California School Text Book Controversy
Attack on Hindu groups by Harvard Professor Witzel
by Dr. Seshachalam Dutta, July 23, 2009
Hindu parents in California found that the textbooks used in the elementary grades in California public schools contained descriptions of Hindu religion in derogatory terms such as “Heathenistic,” “tribal,” “idolatry,” etc., describing Indian society as “primitive” in terms of treatment of women and caste discrimination. Hindu groups of parents protested demanding the revision of the texts that demeaned their children in the eyes of their peers and also undermined their self image. California Curriculum Authorities at first ignored the pleas of the Hindus. Much later, as a result of a law suit that had been filed in 2006 by an organization called CAPEEM representing socially active Hindu parents, the State settled the case in 2009 with a payment of $175,000 to CAPEEM.
Prior to the settlement, during 2006-2007 the State Board appointed a group of consultants of so called “experts,” who were obviously hostile to Hindu sentiments headed by Michael Witzel, himself an East European immigrant and a Sanskrit professor at Harvard. More recently it has come to light that he was closely associated with a White Nationalist Church. He had virtually acted as an agent of the Colorado church which runs an evangelical outfit mischievously named, 'Dalit Freedom Network' to target the conversions of poor people in India through evangelists posing themselves as supporters of the poor people. Witzel is also associated with a Colorado Evangelist group dedicated to proselytizing the heathens and advocating teaching of creationism in schools. This group was in immense praise of Witzel in his denigration of Hindus. There were no Hindu Scholars in this group. After vehement protests by Hindu groups, the State of California yielded to the demands of the Hindu scholars and accepted extensive revisions. Since then, and especially after the State of California offered a hefty settlement to CAPEEM, Prof. Witzel has gone on a crusade to denigrate all Hindu groups attacking them as falling under the title of “Hindutva,” otherwise known as Hindu Nationalists. In so doing, he distracted the education board and his other readers from the main issue which was the age inappropriate instruction of school children leading to negative self image. It was this commonsense understanding regarding need for the curriculum to be suitable for the age and emotional development as well as cognitive maturity of the targeted children that has totally escaped the Harvard Professor who has become the sergeant of arms to promulgate his own theory of Aryan invasion (AIT) in ancient India as the basis for the ancient advanced civilizations of Indian subcontinent and the expansive ancient India that had spread up to current Iran occupying Afghanistan and other areas of Asia minor with North to South and South to North, as well as East to West and West to East, travel, navigation and intercourse a millennium or more before 1500 BCE. Witzel’s pet theory of Aryan Invasion or Migration does not hold water since the sophisticated genetics studies in the last decade unraveled the migrations of human race and the clear absence of evidence for a distinct “Aryan” race in the antiquity or at present.
Professor Michael Witzel
Michael Witzel is the professor of Sanskrit at Harvard University, in a little known Department of Sanskrit and recently named “Department of Sanskrit and Indian Studies” which has no Indian trained Sanskrit Scholars on its faculty, although there are many accomplished Indian Sanskrit scholars available here in the U.S itself. For instance, there are eminent Sanskrit scholars and poets like Dr. Vedala in Midwest, who can compose Sanskrit poetry extempore! Witzel claims to have learned Sanskrit in Nepal and does some work on Rig-Veda, the ancient text of Hindu antiquity posing as the leading current sole authority on the Vedas and now on all matters Indian in the world. He has not written anything of value from his studies except contemptuous interpretation of the Vedas, describing, Shiva as Pashupati, a “cattle killer” and Chamundy as a round headed widow mentioned in the Vedas. He is neither qualified as a historian nor as an anthropologist, with doubtful credentials as a Sanskritist but tries to draw anthropological conclusions from the linguistics, which is an impossible task, based on similarities of words in Iranian (Persian) and European languages to those in Indian Sanskrit. In his deliberations and on his Website he has exhibited utter disdain for all Indians settled in this country. He is reputed to have cynically satirized “NRI” (Non Resident Indians) as Non Returning Indians, meaning they would not return to their home land. It is a mean-spirited characterization, if not outright bigotry for a man who according to Wikipedia emigrated from a former German territory (now a part of Poland) to resort to such utterances. In any event, turning to his academic qualifications, there is no original Sanskrit work of contemporary value in his publications. Witzel, strongly influenced by Nazi doctrine of Aryan superiority, believes in the debunked theory of Aryan invasions of India. It is not worthy paying attention to his campaign of denigration of Hindus, except for that he has recently acquired collaboration of three Indian women scholars of doubtful self-respect and self-knowledge and has published his views in the Georgetown J. Intl. Affairs (Winter-Spring 2009). Prof. Witzel gets away with any worthless commentaries on Sanskrit classics in his university, since there are no peers at Harvard to scrutinize his publications.
