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Academic Hinduphobia

The sixth-grade classroom in America has become the battle ground for geo-politically charged fights where the anti-Hindu biases of the academicians are ruling the roost. Is the sixth-grade classroom the right place to prosecute an American minority

Academic Hinduphobia
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Academic Hinduphobia
The sixth-grade classroom in America has become the battle ground for geo-politically charged fights where the anti-Hindu biases of the academicians are ruling the roost. Is the sixth-grade classroom the right place to prosecute an American minority culture or a foreign nation?

RAJIV MALHOTRA AND VIDHI JHUNJHUNWALA

The recent California Department of Education’s hearings on sixth-grade textbook portrayals of religions and cultures have triggered conflicts between the Hindu Diaspora and a group of academicians claiming to be “the experts” on Hinduism. Every religion has good sides and bad sides, its “enemies” and its “victims”. However, eleven-year olds are too young and naïve, and most of their teachers are too ignorant, to be subject to incoherent scholarly controversies on foreign politics. Most sixth graders are unlikely to study these religions ever again in their lives. Hence, the impressions created by these textbooks will have a lasting effect in shaping the future of American society.  

The table below compares how California textbooks treat Hinduism and other major religions. 

How religions are treated  in California textbooks
Topic I J C H
Women are shown equal to men? Yes Yes Yes No
Oppression of certain groups is discussed? No No No Yes
Beliefs are considered as historical fact? Yes Yes Yes No
Own leaders’ interpretations are emphasized? Yes Yes Yes No
Treated as a world religion without social/political issues of any foreign country? Yes Yes Yes No

I: Islam J: Judaism C: Christianity H: Hinduism


For example, take the current 'cartoon controversy'. The Danish media claims to be exercising its "intellectual freedom," but their cartoons, it could justifiably be argued, have hurt the sentiments of Muslims worldwide. The sentiments and actual hurt have been hijacked by cynical local and global politics and this has played into the hands of Islamic radicals: violent world-wide protests are on, embassies have been burnt and death threats given. All this has further exacerbated what many call the "clash of civilizations " between Islam and the West. This is not the first time it has happened either. But do the discussions on Islam, in these sixth grade text-books, for example, talk about such violent deeds committed in the name of Islam? No, and that is the way it should be.

Likewise, when Hindus' sentiments are routinely hurt in far worse ways, especially as a part of America's formal education system, it naturally adds fuel to religious politics. Since liberal intellectuals - rightfully - respect Muslim sentiments and do not demand “scientific proof” for Islamic beliefs, does it not follow that they should apply the same approach towards Hinduism?

This article merely argues for equal treatment of Hinduism, no more and no less, and shows that this is presently lacking due to a double standard. 

Intellectual honesty demands that we ask whether one religion's aggression against "idols" devastates another religion's respect for its murtis. Does canonized condemnation of "infidels" and "false religions" not then qualify as hate speech? Surely it is reasonable to demand that the same standards be applied to all religions when discussing textual references that are against women, persons of lower socioeconomic strata, non-believers of the given faith, and other faiths' symbols and practices as well? Either such textual references should be included for all religions or none. Why should Hinduism be singled out?

Selective condemnations of religion X while appeasing religion Y is a dangerous political game. One must courageously confront the fashionable academic bandwagons and expose their facile politics

It is also essential for all religions to be presented on an equal footing using the same pedagogy and standards. Therefore, someone has to choose the information that is to be taught to sixth-graders, and there must be transparent rules on how this is to be achieved. 

California’s official educational standards contain specific policies on this, which assert, 

“No religious belief or practice may be held up to ridicule and no religious group may be portrayed as inferior,”  

and that, 

"Textbooks should instill a sense of pride in every child in his or her heritage."  

As the above table demonstrates, the textbooks do not comply with the California standards in the case of Hinduism.  

For instance, the textbooks say that Hinduism considers women to be inferior to men, but ignore biases against women in Islam, Christianity and Judaism. The textbooks focus on “Hindu atrocities” against certain groups, but do not point out that Islamic, Christian and Jewish societies have similar issues. The clergy in Islam, Christianity and Judaism are treated as credible experts and their religious texts are assumed to be stating historical facts, while Hindu texts are depicted through the pejorative lenses of critics and called “myths.” 
 
The California Board of Education conducts a public review of its textbooks every six years with a goal to remove unfair and biased representations. Islamic, Christian, and Jewish groups have been successfully involved in this review process for many years, constantly removing any negative portrayals of their respective religions. Surprisingly, the recent involvement of Hindu American groups to participate in the public hearings with the educational authorities is being fiercely condemned by academicians who gracefully accept the changes proposed by other religious groups. American academicians who are known for their Hinduphobia have launched a vicious attack. They rallied instant support from many Indian academicians to do the dirty work, in a manner similar to the way in which British colonizers used Indian sepoys to shoot at their fellow Indians. Interestingly, most of the academicians who joined are not experts in the academic field of religion, and are not even members of the Hinduism Unit of the American Academy of Religion, which is the official academic body of Hinduism Studies. 

