Harvard’s only tenured Sanskrit professor, Michael E. J. Witzel, received e-mails labelling him a “bastard” and calling for his death after he entered a debate over the portrayal of Hinduism in California textbooks earlier this year.
In November, Witzel, the Wales professor of Sanskrit, was notified about edits submitted by the Vedic Foundation (VF) and the Hindu Education Foundation (HEF) for the California State Board of Education’s review of sixth grade social studies textbooks. The organizations said that the books should be revised to ensure that their depictions of Hinduism instilled pride among followers.
But Witzel penned a letter—signed by 47 other scholars—imploring the Board to reject the edits, on the basis that they were “religious-political” and if accepted, would lead to “international educational scandal.”
The petition was received one day before a scheduled Nov. 9 vote on the proposals by the Board, leading the group to review the revisions once again.
Witzel was criticized for his involvement, garnering epithets such as “Herr Witzel,” “Marxist,” and “Hindu-hater.”
One hate e-mail Witzel received arrived with no subject or address, just the word “bastard.”
Another one said “I hope you die soon,” on the first day and “are you still alive?” on the next.
A scholar of ancient Hindu texts who has spent six years in Kathmandu, Nepal, Witzel was one of three scholars asked by the Board to examine the edits, as part of the review. In January, he flew to Sacramento for a six-hour closed discussion on the proposed changes.
Last Wednesday, the Board approved a revised set of recommendations, ending the four-month dispute between the Hindu foundations and the scholars over edits involving such areas as the caste system, patriarchy, the Aryan invasion theory, and deity-worship in Hinduism.
The dispute may not be fully tabled, however, as the Hindu American Foundation is suing the Board regarding the process leading to last week’s decision.
But Witzel said he was satisfied with the outcome.
“There were indeed some incorrect items, and the insensitivities have been thrown out, but the historically incorrect items have not been included in the final version, so therefore we said: ‘total victory,’” he said.
The undisputed corrections included incidences where headings such as “Where is the beef” preceded a section on Indian food habits and the Hindi alphabet was characterized as constituting 18 characters when in fact it is written with 49 to 52.
More controversial were proposed revisions stating that women had “different” rights than men and seeking to dissociate the caste system from Hinduism.
“It’s a social system, so linking the caste system to Hinduism is the same thing as linking slavery to Christianity, which doesn’t happen,” said Janeshwari Devi, VF’s director of programs. “People opposing our edits are not practicing Hindus so they don’t understand what Hinduism is—they’re looking at it from a scholarly perspective, and we’re looking at it from the point of practitioners.”
Witzel said the issue at hand was academic integrity.
“In the first line, these textbooks are about history, only in the second line—just a few pages—about Hinduism,” he said. “We are scholars, we are not believers.”
But VF and HEF were concerned that Hindu children might feel inferior about their religion after reading the texts.
HEF Media Coordinator Khanderao Kand wrote in an e-mail that what’s forgotten is the “‘Hindu child’ who will feel embarrassed when he is abused by his fellow classmates for following an inferior tradition.”
Yet, Anu Mandavilli, a spokeswoman for Friends of South Asia, a San Francisco-based peace organization, said teaching issues such as the caste system are necessary to cultivate an informed sixth grader.
She said that while all religions should be depicted accurately, educating students about patriarchy and the caste system does not make a textbook anti-Hindu.
Mandavilli said the function of learning history is “to inform the present,” and that Hindu children can only be empowered to address discrimination if they learn about it in their own context.
“Should we not talk about slavery in white classrooms because it will make white children uncomfortable?” she asked. “The role of history is not to boost the morale of children based upon fictitious facts.”
Despite the threats, Witzel said his involvement was worth it.
“It was necessary, especially because nobody else was available or in one case, did not want to [be involved],” he said.
Witzel said the outlash against his role in the dispute was not surprising.
“They have very strong reactions—I can understand that, but it’s not my business with every sentence [I write] to think of all possible outcomes of people’s interpretation,” he said.
“Sometimes we have to take a stand, sometimes we have to get out of the ivory tower, and within the next week, I hope I can retreat.”
—Staff writer Lulu Zhou can be reached at email@example.com.