Samples from Sixth Grade California Textbooks
This article is a shorter version of a piece written by Vishal Agarwal and published at http://www.india-forum.com/articles/60/1. It has been modified and re-published with the permission of the author.
This page presents a very small sample of the inaccuracies and biases found in the textbooks under review by the Board of Education of the State of California.
The Oxford University Press text titled ‘The Ancient South Asian World’ authored by two scholars including the renowned Harappan archaeologist Jonathan Mark Kenoyer has the following gems:
Page 81: “The Vedic peoples discriminated against the Dasa, a group of people who spoke a different language that did not sound at all like Sanskrit. The Brahmins sometimes made fun of the Dasa and said that they spoke as if they had no noses. (Pinch
your nose and see what you would sound like.) The Dasa had wide flat noses and long curly black hair, and the Brahmins claimed that they had darker skin and called them uncivilized barbarians, who didn’t know how to behave.”
COMMENT: Though the authors reject the Aryan Invasion Theory in the earlier pages, they seem to hold on to part of it—the so-called “Aryan” or “Indo-Aryan” people and their language, Sanskrit without providing any rationale for it. From chapter 11, some of the South Asians are referred to as Indo-Aryans to set them apart from the native inhabitants of ancient India who are identified as Dasa. There is no conclusive evidence proving that the Aryans and Dasa were racially distinct. The invitation to students to imitate the alleged speech pattern of the Dasa is uncalled for. The statement “Pinch your noses…” is frivolous.
The statement that Dasas were insulted by Brahmins as dark skinned etc. is based on 19th century racist and colonial interpretations of the Hindu texts, something that even Indologists and Indo-European linguists dismiss today.
Regarding the description ‘flat nosed’ which presumably refers to the word ‘anas’ in Vedic texts, numerous scholarly publications that explains the word in a different way.
In short, the authors have reproduced 19th century prejudiced Eurocentric scholarship of colonial historians.
Page 81: “The Dasa had, in reality lived in the region for hundreds of years. Their ancestors in the Indus Valley were the Harappans who had named the rivers and mountains, and had built the cities that now lay abandoned.”
COMMENT: There are no surviving names of rivers and mountains that were given by these imagined Dasas. The statement is a figment of imagination. Thus, like many other textbooks, this one also first casts a doubt on the Aryan invasion theory (AIT) but nevertheless proceeds to construct Indian past and religion on the basis of this baseless theory.
Page 87: “The monkey king Hanuman loved Rama so much that it is said that he is present every time the Ramayana is told. So look around—see any monkeys?”
COMMENT: Hanuman is not the monkey ‘king’. The king was Sugriva. Students in class might use such an exercise to tease or ridicule their Hindu class mates and call them monkeys. The text has many more such frivolous statements.
The book abounds in many such statements that are erroneous or could promote prejudice. Thus, on page 155, it is said that “…most Nepalese are Buddhist” when in reality almost 80% people of Nepal are Hindus. Likewise, on page 157, the festival of
Onam is confused with Diwali in the following description- “But in southern India, Divali is the time for worshipping a demon king. According to local traditions, Vishnu conquered the local demon king Bali, and then banished him from his kingdom forever in the netherworld. Bali begged Vishnu.……especially new clothes.”
Let us take the second textbook named ‘Ancient Civilization’, published by Holt. On page 148, the text says the following about the Vedas: “Though they are mostly religious, some of the Vedas describe Aryan victories during their invasion of India”.
COMMENT: Obviously, the text is teaching the Aryan Invasion theory, and has relied upon 19th century racist and colonial interpretations of the Rigveda in seeing ‘proof’ of Aryan invasions of India.
On page 154 we read: “However, Hinduism also taught that women were inferior to men. As a result, Hindu women were not allowed to read the Vedas or other sacred texts”.
COMMENT: No such remarks are made for any other culture or religion in the textbooks and Hinduism is unfairly singled out and judged per modern standards, using ideals that have not been realized even in contemporary societies. It is questionable that women could not read the Vedas in the entire period of ancient India that this textbook covers. More than 20 sages of the Rigveda alone are women, the entire 14th book of Atharvaveda is attributed to a woman sage. Sulabha is even said to have been the Sage of a recension (shakha) of Rigveda and quotations from her lost ‘Saulabha Brahmana’ exist in extant works. It is beyond the scope of the present article to refute the mono-lateral statement in the text. Even the most misogynist of Hindu lawgivers permitted women to read Puranas, Mahabharata and many other Hindu texts. And yet, when Hindu groups in California ask the regional board of education to harmonize the description of women rights in ancient India with similar descriptions given for Judeo-Christian and Islamic societies, they are called dangerous ‘Hindu Nationalists’.
Page 169 makes the following astonishing revelation: “The Ramayana, written later than the Mahabharata,…”
COMMENT: Hindu tradition and mainstream modern scholarship holds that the Ramayana was composed earlier than the Mahabharata (the word ‘written’ in the text obviously refers to ‘composed’ but it would be perhaps better to clarify that the epics might have been composed orally).
Let us now look at ‘Ancient Civilization’ by Harcourt School Publishers.
