Being Hindu in America: An Atheist’s Perspective on the California Textbook Controversy

Once again California public school textbooks are at the center of furious public debate. Groups that have declared themselves guardians of Hinduism are engaged in a campaign to rid California textbooks of what they consider grave, even discriminatory, errors.

Some of the controversy has concerned the use of the term South Asia instead of India—the aforementioned guardians of Hinduism abhor the use of South Asia to refer to what they regard as the historic area of India as a whole (that is India before partition in 1947). As a co-founder of SAMAR (South Asian Magazine for Action and Reflection), I am familiar with this terminological debate. When we dreamed up SAMAR in 1992 in Austin, Texas, we deliberately chose the term South Asia to signal an inclusive and anti-nationalist perspective—we wanted to address not just Indians but also people who traced their origins to other parts of South Asia like Pakistan and Bangladesh. In a small way, SAMAR contributed to the spread of South Asia as a widely employed term in the US.

It was clear to me then that South Asia and India had different and differently valid uses based on what one was trying to say. Nothing has happened to change my opinion. The use of the term India by Hindu nationalist groups to refer to a geographical area that today includes several countries other than India is patently absurd. What might be less clear to those not steeped in these recondite debates is that this is also an attempt to advance a militantly expansionist idea of India. Hindu nationalists dream of an Akhand Bharat or Unified India—an India unified that is under Hindu ideals—and to substitute India for South Asia wherever possible represents their desire to smuggle in this idea of Akhand Bharat through a series of displacements that it would take me too long to explain here.

Another part of the California textbook controversy concerns caste or rather, to use the term I usually prefer, the varna-jati complex. The same Hindu nationalists launching covert campaigns for Akhand Bharat work ceaselessly to minimize the role of caste discrimination in India. Caste is not just Hindu, they say; caste is not the rigid system that Orientalists make it out to be, they declare; caste is not the sole reality of India, they argue—all of which is true, as I have noted in my own writings on this subject, especially in my book Flesh and Fish Blood. What the Hindu nationalists fail to add is that caste is nevertheless more Hindu than not, that caste and the discriminations associated with it have proven stubbornly resistant to eradication, and that caste is certainly one of the most significant aspects of the reality of India.

Hidden in the California controversy lie other important questions: Who speaks for Hindus in America today? Who should speak for them? Are practicing Hindus alone permitted to weigh in on questions regarding Hinduism? What about an atheist like me, who was raised in Hindu traditions? And what about someone who is neither a practicing Hindu nor was raised in a Hindu family but who has studied Hinduism deeply in a scholarly way?

I have an anti-identitarian perspective on these questions—which is to say, I believe anyone can speak on these matters but no one, Hindu or non-Hindu, can be exempted from being knowledgeable and balanced.

I am an atheist from a reasonably devout Hindu family who has raised an Indian American son in the US. I know from personal experience and from the experience of my son that there is much ignorant stereotyping of India and Hinduism in the US. Putting my atheism aside for a moment, I think it is worth insisting that textbooks appraise Hinduism with the same evenhandedness that they might other religions (for example, by noting that Hinduism is not devoid of democratic impulses), and that they be aware of the ways in which misconceptions about Hinduism might be used to bully Indian American children from Hindu families.

On the other hand, Hinduism has certainly been the basis for the abjection and rank oppression of large groups of people including Dalits—which is one of the reasons I am an atheist. Surely Dalit American children in California deserve the same right to a truthful assessment of their historical reality that Hindu American students do? Given the enormity of historical crimes done to Dalits and others regarded as “low caste” there can be no compromise here, no sentimentalism about tradition.

In the final analysis, Hinduism is as much a social phenomenon and cultural tradition as it is a religion; and in this context I have as much right to speak of it—as well as, if necessary, against it—as a devout Hindu.

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5 comments

  1. A truly wonderful post. Love the challenge to Hindu defensiveness on issues of varna-jati and efforts to downplay its reality. Also love the conclusion–mirrors my view of Catholicism (as cultural tradition as much as religion)and my desire to keep speaking of it –as well as, if necessary against it–as a dissident Catholic.

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  2. I agree with much of what you state; however there are a few aspects to this debate that should be mentioned.

    The first is that when one views the specific edits where India is changed to South Asia, a number of these changes really make no sense. It’s one thing when using the term South Asia for an organization or a magazine, it’s another when trying to discuss a civilization or a geographic area. I won’t go into detail, but if you view the framework edits on the board of education website, you can probably see for yourself in which places these edits are problematic.

    With regards to the caste system, the textbooks are for 11 year old children (6 th grade) who spend a few hours of in-class instruction on a particular religion.Per California law, no religion can be presented as inferior to another and all children should feel positively about their religious heritage when studying this unit. Controversial aspects of Christian / Muslim / Jewish history are barely touched upon.The same standards should be applied equally. This is after all an elementary school book.

    We should teach about the terrible history of caste discrimination (and inequities in other religions should be discussed as well), but currently the presentation is done entirely from a Judeo Christian standpoint. Each religion is presented as a set of commandments to be followed. The fact that the multiplicity of traditions under the Hindu umbrella don’t fit this model is a major issue when discussing caste or patriarchy because the boundaries between social practice and religion are not easily defined. For example, being an atheist as a hindu likely does not necessitate a major difference in one’s social practice. It would probably be just as easy to be Hindu in the bhakti tradition and reject caste (as many of the bhakti saints did)

    Over the past decade a number of scholars (not Hindu) from Oxford to Austin to Berkeley have published precisely on the fact that the ancient system of varna and jaathi were practiced much differently than what eventually came to be known as the modern caste system. So in discussing caste during an introduction to hinduism, we need to mention that the origins of rigid caste hierarchy are still not clear. We also need to discuss the Hindu leaders who worked towards social equality within the Hindu tradition. They were revered during their lives and their spiritual teachings are still followed today. It should also be clear to students that every single influential modern day Hindu religious leader has spoken out clearly against caste discrimination. This approach is fact-based, equitable and would be appropriate for an introductory class on faith for children.

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    1. Thanks, Annie V, for your substantive comment. Since we are in agreement about most of what I have written, I think we may be quibbling over nuances. The fact that other religions can be as bad as Hinduism when it come to social exclusion doesn’t mean we should allow inaccurate depictions of Hinduism to stand. The fact that the textbook is not evenhanded suggests to me critics should focus their energy on making sure that it is. And so on. Thanks again for taking the time to write.

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