Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Indian History being rewritten in the US

Here's an interesting debate on Indian history in US textbooks!


Xfile said...

interesting "debate"? its just plain old message board trolling and profanity. only 40 messaages out of 1300+ do not contain any profanity. maybe you meant the article was interesting. even that is same old rehash of calling out the Hindutva bogey and not even bothering to mention the unequal treatment of Hinduism as opposed to other religions in the textbooks.

Anonymous said...

Libertarian, why this opposition to Hinduism being presented properly?

libertarian said...

anonymous: no opposition at all - quite the contrary - a healthy debate would be great. Of course, the end is to outline Indian history, and not just Hinduism. My interest is more than academic - my kid will be studying from these books in short order.

Anonymous said...

u call that healthy debate? it is just name-calling and presenting a one sided view of the issue. i have been reading this blog for sometime now. i am beginning to doubt your ability to look at things in a more balanced way.
in the article, i can very clearly see the slant. one view is presented as very objective and the other is picked for ridicule.

Jaffna said...

Dear Libertarian,

The article in the Christian Science Monitor was food for thought. As it correctly pointed out, history has been controversial not just in India but elsewhere as well. I would include China, Israel, Japan, Northern Ireland and Christendom's interactions with Islam to name just a few. The subject is inherently political - be it a discussion of the Armenian genocide, the crusades or the conquest of the Americas. After all, history is subjective. It is "his" story! This is not to deny the value of objective rigor and inquiry. But we need to keep in mind that there is always an ideological slant to the interpretation of the past. No one, and certainly not Witzel, is 100% objective.

In my view, the Christian Science Article unduly simplified the debate and might have misrepresented it. Let me respond why.

There were two broad schools of history in 20th century India. One was Marxist and the other non-Marxist. In recent decades, the Marxist school of history dominated centers of higher learning in India. I refer here to Romila Thapar, Sarvapalli Gopal, K.N. Panikkar, Irfan Habib, R.S. Sharma, Kosambi and many others. This was the JNU school. They had a rigor in their writing but a strong ideological slant. The non-Marxist school had been edged out of academia since the 1970s. Call it the politics of the award of grants for further research, if you may. Or it could well be Government sponsorship. Or it could be the fact that most aspiring students in India chose a career in science rather than in the humanities. This however does not remove from the fact that there was a rigorous non-Marxist school of history until the 1970s. I can allude to several eminent academics.

The Christian Science Monitor's reference to the "most elite historians of India" is therefore misplaced. There are several schools of history.

There is another point I would like to make. The presentation of Christianity and Judaism in the grade 6 school text books in California took into account the believer's perspectives of their faith. Fair enough! However, Hinduism was presented through the eyes of select historians. Which is Ok except for the fact that there needed to be a common standard in presenting all religions to impressionable students. Either you have a rigorous academic deconstruction of all faiths (i.e. Christianity, Judaism and Hinduism) or you choose to interpret all faiths largely as their believers see it. The existing text books presented Christianity and Judaism in light of their believers but Hinduism in the light of what certain historians argued. Here was the conflict. This was the fundamental line of attack of the Hindu Education Foundation.

The references to its alleged links to the RSS is therefore misplaced and skews the article's objectivity. I personally would have preferred it if all religions, Christianity included, were subject to a rigorous academic critique.

Turning to the Aryan invasion theory - the verdict is unclear. One can not argue that it is established fact. There is sufficient evidence to cast doubts on its veracity. Furthermore, there is archeological evidence to point out to the beginnings of urban life in India to 6,500 BCE, not 2,600 BCE as the article alleges.

This said, I remain unconvinced of the Hindu right's explanations that attempt to counter the Aryan Invasion Theory either.

Witzel is controversial and opinionated. His is one point of view, one that is extremely ideological. I would not call it the sole criterion for scientific objectivity. Many have accused him of racist bias.

I would like to critique the doctoral candidate - Anu Mandavilli who seems to be extensively quoted by the Christian Science Monitor. First, she is not a PhD. This means (I had to say this but I need to) that she is not yet an academic authority in her own right to pass exclusive judgement. Two her critique of a North Indian upper caste perspective is misplaced. As a non-Brahmin Tamil myself, I would not reduce complex debates of history to simplistic formulas as she attempts to do. That itself indicates that she has a long way to go in the subject of history!

