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California School Text Issues: Students Debate With Prof. Michael Witzel At Harvard University

Special Correspondent
02/09/2006

On Friday, Feb. 3rd, the Dharma Club, Harvard's Hindu students' organization, held a public forum to discuss the controversy over recent attempts to correct the presentation of Hinduism in textbooks in California. The forum featured presentations by two speakers. The first was Prof. Michael Witzel, Wales Professor of Sanskrit at Harvard, who opposes many of the corrections of the contents on Ancient India proposed for the CA textbooks. The other speaker was Krishna Maheshwari, a student at the Harvard Business School and co-founder of the Cornell chapter of Hindu Students Council (HSC). While Mr. Maheshwari is not a member of either the Vedic Foundation (VF) or the Hindu Education Foundation (HEF), he agrees with the bulk of the proposed changes and volunteered to speak in favor of the corrections at this forum.

Prof. Witzel began by outlining his reasons for opposing the specific corrections proposed by the VF and HEF. He stated that while he understood the Hindu community's concerns about the often negative portrayal of Hinduism in textbooks, he and his supporters felt that many of the proposed corrections were historically inaccurate and thus should not be accepted by the California Department of Education. The Professor attempted to question the motivations of the VF and HEF. He alleged that these organizations have links to groups having Hindu fundamentalist leanings in India. Mr Maheshwari pointed out that Prof. Witzel's attempt in connecting the CA textbook issue of coverage of Ancient India to the current political situation in India is completely uncalled for.

 

Mr Maheshwari in his presentation eloquently brought out the issues with the textbooks, not just California textbooks, but books from all states. His statement that textbooks are wrong was agreed to by Michael Witzel. He shared his experience in the classroom while he was growing up. Few members from the audience also shared their experiences suggesting that correcting the textbooks is a necessity and is largely agreed upon.


Mr. Maheshwari responded to Prof. Witzel's call for historical accuracy by pointing out that the positions adopted by the VF and HEF are supported by archaeological and genetic evidence and pointed to arguments presented by some of Prof. Witzel's colleagues at Harvard. Mr. Maheshwari also pointed out that due to the complexity of Sanskrit, there are many plausible interpretations of the Vedas and other scriptures concerning issues such as caste and the role of women. The issue in California is about the fair, just and appropriate treatment of Hinduism.  He repeatedly asserted that the presentation of Hinduism should be on par with that of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.  Mr. Maheshwari also responded to Prof. Witzel's allegations of links between the VF/HEF and Hindu fundamentalism by pointing out that one of Prof Witzel's supporters, Steven Farmer, tried to enlist the support of Christian fundamentalists and other anti-Hindu elements to block the efforts of the Hindu community to change the textbooks; just as it would be unfair to attack Prof. Witzel’s motives because of the activities of his supporters, Mr. Maheshwari argued, it is equally wrong to try to dismiss the VF's and HEF's edits by questioning their motives.


Mr. Maheshwari agreed with Prof. Witzel that in general, it can be difficult to find a balance between sensitivity to religion and historical accuracy.  He pointed out, however, that it is fairly straight forward in the case of elementary school textbooks because the state of California has very clear guidelines for how this issue should be resolved. For example, the guidelines state that no religion can be portrayed as inferior to any other, that no religion can be portrayed as an improvement on another religion, and that the curriculum should instill pride in his or her religion in each student. The fundamental problem in California, said Mr. Maheshwari, is that the guidelines are both not followed and not enforced in the case of Hinduism. Some of the texts trivialize Hindu beliefs, such as one book that tells students to look around for monkeys when discussing the Ramayana. Extensive space is devoted to presenting Hindu theology in terms of social problems such as caste while little space is devoted to actual Hindu philosophy or any achievements of Hindu civilization in areas such as mathematics and medicine. Finally, many books treat problems such as caste and gender discrimination as part of Hindu theology, whereas the Crusades, the Inquisition, and jihad are portrayed as historical events that may not reflect the beliefs of American Christians or Muslims.

Prof. Witzels’s motive in getting involved in the textbooks issue was questioned in the meeting. One person from the audience asked if he read the edits submitted by Hindu groups and also the textbooks before sending the letter to the board citing ‘it may ead to an international educational scandal’. Prof. Witzel refused to answer it citing that the matter was in court. It is not known however, if there is any court case. Another comment came from the audience that though his letter to the CBE on Harvard letterhead listed about 50 signatories as ‘world specialists on ancient India', many of them are not in academics, and majority of them are linguists, non-Hindus and many of them have nothing to do with Hinduism or Indian history. In addition, few historians listed are also questionable, including some with Marxists affiliations. Prof. Witzel had no comments.


Overall, the audience seemed very interested in hearing both sides of the debate. There was general agreement among all present, including Prof. Witzel, that there are serious problems with the way in which Hinduism is presented in American textbooks. However, it is clear that even after this forum, there is still considerable debate within the Harvard community about how the issue should be addressed. There is still a considerable disconnect between the two sides on this issue. Prof. Witzel and his supporters continue to focus on narrowly defined notions of historical accuracy which itself is under considerable debate in academic circles, while the VF, HEF and their supporters are concerned primarily with the ensuring that California state Government's guidelines are followed. It is also expected that just and fair representation of Hinduism and ancient India is ensured in all school textbooks.



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