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Debate on Indian History

The recent controversy over "correcting" depictions of ancient India in history school textbooks in California, has been largely posited in terms of a "secular vs saffron" debate; however, it has wider ramifications. While Indian Americans' vision of an "ideal" state of being in ancient India is influenced by their own physical separation and cultural isolation in the US, any unitary rewriting of ancient Indian history would have repercussions for India, and could tarnish its ideals of secularism.

Debate on Indian History

Revising Textbooks in California

The recent controversy over “correcting” depictions of ancient India in history school textbooks in California, has been largely posited in terms of a “secular vs saffron” debate; however, it has wider ramifications. While Indian Americans’ vision of an “ideal” state of being in ancient India is influenced by their own physical separation and cultural isolation in the US, any unitary rewriting of ancient Indian history would have repercussions for India, and could tarnish its ideals of secularism.


huge controversy is currently raging among academicians, scholars, political and religious activists, Indians and Hindu Americans about drastic changes proposed by the Vedic Foundation, the Hindu Education Foundation and some Indian Americans, in the history textbooks for the state of California in America. The correction process assumed contentious hues due to the far-reaching nature of the alterations recommended in the portrayal of the caste system in India, the role of Hinduism in perpetrating the caste hierarchy, and the status of women in ancient India. In addition, the corrections went as far as to depict Hinduism as a monotheistic religion neglecting several other strands of philosophy such as the Advaita, Visishtadvaita, Dwaita, Non-Vedic Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Tantra, seeking as it were, to impose a pan-Hindu identity on ancient India.

Chronology of Controversy

In August 2005, the Vedic Foundation started an “online petition to protest unfair and inaccurate depiction of Hinduism in school textbooks”.1 This online petition was also supported by the Hindu Education Foundation (an affiliate of the Hindu Swayamsevak Sangh of America).2 Every six years, the California Board of Education evaluates and modifies instructional materials for each of the core subjects(History-Social Science, Mathematics, Reading/ Language, Arts and Science) on a staggered schedule and the instructional materials for the History-Social Science core subject is scheduled for review this year.3

The Vedic Foundation submitted a report that documented inaccuracies in the history textbooks about the practices of Hinduism to the California State Department of Education recommending 382 edits in eight textbooks. On September 30, 2005, the Curriculum Committee of the California Board of Education held hearings in Sacramento, the capital of California, and the heavy volume of public comments received from advocacy groups resulted in the formation of an “Ad Hoc Committee” that included a few select members of the Curriculum Committee and a Content Review Panel Expert who would review the proposed edits and corrections. The California Department of Education appointed Shiva Bajpai (recommended by organisations that proposed changes as an expert on ancient Indian history) as the review expert.4 After a 30-day public commentary period, when the general public sends comments to the State Board on the Curriculum Commission, the ad hoc committee met to review the edits and corrections recommended by the review panel.

While some proposed changes in the vocabulary of the textbooks were less contentious, those that concerned the status of women in ancient India, caste-class distinction, artefacts of the Harappan culture, decipherment of the Indus script, scriptural interpretations of social and religious practices were viewed by scholars of Indology such as Michael Witzel, Stanley Wolpert, Steve Farmer and other scholars who specialise in the field of Asian Studies, secular groups such as the Friends of South Asia, and dalit organisations, as a deliberate attempt by some Hindu organisations affiliated to the RSS to distort history for political and ideological reasons.5 Amartya Sen in The Argumentative Indian describes the argumentative tradition of India as one wherein the process of debate itself forms a method of resolving philosophical differences and laments the efforts of extreme right wing elements to whitewash the complex cultural history of India by advocating a pan-Indian monotheistic Hindu identity.

Current Portrayal versus Recommended Corrections

Most of the current textbooks emphasise that men had more rights than women. But, the Hindu Education Foundation and the Vedic Foundation used a phraseology that appears to support a separate but equal treatment of women and suggested a replacement with the following: “Men had different rights and duties than women.... Women’s education was mostly done at home.”6 But the question is: Why were they treated differently and assigned different tasks? Why were women not given the same rights as men to perform or participate in a ‘yajna’? Why did men decide what women should do and should not? Even Chanakya, who did not have a very high regard for women, specifically envisaged provisions for the protection of women in the Arthasastra. Chanakya devised elaborate rules for widow remarriage, divorce, inheritance of property after the death of her husband.7 While it is true that some women sages are mentioned in the Upanishads, these are only a handful. Even in the Rig Vedas, women are only portrayed in their conventional social roles. Most of the natural forces such as Agni, Varuna, Indra and Mitra are masculine in nature.8 There are two ways of dealing with this ancient wrong. One way is to accept the existence of gender inequity in ancient India and institutionalise women’s participation in full strength in modern Indian society. Only those countries that have enacted legal and institutional remedies, that is, both formal and substantive measures, to abolish the social evil of gender discrimination have made progress. The second way is to pretend that the problem of gender discrimination has been resolved by enacting laws. The second approach is not augmented by a strong social movement that would create mass awareness andalso generate a moral debate among the populace about the injustice of gender discrimination. The latter approach is an escapist approach that would not solve any problems.

