In her April 15 piece “#DontEraseIndia And the Conflation of Religion and Politics,” Hema Karunakaram makes several excellent points. There really are Hindus outside India, and non-Hindus within it. Hinduism isn’t owned by India, and South Asian is the correct term in many contexts. However, in asking:
Whether we’re talking about the region itself or the common experiences it represents, the term “South Asian” is far more inclusive and accurate. So why is HAF taking a step backwards?
…she errs badly.
This entire controversy deals with cultural competency in the teaching of ancient and medieval world history to 6th and 7th graders. The modern nation-state makeup of the subcontinent, and the common cause its diasporas often make for shared festivals or dealing with internal or external discrimination, have only a situating relevance.
Until 1947, the subcontinent itself was mainly referred to as India by way of its Persian Cognate “Hindu” (from the Sindhu — Indus — river). It is the Indian Ocean, India Ink, India that Columbus thought he had discovered. Cricketers in the old Raj do not play against the “West South Asies;” Native Americans are not tormented by the moniker “American South Asian.”
Given the modern subcontinent does indeed look quite different today — more on which below — “modern-day South Asia” or “modern-day India and Pakistan” would frequently be acceptable usages, to locate the action for the learner. But the South Asia Faculty Group (SAFG) doesn’t restrict itself to this point in its suggested edits:
“Ancient South Asia experienced a Vedic period”, (p.4)
“While ‘The Early civilization of India’ is standard, we recommend changing to ‘Early Civilization of South Asia” so that teachers are able to convey to students that the Indus civilization is shared between modern day Pakistan and India”, (p.1)
and so on, emphasis mine. (Note that here and in their cover letter the group concedes that India is in fact the standard usage.)
To use these terms in this way implies civilizational continuity between “Ancient South Asia” and all of modern South Asia, which is an offense against both history and common sense. The beliefs and culture of the Vedic people have little to do with the practices and beliefs of majorities in modern-day Pakistan or Bangladesh. (Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, and the Maldives are more complex cases that find little coverage in either the original frameworks documents or in the group’s edits.) These two countries, explicitly founded on the premise of Muslims and Hindus being unable to coexist, have largely purged non-Muslims since 1947 and 1971. Moreover, in Pakistan, history is taught in an Islamic orientation that ignores, rejects, or vilifies the region’s pre-Islamic past.
— Lisa Amin Gulezian (@LisaAminABC7) April 6, 2016
And though #DontEraseIndia is useful shorthand, more globally the edits of the group act as a ball and chain around the perception of Hinduism. (Read them for yourself, or the cover letter, and see if you can find any edits that portray India or Hinduism in a more positive light than the original text.) Where useful — when something negative or diminutizing can be said about Hinduism — the words India and Hinduism are used, or not replaced in the original. In expositing caste, the scholars explain (p.5):
The ideal of caste included the idea that professional excellence and good conduct situated a member in that caste, but not necessarily in practice. At the core of varna ideology and its representation in the Hindu religious texts is the idea of the four orders and the birth of a person into one of the orders (emphasis mine).
In cases where Hinduism was portrayed positively in the original text, Hinduism itself vanishes along with India as the “religion(s) of Ancient South Asia,” and so on. Somehow the Vedas are not Hinduism, despite their esteemed role as Shruti and ongoing relevance to Hindu practices and ritual ranging from birth to marriage to death. Neither is pluralism. Only birth-based caste hierarchy itself is, in the group’s writing, truly, unequivocally Hindu.
Several of the group’s edits are frankly wrong. They assert that Valmiki (a former highway robber) and Vyasa (the son of a fisherwoman) are Brahmins — true only under the meritocratic vision of Varna they elsewhere deny. To dispute the Hindu Trinity’s importance in Bhakti, they assert that “much Bhakti devotion is in fact focused on Ram or Krishna…” despite standard Vaishnav doctrine and Hindu practice that honors them as incarnations of Vishnu. They carelessly elide the differences between Shruti and Smriti to falsely imply that all Hindu texts condone birth-based hierarchy.
But the greater part of their edits are insidiously plausible — it is only when viewed summatively in comparison to their edits about other regions and religions that the problem becomes obvious. The additions regarding Jainism and Buddhism convey positive attributes that can, did, and should have propagated throughout the world, in both ideas (“Jainism promoted the idea of ahimsa (non-violence to all life), which was taken up by Buddhists and Hindus, especially in the form of vegetarianism”) and in population (“Buddhism spread very widely beyond South Asia, throughout Central, East and Southeast Asia”).
Islam’s spread is painted in positive hues (Turkish Muslims began to “expand their territory across the Indus Valley” rather than “conquer states in Northwestern India”), and a civilizational unity in the face of political disunity is emphasized (“At the center, the world of Islamic civilization stretching from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean region, prospered” as a substitute for “In the center, the Muslim world (now divided into many states) and India prospered…”, emphasis mine) — something India and Hinduism are, in parallel, denied.
The edits proposed by both the Hindu American Foundation and its scholarly reviewers are available for review here and those by the SAFG are noted above. Critics should not rely on hearsay in forming their opinions. Our edits were, and are, about accuracy and parity in cultural competency when describing the Hindu religion in its historical/developmental context. India’s politics, no matter how our detractors attempt to conflate the two, have nothing to do with them.
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Raman Khanna is a member of the National Leadership Council of the Hindu American Foundation, as well as a parent whose oldest child is about to enter the California public school system.