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The Rediff Interview/Hindu American Foundation counsel Suhag A Shukla
'I am not for rewriting Hinduism'
December 29, 2005
Suhag A Shukla, legal counsel for the Hindu American Foundation that is said to represent nearly two million Hindu Americans, has been instrumental in helping the Vedic Foundation and the Hindu Education Foundation, the two main Hindu groups responsible for effecting revisions relating to Indian history and culture in California school textbooks approved by the state's Curriculum Development Commission.
Although the changes approved are yet to receive final approval by the State Education Board, some believe Shukla, a second generation Indian American, contributed to the quick approval by the Commission thanks to her strongly worded legal notice to the Board.
Shukla, however, credits the changes to the two Foundations, saying she and the HAF worked only in the background.
"I must say these two and many other groups worked very hard for this and we were just another cog in the wheel that made it turn," she told rediff India Abroad Senior Editor Suman Guha Mozumder.
What prompted you or the Hindu groups like the Vedic Foundation to ask for the changes in the textbooks?
Let me clarify the Hindu American Foundation did not ask for changes. HAF had been working behind the scenes with the Vedic Foundation in terms of introducing them and putting them in touch with various academics who are experts in Hinduism or Indian history.
What prompted us to take interest in it is that the state of Hinduism as has been portrayed in public school textbooks is outdated and derogatory and misleading.
There is no expanding on the philosophy of the Hindus, their positive attributes. The textbooks bring topics that are not brought in when it comes to other religions.
How satisfied are you today given the fact that the edits suggested by Hindu groups have been mostly accepted?
I do not think that the battle is over. The Curriculum Development Commission did vote on reverting back to the changes originally approved by the ad hoc committee. But this will still be submitted to the California School Board of Education.
So, that way we are happy because we felt at the Hindu American Foundation that it was really a conflict of interest for the Curriculum Commission to turn around and hire people like Professor (Michael) Witzel who objected to the changes and as such it was not providing a fair forum for the Hindus.
We are happy that they reverted back to the original changes approved by the ad hoc committee that had Dr Shiva Vajpayee as the content review panel expert. At least they provided the same process to the Hindus as they did to Jewish groups or Muslim groups.
What would you like to be included about Indian history and Hinduism in the textbooks for children?
At least, the description of Hinduism that reflects the practice of Hinduism should be expounded upon. Also, treating Hinduism at par with Christianity and other traditions in terms of what words are used (is required).
When they talk about Jesus or give instances from the Bible, they put on them on paper as historical fact, but when it comes to stories of Rama or Krishna, it is always a myth.
Also, something as simple as capital 'G' as opposed to lower case 'g' while spelling Hindu Gods is missing.
I am certainly not for rewriting Hinduism.
There are many social evils that have occurred throughout history but I think it is important to put those social evils in the right context. After all, every religion has something positive and negative.
Do you think the changes/edits sought by the Hindu groups and effected are reflective of the opinions of all Hindus?
I think at a base level most Hindus would agree with the changes.
Just to give an example, one of the books said Hindus believe that anytime the Ramayana is read Hanuman is present. 'Look around, do you see any monkeys?' Statements like this are clearly derogatory and sarcastic and not respectful of an age-old tradition.
So, definitely the way Hinduism is portrayed, most Hindus -- if not all -- would find them offensive.
Three issues seem to be contentious in the textbooks -- the Aryan invasion, position and rights of women vis a vis men and the caste structure. Some academics feel the Hindu groups' position on these issues are actually propaganda, attempts to rewrite history and are removed from fact. Any comment?
I think that is absolutely wrong because the latest DNA evidence in terms of human migration has shown that the human race began in Africa and worked its way upwards. So how do historians then allege it happened in the opposite way?
I think I will fall back on DNA for this rather than historians' words.
Also, there have been new archaeological findings in the Indus Valley that have shown dates that are even older than the Aryan invasion theory.
There is no evidence of any invasion or any war. Honestly, the people who have held onto the Aryan invasion theory, probably based their entire careers on that particular theory and have expounded that through their research, they have a vested interest in not seeing it disappear.
I do not think that history can remain static specially in the light of scientific evidence.
What about women's rights? Critics fault the Hindu groups for inserting corrections such as 'men had different duties as well as rights than women' to replace 'men had many more rights than women'?
In terms of men and women, I think, first of all, if you look at Christianity or Judaism or Islam, nowhere in the textbooks is there any discussion on women's rights. Then, to pull it in for Hinduism is a different treatment of Hinduism.
Secondly, it is out of context. The change suggested was that men had different duties or dharma as well as rights than women.
Many women were among the sages to whom the Vedas were revealed.
If you look at the existing statement, children are going to walk away with the idea that women were somehow second class citizens (in Hinduism). Looking at their domestic role in an inferior way is very much a facet of Western feminism and is not part of Eastern thought.
So to impose that judgement from the beginning without giving any explanation as to how the rights were inferior is not fair.
If the books say women had less rights because they could not work outside the household, these are all modern ideas.
If you compare Vedic women from the Vedic age and Jewish women from that age they probably all had a domestic role. But we do not find statements in Judaism saying that women had less rights than men.
In fact in Hinduism you had sages like Gargi and Maitreyi who took part in philosophical discussions.
If you are not denying that women had been subjugated to men in India then why...
I am not denying that caste discrimination occurred, I am not denying that women had been subjugated but I will have to say strongly that women were subjugated throughout the world irrespective of religious traditions and culture.
On caste, the section in the textbooks says Hinduism is all about the caste system. Yes, the caste system occurred, but whether discrimination has been legislated through the scriptures is questionable and inaccurate.
It is a social evil that occurred and I do not think we as a society or community can deny it just as the US cannot deny that slavery occurred and racial discrimination still occurs. But to just focus on that devoid of any theology or philosophy is an injustice to Hinduism.
Critics of the position taken by you seem to believe that this is actually an attempt by Hindu nationalist organisations in the US to impose their hidden agenda onto textbooks. Someone said history may not be palatable at all times but one has to live with it rather than trying to change it. Any comment?
I would have to disagree. The whole basis on which Professor Witzel and his colleagues were able to enter this dialogue, was to basically to fling mud.
There are several other groups who are trying to get changes made. I think to accuse groups like the Vedic Foundation which primarily has Hindus of non Indian descent and are completely removed from an Indian identity is out of context.
Hindus are just beginning to join the civic process in the US. I think schools are well aware that you cannot have people in ivory towers writing textbooks without having some inputs from the community which is being written about.
It is easy to fling mud to deflect attention from what is really being put into the book.
If Professor Wiztzel's group is flinging mud, what could be its motivation?
I do not know. There are so many political Hindu-phobic forces. If you look at high academia and look at the way Hinduism has been portrayed by many, they had a free rein for so many years. They were able to define Hinduism for Hindus. I think they have apprehensions now to allow Hindus to define Hinduism.
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