The second contentious issue relates to the portrayal of the caste system in India. Scholars such as P V Kane and Romila Thapar have very clearly explained the differences between jati (caste) and varna (class) as has A L Basham (1999).9 Max

Economic and Political Weekly May 6, 2006 Weber’s analysis of the Indian caste system as a sedimentation of social groups one over the other in a lattice-like structure due to constant shifts in the alignment of social, political and economic forces is more effective.10 This analysis actually would strengthen the arguments of the Hindu nationalists that caste was not merely the handiwork of brahminism but a very complex phenomenon. But a more diverse and complex explanation of ancient India would splinter a Vedic-centric Hinduism required for the construction of the cultural identity of nationalistic Hinduism. In Buddhist and Jaina traditions, the kshatriyas or the warrior class is accorded a higher status to that of brahmins. Buddhist chronicles mention only two classifications; ‘rajakula’ ‘kshatriyas’ and ‘dasa karmakaras’. The ‘dasa’ and ‘arya’ classification is not necessarily a caste-based classification but rather an ethnic distinction. Later, the term dasa assumed derogatory connotation. The dasa chiefs fought with the Aryans but also sponsored yajnas. Moreover, the dasa-arya relation was not always one of rivalry.

The later Rig Vedic period witnessed the beginnings of the varna system. The Purushasukta belongs to the latter Rig Vedic period and the four parts of the primordial Purusa are not based on birth but on occupation. The term pariah that is a taboo in India is not a derogatory word in essence. ‘Parai’ in Tamil means drum. The drummers were classified in course of time as untouchables, most probably because they handled animal skin. But brahmins play several musical instruments such as the ‘mrudangam’, ‘ghatam’, ‘kanjira’, ‘dholak’ and ‘dholki’. Some of them became even skilled makers of these instruments. Do brahmins, as a result, become untouchables since they handle animal skin? Several shastras forbid overseas travel. But there are antidotes for all ‘doshas’ (mistakes). Another interesting aspect is that of one way social mobility. Only the brahmins are authorised to perform the occupations of other classes during times of crises. Other castes or classes are not allowed to perform the duties of the brahmins. It is in this sense that the Bhagawad Gita provides a creative solution.11 By legitimising karma, bhakti and jnana as three plausible ways for moksha, the Bhagawad Gita, at least, psychologically explores a solution to the prevalent blatant social inequalities. By emphasising the unavoidability of social action and assigned duties, the Gita provided a channel for the non-brahmin classes to attain liberation from their social station. The solutions proposed in the Gita only underscore the ineluctable fact that caste discrimination was widespread and served a convenient instrument of social domination in ancient India.

The third part of the controversy is about the treatment of Hinduism as a religion of a unitary Godhead. The Vedas emphasise karma or ritual propitiation of the natural forces for achieving material well-being and liberation. The Upanishads took Indian philosophy and religion to the zenith of speculative glory and hence it was naturally opposed to the overt emphasis on ritualism in the Vedas. In the Upanishads, there is a tension between the ‘nirguna’ (qualityless) and ‘saguna’ (qualified) conceptions of the Ultimate Reality, i e, Brahman. Self-realisation and not propitiation becomes the goal in the Upanishads.12 The Bhagawad Gita, for its part, not only emphasises karma (action) but also jñâna and bhakti because bhakti is the only way that leads people who belong to other two varnas to. But all this changed with the Bhagawata Purana (the story of Lord Krishna) and the tradition that spawned it. The Tamil devotional saints called the ‘alwars’ and the ‘nayanmars’ revitalised Hinduism with their poems of incandescent beauty but also humanised and personalised the relationship between god and human beings. Later, the bhakti movement that spread all over India boasted of great spiritual personages such as Ramanand, Kabir, Guru Nanak and Tukaram. But the relation between the Vedic brahmanism and the bhakti movement is neither seamless nor concomitant. By lumping different strands of Hinduism as a globular mass, the advocates of a uni-cultural India are only dividing it along the lines of religion and race.

