History Standard Revision in Virginia a Step Forward

The insertion of a single word in the new Virginia history and social science standards of learning could have a huge impact on how ancient India is taught.

For decades, numerous groups -- often with contradictory motivations -- have sparred over India's origins, which has often pitted historians against each other and put educators in an awkward position. Some history education groups have even encouraged teachers to ignore textbook content in an attempt to free themselves from oversimplified narratives.

That's because the debate over the early part of Indian civilization hasn't necessarily been reflected in social studies content standards, curriculum frameworks, and textbooks. Instead, the most common narrative about ancient India -- and Hinduism, which originates from the Indian subcontinent -- goes something like this: Aryans migrated into (or invaded) the Indian subcontinent and established Hinduism and the caste system. Hinduism then gets "replaced" by more progressive religions like Buddhism and virtually disappears from mention in history.

This narrative had been regurgitated by social studies textbooks for decades, despite calls by religion and history scholars to push for a more accurate and nuanced understanding of Indian history and an emphasis on Hinduism as a living tradition. As more states embrace critical inquiry as part of student learning, even the gray area of history becomes an opportunity for exploration.

However, instructional materials are often constrained by local or state standards, which provide the basic guidelines of what students should know about subjects. The old Virginia standard on ancient India read: "Describe India, with emphasis on caste system and Aryan migrations."

The old standard was problematic on many levels, but the emphasis on the caste system is largely governed by the false assumptions that the idea of caste has been static and rigid for thousands of years. While it is true that the development of a varna/jati system was (and is) a significant part of Indian social history, most textbooks oversimplified and distorted this intricate and non-rigid system into a static and discriminatory "caste" system that it is only practiced by Hindus. In fact, the way caste is described today has nothing to do with Hindu scriptures, which do not sanction caste-based discrimination, and as such, the depictions in content standards and classrooms are deeply problematic.

Secondly, the reference to Aryan migrations assumes the validity of just one of several competing theories regarding ancient Indian origins. Most scholars now agree that Aryans (derived from the Sanskrit term arya, or noble one) never referred to one group or race of people. Moreover, the debate over the spread of what are known as Proto Indo-European languages continues today among linguistic historians. Others have questioned whether a migration happened at all based on genetic evidence. In other words, we don't know exactly how the transition from the Harappan age to the Vedic period happened.

The Hindu American Foundation (HAF) contended that the old standard was based on an inaccurate narrative of ancient India and Hinduism that collapsed thousands of years of history and social development together. As I told a Virginia Board of Education member in December, the way the standard was written is tantamount to claiming that George Washington fought the British driving a Ford F-150.

Thankfully, the work done by a core group of Virginia residents in 2008 during the curriculum frameworks revision, as well as a number of recently published academic articles, helped make our case stronger during the standards revision process.
As a result, the Board adopted a new standard that reads: "locating India in time and place, including its origins, and early development and the debate over the Aryan migrations."

The word "debate" is critical here because it acknowledges the disputes currently taking place in academia about the settlement of India in the period after the Harappan age. Moreover, given the complex nature of varna and jati in India (and the fact that the notion of caste wasn't formalized until well into the Middle Ages), the removal of caste as a point of emphasis was a welcome change.

It also allows for a more robust discussion about history and social development, especially as new evidence continues to shape our understanding of the past. Perhaps other states will follow Virginia's lead in revising their content standards to allow for more nuance in the study of ancient Indian history and the origins of Hinduism.

After all, history is vibrant and constantly open to new interpretations based on the availability of evidence. State content standards should be a reflection of that vibrancy.