Countering Stereotypes

From: "jagbir singh" <>
Date: Sat Jun 4, 2005  10:11 am
Subject: Countering stereotypes

by Julie Patel.

May 30, 2005: Imagine a religion where a goddess is chief of all the
elves that wander the Earth and where people play in cow dung and
urine during holy festivals.

These are some of the glaring errors and misconceptions about
Hinduism that Mona Vijaykar, a Saratoga mom, has spotted in state-
approved textbooks, literature and other teaching materials at her
son's school and elsewhere. Over the years, Vijaykar more often has
seen subtle mistakes because teachers are unfamiliar with prominent
Indian religions such as Hinduism, Islam and Sikhism.

Vijaykar has tried tackling the problem in a grass-roots way: by
contacting teachers and asking to speak to their classes about India
and Hinduism, explaining the significance of ancient Indian
languages or the origin of religious customs.

Take the bindi, the decorative mark some Hindus wear on their

"Does anybody know what this mark, a bindi, means?" Vijaykar,
pointing to a tiny leaf-shaped dot on her forehead, asked a class of
fifth- and sixth-graders during a recent visit to North Star Academy
in Redwood City.

Life? Hope? Happiness? Love? the students guessed.

"I think it's if a girl is married or not," offered sixth-grader
Laura McVey.

"Yes, that's true in some places," Vijaykar said, adding that bindis
also symbolize the figurative "third eye" or the "mind's eye" that
helps people understand something—not just see it. She said
bindis in ancient India originated from the practice of people
putting sandalwood paste on their foreheads to cool off.

One thing bindis don't symbolize is the caste system. But a popular
social studies textbook approved for classrooms across the state
teaches students that misconception.

"Caste is often shown with a mark on the forehead," reads a caption
in McGraw-Hill's "Ancient World: Adventures in Time and Place" under
a photograph of a girl with a bindi.

"That's completely wrong," said Kishore Sharma, a priest at
Sunnyvale Hindu Temple, who received a doctorate in Sanskrit at
India's Banaras Hindu University.

"It's a cyclical problem," Sharma said of the difficulty of teaching
about world religions. "A teacher learns the wrong thing and
reinforces the misconception without even realizing it."


Vijaykar said many of the teachers she's spoken with complain about
the lack of resources on world religions and are hungry for
information. She recalls a teacher at her son's former school,
Redwood Middle School in Saratoga, who invited Vijaykar to class
several years ago to add to her lesson on India and world religions.
Vijaykar remembers being outraged by a handout on various forms of
the Hindu god.

The handout—produced by Teacher Created Materials, an education
publishing company in Westminster—listed Parvati as a goddess who
is "chief of all of the elves" that roam the Earth. Company
officials didn't return requests for interviews.

"They might as well be talking about fairies in a fairy tale,"
Vijaykar said. "It makes the religion sound silly and stupid. And
it's plain wrong."

Diana Eck, professor of comparative religion and Indian studies at
Harvard University, had a similar reaction: "Elves? That's just
false. That's ridiculous."

Eck runs Harvard's Pluralism Project, which develops curricula about
world religions with the goal of promoting awareness about religious
diversity in the United States.

"Teachers who may not have a lot of training in religions of the
world—including those like Hinduism that are extremely complex
and multidimensional—should not be the only voice representing it
in the classroom," Eck said. "After all, the traditions they're
teaching are not only practiced by people who live on the other side
of the world but by people who live on the other side of the street."

One book that has launched Vijaykar into heated discussions —
mostly with teachers—is "Homeless Bird," by Gloria Whelan, which
won a National Book Award in 2000. It is one of five books related
to Indian culture out of 606 novels the state Department of
Education recommends for middle-schoolers. Not one of the five books
is written by an Indian or Indo-American.


Vijaykar's biggest concern is a scene describing Indians at a
religious festival playing with colors made of urine and cow dung.

"It's disgusting,"' she said, raising her voice. "How do you think
the Indian students in the room feel when they read this book? They
know it's wrong but how can they challenge a book with such

Whelan defended her research in an e-mail to the Mercury News,
noting that she didn't try to represent the entire spectrum of
India's diverse culture. "All I have written is all too true in
small villages," she wrote.

But Vijaykar said the book reinforces stereotypes: a girl forced
into an arranged marriage at 13 and required by her in-laws to work
like a slave.

Vijaykar said the book's references to the caste system and widow-
burning are important to discuss but they shouldn't be readers'
first and only exposure to the culture.

"It makes you think the caste system and arranged marriages are all
this rich ancient culture has accomplished throughout the
centuries," she said.

Vijaykar said she hopes students and teachers of all faiths and
cultural backgrounds act as watchdogs in classrooms.

"We're all experts in our own cultures and religions," she
said, "and if it's misrepresented, we have to say something."

SOURCE: San Jose [California] Mercury News.
by Julie Patel.




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