This level of cultural debate does not characterise the California textbook controversy. Rather, there is an attempt to avoid a debate at all cost. There is a yearning for a new “historical beginning” on a clean slate. But the Indian American cultural debate is complicated because of the clash of conceptual horizons. This is where Amartya Sen’s claims about the argumentative nature of the Indian philosophical tradition become relevant. In the Nyaya system (science of reason or logic or argumentation) of Indian philosophy, the process of ‘sandhyaya sambhasa’ implies a debate oriented towards achieving consensus and a better understanding about controversial issues. What prevails instead are claims and counter-claims about the sincerity of intentions on the part of both proponents and opponents of proposed changes in the textbooks.13

Cultural Debates

There has always been a perceptible tension between various Indian American organisations and social groups. The tension spawns cultural, linguistic, regional and religious spheres. Another perspective relates to how Indian Americans see themselves vis-à-vis Indians. Till very recently, most Indians who migrated to America belonged to the upper middle classes. The educated upper and middle classes of India before the 1990s did not have sufficient educational and professional opportunities in an economically conservative India.14 Ironically, the cultural distance between the Indians and the Indian Americans seems to have contributed immensely to the current textbook controversy. While social, political and cultural transformation is sweeping India, most Indian Americans retain their reified ideas about India.

It appears most Indian Americans do not want to lose their Indian cultural identity. In an interesting conversation with an Indian American parent, I learned that the US serves as an enclave of cultural isolation that helps them bring up their kids in an Indian environment within their house while contrasting the American culture outside. Their yearning for Indian culture is exploited not only by the Hindu nationalist groups but also by Indian cinema, music, drama and dance artistes. The most intriguing aspect of the Indian American diaspora is its inherent reticence to collaborate with the American art and culture. Concomitantly, political developments in the US influence the attitude of the Indian Americans towards India and vice versa. The Hindu nationalist ideology is neatly packaged in a uni-cultural interpretation of Hinduism. As explained earlier, philosophically, Indian thought is too complicated to be encapsulated under monotheism since ‘samkhya’, ‘nyaya’, ‘vaiseshika’, and ‘mîmâmsa’, which are orthodox schools have only a tenuous idea of god. Even Jainism and Buddhism that developed indigenously in India emphasise more on moral conduct and less on rituals. Vedic Hinduism incorporated some of the critiques of Buddhism and Jainism. Even the Upanishads, which is considered to be the fountainhead of Indian philosophy, ridicules Vedic ritualism.

Economic and Political Weekly May 6, 2006

The Hindu nationalist outlook polarises the Indian American population into Hindus and non-Hindus, an approach probably prompted by the influence of twoparty system in the US. Psychologically as well, the Indian Americans are trying to assimilate into an alien culture while simultaneously coping with the mental and social shackles of being Indian with all the historical baggage of social, religious and cultural past. In this, they have been very successful especially due to the separation of their private sphere permeated by a strong sense of cultural identity and the public sphere of American culture. But the separation of the public and private spheres is also the weakness of the American cultural experience for the Indian Americans or the Chinese Americans or the Japanese Americans because there is no genuine engagement between diverse cultures in America. People return and stay in the comforts of their cultural cocoons because of this private-public distinction. Even in India, for all its diversity and tolerance, the reflective engagement between different religions and cultures is only marginally better.

Wider Ramifications

The California textbook controversy is the latest attempt by the Hindu nationalist groups to create a wedge and polarise the Indian American population. California is one of the largest educational markets in the US. The Indian Americans are one of the biggest contributors to the Hindu nationalist groups in India. By capturing the Indian American cultural market, the Hindu nationalists would be able to wield tremendous influence in India since most of the social, political and cultural establishments in India are the biggest consumers of brand America.

For the Indian Americans who do not live in India, national pride in Indian culture and its hoary historical past is a catalyst to their cultural identity. Even though Indian Americans suffer emotional pangs of separation from their families in India and for leaving India for foreign shores, national pride comes only in the form of a politics of ideas.15 Neither can they envisage Indian national and cultural pride through the structures of the American society nor can they feel the effects of nationalism through the Indian social structure because they do not live in India. National pride is an empowering cultural ideal for the Indian Americans whereas for Indians it is a reality. But, there is a wide chasm between an ideal and reality. India was ranked 138th in the Human Development Index according to the United Nations Human Development Report of 2004.16

