NEW DELHI—In the halls of Sacramento, a special commission is rewriting Indian history: debating whether Aryan invaders conquered the subcontinent, whether Brahman priests had more rights than untouchables, and even whether ancient Indians ate beef.
That this seemingly arcane Indian debate has spilled over into California’s board of education is a sign of the growing political muscle of Indian immigrants and the rising American interest in Asia.
The foes—who include established historians and Hindu nationalist revisionists—are familiar to each other in India. But America may increasingly become their new battlefield as other US states follow California in rewriting their own textbooks to bone up on Asian history.
Instigating the California debate were two US-based Hindu groups with long ties to Hindu nationalist parties in India. One, the Vedic Foundation, is a small Hindu sect that aims at simplifying Hinduism to the worship of one god, Vishnu. The other, the Hindu Education Foundation (HEF), was founded in 2004 by a branch of the right-wing Indian group the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
In one edit, the HEF asked the textbook publisher to change a sentence describing discrimination against women in ancient society to the following: “Men had different duties (dharma) as well as rights than women.”
In another edit, the HEF objected to a sentence that said that Aryan rulers had “created a caste system” in India that kept groups separated according to their jobs. The HEF asked this to be changed to the following: “During Vedic times, people were divided into different social groups (varnas) based on their capacity to undertake a particular profession.”
The hottest debate centered on when Indian civilization began, and by whom. For the past 150 years, most historical, linguistic, and archaeological research has dated India’s earliest settlements to around 2600 BC. And most established historical research contends that the cornerstone of Indian civilization—the practice of Hindu religion—was codified by people who came from outside India, specifically Aryan language speakers from the steppes of Central Asia.
Many Hindu nationalists are upset by the notion that Hinduism could be yet another religion, like Islam and Christianity, with foreign roots. The HEF and Vedic Foundation both lobbied hard to change the wording of California’s textbooks so that Hinduism would be described as purely home grown.
“Textbooks must mention that none of the [ancient] texts, nor any Indian tradition, has a recollection of any Aryan invasion or migration,” writes S. Kalyanaraman, an engineer and prominent pro-Hindu activist, in an e-mail to this reporter. He and other revisionists refer to recent studies that don’t support an Aryan migration, including skeletal anthropology research that claims to show a continuity of record from Neolithic times. Such research has not convinced top Indologists to abandon the Aryan theory, however.