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The battle over the representation of India and Indian Americans in California’s elementary school textbooks continued Nov. 9, as the California Board of Education voted to retain the changes asked for by the Hindu American Foundation. Seen here a group outside the California state capitol building in Sacramento protests the allegedly inaccurate portrayal of Hinduism and Indian culture in elementary school textbooks. (Hindu Education Foundation photo)

It was about time that the various Hindu organizations, educators, scholars, and a huge number of the Indian American Hindu community in California came together to raise their voice against wrongdoing. After several cases of bullying and mocking by classmates, it became imperative for the Hindu parents to take issue as to how the history and social science textbooks used for educating middle school students had been misrepresenting details about Hindus and inappropriately portraying Indian culture as derogatory.

The uproar intensified, particularly because of the way different religions of the world were introduced. Whereas Christianity and Islam were represented with meaningful pictures like the famous painting ‘The Last Supper’ and the blue mosque in Istanbul, with some thought-provoking questions attached to it, while portraying Hinduism, a woman standing next to a blob of trash and pig was depicted.

Unlike what was mentioned in those books, Indian culture is not merely about the caste system, filth, and poverty. Do words like ‘South Asia’, ‘untouchability’ and ‘monkey king Hanuman’ truly define the ethos of the social, cultural and religious fabric of the community? The demand was to draft the content about Hinduism in light of the facts about Indian culture. After the enormous protest, the state Board of Education finally on Nov. 9, 2017 rejected two history textbooks from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and endorsed the recommendations of an advisory panel that had reviewed the content of the textbook in light of considerable research.

The recent California textbook controversy instigates us to raise a few important questions: Who should tell about the oldest living religion in the world to the impressionable minds in grade K-5 and adolescents in grade 6-8, all belonging either to a culturally diverse group, who are completely oblivious of the Hindu culture, or to quite a few Hindu kids, who are learning about their own roots through their curriculum textbooks? The issue involves a lot more sensitivity than is being attached to it. We have to meet the dual purpose when writing about something so culture-specific or religious for young learners. Firstly, we have to make sure the job is done scrupulously because it will help kids of diverse cultures know each other better. Secondly, the content has to serve the job of making the students stay well informed about their own culture. Most Hindu parents who are raising their kids abroad have the expectation that their wards should be proud of their heritage, especially in a country where they are living as a minority.

Is it an achievable goal? Keeping this in view, we can possibly have three main stakeholders— One, those Hindu parents who have immigrated from India in the past few generations; two, those Hindus or non-Hindus who have studied Hinduism deeply in a scholarly way; or three, those who have ‘no strings attached’ with the word ‘Hindu’, but who see Hindus as a community and document about them based on their own direct experience.

The first category comprises those who lead a Hindu life, or are born Hindus with (or without) the knowledge of Hinduism. They are certainly the strongest stakeholders as they have ‘touch and feel’ of the religion, and they are emotional about their ‘dharma’. As devout Hindus, they are the ones who are keen on passing the right information about their culture to future generations so that they could preserve and cherish their cultural heritage. It’s undeniable that preserving the core of the religion is of supreme importance to them.

The second category is of those scholars from academia, who have studied Hindu religion as a subject and are involved in teaching and advanced research on the religion. The accurate account of Hindu history, basic tenets and expansion and diffusion of the religion is all that matters to them. They will certainly try to be objective in their analysis; therefore, may not only bring out the best of the culture but also include some sensitive areas that cast light on the negative aspects of the religion. They will not attach their sentiments about passing on the Hindu history and values to the next generation, and therefore, will give an objective account.

The third category is of those stakeholders who watch the lifestyle of Hindus around them and read about Hinduism. This category may include those involved in education in order to develop the final curriculum like social science book publishers, book writers, and educators. Will they be able to tell a story as an onlooker and guarantee that their story would resonate well with the ethos of those whose story they claim to tell? It is not clear if this group can represent an ancient religion based on mere observance.

So, there is the group of passionately practicing Hindus who want the right word to be out about them, then there are people from academia to correct every wrong conceptualization, and define the outlines of the religion, and finally, the ‘significant others’ who witness Hindus and need to pass on the information based on what they observe. One group is high on sensitivity and need of conceptualization, other on knowledge, and yet another on witnessing. In such a scenario, we need to come to a consensus on which a group or combination of groups can take up the task of portraying an immigrant community's religion, culture, and heritage to impressionable elementary and middle school children.

The concept of stakeholder does have serious social, moral and ethical implications; values, ethics, feelings, beliefs, all have to be accounted for in an appropriate way. Being culturally respectful, authentic, and objective can be the most challenging task. There are some lessons to be learned from Disney’s experience about its recent “Coco” controversy. It’s wise to respect the addressee’s expectations, especially when a sizable number of them is children. The content has to be composed correctly with the help of the best possible people being approached while working on the draft. The details have to be culturally responsible.

Dr. Richa Yadav

Coppell, Texas

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