Hinduism in California Schools, caught between orientalism and whitewash

In Counterpunch.org, Vijay Prashad looks at multiculturalism, curriculum debates and the Hindu right.

Every six years, the California Board of Education reviews its school textbooks. In 2005, the state reviewed the books that it uses for Sixth Grade. As it turns out, it is at this stage in their education that young Californians encounter ancient Indian history. Certainly, the books are flawed. They represent a tradition of disregard for the rest of the world, and of a Christian disdain for other religions. There are elementary errors (“Hindi is written with the Arabic alphabet”), and there is a simple discourteousness toward Hinduism (“The monkey king Hanuman loved Ram so much that it is said that he is present every time the Ramayan is told. So look around–see any monkeys?”). The critique of Orientalism might seem dated to most academics, but Orientalist stereotypes are rife in the way India is taught in secondary education in the United States.

That said, the important work of revision was quickly hijacked by a couple of traditionalist outfits (the Vedic Foundation and the Hindu Education Foundation) and a legal organization wedded to a right-wing view of Hinduism (Hindu American Foundation). They wanted to revise the books so that “India” would be sufficiently well branded, and that all the contradictions of Indian history would disappear. No mention of the oppression against untouchables (dalits), and little regard for the virulently misogynist ideology of Brahmanism. Because all this makes “India” look bad, it needs to be removed from the book. Here is a whitewash in the service of globalization: if Indian culture can be seen to be modern then business might flow to India. Facts are less relevant, and what are least relevant are the struggles of people to shift traditions and mold them into resources worthwhile of social life. What these outfits want to create is an image of “India” as eternally wonderful, and therefore without need for history and struggle–what is needed is admiration and investment.

The logic deployed by the Hindu American Foundation is not unfamiliar: it is multiculturalism, an ideology well suited to globalized California. Every community is to be seen as discrete, and to have a core cultural ethos that must be respected. Typically the most conservative and traditonalist elements within the “community” are licensed to determine the contours of this ethos. And even more typically, in this globalized age, it is the religious elements of culture that come to determine it. Orthodox clerics of one kind or another, and their civilian minions, become the arbiters of culture and of social life.