The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) has spent nearly a decade interacting with school boards, textbook publishers, and directly with teachers and students to ensure that Hinduism, and the Indian civilization it helped shape, is accurate. What is more, HAF insists that the curriculum be culturally competent and equitable in comparison to the presentation of other religious traditions. This insistence is not about sensitivities, but about complying with California law, which prohibits adopting educational material which reflect adversely on a student's religion.
Biblical verses have been decontextualized and distorted to justify slavery, crusades, and genocides. Islamic texts have been used to condone conquests in the past and are hijacked to celebrate terrorism and slavery today. The Frameworks on these religions do not require children to learn about those heinous crimes as intrinsic to the faith of the perpetrators. But the Framework do require that the ugly reality of caste-based discrimination in India is presented not just as a social problem, but as an evil intrinsic to Hinduism. It is this glaring inequity that propels HAF and other Hindu Americans to advocate for accuracy and fairness. And it is this advocacy that makes the Foundation a target for Hinduphobia today.
While HAF has successfully impacted curricula in several states, California, as the largest school board in the nation, and home to a massive Indian American population, fuels the most passion. The Board's Instructional Quality Commission (IQC) is now sifting through a deluge of emails, social media tags, and links to international media coverage as it prepares for its next hearing, scheduled for May 19th, on proposed changes to the education curriculum affecting students in that state.
HAF submitted several edits to the Commission to improve the depiction of Hinduism because the textbook teachings on religion are not only an academic concern. HAF's recently completed national survey on bullying found that one in three Hindu American children in the United States experienced bullying because of their religious beliefs. These children reported being abused not because of their race, ethnicity, or Islamophobia -- which are real concerns -- but because of false stereotypes about Hinduism.
11th Hour Edits Unleash Political Vitriol
What HAF finds most distressing, however, is the ugly politicization and vitriol directed against it and other Hindu American groups duly involved in the process, unleashed after the eleventh hour submission by a group calling itself the South Asia Faculty Group (SAFG). The Framework writing team recommended a near blanket acceptance of the SAFG's recommended edits -- a group comprised of several educators who routinely combine activism with academia and are particularly fond of petitions and open letters. In addition to the politicized nature of the submission, HAF uncovered a significant bias that could be at play because of a close working relationship between some members of SAFG and the writing team.
The acceptance of the SAFG edits elicited international indignation because of their use of contested historical and political language in hewing to two themes, 1) that "India" be replaced by "South Asia" at several critical junctures; and 2) that the grotesque reality of caste based discrimination be rewritten as intrinsic to Hindu religious teachings and practice.
The first claim, that the term "India" be replaced by "South Asia" was such a significant overreach that media outlets reported on this development. Some of the most prominent contemporary thinkers of Indian and South Asian history weighed in against such a suggestion that would dilute or erase a civilizational entity: Ancient India. We too wrote extensively about our disagreement with such a change.
But the latter claim, that caste-based discrimination is inherent to the practice of Hinduism, is even more troubling. Contrary to allegations leveled against us, HAF's suggested edits do indeed encourage California children to learn about the sobering reality of caste-based discrimination as a social evil. However, the SAFG demanded more: that casteism be expressly, definitively tied to, and shown to be an inseparable part of, the core of Hindu spiritual teachings.
The SAFG claims were considered so academically untenable, that forty-one of the most respected academics dealing with Asia and Religious Studies submitted a lengthy rebuttal to most of those edits and chided the SAFG stating, "SAFG represented themselves as the only authoritative experts participating in the discussion, which is not the case. The SAFG also represented their views as being based on scholarly consensus, when in fact their views are contested by other academics."
As HAF posits repeatedly, caste discrimination has been a feature of Indian society for many hundreds of years and sadly continues today, though illegal under Indian law, affecting Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, and Christian communities alike. However, there is no sanction for caste discrimination to be found in the core scriptures that form the basis of Hindu spiritual practice. A society based on categories of personal tendency and on occupational groups, like guilds, was described in the Vedas, however there is no sanction given to social hierarchies based on birth. As such, the deep social fault of casteism and untouchability is not a failure of the spiritual teachings forming the core of Hindu theology. Today continued caste discrimination in India is a failure of Indians -- be they Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, or Christian -- to live up to the highest spiritual ideals of their religions.
