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Los Altos family helps correct misconceptions about Hindu-Americans


Courtesy of the Shah Family
Los Altos residents Dr. Neha Shah, left, and her daughter, Devi, helped change the way Hinduism and ancient India are portrayed in California textbooks.

When the Shah family of Los Altos spotted misrepresentations of their Hindu faith in their son Keshav’s sixth-grade textbook, they were appalled.

“It was really quite disturbing,” said Keshav’s mom, Dr. Neha Shah. “Considering the many contributions to humanity that Hinduism and India have made, it was disproportionate.”

So the Shahs did something about it. Already members of the Hindu American Foundation, they joined forces with 27 organizations and thousands of other individuals to petition the California State Board of Education, requesting fairness and equity in the way Hinduism and ancient India are taught in comparison to other world religions and cultures.

The board removed text, images and captions deemed inaccurate, stereotypical and exotic, according to the foundation. Bullis Charter School switched to an online textbook, Neha said, to ensure editing could be made easily in the future.

“I understand that not every school district can go and flip their textbook every two years. We’re very blessed and privileged to be where we are,” she said.

Two years later, when her daughter Devi reviewed the same section, she also took notice of the lack of space devoted to Hinduism compared to other religions.

“It was all accurate information, but it wasn’t that much information,” said Devi, a Bullis Charter School seventh-grader who plays field hockey and musical instruments. “I think it was because they just rewrote that section, which means the company is probably improving their work.”

As part of the family’s work with the foundation, Devi is one of the many faces of its “I Am Hindu” campaign that launched in November.

“The point of the campaign is to invite people to add their own story to show what diversity there is within our faith, but also what we have in common,” said Neha, a rheumatologist and clinical assistant professor at Stanford University.

Neha added that it’s important to accurately represent Hinduism. The caste system, for example, is not inherent to Hindu philosophy – it has to do with social status.

“Certainly, the social evil of caste-based discrimination exists not only in India, but, I think really, all over the world,” she said. “And unfortunately, it has been tied in with Hinduism.”

She added that Hindu scripture says the opposite – that every life is divine no matter where you are born or what social class you are in.

Sharing Hindu traditions

According to a report released by the foundation, one in three Hindu-American students reports being bullied for his or her religious beliefs. This is one of the reasons Devi said she’s passionate about showing others her Hindu traditions.

Devi recalled the first time she brought her non-Hindu friends over for dinner.

“We always do a prayer before dinner. After, they were asking me about it and even asked me to teach it to them,” Devi said. “At first when you tell your friends you’re Hindu you don’t really know how they’re going to react to it. They might think it’s going to be weird. But when they tell you that it’s super cool and they want to learn, it makes you feel great.”

When describing a perfect world, Devi said it would be one that follows the Hindu philosophy of Ahimsa, which translates to “perform no harm onto others” and to “work with others respectfully.”

“Everyone should feel comfortable and safe to practice whatever religion they like to, and they shouldn’t feel like they have to hide in fear from something bad happening to them or being discriminated against,” Devi said.

Since the family’s work with the foundation, Neha said they continue to be active by helping at fundraisers and participating in advocacy work in Washington, D.C., during the summer.

For more information on the “I Am Hindu” campaign, visit iamhinduamerican.org.

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