But thanks for the opportunity to reflect and debate :-)

Best regards

Apollo said...

the article is biased with one side called "top indologists" and other side being called "Hindu revisionists".

it seems like the commies have a vice like grip on both the domestic media and international media.just like those in power write history the commies are writing their own version. the indians have nobody but themselves to blame for this shameful state of affairs

Anonymous said...

One very important point. Class 6 book debate is about religion and not about history, which is being introduced in this debate as an eyewash.

As Jaffna points out the treatment given to Christianity and Islam is not from the historical point of view but from believers point of view but not with Hinduism.

The chapter under debate is not about the history of India but about "religion."

froginthewell said...

Jaffna, can you give a referrence for the urban life having begun in 6500 BC? Thanks.

Jaffna said...

Hi Frog,

I did a post on Mehrgarh in October, if I remember correct. It should be in the archives and that has the evidence of urban life in the Indian subcontinent in 6,500 BCE. It was the proto-historic precursor to the Harappan civilization.

Best regards

libertarian said...

Jaffna, anonymous: thanks for clarifications and viewpoints. Here's the part of the story that really caught my attention:

That this seemingly arcane Indian debate has spilled over into California's board of education is a sign of the growing political muscle of Indian immigrants and the rising American interest in Asia.

nukh said...

thought you ladies and gents might be interested.
the wall street journal has a front page story on the textbook controversy. and below is the article in its entirety.
satyamev jayate...

Defending the Faith
New Battleground
In Textbook Wars:
Religion in History
Hindu, Islamic, Jewish Groups
Fault Portrayals of Events
And Often Win Changes
The Untouchables Weigh In
January 25, 2006; Page A1

The victors write the history books, the saying goes. But increasingly, religious advocates try to edit them.

Religious pressure on textbooks is growing well beyond Christian fundamentalists' attack on evolution. History books are the biggest battleground, as groups vie for changes in texts for elementary and secondary schools that cast their faiths in a better light.

Two Hindu groups and a Jewish group have been set up in the past three years as textbook watchdogs, adding to Islamic advocates who have monitored history textbooks since 1990. In addition, some Sikhs have started to complain about being short-changed in history textbooks.

[qod]1 • Cast Your Vote: Do you think the history books used in your local schools are accurate?2

All are seeking to extract concessions as California holds its periodic approval process for history textbooks. The process drives school-district purchases in the most populous state, and books adopted for California typically are the ones that schools in the rest of the country end up using for several years.

Hindu groups, in particular, have swamped California authorities with proposed revisions, which would delete or soften references to polytheism, the caste system and the inferior status of women in ancient India. For example, the Hindu Education Foundation, a group linked to a Hindu nationalist organization in India, proposed replacing a textbook's statement that "men had many more rights than women" in ancient India with: "Men had different duties ... as well as rights than women. Many women were among the sages to whom the Vedas [sacred texts] were revealed."

California's Curriculum Commission endorsed this and most other changes pushed by Hindu groups, moving the matter along to the state board of education, which usually follows its advice. But then a strong objection to such changes arrived from a group of U.S. scholars, led by a Harvard professor, Michael Witzel. The scholars' protest, in turn, led to a lawsuit threat, a call for Harvard to disband the professor's department, and finally an unusual state-sponsored head-to-head debate between two scholars of ancient India.

Underlying such free-for-alls is the question of whether lobbying by religious groups yields a more sensitive and accurate version of history or a sugar-coated one -- and also whether students are served better or less well. "It tends to be scholar pitted against believer," says Kenneth Noonan, a member of the state education board.

For textbook publishers, meanwhile, to ignore religious groups is to risk exclusion from markets. One of the nation's largest school districts, Fairfax County, Va., dropped a McGraw-Hill Cos. 10th-grade text from its recommended list last year after complaints from Hindu parents, keeping it out of classrooms there.

Religious protests nearly crippled Oxford University Press's effort to enter the U.S. world-history textbook market. The prestigious university press sought to impress California authorities with cutting-edge scholarship and narrative verve, but the Curriculum Commission initially recommended against adopting Oxford's sixth-grade book last fall after Jewish and Hindu groups objected to it.

The Institute for Curriculum Services, a Jewish group set up in 2004 to scrutinize textbooks, was upset by the book's statement that archaeology and ancient Egyptian records don't support the Biblical account of the Exodus of the Israelite slaves from Egypt. While conceding this was true, the group said the book didn't apply the same skepticism to Islamic or Christian events, such as when it said that "ancient writings" and the Gospel according to Matthew relate that "wise men (probably philosophers or astrologers) followed a brightly shining star" when Jesus was born. Similarly, the book said that "according to Muslim tradition," the prophet Muhammad flew into heaven from the site of the Dome of the Rock mosque.