And what of non-Indian Hindus? Thousands of Americans, including several leaders at the Hindu American Foundation, are not of Indian origin, but began calling themselves Hindu as their spiritual search found its greatest resonance in Hindu teachings. They identify as Hindus but have never felt enjoined to claim a caste. Many Hindu Americans several generations removed from India, or those from Guyana, Trinidad, Suriname, and Fiji, for example, no longer identify with caste at all. Their spiritual practice and affirmations demolish the myth that Hinduism and caste are innately conjoined.
Furthermore, what about the 200 million Hindus who identify as Scheduled Castes or Dalits and yet find joy in Hinduism? Declaring to them that the faith and practices they cherish actually prescribes their oppression uncomfortably echoes the claims of predatory proselytization.
Even if you were to counterfactually agree with the contention that some verses in millennia old text were misused to substantiate a discriminatory hierarchical system, ask yourself this: should middle school children be told that Hinduism and caste discrimination are inextricable or that caste is a defining feature of Hinduism when other faiths have used religious sanction for past and current social ills?
And what of the redemptive features of religion? Religion has been used throughout history as a tool of politics and oppression, but it has also inspired constructive reform. Indeed, the Bhakti tradition that flourished during India's middle ages did just this -- it challenged traditional hierarchies, emphasized personal expressions of devotion to God, and offered a universalist message to Hindus and non-Hindus alike, imploring members of society to treat one another as God's children. One edit submitted by a group endorsing the SAFG went as far as denying the legitimacy of the Bhakti movement -- a suggestion which contravenes not only the copious historical record penned by Bhakti saints themselves, but academic consensus. It also ignores the lasting impression of the Bhakti tradition prevailing in Hinduism as it is practiced today.
Personal Attacks on HAF Staff & Hinduism Itself
Alongside the edits proposed by the SAFG, a loose-knit coalition of professional activists began a media campaign falsely impugning HAF as an arm of the RSS or, the more common accusation meant to stifle debate, that HAF is a Hindutva or Hindu nationalist front.
Members of this coalition and their supporters went beyond penning op-eds. Some began trolling HAF's social media pages with ad hominem attacks against HAF, as well as the Hindu religion in its entirety. If these attacks shown below were leveled at other faiths, they'd be described unequivocally as Islamophobic, Anti-Semitic, Anti-Christian, and given no credence.
This onslaught was followed by another submission to the Commission. The May 17, 2016 submission, co-written by Dalit activist Thenmozhi Soundararajan and Sikh Coalition staffer Harjit Kaur, and co-signed by the radical Indian American Muslim Council and several shell organizations that actually exist in name only (as previously exposed), adds a new dimension to the battle.
In their lengthy submission, another motivation for impeaching Hinduism as inextricably linked to casteism is clearly stated: if Hinduism is delinked from discrimination, then the raison d'etre of Sikhism disappears. If Guru Nanak did not revolt against the "Hindu" caste system, then Sikhism would never have been born, the argument goes.
Forget Guru Nanak's transcendent insights on simran, kirtan or naam japa, or that two Sikh Gurus were slayed for not yielding to conversion to the Islam of Mughal invaders! Ironically, while these same authors take umbrage with descriptions of Hindus as victims of Muslim conquerors, they are perfectly content to retain references to Mughal persecution of Sikhs in the Framework.
Students in California are taught today about every other religion in the world as expressions of spiritual insight. Hinduism, however, is presented as nothing more than a club used to beat down millions of its own adherents. If Hindu Americans lose their right to present their own narrative and correct such glaring inequities, the odious bullying that Hindu American children face everyday will never relent.
The SAFG, and submissions endorsing their edits, are motivated by ideology and ignorance in insisting on erasing India and linking Hindu scripture with caste-based discrimination. And as the social media posts above show, rather than increasing understanding, they normalize Hinduphobia.