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Calif. Textbooks Spark New Religious Debate


In California, proposed changes to sixth grade textbooks have incited a bitter debate. If you assumed the controversy centered around intelligent design or sex education, think again. This time, it's about the portrayal of Hinduism and Indian history.

Some Hindu groups have taken issue with how the books depict the role of women in ancient Indian society as well as the caste system. They say the textbooks in their current form are unfairly negative, and they want certain passages changed to portray the culture within the context of Indian history, not modern Western values.

A number of academics argued that such revisions would amount to a whitewash. The California school board has heard arguments on both sides and will make its decision on a final version of the textbooks later this month.

We'd like to hear from you on this. If you're a teacher, how do you fairly and accurately discuss a different culture's history? We'd also like to hear from members of the Indian community. Where do you weigh in on the debate in California?

Our number here in Washington, 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK, and our email address is talk@npr.org.

We're going to hear from both sides in this debate. Joining us now is Shiva Bajpai, Professor Emeritus of History at California State University in Northridge. He joins us from a studio at NPR West in Culver City, California.

We'll also be joined by Michael Witzel, a Professor of Sanskrit and Indian Studies at Harvard University, and he joins us from the studio at Harvard.

Welcome to both of you.

Professor SHIVA BAJPAI (Professor Emeritus of History at California State University in Northridge): Glad to be here.

Professor MICHAEL WITZEL (Sanskrit and Indian Studies, Harvard University): Thank you.

NEARY: Professor Bajpai, let's start with you. As I understand it, the California Board hired you to review the proposals that had been made by Hindu groups. So, do you agree with those groups' proposed changes, first of all.

Professor BAJPAI: (Coughs) Excuse me. When I started evaluating these comments, I was taking into account a number of criteria for my evaluation.

First one, that this sixth grade textbooks deals with ancient Indian period, not modern Indian period. The comments must be historically accurate, culturally authentic. That we have no place for debatable theories and ideologies in a sixth grade textbooks. That we do not need to perpetuate theories such as Aryan invasion theory which has no historical basis except philological basis of it. And certain things negative and the stereotyped projection of ancient Indian civilization in the current textbooks submitted for adoption.

NEARY: Perhaps you can explain, be a little bit more specific about the, what it is that people want changed.

Professor BAJPAI: Well, the people wanted to change, such for example, Aryan invasion theory, are now...

NEARY: That's Aryan, and maybe you can explain what that is. I think a lot of people don't know. You're saying Aryan invasion, is that correct?

Professor BAJPAI: Yes. The theory was developed, concocted in the 19th century as a part of creationism and a racial explanation of history. And...

NEARY: And what is it? Can you explain what it is? I'm sorry, many people probably do not know. Maybe you can just explain to us what that is.

Professor BAJPAI: Well, it means that the people called Aryans, which is of course a linguistic term, came to India from outside, some time, depends on who one reads, some time in second millennium B.C. And, they were the ones who conditioned and created much of Indian civilization.

NEARY: Ah ha.

Professor BAJPAI: The recent research, as with longer standing critique of the theory is that Aryans were in India at least from fifth millennium B.C. Modern anthropological studies suggest that the body types that are there in India had no change from 4500 B.C. to 800 B.C. therefore, if the Aryans did come from outside, they must have come from earlier.

Moreover, all the evidence, all the texts that we have, and cultural artifacts that have been excavated including the cities, date from the time after 4500 B.C.

NEARY: So is this something that you would, is this depiction of history something you would consider wrong, and should not be included in these texts?

Professor BAJPAI: Well it is wrong because they, by saying that when they came, that becomes debatable point. And even if they came, they came long time ago when they were in India, when they wrote their texts, when they created their culture, they had no memory that they ever came from outside.

In addition, the modern scientific evidence, including genetics, which is the most recent one, clearly suggest that there is no migration and let alone an invasion of India during this time period.

NEARY: Now as I understand it, other concerns have to do with the way these books depict the caste system. Perhaps you can explain that to us.

Professor BAJPAI: Well the caste system, you know, there is social stratification, which is a process of historical evolution of all cultures. In India, the social stratification followed occupations such as the priest, who prayed and recited holy texts, performed rituals; warriors who protected the people from invasions, and internal defense; and other productive class people who also produced not only agricultural crops but engaged in trade and other manufacturing and commodities. And there was a large number of people who were performing labor work.

NEARY: If I can just interrupt you for one moment. I need to remind our listeners that you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And I would like it if Professor Witzel could join us now. He is a professor of Sanskrit and Indian Studies at Harvard University.

Professor Witzel, what is your perspective on this debate on whether or not there should be revisions in these textbooks on the way Hinduism is presented?

Professor WITZEL: Yes, there are two sides to the problem, you see. On the one side there are justified complaints by parents about insensitivities, about jokes, which some text authors have put in the books which are really off-color. And so forth. And there we are completely with people who want to revise textbooks. The textbooks...

NEARY: What do you mean, jokes? I'm just curious. Can you give me an example of what you mean by that?

Professor WITZEL: Oh, well, oh well...there was one in one textbook which said, speaking about vegetarianism, said, Where's the beef? As soon as you mention that, people who are vegetarians will be enraged and they were.

So these kind of things we wanted to eliminate. That's number one. But number two is that these are history textbooks, so they must be historically correct, as Professor Bajpai also said. Unfortunately, the version he gave you is historically incorrect. And we can come to the details if you like.

So accuracy was the watchword here. And our group, our committee, pursued that aim. And wanted to get rid of many of the edits which the two foundations involved here had proposed to the State Board of Education.

NEARY: And your feeling is that, other than the obvious sort of jokes as you said, that were made within these textbooks, that other than that, the depictions were fairly accurate and should remain as they are, historically?

Professor WITZEL: Indeed, and that is precisely what the sub-committee now of the Board of Education has decided this Monday. They came down firmly on the side of historical accuracy and threw out many of the sectarian politically motivated and plainly mythological insertions into the textbooks. So we are very happy about that. You see, we cannot allow the rewriting of history following mythological version and a yearning for the Golden Age which never was.

NEARY: All right.

Well, thanks to both of you for joining us today. And I just want to tell our listeners that you can read the proposed revisions at our website, npr.org.

Thank you so much.

Michael Witzel is a professor of Sanskrit and Indian Studies at Harvard University. He joined us from a studio on the campus at Harvard. And we were also joined by Shiva Bajpai, professor emeritus of history at California State University, in Northridge.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.