The Consequences of a Religious Miseducation

History is written by the victors, they say. So perhaps it shouldn’t surprise that Hinduism – a religion of a people who have been invaded and colonized by Islamic rulers and Christian missionaries for thousands of years – is chronically misrepresented in our children’s history books.

textbook
Depiction of Hinduism in Glencoe/McGraw-Hill’s history textbook “Discovering Our Past” (pp. 244): caste, caste, and more caste

Recently, an analysis of textbooks used in California public schools showed that they were teaching students incorrect and highly dubious historical and religious facts about Hinduism, such as the much-contested Aryan Invasion Theory. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam did not suffer from such biased portrayals in the textbooks. The researchers concluded that the textbooks writers relied – albeit unwittingly – on old “Orientalist” approaches to Hinduism which see the religion through the lens of outside colonizers.

This injustice has important implications, both for the Hindu students who grow up feeling ashamed of their religion, and for the non-Hindus who develop inaccurate and stereotypical perceptions of Hinduism as a result. I decided to use my social science skills to take a closer look at this first possibility… I specifically wanted to know what young Hindus learn about Hinduism in school and whether this affects their religious lives. To find out, I conducted a survey of Hindu undergraduates at Duke.

I specifically wanted to know what young Hindus learn about Hinduism in school and whether this affects their religious lives.

What I found was pretty shocking: almost two-thirds (65.25%) of students were taught misinformation about Hinduism in school before coming to college. In particular, 61.76% of them were taught that Hinduisim is a polytheistic religion similar to Greek and Roman mythology. 44.12% were taught that the caste system is central to Hinduism. 14.71% were taught that Hinduism is a patriarchal religion. 14.71% were taught that Hinduism is a religion of outdated superstitions that are out of sync with modern science. 11.76% were taught that the British brought rationality, democracy, and individual rights that the religiously-based society lacked.

What I found was pretty shocking: almost two-thirds (65.25%) of students were taught misinformation about Hinduism in school before coming to college.

So how did this misinformation affect these students? I found that those students who were taught misinformation about Hinduism are less likely to engage in frequent religious practices. Those who weren’t taught this misinformation engage in, on average, 1.24 weekly religious practices, whereas those who were taught this misinformation engage in 0.84 average weekly religious practices. This includes practices like meditation, yoga, going to a temple, or reading religious texts.

Furthermore, those who were taught misinformation about Hinduism report that they experience more life issues, such as trouble deciding on a major, a career path, family concerns, or relationship problems. Those who weren’t taught this misinformation report an average of 3.88 issues that are very present in their lives, while those who were taught this misinformation report an average of 4.06 issues that are very present in their lives.

Students who were taught misinformation about Hinduism are less likely to engage in frequent religious practices… and report that they experience more life issues.

Now, the survey was far too small to conduct conventional tests of statistical significance or to do more advanced inferential techniques to rule out other explanations that could be driving this pattern. But suffice it to say that the pattern I uncovered suggests the possibility that when young people are taught untruths about Hinduism, this affects their religious practices and lives down the road.

When young people are taught untruths about Hinduism, this affects their religious practices and lives down the road.

The ideal study to definitively test this pattern would use school records to pinpoint which children were exposed to the most egregious Hinduism-related inaccuracies through their textbooks. Then it would follow those children over their lives to see how this exposure to misinformation about Hinduism impacts their relationship to religion and other aspects of
their lives. These kinds of studies are the first step toward understanding how colonialism’s insidious cultural legacy continues to cast its long shadow. Until then, both Hindus and non-Hindus alike will continue to be taught that Hinduism is merely caste, cow, and curry.

taught
Percentage of students who report having been taught that statement about Hinduism in school

Author: Lauren

PhD candidate in sociology, research fellow for Hindu life at Duke University, vegan, yogini, crazy cat lady, pursuer of wanderlust

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