Vote on textbooks upsets some Hindus

Sacramento, USA - The State Board of Education voted Wednesday to reject dozens of proposed changes to the way Hinduism is presented in California's sixth-grade textbooks, supporting scholars but disappointing many Hindu parents and advocacy groups.

The board accepted many changes on which there was general agreement, correcting inaccuracies. But it retained controversial descriptions of the roles of women and minorities, migrational history and polytheism.

The 8-0 vote, with two abstentions, resolved a three-month furor over how the ancient religion should be pictured -- with or without its imperfections. The board affirmed a slate of revisions that had previously been recommended by its staff and a board committee.

Many members of the Hindu community, such as the Hindu Education Foundation, the Hindu American Foundation and the Vedic Foundation, believed that issues such as the caste system and discrimination against women did not belong in a sixth-grade introduction to religion. Modern Indo-American children were humiliated by this depiction of their faith, they told the board. One Hindu group, the Hindu American Foundation, is considering legal action to overturn the decision.

But others, including scholars from Stanford, the University of California and other academic institutions, contended that accuracy should prevail -- and that students can learn from historical injustices. They accused the advocacy groups of trying to whitewash history.

The ruling ``represents our best efforts,'' board member Ruth Green said. ``Many ideological fault lines have played out here,'' she said. ``These beliefs are deeply held.''

Several members of the Legislature wrote a letter of support for the scholars, including Sen. Elaine Alquist, D-San Jose, Assemblyman Leland Yee, D-San Francisco, and Sen. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo.

In 1987, California rewrote its guidelines for social studies to include the study of religion and its effect on history, emphasizing multiculturalism.

Every six years, the state reviews these textbooks -- and invites public opinion. Because California teaches so many students, decisions made by the State Board of Education have national implications. The textbooks used in California are also used in many other states. This year, for the first time, several factions of the fast-growing Indo-American community organized to fight for their interpretation of history.

Other changes, less controversial, were proposed and accepted by members of the Jewish, Christian and Islamic communities. Language was deleted because it promoted anti-Semitism. For instance, students will now learn that Romans, not Jews, crucified Christ. A sentence was deleted that suggested that God punished the Jews due to their evil ways.

Also dropped is a section that asked students to bring in a Bible to class, as well as an assignment to write a short essay about current attempts to end the violence between Israelis and Palestinians.

Evaluating the proposed changes ``was a great classroom lesson in history,'' board member Alan Berson said. ``It was an extraordinary process. Who we are, as a nation, is embodied in this process . . . acting with honor and civility, passion and intelligence,'' he said.

After the vote, University of California-Berkeley Professor Gautam Premnath said, ``On the whole, we are pleased. . . . The process worked out the way we hoped for. It is an important positive step.''

``They did a terrific job of getting rid of most of the ideological edits,'' said Steve Farmer, a Portola Valley-based scholar of comparative history, who worked with Harvard Professor Michael Witzel in studying the textbooks.

Members of the Hindu Education Foundation, many of them based in Silicon Valley, were grateful that many of their proposed changes, including several major inaccuracies, were adopted. But they were disappointed that their larger concerns fell on deaf ears.

``It is like putting Band-Aids on a chronic illness -- just a word here and there,'' said Khanderao Kand of Cupertino, representing the Hindu Education Foundation. It had asked the board to appoint another panel of Hindu scholars to review the texts. ``We are unhappy with the process.

``We did what we were allowed to do, within the process. We cannot rewrite the text,'' he said.

He vowed to return in six years -- when the textbooks are reviewed again. ``We will continue to seek more balanced and appropriate presentation of Hinduism. We will be here,'' Kand said.

Stanford student Neepa Acharya, 22, happy with the outcome, said she'll return, too.

``I would like to see every chapter of all the books reviewed, by many groups of people, so that as many people as possible are involved in the discussion.

``We need to get input from many people from many cultural backgrounds -- to unmask the faces in the textbooks,'' she said.