How Politics, Religion, And Education Intersect In Understanding Religious Sensitivity
Multiple hours of public discussion, thousands of pages of letters, several lawsuits, and public demonstrations around the world have been about several dozen lines in a California textbook.
The debate has gone on for over a decade. It concerns how India and Hinduism is portrayed in Social Studies books. This debate touches on the important power that textbooks have on religion and politics, with far-reaching implications.
The politics of textbooks are fascinating. How you represent information for children will become the foundation for how they interact with those ideas later in life. And there are two places that the debate over textbooks especially matter: California and Texas. Because these are two of the most populous states, the textbooks that are made to shape these states become the textbooks used all over the country. They basically represent the American standards for teaching.
So, what has caused so much tension?
The basic complaint by Hindus, including the American Hindu Education Foundation (HEF) is that previous textbooks have given an inaccurate and disparaging portrayal of their religion. While there are many individual complaints the big three are: the emphasis on the caste system, making the Indo-Aryan Migration Theory seem undisputed, and changing ancient India to Southwest Asia.
Hindus have consistently argued that America’s overemphasis on the caste system and rituals like sati (when the female widow jumps on the funeral pyre of the husband) when discussing the religion. The underlying assumption is really a reiteration of Edward Said’s Orientalism, namely that the “West” looks at the “East” as strange and exotic and focuses on the differences in a way to make it seem foreign and alien, as a tactic for dehumanization for marginalization. Groups like the HEF would like there to be a more measured discussion of those issues and use more neutral language when discussing it. Others claim that these are aspects of Hinduism that exist and need to be explained to give a fair and balanced view.
The Indo-Aryan Migration Theory is about who were the ancestors of India. This is a complicated debate involving genetics, history, archeology, linguistics, religion, and the legacy of colonialism. Hindus argue that the position that ancestors came from another place was used to justify British colonialism. On the other hand, some scholars argue that there is enough evidence to presume that there was a migration. Even the word “migration” is under debate. Previous textbooks have used the word “conquest” and Hindus believe this creates a violent representation of how Hinduism came to India.
Scholars seem evenly split on the last controversy whether to call ancient India Southwest Asia. Some say India does not make sense since it is a modern concept and ignores other nations like Pakistan. Others say this is clumsy and diminishes Hinduism as an ancient and strong form of group identity.
But Hindus are not the only ones that were upset. Textbooks did not emphasis Jainism and Sikhism as originating in India and were barely mentioned. While the California State Education Board has approved many of the changes that Hindu groups have argued for the debate is not over. Some claim that organizations like the HEF are really a branch of Hindu Nationalism, which tries to perpetuate a right-wing form of Hinduism, which is used to cover up the negative aspects of Hinduism and is used to attack Muslims in India.
While the representation of religion does need to be accurate, history is never a universal truth. It is constantly disputed with new evidence or interpretation and the use of historical facts are routinely used to give momentum to a modern movement. If you can control the past you can gain power for the present. And if you can control how the past is viewed you can shape the future.