Religion, Textbook Dispute Rekindled


Mar 9, SACRAMENTO, CALIFORNIA (BEE) — State board to decide on activists' complaints about picture of Sikh founder.

A picture of the founder of the Sikh religion in a seventh-grade textbook has reignited what's become a common dilemma for California's education establishment: How much influence should contemporary religious groups have in crafting history lessons for the state's 6.3 million public school students?

The state Board of Education is scheduled to vote today on whether to remove a picture from a history textbook that shows the founder of the Sikh religion in a way that Sikh leaders find offensive. It's the latest in a pattern of compromises as religious groups and textbook publishers vie over the minds of one of the most diverse student bodies in the country.

In recent years, Jewish, Muslim and Hindu groups have weighed in as state educators and publishers developed new social studies books. Those textbooks are now read in classrooms across California and the nation.

One of them has caught the attention of Sikh leaders in Sacramento. "An Age of Voyages: 1350-1600," published by Oxford University Press, shows Guru Nanak, who founded the Sikh religion in India in the 1500s, wearing a golden crown and a closely cropped beard and mustache.

Sikh activists complained about the image, saying the portrait makes Guru Nanak look like a Muslim chieftain. The picture, which hangs in a museum in London, was originally painted in the 19th century, after Muslims ruled India.

The publisher offered an alternative image of the Sikh founder, an 18th century painting that shows him wearing a red hat and trim beard. Sikhs objected to that image, too, saying it makes their founder look like a Hindu. The red mark on his forehead and sacred string across his chest are both symbols from Hinduism.

Sikhs proposed a 20th century picture of Guru Nanak that shows him the way they believe he looked -- with a turban on his head, a flowing beard and an unshorn mustache. Observant Sikh men cover their heads with a turban and do not cut their facial hair.

"It says he's the founder of the Sikh religion. The founder of the Sikh religion should look like a Sikh," said Onkar Bindra, a Sacramento Sikh who spends his retirement educating the public about his religion.

"Children will connect Guru Nanak's picture with Sikhs they see on the street. ... Otherwise they will think maybe these people are from the Middle East."

The textbook company refused to print the picture favored by Bindra and other Sikhs, which was painted in the 1960s. Casper Grathwohl, publisher of Oxford University Press, said the company prides itself on using historic images in its history texts.

"We have tried consistently to provide images that are as close to primary sources as possible -- art and images from the time period," Grathwohl said.

No images exist from Guru Nanak's lifetime, 1469 to 1538, but Grathwohl says the older images are more accurate than the contemporary picture Sikhs print in their newspapers and hang on the walls of their homes.

Sikhs began actively promoting what they view as a accurate imagery of their founder after 9/11, said Pashaura Singh, a professor of religious studies at UC Riverside.

"Sikhs became more concerned that if the image of the founder of the Sikh religion is not presented well, that's going to create a negative stereotype of Sikhs in the American society," he said.

Because the publisher and the Sikh activists couldn't agree on a picture for the textbook, Grathwohl proposed eliminating imagery from the passage on Sikh history. The state Board of Education must now decide whether to remove the picture from future copies of the book.

"That's the fairest way to deal with it -- no imagery at all," said Tom Adams, director of curriculum with the state Department of Education.

It's a solution that leaves both the publisher and the Sikh leaders unhappy -- about the only point the two sides agree on.

"We are not interested in offending current practitioners but we're also not interested in compromising the academic standards we set for the whole series," Grathwohl said.

"Advocacy groups deciding what images should go into the book, I think is dangerous ground."

But it's not new.

Hindu organizations last year packed state Board of Education meetings when the panel was deciding how textbooks should present ancient Hinduism. Two Hindu groups subsequently sued the state for adopting lessons they found offensive.

A Muslim Sacramento man last year tried to get a geography book removed from his son's school because he objected to the portrayal of Muslims in a chapter about Sept. 11.

Jewish and Christian groups have lobbied policymakers and textbook publishers for years in an effort to shape how their religions are portrayed.

It's a long-standing practice that has grown wider in recent years, said Gilbert T. Sewall, director of the American Textbook Council, a New York group that critiques social studies texts.

"We're seeing more and more pressure groups, particularly religious groups, making trouble with the board of education. It's part of an intensifying activism on many different fronts," he said.

"These groups, whether they're Muslim or Hindu or Sikh, are pushing hard to get the kind of place in textbooks that they want. And they're very demanding."

Bindra, who sits on the board of the Sikh temple in West Sacramento, says he's not proselytizing, just trying to help diversity thrive.

"We want to correct that mistaken identity by educating people," he said. "And I thought that educating through the school books would be the best way, though it may take 20 years."


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