By C. Alex Alexander
Although I have been in the US since 1962, I seem to have remained unaware of how American schools are imprinting concepts of Indian identity and Hinduism on the minds of American youth including children born to Indian parents. It was probably because I never had children of my own. My recent inquiries of Indian parents about this issue revealed that not many Indian parents are fully cognizant of the extent of misinformation that is being parlayed to young Americans, not just about India but about most non-European civilizations.
After availing of an early retirement from our professional lives, my wife and I spent a year studying Art History after which we became volunteer docents at a local art museum. In our roles as docents we came in contact with elementary and high school students who visited the museum to augment their knowledge of world history and ancient civilizations. After a year'sexperience of interacting with school kids I have become convinced that something needs to be done, especially with regard to the way non-Judeo Christian communities are being portrayed in the text books that our students use and the manner in which their teachers are trained to deal with Asian, African, Latino and Native American traditions.
India, in my opinion receives the worst treatment of all at the hands of our teachers of world history. China and Japan fare a lot better. My African-American colleagues with whom I often talk about India'simage in the US greet me with their ?welcome to the club? slogan. They remind me that Indians ?have to fight the battles like they themselves had to struggle with in order to make the white Americans concede at least partly that Africa is more than a mere continent that sent them their slaves?. Those who have resided in the US since the early 1960s may recall the debates that when the US Nobel Laureate William Shockley and his friend, Professor Arthur Jensen began to popularise their (now-discredited) theories of racial inferiority of African-Americans. It took nearly four decades of systematic challenges by the black community to correct the distorted stereotyping of blacks, some of which continue even today in a subtle fashion.
Likewise, during the last three or four decades, the negative images of India and Hinduism in particular have been promoted by our movies and talk show pundits (Indiana Jones, Oprah Winfrey, 60 Minutes et al). These have contributed to the inability of many of our school teachers to present a balanced portrayal of the Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Sikh traditions to their students. Hinduism seems to fare the worst at the hands of our school systems. The average American teacher'sknowledge of Hinduism, which is the core component of India'scultural heritage, is often stilted by the sensational portrayals of that faith by our mass media. Though a few inquiring Indian parents seem to be aware of these problems, I am unaware of organised efforts in most states of our land (except in Virginia and California) undertaken by the Indian community to address this issue. I also realise that the extent of such prejudiced portrayals of India may vary from state to state, the worst being in our Bible belt in the South.
This issue was recently highlighted at the 5th International Conference of the World Association of Vedic Studies (WAVES) held on July 9-11, 2004 at the Shady Grove Campus of the University of Maryland by a paper presented by Yvette C. Rosser of the University of Texas at Austin and titled ?Stereotypes in Schooling: Negative Pressures in the American Educational System on Hindu Identity
Formation?. That study found that ?stereotypes about India and Hinduism when taught as facts in American classrooms may negatively impact students of South Asian origin who are struggling to work out their identities in a multicultural, and predominantly Anglo-Christian environment?. Rosser'swork is based on surveys of both teachers who teach world history in our classrooms and Indian students who are being taught by these teachers.
The study found that the teachers devoted only seven per cent of their preparation time to Asia of which most of it was consumed by Japan and China. Latin America received six per cent, Middle East four per cent and Africa three per cent. Eighty per cent of their learning time was devoted to European history! The amount of time spent in class instruction of these cultures reflected a similar distribution of effort. The students who were interviewed by Rosser were all of Indian descent. They were often befuddled by the contradictions that resulted from what they learnt about Indian culture and Hinduism through their teachers vs. what they derived from interacting with their Indian parents and Indian friends of non-Hindu faiths.
This is a serious issue with implications for the formation of both identity and character of not only the Indian youth but also of their non-Indian counterparts with whom they will have to interact socially and live with for the rest of their lives. Aren'twe after all ?one nation indivisible with liberty and justice for all?? Our great seal proclaims ?e Pluribus Unum?, ?out of many, one?! Neither American'scultural identity nor his/her roots should be demeaned owing to the ignorance of our teachers, especially when we the taxpayers are paying their salaries!
This article showcases the pathetic situation of Hindu portrayal in the US textbooks and why edits have to be made for fair portrayal. In a nutshell, the textbooks are full of negative and disparaging portrayal of Hinduism and paints a very positive picture of other religions.