The Hindu groups, meanwhile, called the book's tone insensitive, such as its heading over a column about vegetarianism in India: "Where's the Beef?" The state board finally put the book on its approved list after Oxford cut the passages found objectionable and added a paragraph saying that for Jews, the Exodus is a "central event in their history" and "powerful symbol of the importance of freedom."

Casper Grathwohl, an official of Oxford University Press, says it preserved its integrity, and the give-and-take improved the text. But he complains that "the process is skewed toward giving the loudest voices what they want."

Every six years, California adopts a list of history books for kindergarten through eighth grade, and districts can spend designated state money only for books on this list. Publishers typically roll out new textbooks for the state, whose districts are expected to buy nearly $200 million of history books over the next two years. California alone represents 10% to 12% of the national textbook market.

In the 1970s and 1980s, history texts shied away from religion. "They didn't use the 'capital G' word," says Roger Rogalin, a publishing consultant. "They said the pilgrims gave thanks on Thanksgiving, but they didn't say to whom."

Difficult Goals

Prodded by religious groups, states began requiring more coverage of the topic. But they imposed goals that can be hard to reconcile: both maintaining historical accuracy and enhancing the pride and self-esteem of believers. California's guidelines, for instance, say students "should understand the intense religious passions that have produced fanaticism and war." But also, texts should avoid "reflecting adversely" on anyone's creed or instilling "prejudice against...those who believe in other religions."

Such cautions provide an opportunity for religious activists such as the Council on Islamic Education in Fountain Valley, Calif. In California's most recent review, the council called for extensive changes, most of which the state appears likely to accept.

One target: A Prentice Hall text said the medieval spread of Islam was partly due to military conquest. "Actual conversion to Islam did NOT occur...at the point of a sword," the council told the state. A specialist appointed by the state board to review Islamic coverage recommended dropping the reference, and Prentice Hall says it will do so.

Publishers often hire the Council on Islamic Education to prescreen manuscripts. In California, the council is a "content consultant" for Houghton Mifflin Co. and Ballard & Tighe Co., an educational publisher in Brea, Calif. The council has sometimes advised Prentice Hall and other publishers as well.

Publishers have allowed the Islamic group to "dictate" content, charges Gilbert Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council, a New York nonprofit group that reviews history texts and has said they often lack depth and factual fidelity. "Islamic pressure groups have been working energetically for 15 years to scrub the past in instructional materials," he wrote to California officials. He added that "textbooks submitted either gloss over jihad, sharia [Islamic law], Muslim slavery, the status of women and Islamic terrorism -- or omit the subject altogether."

Houghton Mifflin says it hasn't ceded any control to the Council on Islamic Education, and seeks Hindu, Jewish, Protestant, Catholic and Buddhist perspectives too. "We listen to their input and weigh it against what our scholarly authors believe is true," a spokesman says. Ballard & Tighe says its text was examined by Jewish and Hindu experts as well as the Islamic council. "We're mostly looking not to insult people," says an executive of the publisher. A spokeswoman for Prentice Hall says it has found the Council on Islamic Education to be a "solid resource for reviewing content."

The council's founder, Shabbir Mansuri, says that texts are treating Islam better not because of his efforts but because of state guidelines that stress sensitivity toward religious beliefs.

Disputes over textbook portrayal of Hinduism are a staple of politics in India, and the concerns have arrived in America along with many Indian immigrants. The conventional view of ancient India in U.S. history texts is that men enjoyed more rights than women and that, then as now, Hindus worshipped many gods and were divided into castes.

But the Hindu Education Foundation and the Vedic Foundation, the educational arm of a Hindu temple in Austin, Texas, say Hinduism is monotheistic because all of its deities are aspects of one god, Brahman. So when one textbook referred to Hindus visiting temples to "express their love of the gods," this should be changed to "express their love for God," said the Vedic group.

The groups repeatedly proposed deleting references to the caste system and making other changes that burnished the image of Indian history and culture. For instance, McGraw-Hill's book said of an early monarch called Asoka that his "tolerance was unusual for the time." The Hindu Education Foundation suggested changing "unusual" to "usual."

'Source of Misunderstanding'

At the Vedic Foundation, "Our motto is to re-establish the greatness of Hinduism, and part of that is to correct the textbooks," says Janeshwari Devi, director of programs. "Those are a source of misunderstanding, prejudice and derogatory information."

