How To Bring the American School Hinduism Curriculum Into The 21st Century

How To Bring the American  School Hinduism Curriculum Into The 21st CenturyA Western School (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • Some genuine corrections are needed in the way Hinduism is presented to a young American mind. The time to make these corrections is right now.

This week, the California Department of Education’s Instructional Quality Commission is set to make recommendations on a history and social science framework, which, if approved by the State Board of Education in May, will define the way diverse histories are taught for the next decade or longer.

If reading the sentence above put you to sleep, please wake up, and read the following:

A new world religion, Sikhism, was founded in 1469 in South Asia. Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak, a social reformer who challenged the authority of the Brahmins and the caste order.

At first blush this may seem anodyne. But it is quite wrong to characterize Hinduism (represented here by Brahmins) in this way just to set Guru Nanak up as a reformer. Not only were there reformers other than Guru Nanak (like Sage Basava) who remained Hindu, but Guru Nanak is himself highly regarded by Hindus to this day. It is also gratuitous to draw so specific a negative contrast to present Sikhism in a positive light. How about,

Sikhism was founded by Guru Nanak, a social reformer who challenged religious authority and social inequities. 

See? Much better.

Now read the paragraph from Dr. Balaji’s piece again:

This week, the California Department of Education’s Instructional Quality Commission is set to make recommendations on a history and social science framework, which, if approved by the State Board of Education in May, will define the way diverse histories are taught for the next decade or longer. 

I care deeply about this issue not just as a Hindu and a member of the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), which is doing so much of the work to critically examine and comment on the frameworks language, but as a California parent whose children will be impacted by these decisions.

If it is valuable to teach children about the diversity of thought and faith in our world then we need to acknowledge the real and sometimes awkward trade-offs this involves between accuracy, parity, focus, and ultimately humility in only being able to introduce to our children the flavor of these topics, knowing we can barely scratch the surface but hoping they will all be inspired to study them in greater depth on their own someday.

Hinduism and its place in the curriculum is somewhat unique in its ability to elicit massive amounts of poorly informed vitriol. Thus activists recently took to Twitter with the hashtag, #donteraseourhistory, to claim that the Hindu American Foundation and others were seeking to somehow “whitewash” Hindu history. One particular tweeter noted, “I don’t understand the need to whitewash the past. To dumb down history. To hide gray areas and nuance.” This is wrong on so many levels.

First, no one is talking of whitewashing - one should read what HAF is actually proposing, and why, to get a flavor for how unmoored this critique truly is. I’ve cut and pasted the entire relevant frameworks passage from page 41, showing the HAF suggested insertions in bold and deletions in strikethrough. In this particular case, the edits were for accuracy as much as fairness. There are forms of ostracism and disadvantage beyond untouchability alone used to isolate individual Jatis (hence, inaccurate to say “outside the Jati system”), and the comparison of caste to slave-holding society ultimately obscures the salient and defining features of either.

