South Asia Scholars, The Hindu Debate And The Death Of Nuance In California

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Hindu groups, including the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), have worked for over two years with the California Department of Education’s - Instructional Quality Commission (IQC) to revise the Social Science and History Framework for middle school textbooks in a manner that treats Hinduism on a par with other ancient religions and civilizations.

The debate over the depiction of Hinduism in school textbooks has now come to California. Hindu groups, including the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), have worked for over two years with the California Department of Education’s - Instructional Quality Commission (IQC) to revise the Social Science and History Framework for middle school textbooks in a manner that treats Hinduism on a par with other ancient religions and civilizations.

In this process, groups such as HAF are being accused of seeking to “whitewash” history. I seek to show here that in reality, what we are witnessing is the death of nuance at the hands of those who publicly swear by it. An Orwellian drama where a radical, illiberal left that dominates academic and activist circles with respect to India and Hinduism is pretending to victim-hood and resorting to misrepresentations and innuendo to smear groups such as HAF.

On 19 May, 2016, the IQC heard testimony from nearly 200 academics and lay persons and ruled largely in favor of the Hindu American community’s edits, but a number of key issues remain unresolved. Because a final decision will only be reached in July and because school textbooks are the only place where most Americans will formally study Hinduism, it is important for a wider public to understand exactly what is transpiring in the golden state.

The attempt to replace “India” with “South Asia” has received plenty of headlines. The depiction of the caste system is also a major bone of contention. In their latest submissions to the IQC, the South Asia Faculty Group (SAFG) and the activist group South Asian Histories for All (SAHFA) contend that:

  1. Hinduism is inseparable from caste-based discrimination, which has been a feature of the religion right from the beginning
  2. HAF is looking to erase the experience of Dalits and other low castes
  3. An implied assertion, which follows from their positions, is that there are no nuances or ameliorating features in Hinduism that are relevant to middle-school textbooks in America

Origins of caste

The SAFG’s first letter to the IQC explicitly claimed evidence for both a caste hierarchy and untouchability in the Rig Veda itself. A backlash caused them to take a more circumspect, but still incorrect, position in their latest filing where they held the Rig Veda to be the “likely progenitor” of the caste system and reiterated that it would be “inappropriate to remove the connection” of caste to Hinduism. But HAF and its allies never sought to remove caste from the frameworks. This can be seen both from HAF’s detailed recommendations (expanded further here) as well as the latest set of recommendations from the Social Sciences and Religion Faculty Group (SSRFG), which HAF has endorsed fully. The SAFG, academicians one and all, have invented this out of thin air.

The SAFG’s latest submission clearly backpedals on the Rig Veda claims. They don’t explicitly say so, but in using the phrase “likely progenitor” instead of “contains evidence of a hierarchically organized society” they have effectively granted HAF’s position that a birth-based, hierarchical caste system is not present in the Rig Veda, something that I have argued in detail here. The caste system did indeed become hierarchical and based on family of birth, but that developed over many centuries, and is not intrinsic to the practice of Hinduism.

Ignoring evidence against birth-based caste in the scriptures

Contrary to SAFG and SAHFA’s claims that Hinduism’s sacred scriptures prescribe a birth-based caste system, there is actually direct evidence that caste was NOT based on birth.

The idea that different individuals of the same family can have different varnas and that individuals had a choice of varna are actually present in the Rig Veda itself, some examples of which can be found here. Even more powerful is the Vajrasuchi Upanishad. Dated by some sources as late as 8th century CE, is unique in that it addresses the single question - “Who is a Brahmin?” and proceeds to give an answer in stark contrast to the caste system as described by the SAFG.

The Upanishad goes as far as to say that, leave alone one’s family of birth, even scriptural knowledge is not adequate to make one a Brahmin and that only actual experience of one’s own divine nature through meditation suffices. This is a clear and definite articulation of the core teaching of Hinduism in an Upanishad written on the subject of caste and clearly holding family of birth to be irrelevant to Brahmin-hood.