My own interactions with my adult American friends lead me to conclude that most of them appear to have got their entire education about India and Hinduism either from the television and newspapers, or magazines like the National Geographic and Readers Digest or through visits to museums. This is particularly so with regard to their knowledge of Hinduism.
Most of them know about India'sthree Cs: Caste, Curry and Cows and the three Ps: Polytheism, Poverty and Population! They know little or nothing about the distinctions between polytheism and pantheism. The more ?sophisticated? ones know a little about Gandhi, mostly through Richard Attenborough'smovie. They are also the ones who are more likely to ask you about ?sati?, ?bride-burning? and ?the Kashmir? problem. With more than a million practicing Hindus now in the US and with nearly 800 Hindu temples and ashrams here, there is no reason why Hindu temples in each state (a la the African-American churches) cannot take leadership roles in systematically examining the high school textbooks that the children of their worshippers use in schools. Should they find factually incorrect or demeaning characterisations of India and its Hindu, Jain, Buddhist or Sikh religious traditions in these textbooks, they should bring them to the attention of their local school boards with requests to rectify them.
Not doing so will surely affect the identity and character formation of both Indian and non-Indian youth who are the future citizens of this nation. In order to do all that, there needs to be a united voice of Indians of non-Abrahamic traditions in every community. I believe that the temples of the Hindu, Jain, Sikh and Buddhist faiths are uniquely suited to perform such functions. It is indeed both sad and surprising that Hindu, Jain, Sikh and Buddhist temples in the US have not yet formed at least a web-linked and non-dues paying national council or association or consortium to discuss and resolve problems that affect the identity of future generation of Indians here who want to remain as adherents of their faiths into which they were born. The monotheistic faiths (Judeo-Christian & Islamic) in the US have their own separate linkages that inform each other of important issues facing their respective faith communities. They do so with lightning speed whenever they suspect that their images or reputations are being distorted. I believe that the Hindu temples (due to their large numbers) are uniquely suited to take a lead in the development of such a consortium, council or association to tackle issues concerning representations of their religious traditions in our school systems.
Not too long ago, there were many articles in the US and Indian media about the denigration of Ganesha, Ramakrishna Paramahans, Shivaji etc by the sophomoric writings of euro-centric American professors associated with US schools of divinity. Complaints about such writings were lodged by both Indian scholars in India as well as scholars from among the NRI communities here in the US and UK. But the latter (critics) were often unfairly caricatured by a few Judeo-Christian as well as Indian ?intellectuals? characterising the critics as Hindu fundamentalists or ignoramuses who are unfamiliar with our Bill of Rights, which guarantees freedom of expression.
It was even more baffling for me to learn that some of these American (Judeo-Christian) professors who routinely defame Hinduism and its deities and heroes through their writings are frequently invited by Hindu groups and even given honoraria and garlanded and feted for their ?contributions?. Most Hindu hosts seem to be unaware of the fact that their ?distinguished lecturers? who often identify themselves primarily as professors of ?Eastern religions? at reputable universities are in actuality serving as principal faculty of their respective schools of divinity. These schools of divinity have ulterior motives in offering degrading interpretations of non-Abrahamic faiths.
Rosser reported in her study that one Indian student said that he was asked in a class discussion why Indians always worshipped rats, fed them and allowed them to multiply when it is well-known that they can harbour vectors capable of spreading bubonic plague.
They have no interest what so ever in teaching any student the virtues of India or its predominant Hindu civilization, which has contributed, to the evolution of Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. Hinduism'score value of pluralism and its tolerance of all faiths are seldom highlighted, nor discussed as more conducive to the preservation of world peace than our monotheistic Abrahamic faiths can ever hope to be if the latter remain wedded to its exclusivist religious philosophy steeped in their respective beliefs of infallibility.
You should not be surprised if you had heard from your children that they had not heard anything good about India or its many religious traditions from any of their teachers. I wonder how many of them were told by their teachers that India is the largest democracy in the world with a secular form of government, that it is a country that has never had a military coup, never invaded another country, allowed Christianity to thrive even before it spread to Europe, gave haven to Jews, Christians and Zoroastrians when they fled from the onslaughts of Islam, and gave birth to Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism. They also may not have heard from their teachers that India is the seventh most industrialised country in the world, and that it contributed a great deal to ancient mathematics, astronomy, bronze casting, surgery, and vaccination, Yoga, Ayurveda etc.
