Hinduism: Misunderstood and Mistaught in the Classroom

When you teach about world religions, what roles do history and equity play? One university student offers recommendations for teaching about Hinduism.

“How would you define the Hindu concepts of karma and dharma? Would these beliefs be easily applicable in American society? Why or why not?”

This was an actual question on my sister’s seventh-grade social studies worksheet. The question was included despite the fact that there are approximately 2.23 million Hindus living in the United States today who believe that one ought to do their dharma, or moral duty, and follow karma, understanding that one’s actions result in reciprocal consequences. 

It was included despite the fact that my sister would be faced with the indignity of being asked if her religion was American.

I grew up Hindu, and the religion that I learned about in school was not the religion I practiced at home. My parents taught me about Hinduism’s beliefs in nonviolence, pluralism, truth and the inherent divinity of all human beings. The teaching about my faith in high school had nothing to do with any of that. 

My religion was not discussed as an American religion. It was an ancient, dead Indian belief practice and, according to my droll humanities teacher, “a little better than the ancient Greek religion.” My teacher and textbook provided me with factually incorrect information, jokes made at Hinduism’s expense and an emphasis on the idea that Hinduism was a hierarchical hellhole which institutionalized caste discrimination. 

Even though the caste system has been heavily denounced by the government of India and Hindus around the world and multiple scholars have shown that Hinduism in its earliest form did not condone caste discrimination, modern-day caste discrimination was explained as though it were indivisible from the religion itself, rather than a serious social problem with a wide number of causes, including colonialism.

As social studies education has started to make the turn to addressing questions of institutional racism in our education system, a critical question has been asked of how we talk about history: Who controls the narrative? 

In this case, who gets to say what Hinduism is and what it is not? 

Most social studies teachers in the United States are not Hindu—about 0.7 percent of the U.S. population is—and it’s unlikely they have a significant amount of expertise on Hinduism. Of course, teachers aren’t required to be experts in all topics; they sometimes rely on what their textbooks say. The problem is that a significant amount of scholarship on Hinduism has been controlled by Western scholarship, which itself is heavily influenced by colonial narratives. Traditionally, the Western scholars publishing this work have had the privilege of explaining Hinduism globally, at the expense of more traditional, Indian schools of thought. 

And even further, the authors of textbooks are often not experts in Hinduism themselves! The social studies textbook I used in seventh grade, which is still being used today, History Alive: The Ancient World (2004), does not have any Hindu-expert authors, curriculum developers or consulted scholars.

There are consequences to this narrative. In a 2016 study commissioned by the Hindu American Foundation (HAF), 1 out of 3 Hindu students surveyed stated that they had been bullied because of their religious beliefs. Half of the students indicated feelings of social isolation because of their faith. About 1 in 8 survey respondents also said that their teachers had made sarcastic remarks about Hinduism in front of the class.

A change in textbooks can mitigate some of the consequences of schools lacking the best resources. At the end of the day, however, it is not enough. To achieve real religious equality, we need good scholarship, good textbooks and great teachers who are willing to teach the truth.

By reading about Hinduism independently, training with well-established organizations, seeking alternative views and even inviting practicing Hindus living in their communities to their classes, teachers can help to provide multiple narratives to counter the singular narrative often presented in textbooks.

Of course, the best way to learn about Hinduism is to actually read primary Hindu texts, such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Upanishads and the Mahabharata. Many teachers have read at least some of the Bible, and this certainly helps them to understand Christianity. The same standard would be helpful for those who want to teach about Hinduism. 

There are also good secondary sources available. HAF has a number of resources on its website that discuss basic principles of Hinduism, answer frequently asked questions and address stereotypes and misconceptions about the faith. HAF also leads teacher trainings that help educators explain Hindu concepts to students. For those just starting out, the book Hinduism for Dummies, written by Dr. Amrutur Srinivasan, director of the Vedic Institute Connecticut, is also a great source. 

Teaching accurately about Hinduism doesn’t mean sugarcoating the reality of social problems, but it does mean that teachers need to be cognizant of the fact that certain groups have historically controlled the narratives of particular religions to suit their own agendas. Every child deserves to have their religion portrayed fairly in school.

Tadepalli is an educational volunteer for the Hindu American Foundation and the founder and co-president of the University of Oregon Hindu Student Association.