Some Hindu students say they're humiliated in school because texts dwell on customs such as ostracism of untouchables and an old tradition, rarely observed today, of "sati" -- widows immolating themselves on their husbands' funeral pyres. Trisha Pasricha, a high-school junior in a Houston suburb, says she used to deny being Hindu to classmates because she was tired of refuting stereotypes perpetuated by textbooks and teachers. "The textbooks bring up all these obscure practices, like bride burning, and act like they happen every day," she says. "The biggest mistake is that Hinduism is portrayed as polytheistic. And the caste system has nothing to do with Hinduism. But no one believes you, because it's in the textbook."

But some prominent scholars, both non-Hindu and Hindu, say the books were right. According to Madhav Deshpande, a Sanskrit professor at the University of Michigan who is Hindu, Hinduism is polytheistic and linked to the caste system, and women did have inferior status in ancient India.

He says the Hindu groups hold a mistaken position that dates to when India was ruled by Britain in the 19th century and under pressure from Christian missionaries. The missionaries told prospective converts Christianity was superior because it had one god, treated women fairly, and didn't have castes, Mr. Deshpande says, adding that to counter, Hindu intellectuals made up an argument that their religion had once been the same way. The foundations' contention that the caste system developed separately from Hinduism is incorrect, he maintains, because "in ancient texts, there is no distinction between the religious and nonreligious domains of life."

Jackson Spielvogel, a retired Penn State professor and author of McGraw-Hill's "Ancient Civilizations" textbook, says, "You can't allow Hindu nationalists to rewrite the history of India.... It becomes an issue of censorship."

To review changes proposed by the Hindu groups, California hired an expert recommended by one of the groups: Shiva Bajpai, a retired California State University history professor. He endorsed most of their changes. "I want to recognize the negatives but project the positives," says Mr. Bajpai, who is Hindu.
[Michael Witzel]

With his blessing, the changes were rolling toward ratification by the state board when Harvard's Prof. Witzel unexpectedly intervened. Alerted by an Indian-American graduate student whom the Vedic Foundation had approached to support its changes, Mr. Witzel wrote to the board the day before a Nov. 9 meeting at which approval of the Hindu-backed changes was expected. "They are unscholarly [and] politically and religiously motivated," wrote Mr. Witzel, a Sanskrit professor. His letter was co-signed by nearly 50 scholars, including Mr. Deshpande of Michigan.

Mr. Witzel calls the Hindu Education Foundation a front for a prominent nationalist group in India, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, whose leader caused a stir in November by urging Hindu women to have more children to keep up with the Muslim growth rate. A spokesman for the Hindu Education Foundation acknowledges a connection -- it was established by the U.S. counterpart of the Indian group -- but says it acts independently.

State officials did an about-face after they got Mr. Witzel's letter, inviting him and two like-minded scholars to scrutinize Mr. Bajpai's recommendations. When the three advised restoring much of the textbooks' original wording, angry letters began pouring in from Hindu groups. One, the Hindu American Foundation, threatened to sue the state. A petition from Hindu advocates called on Harvard to end its association with "Aryan Supremacist Creationist hate mongering." Harvard responded by defending Mr. Witzel's academic freedom.

The groups persuaded two members of California's congressional delegation to weigh in. Rep. Pete Stark, a Unitarian, and Rep. Linda Sanchez, a Catholic, asked the state superintendent of public instruction to investigate Mr. Witzel. The superintendent replied that the state had already held three public hearings on the history texts, received more than 1,000 pages of testimony, and considered more than 800 textual changes.

The pendulum swung back on Dec. 2, when the Curriculum Commission voted to support most of the changes sought by the Hindu foundations. "We have to err on the side of sensitivity toward religion," a commission member, Stan Metzenberg, said at the time.

The game wasn't over. Other Hindu groups -- including members of the "untouchables" caste -- entered the fray on Mr. Witzel's behalf. The Dalit Freedom Network, an advocacy group for untouchables, wrote to the education board that the proposed Vedic and Hindu Education Foundation changes reflect "a view of Indian history that softens...the violent truth of caste-based discrimination in India.... Do not allow politically-minded revisionists to change Indian history."

Caught in the cross-fire, the board of education summoned Mr. Witzel and Mr. Bajpai to an unusual private session Jan. 6. Before board and commission members, staffers and the board's lawyer, the scholars debated each edit.

"It was a gladiator combat," Mr. Bajpai recalls, "the most acrimonious thing I have ever done in my entire life. It deteriorated into me telling him he didn't understand anything." Mr. Witzel says Mr. Bajpai "mixed his religion with scholarship."

