Argue away India and its Hinduism! And replace with ‘South-Asia’!

By: Prof. Ramesh Rao

I have taught since 1987 across four states and in four universities in the United States. I have a son, who is thirteen, and who comes home fretting about what is taught in school about religion and history. Next year, entering high school, he will take an AP course in History, which will include references to the “Aryan Invasion”, “caste”, “Brahmins”, and “untouchability”, among other references to the nature of Hindu spiritual/religious traditions, and social divisions and practices. Teaching the very complex and ancient but living traditions and the history of Indian civilization will be by teachers who have little knowledge about the area and its profundities.

This rot runs deep. While I was teaching at one university I found out that the Mahabharata and the Ramayana had been included in the readings for a “World Mythology” course but there were no texts included from Christian, Jewish, and Islamic “mythology”. My colleagues, with the requisite terminal degrees, were willing to compromise for political and ideological reasons to categorize Hindu texts as mythology but were unwilling or afraid to include Muslim, Jewish, and Christian “religious” texts. They claimed academic freedom, but when I asked them to consider academic integrity, I was met with haughty silence.

So, the contours of the California textbook controversy therefore are not unsurprising. It is the same old combination of deracinated Indians, religious groups inimical and profoundly opposed to the great Hindu traditions, and Left/Marxist academics who, trumpeting the cause of those they say are discriminated, are willing and eager to use their political axes to grind Hinduism and India to size if not out of existence in California. “We will go where the evidence leads us”, they claim, cherry-picking history and the complex dynamics of the present to push forward their political agendas.

These are powerful groups, and members of the “South Asia Studies” faculty have programmatically sought to argue away Hinduism and India. Thus, it should not have come as a surprise to me when I was recently comparing textbooks on intercultural communication (for students in the third or fourth year of college) and considering which textbook to adopt for teaching an online course on the subject.  In one of the books, I was shocked to find the following description of Hinduism:

“Hinduism is an inegalitarian, practice-based religion….  Unlike Christianity and Islam, Hinduism is not monotheistic (i.e., purporting a belief in a single god) and has no organized worship.  Hinduism is practice based rather than faith-based, which means that practices — which are often social — are more important than beliefs. Jeff Spinner-Halev writes: ‘Hinduism is concerned with legitimizing hierarchical social relationships and mollifying deities, not with faith or belief….  Unlike most of the Western approaches to ethics, Hinduism categorically denies that people are equal and practices a rigid caste system.  A caste is a social ordering hierarchical system in which people are ranked.  Hinduism prescribes strict rules and regulations about how one is to act within one’s caste level.  In some cases, the lower caste may not be allowed even to interact with the higher caste.  In India’s caste system, there are four levels: (1) Brahmins — the learned, educated elites, and priests; (2) Kshatriyas — the noble and warriors; (3) Vaishyas — the traders, businessmen, and farmers; and (4) Sudras — those who serve the needs of the upper-caste members. The Sudras are further divided into the touchable and Untouchables.  The untouchable take on positions considered demeaning and polluting by the upper caste, such as barbers, hairdressers, or cleaners.  The untouchable Sudras are considered spiritually polluting and perform jobs such as garbage collecting. Hinduism prescribes that one is born into a caste level and it is virtually impossible to move from one caste level to the next — that is, from lower to higher levels.  In Hindu society, men and women are clearly not equal.  The birth of a son is a blessing while the birth of a daughter is met with misgivings.  She is a financial burden to the family”.

That was it!  No yoga and meditation, no Bhagavad Gita or the Shad Darshanas, no discussion about the influence of Hinduism on art, music, architecture, and dance in India, Southeast Asia, and also now in the West, and absolutely no mention of how some of the great American minds – Emerson and Thoreau, William James, and Huston Smith – responded to Hindu thought and belief.

In a book on intercultural communication, where the goal is to enable students to learn about other cultures this crude, simplistic depiction of Hinduism is what students read.  That such a description of Hindus/Hinduism could be presented in a textbook which went through numerous reviewers’ hands indicates the level and the kinds of bias that infect the work of some scholars in the United States in the humanities and social sciences. These authors did not just happen, by chance, figure out what to say about Hindus and India. They have been fed this “knowledge” since their middle school days. This prejudice, this bias, and this deliberate campaign to malign Hinduism are what are in play in the California textbook case. Nothing more, nothing less.


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