The Mahabharata, another text referred by the SAFG, also has many verses which affirm that one’s varna is not determined by birth. That a shūdra with the qualities of a Brahmin is a Brahmin, while a Brahmin with he qualities of a shūdra is a Shūdra, and that the wise consider character alone as the primary factor in deciding one’s Varna (Mahabharata 3.177.20-32)

Conflating texts of social law with sacred scriptures

While the SAFG is ostensibly focused on evidence for caste that is found in Hindu texts, they conveniently ignore a central feature of the Hindu epistemological tradition, which is distinguishing two categories of texts - (i) the “srutis” which consists of texts such as the Vedas, and which largely confined themselves to enunciating the eternal teachings of the tradition, and (ii) the “smritis” which are texts of social law and practices and are considered subordinate to the “srutis.”

A hierarchical, familial, and discriminatory caste system can indeed be found in the latter texts such as the Manusmriti. HAF has never denied this reality in Indian society, only that smriti texts are not the source of the spiritual teachings of Hinduism and very few Hindus are even familiar with these texts today. Smritis are defined by tradition itself as being limited by time, space, and circumstance, and numerous smritis have been written over the centuries.

In fact the Indian constitution plays the role of a smriti in many aspects of life for Hindus in India. This remarkable bifurcation of social issues (smritis) from deeper spiritual teachings (srutis) finds no mention in the frameworks or in the SAFG’s linking of caste with Hinduism.

Attempting to trace Untouchability to Hindu Scriptures

Untouchability is the most repugnant form of caste-based discrimination and still afflicts many parts of India. As HAF has previously affirmed, caste-based discrimination of all kinds, and especially untouchability, can and must be ended. But it is bizarre for the SAFG to trace untouchability to the Rig Veda, a text that was compiled some 2000 years before the phenomenon of untouchability arose.

Even texts such as the Manusmriti make no mention of untouchability. In his book The Untouchables – Who were they, and why they became untouchables, Dr. B.R. Ambedkar clearly states that there was no untouchability in the time of Manu and traces the rise of untouchability to somewhere between the 2nd and 6th centuries CE, while the Rig Veda was composed no later than 1500 BCE. While acknowledging that Indian society, including its religious elites, undoubtedly practiced untouchability during the medieval period, there is simply no sanction for this practice in Hindu scripture, something the frameworks should acknowledge in the interest of accuracy.

Denying Hinduism’s record of producing saints from the low castes

The SAFG and SAHFA go out of their way to deny Hinduism’s long history of producing saints and sages from the lower castes, probably because this would strike at the heart of their claims about caste and Hinduism. The SAFG submission claims that both Veda Vyasa and Valmiki are Brahmins, the former on the basis that his father was one (despite the mother being a fisherwoman) and the latter on the basis of being addressed as “O Brahmin” in the Valmiki Ramayana.

Ironically, this only strengthens HAF’s claims. Hindu tradition does indeed consider Valmiki and Vyasa as “Brahmins,” despite their birth among the “low castes” and on account of their conduct and achievements. SAFG’s claim would only be supported if both men were born Brahmins. The SAFG attempts to claim that Vyasa is a Brahmin because he was fathered (out of wedlock) by a Brahmin. But the very same Mahabharata treats Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura, the three sons of Vyasa himself, as non-brahmins, two as kshatriyas and one as a shudra. A simplistic assertion of paternal lineage is inadequate to explain the complexities of the Hindu tradition. The Vedas also mention other rishis of non-brahmin origins, such as Kavasha-Ailusha (Rig Veda), Satyakama Jabala and Raikva (Chandogya Upanishad)

SAFG also mentions that members of the Valmiki caste in Britain have protested the depiction of sage Valmiki’s life-story as a robber, thereby questioning Hindu beliefs about Valmiki’s origins. The Valmiki community is officially one of the Dalit communities in modern day India, which leads to one of many conclusions, all contradicting the SAFG’s central thesis of rigid birth-based caste: either Valmiki arose from a “low” caste that has remained low, which would indicate that upward mobility is indeed individually possible; or the Valmiki caste was once brahmin and fell for unclear reasons, indicating that whole castes can actually rearrange themselves in the hierarchy; or the Valmiki story is entirely a fabrication, which then begs the question why the most traditional Hindus--those most attached to the caste system--would invent a story placing a sage they revere in a caste they despise. Thankfully, the IQC sided with HAF on Vyasa and Valmiki.