This text starts the description of ancient India by a ridiculous claim (page 364) that “Hindi is written with the Arabic alphabet, which uses 18 letters that stand for sounds” when in fact everyone knows that Hindi is written in the Devanagari script which can have 46-52 letters depending on whether the script is employed for Hindi, Marathi, Sanskrit or other languages that use this script. The textbook even gives ‘A.D. 9’ as the exact year in which Hindi developed! I wonder how the authors got such accurate information. No one with an elementary knowledge of scripts would say that Hindi is written with 18 letters of the Arabic script.
Considering that the textbook gives so little information on ancient India or on Indic religions (with useless fluff abounding on the large margins), it is almost a joke that four pages (371-373) are devoted to a fictionalized story (related to the invention of chess) based in India. But more interestingly, the story obviously includes the typical clichés of elephants, an oriental despot ‘Rajah’, poor and starving villagers, and illustrations that would suit Mughal India better than ancient India.
On page 385, the text falls back on the typical unproven and hypothetical description of a massive Aryan migrations (the new euphemism for Aryan invasions): “About 1500 B.C., after the Harappan civilization collapsed, people known as Aryans began waves of migrations to the Indian subcontinent…”. The page even has a large illustration for the ‘Aryans’ who look more like Jewish tribes leaving Egypt in the Hollywood movie ‘Ten Commandments’.
Page 387 describes the Bhagavadgita as “….a discussion between a god and a Vedic warrior” and the preceding page cites three verses that are not at all representative of the text. Many Hindus would object (with reasonable justification) to the description of Krishna as ‘god’ (especially since ‘God’ with an upper case ‘G’ is uniformly used to denote the Judeo-Christian and Islamic Divinity) and it is quite misleading to classify Arjuna as a ‘Vedic warrior’. There is no mention of Ramayana in the text at all. Less than one page of text are devoted to the ideas of Hinduism.
On page 403, an illustration depicting a 19th century or early 20th century Maharaja is given as a depiction of the Mauryan Emperor Ashoka.
Let us take a brief look at the fourth textbook “California Visa- Ancient Civilization’, published by McGraw Hill McMillan. The first few pages narrate the story of Ramayana in a very silly manner, accompanied with Mughal style paintings, one of which shows Dasharatha (mis-spelt as ‘Dashrat’ throughout) as a look-alike of Akbar!
The map on page 242 shows “Harappan Civilization, circa 1500 BC”(!) when in fact the culture was already extinct for several centuries by 1500 BCE. The map also excludes Saurashtra, Gujarat, Ghaggar-Hakra plains, northern intervening plains (doab) of Yamuna-Ganga from the shaded area showing the extent of the civilization.
Pages 242-243 attribute the change in the culture of India to the arrival of ‘Aryans’ from Central Asia. A map in page 244 shows a well defined Aryan migration route as if there is proof for such speculative hypotheses. The same map is reproduced in other textbooks as well.
On page 249, this supposed Aryan migration is used to explain the genesis of Hindu religion, even though this belief is an invention of 19th century colonial Indology, and has no place in the self awareness of Hindus and their traditions. The text says – “Over the centuries, Aryan religion borrowed religious ideas from the people of India. This mix of beliefs eventually became Hinduism”. Clearly, the text presumes large scale migrations of Aryans from Central Asia. A more neutral and accurate description would have been to ignore the reference to Aryans completely and state instead that the ‘beliefs and traditions of diverse populations in the Indian subcontinent (together with some external influences) fused together to give birth to Hinduism as we know today’.
The word is Upanishad is wrongly defined (page 250) as ‘sitting down close to’, following some modern definitions of the term by Dr Radhakrishnan, even though traditional explanations and most modern scholars explain the word differently. The text (and many other texts as well) dwells excessively on the negative aspects of the caste system and the inferior rights of women, whereas the chapters on other cultures and religions tend to give a more balanced view. This is unfair to Hindus obviously.
On page 269, the Mahabharata and Ramayana are described in that order, and although it is said that the two epics were written at about the same time, the student may be mislead to belief that the Ramayana came later.
On page 267, it is speculated that Alexander’s invasion “may have lead to the first Indian empire”. One thought that such ideas were propagated only in British colonial textbooks on India. Do Indians always need a stimulus from the west to develop anything new, even the idea of monarchy?
Or take the text “Exploring the Ancient World” published by Ballard Tighe. On page 114, the books says : “Also about this same time, tribes of people called Aryans began to move into the Indus Valley. These Aryan people came from the area around the Caspian and the Black seas. […] Eventually some of them crossed the Hindu Kush mountains into India where they slowly spread over the subcontinent”. On page 121, the book lapses to the typical Aryan invasion mode and states: “Aryan tribes fought with each other and with the people of the Indus Valley who were there before them”.
The book abounds in errors and covers the subject matter very inadequately. Perhaps that is why the California State Board has already rejected this text and further details on this book need not detain us here.
Let us move on to another textbook “Discovering Our Past: Ancient Civilization” published by Glencoe. On page 244, the text has a picture of a bearded and turbaned man praying in a typical Muslim gesture (the two palms facing up and abutting each other) and the caption says ‘A Brahman’. The text approaches the genesis of Indian civilization and Hinduism in typical hypothetical terms incorporating the Aryan migrations, domination of aboriginal Indians and so on and therefore we need not discuss the details here again.