The attack has relied upon maligning Hindu groups and branding them as “fascists”, “extremists”, “fundamentalists”,  “chauvinists” etc. The attackers allege links between overseas violence and Hindu Americans, and use sensationalized warnings that accepting the Hindus on par with the Islamic and Christian groups would encourage international terrorism. In an educational review the subject of discussion should be the content of the textbooks, California’s published educational standards, and the effects of religious representation on America’s next generation. But in this case, an American religious minority is being labeled as a threat to international security just because it wants an equitable depiction of its religion. The scholars involved have failed both as defenders of intellectual freedom and as practitioners of independent critical inquiry.  

Furthermore, the California authorities, in a move which is now being challenged legally, heard a parade of anti-Hindu voices as “expert witness,” while there were no similar dissenting voices invited to criticize Islam, Christianity or Judaism. The academicians fighting the Hindu Diaspora frantically arranged to fly in witnesses from far away places to testify about the horrors of Hinduism, while no similar witnesses were summoned to testify against the horrors of Islam, Christianity or Judaism.- such as, for example, Kashmiri Pandits, Hindus raped in Pakistan, Muslim women complaining against forced burqas, or the innocent children who have been victims of pedophile Christian priests.

Only in the case of Hinduism was the politics from the mother country dragged into the California proceedings What they overlooked is that Hinduism is a world religion with followers in many parts of the planet besides India. India’s social-political problems do not reflect on the second-generation Indian Americans, the millions of Euro-Americans practicing yoga/meditation who claim Hindu or quasi-Hindu identities, or on millions of overseas Hindus living elsewhere. The scholars failed to decouple Hinduism from Indian politics, while no other religion got coupled to geopolitics.  
 

How the California process has worked

Public Process I J C H
Organized community groups are lobbying for change? Yes Yes Yes Yes
Have academics protested against the community’s activism? No No No Yes
Did Education Board bring hostile academics as advisors? No No No Yes
Are advocates of the religion being branded as “chauvinists”, “fundamentalists”, “nationalists”…? No No No Yes
Is politics from the mother country driving the academic scholars? No No N/A Yes

 I: Islam J: Judaism C: Christianity H: Hinduism


The academicians should first confront the mandate of California’s Social Studies Standards which requires that, "Textbooks should instill a sense of pride in every child in his or her heritage".  In this regard, textbooks should also include Hinduism’s major contributions to America: yoga, vegetarianism, the transcendentalist literary movement in the 19th century, and the many positive influences on American pop music, cuisine, film, dance, etc. 

While attempts are being made to teach about “Hindu horrors” against minorities, the same academicians are not lobbying to add textbook sections on “Islamic genocides” in South Asia, “Islamic terrorism” worldwide, or “Christian holocausts” of Native Americans: The non-Hindu religions are coddled with political correctness and “sensitivity.” In order to be true to their field of study, academicians should apply the same “human rights” criteria to all religions equally. 

The academicians are approaching Indian society as a patient waiting to be cured of maladies in the hands of America. But they have not addressed the following issues: Does America have a superior human rights record? Are American institutions accountable as doctors and qualified to “cure” Indian society? What is the past track record of American powers intervening in third-world domestic issues and curing them of their societal maladies? Are American agendas constructing categories of “cultural crimes”? 

The sixth-grade classroom has become the battle ground for these geopolitically charged fights. Is the sixth-grade classroom the right place to prosecute an American minority culture or a foreign nation? Among these California children, less than one percent will pursue careers as Christian evangelists slandering Hindus to convert, or as US government officials using “human rights” as a weapon to gain leverage against India. For this tiny number of potential specialists, there will be other opportunities in higher studies to embark upon a comprehensive study of India’s positive and negative social qualities. 

The political activism of a cartel of elitist academicians is invading the psyche of innocent children: It harasses the Indian students in class, making them feel embarrassed and ashamed of their ancestry. Challenging history is one thing, but intentionally undermining self-respect at an impressionable age is a form of psychological child abuse. It handicaps the non-Indian students who will grow up to work in a world in which India must be taken seriously and not dismissed as a patient to be exposed, subjected to licensed condescension, or “cured” by the West. 

The controversy of the Mohammed cartoons should compel concerned citizens everywhere to balance intellectual freedom with intellectual responsibility. Whatever may be one’s position in this debate, it must be equally applied to all religions or else it would be hypocrisy. 


Rajiv Malhotra is a public intellectual living in Princeton, New Jersey, who runs his own non-profit Infinity Foundation on a full-time basis.  Some of his on-line writings are available at Sulekha.com  

Vidhi Jhunjhunwala is a student at Boston University:

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