When I was in middle school, my first introduction to Hinduism came in the ancient India section of my textbook, where it was (wrongly) asserted that the religion descended from invading Aryans; that caste was central to the religion; and that the religion never evolved from the ancient times -- contradicting the central essence of Hinduism as an evolving and dynamic tradition.
In fact, the textbook never mentioned Hinduism again after Buddhism was mentioned, leaving the impression that Hinduism just disappeared. It was almost as if Hindus didn't exist after 500 BCE, or that the religion became an afterthought with the rise of Buddhism and, many centuries later, Islamic rule in the Indian subcontinent. More problematically, most of my history textbooks left the impression that Hinduism never even left India.
Fast forward a quarter-century later, and this is the narrative that many textbooks continue to adapt in some form or another. While there have been some improvements (most textbooks now reject the Aryan Invasion Theory and give some more mention of Hindu philosophy), the factual errors continue to dominate the content that students across the country read when learning about Hinduism.
The Hindu American Foundation's (HAF) recent involvement in the Texas textbook adoption process, which yielded dramatic changes to the way Hinduism is represented, draws attention to a bigger issue: how states and localities continue to draft their content standards and frameworks to describe the religion.
The central issue is that Hinduism is uncomfortably and awkwardly fit into a model that focuses on historical chronology, when most Hindus don't view their faith as something that can be pegged into specific eras. The standards and frameworks writing has even drawn objections from history educators and religion scholars, who argue that limiting mention of Hinduism to a specific era deprives us of our understanding of the faith as a living, evolving tradition.
Let's take California, for example, where the state's Department of Education is attempting to rewrite its curriculum frameworks based on outdated history content standards. Hinduism is only mentioned in the section on ancient India and in the survey of world religions, and even that mention is scant. Similarly, other states have modeled their approach based on the assumption that Hinduism doesn't need to be mentioned after 500 BCE. This sort of framing essentially ignores what many scholars consider to be a Golden Age of Hinduism during the Gupta period, as well as the evolution of Hinduism in the middle ages, notably the rise of the Bhakti movement.
Additionally problematic is that while Hinduism owes its roots to the Indian subcontinent, its influence stretched through much of Southeast Asia for centuries, often in co-worship with other religions such as Buddhism. Moreover, the story of the Hindu diaspora to the West Indies, Fiji, Mauritius, Malaysia, and South Africa has been largely untold within history books.
Textbook publishers often tell me that their hands are tied by the content guidelines of states, making it harder for them to add these sorts of narratives. As a result, we continue to see the same stereotypical representations of Hinduism, devoid of the context of how the religion evolved parallel and in response to changing times over history.
This is one reason why we are working with educators, publishers, and scholars to develop a new approach to teaching about Hinduism in public schools that breathes life into the idea of a living tradition while upholding the sanctity of church-state separation. While the changes may be a while to make, they allow us to move away from limiting Hinduism to just one time period or homogenizing its content.
All faiths evolve, and to limit our understandings of their philosophies and changing practices, particularly in instructional materials, would be a great disservice to our more globally connected, culturally savvy future generations.