“History Alive” published by Teachers’ Curriculum Institute.
Overall, this is a very good textbook, but still retains a few errors similar to the ones present in other textbooks. Thus, on page 134-135, the text elaborates the reasons for rejecting the Aryan Invasion Theory, but on page 144, it goes on to add nevertheless: “Around 1500 BCE invaders called Aryans conquered northern India. Others believe that traces of Hinduism can be found in ancient artifacts left by India’s original settlers….Most likely, Hinduism is a blend of Aryan beliefs and the beliefs of the people they conquered”.
On page 148, it is stated that “To recite them orally, the Brahmins had to memorize more than 100,000 verses!”. In reality, most Brahmins memorized one Veda, and all the Vedas put together have less than 30,000 verses anyway.
Page 167 states that the Gupta period is famous for its illustrated manuscripts (??) and then erroneously refers to Palm-Leaf books from 550 CE when in fact such manuscripts from the Gupta period do not survive. Likewise, on page 172, the books says: “The Gupta Empire is famous for its beautiful paintings….Perhaps the greatest ancient Indian paintings are those known as the Ajanta cave murals”. The truth is that Ajanta paintings lie in a region that was outside the Gupta Empire.
Chapter XV of this book deals with Hinduism, and missing again are discussions on the liberating yogas (jnanayoga etc.) in Hindu theology, ashrama system, purusharthas and so on. However, the description of Buddhism in the text is by and large very accurate and comprehensive.
The textbooks are richly illustrated but the images are often anachronistic or inappropriate, and captions are often incorrect. Some examples are shown below, but it may be worthwhile to mention that the same erroneous picture is often reproduced in more than 1 text. For instance, the funny picture of emperor Ashoka (looking like a modern Maharaja) is found in at least 2 textbooks that I saw. Likewise, one textbook shows a scene from presumably Western or Central India with some priests reciting a text, a sacred fire, some villagers. The caption below it indicates that the Vedas are being recited to the villagers. This is very unlikely the case because the Vedas are not recited this way in public, reading out from printed texts. Curiously, another textbook gives the same picture, but with a different caption indicating that some Purana or Itihasa text is being recited for the public. So what exactly is going on? Are all the textbooks drawing from a common stock of illustrations?
A typical lacuna in most textbooks is inadequate discussion of the tenets of Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism (whereas considerable space is given to the theology of Abrahamic faiths). In the discussion of Hinduism, most texts leave out the system of purusharthas (goals of human life), ashramas (stages of human life, or modes of living), liberating yogas (Bhaktiyoga, Karmayoga, Jnanayoga, Rajayoga) and other schools of Hindu philosophy. Many texts enumerate even the four noble truths and the eightfold-path of Buddha incorrectly. Jainism is typically dismissed with a brief description – one text actually devotes just 1 sentence to this religion.
Buddhism is typically represented as an advance or an improvement over Hinduism even though the California State education policy guidelines clearly mention that one tradition cannot be privileged over another. As an example, the textbooks do not present Islam as an improvement over Christianity, nor do they describe Christianity as an advance over Judaism.
There is an incessant and even anachronistic dwelling on the negatives of Hinduism, which seems to have been singled out as a religion for unfair treatment, when one reads the contrasting more balanced, even glowing narratives about Abrahamic faiths (Islam, Christianity and Judaism) in these and corresponding texts from other grades. Hindu sacred narratives are referred to as stories or myths, whereas Biblical and Koranic narratives are presented as historical facts. Most textbooks also describe the subtle Karma and rebirth related principles of Indic faiths in a minimal and essentially caricaturist manner (“according to this theory, if you do bad deeds, you will be reborn as an insect”). Although it would be anachronistic to mention and discuss Sikhism in the discussion of ancient India (although Kenoyer’s text on ancient South Asia reviewed above does not hesitate to discuss Islam!), one would expect that some space would be given to Sikh heritage in textbooks on medieval and modern periods. Unfortunately, this is not the case even though California is home to perhaps 200,000 or more Sikhs. Whereas the Abrahamic religions are predominantly described from an ‘inider’s’ perspective, Hinduism is described from an outsider’s perspective. The misuse of Aryan Invasion Theory and its euphemistic versions to discuss the origins of Hinduism is a case in the point.
 Maria Schetelich, “ The Problem of the ‘Dark Skin’ (Krsna Tvac) in the Rgveda”, in Visva Bharati Annals, vol. 3 (1990), pp. 244-249
 See for instance: Hock, H. H., 1999; “Through a glass darkly: Modern “racial” interpretations”, in Madhav M. Deshpande and Johannes Bronkhorst (eds.), pp. 145-174, Aryan and Non-Aryan in South Asia – Evidence, Interpretation and Ideology, Harvard Oriental Series, Opera Minora Vol. 3, Harvard University: Cambridge (MA)
 Stephen H. Levitt. “What does ‘Noseless’ mean in the Rgveda”, ABORI vol. 70 (1989), pp. 47-63