While it is understandable on the part of those who espouse the cause of fair treatment of Hinduism to feel aggrieved at insensitive references that have to be interpreted in a specific context, it is also the duty of the parents and mentors of the young children to explain India’s social ills such as the status of women and the abominable caste system. Denying historical facts about the existence of the caste system and the subjugation of women in India is a violation of civil rights of those who suffered humiliation and were denied social, political and economic progress. Several articles have been written in Indian newspapers and web blogs about whether middle schools are the right battle grounds for settling historical wrongs.17 Most of the advocates of a revisionist history of India claim that the Indian Constitution had outlawed any caste and gender discrimination and hence it is not correct to say that such social ills are condoned in India. This entire argument is inauthentic and disingenuous. As long as there is ambivalence and, in many quarters, blatant support towards social ills such as dowry, sati, female infanticide and untouchability, no society could claim to have gotten rid of social evils. India still witnesses inhumane caste violence, gender abuse and religious violence. These are not merely sentiments but stark and chilling reminders of the past.




1 Vishal Agarwal, ‘Hindu Americans Face an Uphill Battle – Part II’, www.india, February 2006. Vishal Agarwal, ‘Genesis of the Michael Witzel Petition’, Vishal Agarwal, ‘Critical Observations on the Michael Witzel Petition’, Niraj Mohanka, ‘Forgetting the Child-the Heart of Matter’,

2 – This website is the official website of Hindu Swayamsewak Sangh of America and there is a link to the California Textbook controversy. http://www. is the link for the Vedic Foundation, an association based in Austin, Texas, whose aim is to re-establish authentic Hinduism.

3 – On February 28, 2006, the Special Committee of the California State Board of Education voted unanimously to overturn a majority of the changes proposed by the Hindu Education Foundation and the Vedic Foundation.

4 Shiva G Bajpai gave a keynote address at the Brahman Samaj of North America conference in 1999 on the topic ‘Brahmanatva: The Life-Divine of the Mind’. This does not make him in any manner a supporter of caste oppression. Bajpai is only defending what he sees as good traits in the brahmanic tradition.

5 Forty scholars (the list is growing) from highly reputed institutions signed a petition opposing arbitrary changes in the history textbooks approved for adoption by the California Education Board. It is quixotic that the Hindu groups are targeting Steve Farmer and Michael Witzel when they are actually proposing explanations that would counter theories about marauding Aryan hordes invading and destroying indigenous civilisations of India. Refer to Witzel’s article ‘The Home of the Aryans’, “http://www. people. fas.harvard. edu/ ~witzel/AryanHome.pdf.” Steve Farmer, Michael Witzel, and Richard Sproat article “The Collapse of the Indus Script Thesis: The Myth of a Literate Harappan Civilisation’, EJVS, December 2004. Refer to www. safarmer. com. Vrinda Normand, ‘Battling the Past’, http:// Daniel Golden, ‘Defending the Faith: New Battleground in Textbook Wars: Religion in History’, The Wall Street Journal, January 25, 2006

6 The Laws of Manu, trans Wendy Doniger O’ Flaherty and Brian K Smith, Penguin, 1991. 7 Chânakya, Arthasastra, trans L N Rengarajan, Penguin Books, New Delhi, 1992. 8 The Rig Veda, trans Wendy Doniger, Penguin Books, New Delhi, 1994.

9 A L Basham, The Wonder That Was India, Rupa and Co, New Delhi, 1999. In the chapter dealing with the social formations in ancient India, Basham explains in great detail how caste, religion and gender were interwoven in the everyday life of the people.

10 Max Weber, Religion of India (The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism), trans and eds Hans H Gerth and Don Martindale, Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, New Delhi, 2004.

11 The Bhagawad Gita, trans Jaidayal Goenka, Gita Press, Gorakhpur, 2000.

12 M Hiriyanna, Outlines of Indian Philosophy, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers, New Delhi, 2000.

13 B K Matilal, Perception: An Essay on Classical Indian Theories of Knowledge, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1986. This book is an excellent comparison of Indian and western epistemological theories and has a detailed analysis of the argumentative tradition and literature of ancient India.

14 Shashi Tharoor, India: From Midnight to the Millennium, Arcade Publishers, New York, 1997.

15 Seyla Benhabib, ed Democracy and Difference, Princeton University Press, New Jersey, 1996. In her article titled ‘Dealing with Difference: A Politics of Ideas or a Politics of Presence?’ American philosopher Anne Phillips explains the clash between two political strands: those who espouse the politics of ideas and those who support the politics of presence. Several African American scholars such as Cornel West and Bell Hookes are also critical of those who trivialise the politics of presence.

16 United Nations Human Development Report, 2004.

17 Rajiv Malhotra and Vidhi Jhunjhunwala, ‘Academic Hinduphobia’, www.outlook

Economic and Political Weekly May 6, 2006

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