The issue of Textbook Revisions in the USA
It is generally accepted that textbook revisions at the elementary and High school level are a requirement in the USA, especially in History and Social Sciences, since they are subject to racial and ethnic bias and contain distortions demeaning to the minorities like Blacks and Hispanics and some times to Jews. After a long struggle, often they have been corrected. Distortions relating to South Asian groups have received scant attention until recently. In the context of Indian education, which is not the subject of this discussion, there are similar problems of British colonialists who have distorted Indian History along the similar lines as of Witzel.
The presentation of History, religion and culture at lower grade levels should be age and grade appropriate, infusing pride in ones culture and respect for each other’s. To give familiar examples, it is appropriate to teach the great contributions made to the foundation of American democracy and freedom by Thomas Jefferson at 5th grade level, but inappropriate to teach the class that Jefferson maintained slaves and sired children from his slave woman, albeit historically accurate!!!
Likewise it is appropriate to teach about Jesus as a prophet who brought a message of love and forgiveness, and not appropriate to teach children of tender age that the historicity of Jesus was doubted by many, including Napoleon Bonaparte, and that he might have been the son of a Roman soldier Panther as mentioned in Encyclopedia Britannica! Similar demeaning, inaccurate and distorted material was incorporated in text book revisions relative to Hindus in California and other states. In the present India or even in antiquity, no Hindu texts mentions an Aryan and non-Aryan “race” distinctions. There are no longer four castes in India but 400 castes (Ref: Seshachalam, Sookta Sumana), an issue beyond the competence of 5th grade teachers to explain. Significant and salient admirable point of Hindu culture is that it is all inclusive, and pluralistic. Hinduism is “non-fundamental” religion accepting variety of believers including atheists in their fold. California educational Board has successfully amended the texts except for the Aryan Invasion story claimed as only one of many accepted versions of the history of ancient India at the insistence of and in deference to Witzel and his pet theory.
These revisions giving his pet views a place in the revised textbooks have not stopped Witzel from his crusade against Hindu groups. Recently he obtained collaboration of three Indian women academics and launched an attack on Hindu groups calling them, “Singh Parivar” or “Hindutva” (Hindu Nationalist) groups in an article in Georgetown J. Intl. Affairs (Winter-Spring 2009).
The article is not properly reviewed prior to publication, since there are several obvious factual inaccuracies and misinterpretations. Suffice it to mention a few here. There are schemata linking all known Hindu organizations here and in India under one umbrella. There is no basis for it. Similarity of views on Hindu Nationalism cannot be insinuated as organizational unity. It is like postulating that Ku Klux Clan, Republican Party, NRA, and Southern Baptist Church are a part of one and the same organization, since they are all advocates of “Right to Life.” This comparison should not be construed even as remotely suggesting similarity between these American organizations and those espousing the principle of Hindutva, but is made only to illustrate the absurdity of lumping independent groups together for the convenience of rhetorical attacks. Such rhetoric may have place in High School debates and in politics where the slogans like “liberal” or “conservative” are used to attack the opponents, but it has no place in objective academics’.
While his own views of Aryan invasion of India are akin to those espoused in the old Nazi Germany, his Fatherland, Witzel curiously imputes Nazi sympathies to all Hindu Nationalists and particularly BJP. Here, he shows total ignorance of current Indian History. Israel was not recognized throughout the “secular” tenure of Nehru as Prime Minister (17 years), to the annoyance of Jewish groups in the U.S and disappointment of Israel - disappointment expressed in an editorial in Jerusalem Post (1964) saying that the Jews of Israel had all along supported India’s struggle against the British, as Israelis were themselves victims of British colonialism in places. Nehru and his party pandered to the Muslim influence at home and chose to resort to use appeasement of Middle Eastern Islamic countries in refusing to recognize Israel. It was the Prime Minister Vajpayee of BJP, a veteran Hindu Nationalist, who gave full recognition to Israel. Also it was Dr. Bhishma Agnihotri, the Head of Hindu Swayam Sevak Sangh (HSS) of U.S.A. who mediated the change in policy and was honored for his efforts by Israel. It is a crafty attempt by Witzel to project Nazi sympathies on the Hindu Nationalists in a calculated attempt to drive a wedge between Jewish and Hindu groups. While one can debate the merits of the concept of Hindu Nationalism, it is for Hindus the same as Zionism for Jewish people, a concept based on culture and ethnicity. Curiously both share their opposition to proselytizing, the proselytization being an underlying motivating force of Witzel.
