On Nov. 9, 2017, the California Department of Education unanimously agreed to reject two textbooks that inaccurately portrayed Hinduism and ancient India.
This decade-long civil rights engagement was led by the Hindu American Foundation (HAF) and other like minded groups, who felt that there was a need for a better understanding of Hinduism, and a more culturally competent curriculum that neither embellished nor minimized the Hindu experience, along with a school climate that fostered pluralism and cooperation above all else.
The process was difficult, filled with a myriad of small victories and big obstacles. Yet it continued, and for that, two MVHS students are grateful. Like HAF, these individuals also believe that in this time and age, no social group should be made to feel inferior.
A Journey of Self-Realization
The first time senior Mahita Tatavarthy learned about Hinduism, she was a mere six year old — an impatient little girl with a restless desire for change and excitement. Her father, a devout Hindu, would pull her aside once in a while, attempting to instill within his daughter a love for Hinduism. With patience, he would recite tales from the Hindu scriptures, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, explaining in detail the importance of karma (the Hindu view of causality in which good deeds lead to beneficial effects for a person and bad deeds lead to harmful effects) in human life.
The impatient Tatavarthy would respond indifferently to these lessons, her mind simply far too preoccupied to comprehend the intent behind her father’s speech. She would remain this way for 10 years — a half-hearted Hindu who did as she was told, whether that be participating in religious holidays, rituals or activities, but one whose religious beliefs did not stem from personal choice and instead from the pressure of her family members.
“For the longest time, I didn’t consider myself to be actually Hindu,” Tatavarthy said. “Before high school, I used to pray to God only when I wanted something to happen my way, and I realized that that’s not the right way to live. It is disrespectful both to myself and to my [religion].”
It wasn’t until Tatavarthy took her first SAT exam during junior year, feeling unprepared and anxious, that she realized her love for Hinduism. The day before the test, she had visited a Hindu temple, asking God for his blessings. The next day, she took the test, still unsure about her performance. When a few weeks passed and the results came in, the once apprehensive Tatavarthy found that she had exceeded her expectations. For Tatavarthy, this was not a simple coincidence, but rather a direct reflection of her faith — this proved to her that God was real.
So the second time Tatavarthy learned about Hinduism in her mythology and folklore class as a senior, she was prepared. From her experience as an Indian classical dancer, she now knew much more about Hindu scripture and was looking forward to reading the novel “Siddhartha” in class. Only this time, she made a grave discovery — the informational packet, which the class received as supplemental reading, portrayed Hinduism inaccurately.
“[The packet] said that only Brahmins can reach Enlightenment and all other castes cannot because they’re considered below and inferior,” Tatavarthy said. “And I immediately thought, that doesn’t sound right. Hinduism is not an exclusive religion because it does embrace everyone.”
Following this revelation, Tatavarthy was frustrated, attributing this misportrayal of Hinduism as a product of severe ignorance and institutionalized racism.
“People don’t know the difference between a Muslim and a Hindu, or the difference between people who wear turbans and terrorists,” Tatavarthy said. “People are just ignorant to a lot of things, and their common misconceptions and prejudice is causing all this lack of education in our textbooks.”
A Decade Long Process
Samir Kalra, the Senior Director of HAF, echoes Tatavarthy’s sentiment. The son of a Hindu refugee airlifted out of Dera Ismail Khan, Pakistan, due to mob and violence threats at the height of the Indian subcontinent partition, it is Kalra’s personal belief that elementary, middle and high school courses have reduced Hinduism to a primitive, dirty and obsolete religion. He, in particular, notes the lack of diversified information presented in textbooks, with the main focus of Hinduism being on the caste system, as well as Aryan Invasion Theory and Brahmanism — three topics that have been repeatedly debunked by academics around the world.
“Every culture has negative aspects throughout history, but that doesn’t mean that’s the only thing that should be taught about a particular culture,” Kalra said. “If we look at every other religion taught in textbooks currently, it’s very balanced, but what we see with Hinduism and India as a whole is that it’s overly negative. Concepts and stereotypes and one-sided depictions of India are the only topics that are talked about.”
According to Kalra, part of this may be due to the California social science content standards, which have not been revised since 1998, and thus, contain outdated and inaccurate information regarding Hinduism. For this reason, since 2014, Kalra has worked in tandem with other Hindu coalitions to update these standards.
To do this, he attended various court hearings, testified in front of the California Department of Education and submitted revisions and edits to textbook publishers. His passionate effort led to the passage of the legislation, but was ultimately vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown in 2014.
“The process to revise content standards is complicated, [as] the revisions have to approved by both the legislature and the governor,” Kalra said. “Every other subject area, whether it’s mathematics, science or English, has been changed in the last couple years except religion and cultural studies. And this is probably because it’s a tedious process and a heavy lift for the Department of Education.”
Unfazed by this minor setback, Kalra shifted his focus to curriculum frameworks, which are guidelines for implementing content standards. Along with other Hindu-American organizations, he continuously advocated for change by attending demonstrations, participating in state board and Department of Education hearings and meeting with policymakers — eventually leading to the adoption of new frameworks in 2016.
However, the ultimate victory, as HAF and other organizations call it, didn’t arrive until Nov. 9 of this year, when the California Department of Education voted to reject two textbooks portraying Hinduism in a negative light as well as approving the edits for several other textbooks. Some of these edits included the incorporation of the basic tenets of Hinduism, namely dharma, moksha and karma, yoga and meditation; and the contributions of ancient India to modern civilization.
Despite these advancements, Kalra admits that the Hindu-American community still has a long way to go, as the successful textbook reformation efforts is simply a tiny step in the right direction.
“The negative and untrue information presented in textbooks remain at large and continue to feed into the people’s stereotypes and ignorance,” Kalra said. “And unfortunately, this can have a significant effect on students, how they view their own religion and morals. This is why, especially now, we are in great need of more intercultural understanding.”
A Pursuit of Truth
As the father of a four-year-old daughter, what concerns Kalra the most is his child’s safety, both physical and emotional. This, along with his father’s experiences in Pakistan, are some of the main reasons why Kalra does what he does — highlighting the experiences and hardships of Hindu minorities around the world.
“It’s very concerning to me that these stereotypes are in textbooks,” Kalra said. “I don’t ever want my own daughter to learn a warped, outdated version of Hinduism and have to deal with these types of stereotypes when she gets into the sixth grade. I hope things change by then.”
Tatavarthy hopes so too — especially after a particularly memorable confrontation that she experienced in Nebraska, where she previously lived.
“I was talking to some of my neighbors, and one of my white friends brought up Hinduism and the caste system,” Tatavarthy said. “She asked me, ‘What caste are you? It’s so unfair that they treat everyone unfairly.’ And I was just shocked because the caste system only gives jobs to people. It doesn’t say that Brahmins are better than everyone else at all.”
Sophomore Naomi Desai, while fortunate enough to not have experienced such scenarios, explains that whether or not the current political climate changes, every Hindu-American should speak up and call for action.
“Don’t stay silent,” Desai said. “Tell your teacher or your parent. You should not have to suffer in silence.”
But Desai feels that if all else fails and Hindu minorities continue to be persecuted, karma will find a way to make the universe just.
“Every action has a reaction,” Desai said. “People will think whatever they want to think, and we can’t change that. We can’t force them to suddenly change their views on Hinduism even if it’s all prejudice. What we can do is control our own response. Because remember, karma will come back and it will make all things equal again.”