeland theory. In Leipzig, Germany, an Indo-European conference takes place coming December, and from the call for papers it transpires that the organizers only know about the East-European and the Anatolian homeland theory, both of them amounting to an AIT for India. Moreover, in a debate, as distinct from a physical war, a party is only defeated when it concedes defeat. As long as it doesn’t concede, the debate is still on. Now, it is simply a lie to pretend that the AIT has been abandoned by everyone. It is defended pretty vigorously by powerful academics, as the California Hindus were to find out.

2) To insist on presenting temple worship as “monotheistic” was untruthful, or at least an unwarranted generalization. First of all, with their hazy knowledge and presumptuous notions about other religions, Hindus don’t know that “monotheism” amounts to more than “belief in one God”. The Greek word monos does not mean “one”, it means “alone”. It refers to the “jealous God” who does not tolerate another. If Hinduism believes in such a God, Hindu claimants should have come equipped with scriptural quotes to this effect: “For the greater glory of Shiva, smash the statues of the false god Vishnu!” Failing this, Hindus will have to admit that even their theism is a different type of religion than monotheist Christianity or Islam. The claim that Hinduism believes in only one God, albeit an inclusive rather than a jealous God, is, to put it charitably, an unjustified generalization.  While I have learned in the ensuing discussions that there is such a thing as Vaishnava monotheism, exemplified by ISKCon (Hare Krishna), fact remains that many Hindu temple-goers worship plural gods and experience them as plural rather than as faces of a single “God”. The Vedic seers worshipped many gods, 33 in Yajñavalkya’s count. Some Vedic hymns are addressed to “Mitra and Varuna”, others even to “all the Gods”. If Hinduism is monotheistic, then the Vedic seers were not Hindus.

 3) To resort to weasel expressions like “different but equal” in order to deny the inequality of men and women in Vedic and later Hindu society was silly. And likewise for any hushing up of caste inequality. Instead, it would have been more correct to acknowledge that deliberate inequality was a feature of every single premodern society. Instead of being defensive, Hindus should have aggressively demanded that, as inequality was a feature of the other religions too, the textbooks should explicitly discuss it. At any rate, a certain rewording of the existing text in this sense would have been justified. But anything that even smelled of caste negationism was sure to backfire. Or have NRIs 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? Moreover, while Muslims are known as violent, Hindus are likewise stereotyped to be hypocritical, and articles about caste never fail to mention upper-caste hypocrisy, so being caught as whitewashing the Hindu record on caste is fatal. Again, certain corrections were possible, but denying caste inequality was inviting trouble.

4) To insist on the Hindiwallah form “Buddh” instead of the proper Sanskrit form “Buddha”, accepted in English and in most Indian and foreign languages, was boorish, fully living up to the stereotype of the backward Hindi belt. While not important in itself, this spelling betrayed the lack of alertness to the public’s standards, and the limited horizon, nay the wilful self-centredness of certain Hindutva circles.

Hindu scholarship

There is also a political background to be taken into account. The charge of “history falsification” sounds very familiar in Hindu contexts because of the much-publicized effort by the BJP government in India to effect glasnost (openness) in the Marxist-crafted schoolbooks. The BJP badly mishandled the textbook reform process in India (2002-2004), a horror show of incompetence. The textbook overhaul under Murli Manohar Joshi ended in embarrassment, ridicule and an ultimate massive strengthening of the Marxist hold on the textbooks. The BJP had set a precedent and associated Hindu advocacy with history falsification in the minds of the public, a mental impression that could easily be spoonfed to ignorant outsiders like the California Board of Education.

At a Hindu history-rewriting conference in Delhi IIC in January 2009, the usual wailing could be heard about the anti-Hindu bias in the textbooks. No mention was made of the fact that the BJP had been in charge for six years and that the textbooks had been changed already, only so miserably that the subsequent Congress-Communist combine had no problem at all in justifying a return to the anti-Hindu textbooks. The conference had no session on: “What did we do wrong?” This time around, I suggest that all those involved in or cheering for the CA textbook edit proposals face their own failure and do some honest soul-searching.

In the 1990s, under Sita Ram Goel’s guidance, an alternative Hindu school of history was emerging. Today, most people involved (Harsh Narain, AK Chatterjee, KS Lal, BR Grover, Goel himself) have left this world, and their precious legacy has been mismanaged and squandered. They have not been succeeded by a new generation of historians. MM Joshi and his acolytes in India and the USA have a lot to answer for, but they carry on regardless.

The Hindu defeat in the textbook controversy was nearly inevitable. Hindus have not invested in scholarship, so they can not pick its fruits. Let’s talk a language that successful Hindus will understand: organization, and money. They like to boast of their success in business, how they are the wealthiest immigrant community in the US, how India is becoming a superpower, and all that. But they spend their surplus money on other priorities than scholarship, such as bribing the powerful: whether the gods, by building temples, or the ruling party. They also fund anti-Hindu scholars, feeling flattered that somebody wants to study India at all, and not having the basic discernment to tell friends from enemies. At any rate, the bottom line is that they still haven’t spent any serious money on pro-Hindu scholarship, yet are surprised to find that all scholarship is in enemy hands.

They also talk a lot about “organizing”, after the RSS fashion. The RSS mouthpiece is called Organiser, and their philosophy is that Hindus have all along lacked nothing but organization. Well then, organize a contemporaneous scholarly institute to carry out the research needed for your aims. Not one that you dictate to what it should find, but one that is guided by the realities it discovers. Better still, insert scholars sympathetic to the Hindu cause in mainstream institutions, as the enemy does. But if you are not willing to make the effort and put the money on the table (or squander it on wasteful court cases ending in total defeat), then expect to be defeated again and again. I am reminded of SR Goel’s observation: “The RSS has a pickpocket mentality, they hope to get things on the cheap.”

Conclusion

Whoever will take charge of the “Hindu awareness month” should remain aware of the experiences with textbook reform. Those who took the initiative to propose the edits were religious people with limited knowledge of the way of the world, esp. of contemporary American sensibilities. They surely meant well, but if they had applied their minds to the question of how the American authorities would react, they could have foreseen the opposition they encountered. Whoever will take similar initiatives in the future will need to impress upon himself and on all his supporters that good intentions are not enough. The hostile power equation imposes serious constraints, which were ignored this time by the naive Hindu religionists. But the situation is not all-suffocating and leaves room for manoeuvre to those who know how to play by the rules.

 

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About The Author

Dr. Koenraad Elst : Belgian Author and Orientalist :A Graduate in Philosophy, Chinese Studies and Indo-Iranian Studies at the Catholic University of Leuven. He frequently returns to India to study various aspects of its ethno-religio-political configuration and interview Hindu and other leaders and thinkers. His research on the ideological development of Hindu revivalism earned him his Ph.D. in Leuven in 1998. He has also published about multiculturalism, language policy issues, ancient Chinese history and philosophy, comparative religion, and the Aryan invasion debate.