Mentioning the premier proponent of Hindutva, (Hindu Nationalism), Savarkar was incorrectly depicted by Witzel, et al, as a member of RSS and conspiring in the assassination of Gandhi: Witzel’s collaborating Indian authors, if they reviewed this article with any care, should have known that Savarkar was the Founder of Hindu Maha Sabha, who was never in RSS and RSS was acquitted of complacency in the Assassination of Gandhi by the highest Judiciary in India. Despite their differences, Gandhi admired Savarkar as a great freedom fighter and it was Gandhi who titled him ‘Veer’ Savarkar- the Great Hero Savarkar. Witzel, et al, may be admonished that RSS has successfully sued many who have attempted to slander its reputation by associating it with Gandhi’s assassination.
The discussion of women’s rights and the alleged lack of them are inappropriate at 5th grade level. Women were, throughout history, before the dawn of modern times, and in all cultures were treated as inferior to men. India unfortunately is no exception but, in fact, proud to be a little better in recognizing the woman’s exalted status than all other contemporary cultures. Hindus in India are mainly matriarchic in their culture. India is their “Mother” Land – unlike the Father Land of Witzel. In Hindu culture mother is next to God. It was to his mother, not to his father, Gandhi promised not to drink or eat Meat when he left for England and kept his promise throughout his life. There are regions of India where, as in Kerala, the inheritances pass from women to women and the heads of the household are women. Unlike in U.S.A. and in England, Indian women did not have to fight to get voting rights. There was so much publicity as to how Hillary Clinton was facing sex discrimination in her campaign in 2008 whereas in India Indira Gandhi was easily elected as early as in 1967. In 1967 there were less than 10% of women admitted into Medical Schools in the U.S.A., whereas in India they were in equal numbers to men.
Hindu Nationalism does not teach hatred towards other religious groups; one of the Author’s (Visweswaran) impression of intolerance of Hindu students towards Muslims in her class is anecdotal and not worthy of publication.
Finally, it is inappropriate to teach school age Hindu Students in USA that their women are discriminated against when nearly 100 % educated Hindu women in their social group are professionals and that most of them do not live by caste distinctions. Whereas Hindus in Western countries have no caste demarcations and Rig Veda is not considered as fundamental to Hinduism by the Hindus as Bible to Christianity or Koran to Islam. In fact, there is no one book that is fundamental to Hinduism, which has evolved from polytheism to monotheism and to monism through millennia. Witzel is stuck in Rig-Veda whose Gods are no longer worshiped by Hindus in India, leave alone are known to second generation Indians in the U.S. However, Vedic traditions continue to be the spring of inspiration for every cultural and spiritual (aadhyatmika) quest in the history of Hindu civilization.
The sorry episode of California Text Book controversy is finally one of California Education Board rejecting the expertise of Indian scholars and the sensitivities of Hindu parents in preference to the prejudices of a Sanskrit teacher, simply valued for his being on Harvard University roster, never mind in an insignificant department with no peers to evaluate and judge his academic performance. Thus the Board gave inappropriate weight to Witzel, an East European immigrant (a non-returning immigrant himself!), who entertained narcissistic Nazi view of Aryan superiority and who presented himself as if he alone is the ultimate authority on Hindu culture, social structure, and history - both modern and ancient; and although divorced from common sense, he alone could determine what is appropriate to teach Hindu children. He was the mouthpiece for the proselytizing Christists, dancing to their tune, and was discovered to be belaboring as a politician rather than a Scholarly Sanskritist and an academician. That is a travesty that ended in the Courts for adjudication where it should not belong in the first place. Hindus happily have won-for now.
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