The duo did reach consensus on some changes. They agreed to narrow the McGraw-Hill text's statement that men in ancient India had "more rights" than women to "more property rights" -- but not to the Hindu groups' preferred wording of "different" rights.

Still, it isn't certain the compromises reached by the two scholars will stand. At a meeting Jan. 12, the state board of education created a subcommittee to reconsider the matter -- and to prepare for still more religious pressure when books are expected to be added to the list in two years.

Write to Daniel Golden at dan.golden@wsj.com3
URL for this article:

Alan said...

Hello Everyone, here is the excellent article by Vishal Agrarwal on the subject, which i believe is more objective in presenting the issue than any of the articles so far published in the mainstream media.

Xfile said...

Here is a really interesting take on this issue:

india cause article

Would like to solicit comments on the author's pov.

libertarian said...

XFile: very interesting viewpoint. Don't know enough to agree or disagree with the thesis that Hinduism will be transformed into Hindu-Protestantism. I think of Hinduism as much freer (tolerant?) than the rigid Abrahamic religions. It would be a pity if that freedom were sacrificed in the quest for conformity. It's like having to serve a dosa wrapped like a burrito, just so that mainstream America can relate to it.

IndianXian said...

XFiles link raises some interesting points. I would have to disagree with the author on several points - the main point appears to be that Hinduism, when it encounters a different religion, should not change. This idea, in effect, equates preservation of Hinduism with the (UN declaration of) preservation of "indigenous" religions thus relegating Hinduism to a "tribal aboriginal" religion rather than the vibrant modern religion it is. (I use the words "tribal aboriginal" as a comparison of the depth of theology rather than race). The strength of Hinduism is precisely the ability to adapt and assimilate the ideas of different religion it encounters, into its own. Strange as it may seem, this was and has never been a one way street - the exchange of ideas has influenced Indian Christianity and Indian Islam too. Having said this, in the American context, it is very possible that Hinduism, as practiced in the US, will evolve to be quite different from that in India. This again is because of the social context rather than a falling away from "traditional" Hindu values.

I admire Raja Rammohan Roy and Swami Dayanand Saraswati for the reforms they introduced in Hinduism. This, in my opinion, is the only way to combat the "conversion agenda", if you will. To label them "Hindu Christians" is a gross distortion of their contributions to Hinduism. Does the author think that the Arya and Brahmo Samaj folks do not practice Hinduism or that their Hinduism is in some way inferior to "traditional" Hinduism? Is the author claiming that modern scientific inquiry and rational thought should not influence Hinduism? The "orientalists" and "reformers" failed to give an "alternate understanding" of Indian culture not because of their "inferiority complex" but because those who tried to make the case made it from a Western (or Greek) rationalist point of view. They needed to do this because (a) most of them were "orientalists" and therefore could only relate to such a point of view (b) the audience could only understand this point of view (which has since dominated Western academia). In such a scenario one way is what Rajiv Malhotra is doing, but, without ignoring the supporting Hindu theology. In my opinion, Hinduism today lacks the supporting Hindu theology and people to articulate it.

doubtinggaurav said...


Considering the response you got, do write more frequently.
However a radical idea may be to do away with History altogether, that will have additional advantage of making communist idiots on tenure jobless, which will be a immensely good thing. ;-)

Indian Xian

A good comment indeed,
Much of misunderstanding regarding Hinduism arises because of wrong assumption, to be more precise trying to analyze it in terms of western constructs, they succeded for west, because of essentially dualist nature of west(mind and matter, self and other , temporal and spiritual), whereas in Hinduism the dualism is superseded by monism.

Indeed there is much Hinduism, Islam and Christianity can learn from each other.


I think AIT is more of a case socio-political idioms and ideologies encroaching upon history.
This North- South divide is especially exasperating, I do not think that, while kingdoms attacked each other all the time, there was any antagonism between North and South.


libertarian said...

indianxian: your point about "indigenous" religions is well taken. A religion with over 800M (increasingly influential) adherents worldwide is hardly "aboriginal" or "indigenous". I can also attest that the idea of Indian Christianity or Indian Islam is a very real one.

dg: I certainly will write more frequently. The response to this post was a big surprise though. I thoroughly underestimated the strength of emotions behind the issue.

Sab-ki-chachi said...


I'd like to either link to or quote your very well written comments on my blog and possibly website - do I have your permission?


Blog Archive