As in all early civilizations, Indian society witnessed the development of a system of social classes. Ancient Indian society formed into self-governing groups, jatis, that emphasized birth as the defining criteria. Jatis initially shared the same occupation and married only within the group. This system, often termed caste, provided social stability and gave an identity to each community. The Vedas also describe four main social categories, known as varnas, namely: Brahmins (priests); Kshatriyas (kings and warriors); Vaishyas (merchants, artisans, and farmers) and Sudras (peasants and laborers). A person belonged to a particular varna by his professional excellence and his good conduct, not by birth itself. In addition, by 500 CE or earlier, there existed certain socially ostracized and economically disadvantaged communities o̶u̶t̶s̶i̶d̶e̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶j̶a̶t̶i̶ ̶s̶y̶s̶t̶e̶m̶,̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶“̶U̶n̶t̶o̶u̶c̶h̶a̶b̶l̶e̶s̶,̶” who did the most unclean work, such as cremation, disposal of dead animals, and sanitation.
Relations between classes came to be expressed in terms of ritual purity or impurity, higher classes being purer than lower ones. This class system became distinctive over the centuries for being especially complex and formal, involving numerous customs and prohibitions on eating together and intermarrying that kept social and occupational groups distinct from one another in daily life. Over the centuries, the Indian social structure became more rigid, though perhaps not more inflexible than the class divisions in other ancient civilizations. When Europeans began to visit India in modern times, they used the word “caste” to characterize the social system because of the sharp separation they perceived between groups who did not intermarry and thus did not mix with each other. C̶a̶s̶t̶e̶,̶ ̶h̶o̶w̶e̶v̶e̶r̶,̶ ̶i̶s̶ ̶a̶ ̶t̶e̶r̶m̶ ̶t̶h̶a̶t̶ ̶s̶o̶c̶i̶a̶l̶ ̶s̶c̶i̶e̶n̶t̶i̶s̶t̶s̶ ̶u̶s̶e̶ ̶t̶o̶ ̶d̶e̶s̶c̶r̶i̶b̶e̶ ̶a̶n̶y̶ ̶p̶a̶r̶t̶i̶c̶u̶l̶a̶r̶l̶y̶ ̶u̶n̶b̶e̶n̶d̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶s̶o̶c̶i̶a̶l̶ ̶s̶t̶r̶u̶c̶t̶u̶r̶e̶,̶ ̶f̶o̶r̶ ̶e̶x̶a̶m̶p̶l̶e̶,̶ ̶s̶l̶a̶v̶e̶-̶h̶o̶l̶d̶i̶n̶g̶ ̶s̶o̶c̶i̶e̶t̶y̶ ̶i̶n̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶A̶m̶e̶r̶i̶c̶a̶n̶ ̶s̶o̶u̶t̶h̶ ̶b̶e̶f̶o̶r̶e̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶C̶i̶v̶i̶l̶ ̶W̶a̶r̶,̶ ̶w̶h̶i̶c̶h̶ ̶c̶a̶n̶ ̶m̶a̶k̶e̶ ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶“̶c̶a̶s̶t̶e̶”̶ ̶l̶a̶b̶e̶l̶ ̶o̶f̶f̶e̶n̶s̶i̶v̶e̶.̶ Today many Hindus, in India and in the United States, do not identify themselves as belonging to a caste. Teachers should make clear to students that this was a social and cultural structure rather than a religious belief. As in Mesopotamia and Egypt, priests, rulers, and other elites used religion to justify the social hierarchy.

Second, it is not dumbing down history to be realistic about what a sixth grader with a few weeks to spend on a subject can be expected to learn. The tweeter is apparently unaware that his interest in and engagement with caste in Indian history as an Indian diasporic male with the context and capacity to read widely will necessarily differ from that of a 10 year old child of any ethnicity with two weeks to spend on Indian history as a whole. In fact the same 10 year would have more time in class (as the tweeter suggests) to read about American slavery and the California Missions as these are multi-year topics.

Third, HAF wants not an overly glossy version of Hinduism, but one portrayed with parity. The frameworks actually do a great job of this in many places, with language that places societal characteristics in their context, e.g. “Over the centuries, the Indian social structure became more rigid, though perhaps not more inflexible than the class divisions in other ancient civilizations.” It would be downright invidious to highlight negative aspects of Hinduism, shared with many or all religions, without highlighting these comparisons, as if describing a uniquely grotesque tradition.

At its heart, the HAF effort is not about essentialising the complexity of Hinduism or “whitewashing” history, but simply fairness and cultural competency. Look at the frameworks, what is being proposed, and the support HAF has received from a coalition of academics, community leaders, and inter-faith partners, and judge for yourself. Greater accuracy, nuance, and parity, in a subject that historically has lacked these, can only benefit all of our children.

Comments

Latest Articles

    Artboard 4Created with Sketch.