The SAHFA, for their part, claim that the saint Shri Guru Ravidass, who hailed from the chamar community and who opposed caste-based discrimination, was not Hindu. But Shri Guru Ravidass was the disciple of the 15th century bhakti saint Swami Ramananda, who accepted disciples of all castes (including a Muslim who later became the famous saint Kabir Das) and left behind a large monastic order that survives to this day. Shri Guru Ravidass always revered his teacher and never repudiated him. Further, the songs of Shri Guru Ravidass discuss themes about the nature of God (with or without form) that are well-known theological debates within Hinduism. He frequently mentions the term Sahaj, a mystical meditative state and invokes Hari, one of the names of lord Vishnu.

One can only assert that Shri Guru Ravidass was not Hindu if one literally believes that there is no Hinduism outside of caste and caste-based discrimination. Such a cranky and frankly bigoted view of Hinduism would exclude many of its most zealous proponents and adherents including Shri Basaveshwara, Swami Dayanand Saraswati, Swami Vivekananda, and Mahatma Gandhi. It would also exclude HAF itself. Unfortunately SAHFA seems to believe this about Hinduism--and is trying to insert it into our frameworks.

Denying any mention of caste reform movements within Hinduism

Over the centuries, the Bhakti movement has served a powerful movement for reform in Hinduism, both in terms of theological as well as social issues such as caste. Despite being one of the most important modes of religious expression among Hindus worldwide, it finds no place in the frameworks. Bhakti saints hailed from all varnas and jātis, as did their followers. The SAFG itself acknowledges in their submission that many Bhakti poet saints “were not Brahmins” and that many of them “reacted against the social class/caste system” They however make no efforts to integrate this into the frameworks. Thanks to the efforts of Hindu groups, the IQC recommended inclusion of the Bhakti movement into the frameworks.

Further, the SAFG continues to peddle misinformation about the views of HAF when they state blandly that it is “patently incorrect” to state that belonging to a particular varna is not related to birth. This is a crime searching for a perpetrator because HAF’s position has never been that caste is NOT related to birth. We only contend that it was not based on birth during the Vedic period, and that while it did become birth-based in later centuries, it is a social phenomenon that is not a “foundational religious belief”.

Denying equitable treatment to Hinduism

It would seem to be common sense that Hinduism should be afforded the same treatment as other religions in California textbooks. SAHFA in their submission try to appropriate the importance of evenhandedness by drawing analogies to slavery and native American genocides in the teaching of American history.

But are slavery and Spanish genocides taught as an intrinsic and inseparable feature of Christianity? Over the centuries, biblical verses have been twisted to justify slavery, racism, and the genocide of pagans and indigenous traditions in Europe, the Americas and elsewhere. Numerous Christian missions and missionaries, not just kings, have been guilty of torture and murder of native Americans. Do California’s frameworks for that reason root these social evils in Christianity? HAF is not demanding that caste and caste-based discrimination be stricken from the frameworks, only that they not be shown as intrinsic to the practice of Hinduism.

The SAFG similarly pays lip service to equitable treatment for Hinduism. They even acknowledge that a comparative review may “result in useful adjustments”, but again make no effort to recommend changes that would actually ensure equitable treatment, on the specious grounds that such a review was outside of the scope of their work.

After a comparative analysis of how other religions are treated in the California Framework, the SSRFG pointed out that “the actual textbook chapters that cover Hinduism are almost entirely focused on caste, as if that were the essence of the Hindu religion”. They recommend that if the IQC deemed it important to highlight social issues and attribute them to Hinduism, then it should do so across all religions.

Hinduism is an ancient, complex and dynamic tradition that receives very little treatment in the California Frameworks. HAF has called for this treatment to be guided by accuracy, parity with other religious traditions, and cultural competency.

Unfortunately, the edits suggested by the SAFG and the SAHFA are in some cases inaccurate and in virtually all cases at odds with the treatment of other religions, and thus deeply culturally incompetent.

Offered up by an ostensibly diverse group with actual views of Hinduism ranging from benign indifference to active hatred, their net effect is to destroy nuance by positioning caste as the central feature of Hinduism. Other traditions have participated extensively in self definition in the frameworks; we ask only for the same right.