But, your children may have been asked inane questions by their classmates based on a sensational TV or magazine account of some weird practice going on somewhere in India as it happens everywhere, even in our own, viz., the United States of America.
For example, Rosser reported in her study that one Indian student said that he was asked in a class discussion why Indians always worshipped rats, fed them and allowed them to multiply when it is well-known that they can harbour vectors capable of spreading bubonic plague.
This occurred after a TV show aired an item concerning veneration of rats in a temple in Rajasthan. I too recall someone asking me whether that practice was typical of Hinduism. My response was that it was no more typical of Hinduism than it is of Christianity if we were to infer that all Christians handled rattlesnakes in their Sunday worship as some congregations in West Virginia or the Boot Heel of Missouri still do in order to test and affirm their own ?sinless? lives since their last worship in that church!
The Judeo-Christian, African-American and Latino parents (Latinos less vigorously than the former two groups) exercise constant vigilance to ensure that the facts about their respective cultures are not degraded or slandered by any teacher. If they do, their representatives on the school boards promptly take them to task. Now, it is the turn of Asian-Indian parent'shere, particularly Hindu, Sikh, Jain and Buddhist parents to find out from their children what they are learning about India and its many religions and their traditions. And, if they find that their schools are not offering a balanced account of India'shistory, its achievements and its religious traditions, I do believe that the parents have an obligation to seek remedial action from the administrators of their schools.
At least for posterity'ssake, they must act. If they do not, they are in my humble opinion, short-changing their own commitment to Sanatana Dharma. They are also missing a golden opportunity to highlight the ancient wisdom of the Hindu traditions as codified in Sanatana Dharma, which celebrates religious pluralism and diversity. I know of no other faith other than Hinduism or an ancient land other than the pre-Mughal and the pre-Colonial Indian subcontinent which permitted the thriving of multiple faiths and demonstrated its hospitality to all those who came to its shores seeking refuge from religious persecution or trading opportunities.
The extent of such prejudiced portrayals of India may vary from state to state, the worst being in our Bible belt in the South.
Even in recent times, India has provided refuge to Tibetans fleeing from persecution in their own homeland. More than two thousand years before our Founding Fathers in this Nation envisaged a country which shall become that ?shining city on the Hill? where religious pluralism and diversity shall thrive so that we can remain an example for the rest of the world, the Indian subcontinent was practicing it! India continues to remain as that ?shining? land mass of religious tolerance even despite the relentless provocations of the arrogant factions of the monotheistic faiths.
It is not a well-appreciated fact here in this country that India'sSanatana Dharma had always espoused such a pluralistic tradition as befitting the peoples who inhabited that subcontinent. Middle East too was a haven for pluralism with its pre-Christian Semitic and African cultures as well as the very early Christian churches of the first four centuries of the Common Era. They were all destroyed consequent to the bastardization of the ancient eastern Judeo-Christian faiths when these essentially ?eastern Jewish and Orthodox.
Eastern Christian faiths? were hijacked nearly 1700 years ago by the Western imperialist powers to convert them into exclusivist creeds and make them become tools in their quests for world domination. Unfortunately, the Islamic rulers embraced the same fervor for co-opting religion in the service of expanding political power. The follies of all such perversions, past and present are now becoming more obvious in recent years with the resurgence of militancy among the ignorant minorities of the Abrahamic faiths who are either willing to maim and kill for proving their exclusivist superiority and nearness to God or belittle and ridicule those who perceive God differently. In that context, the parents of our Indian-American children have a stellar opportunity to show their neighbours of Abrahamic faiths the redeeming values and traditions of Sanatana Dharma and the latter'sintrinsic nearness to the true tenet of the American creed, EPLURIBUS UNUM!
(Dr. Alexander is a US citizen and has retired from the medical profession. He has held several executive medical positions in the US Department of Affairs, US Department of Defense, US Army Medical Corps, Reserve Components and has held professorial appointments at several medical schools during his 40 years of medical career in the United States.)