Three years ago, as California undertook a periodic revision of its middle school history textbooks, state education officials began receiving complaints that the passages about Indian culture and religion contained errors and misconceptions. Some of the mistakes identified were glaring - the textbooks' assertion that Hindi was written using Arabic script, for example.
But some of the issues were not so clear-cut, and soon arcane discussions about the Aryan Invasion theory and whether the caste system was sexist turned contentious, spilling into public view and pitting scholars against one another.
One of the organizations pushing for revisions was the Vedic Foundation, a little-known arm of Barsana Dham. The foundation was started in 2003, primarily to promote guru Prakashanand Saraswati's book "The True History and the Religion of India." Among other things, the book asserts that India and Hinduism are trillions of years old, and it blames scientists thinking with their "material minds" for discrepancies between modern science and Hindu texts.
The Vedic Foundation "was a prime mover in this campaign," recalled Anu Mandavilli, a spokeswoman for the San Jose, Calif.-based Friends of South Asia.
Ashay Ajgaonkar, a Barsana Dham member and spokesman for the Vedic Foundation, said it was drawn to the textbook battle by what members felt was a depiction of the religion that was not as respectful as accorded other faiths - the Hindu scriptures being referred to as "mythology," for example - and a concern that Hindu children who were forced to read them were losing self-esteem. Christian and Jewish groups also contacted the California Board of Education with grievances.
Together, the Vedic Foundation and an affiliated group, the Hindu Education Foundation, proposed several hundred changes. Much of the ensuing debate centered on a handful of sensitive historical questions.
The old textbooks stated that portions of Hinduism were introduced into India by outsiders - the so-called Aryan migration. The theory, supported by many modern researchers, is vigorously disputed by some Hindu national groups that insist India's primary religion is strictly homegrown.
The California textbooks also asserted that India's scriptures and caste system discriminated against women and lower classes. The Vedic Foundation contended the depiction focused too much on the negative - arguing, for example, that castes no longer played a major role in India because they had been officially outlawed. "Which is laughable to anyone who grew up in India," Mandavilli said.
In November 2005, Harvard University Professor Michael Witzel, a Sanskrit expert, submitted a letter to the California State Board of Education signed by 50 academics. In it, he noted that some of the changes proposed by the Vedic and Hindu Education foundations seemed more ideological than factual.
"There are ill-concealed political agendas behind these views that are well-known to researchers and tens of millions of non-Hindu Indians," he wrote.
In an interview, Witzel said the Vedic Foundation's view of Hinduism, which concentrates on Vishna, offered only a very narrow - and thus incomplete - version of the religion. "It would be as if the Southern Baptists purported to represent all of Christianity, from Ethiopia to Orthodox Russian," he said.
He added that his research showed the foundations' effort to influence California's textbooks was part of an orchestrated campaign to get the mention of Hinduism in school textbooks across the country altered.
Shiva Bajpai, a California State University-Northridge professor the state hired as a content review expert, said many of the Vedic Foundation's suggestions made sense. But "believers always have certain things they fervently believe in, but which are not historic," he added.
In March 2006, the state education board voted unanimously to approve textbook wording that rejected many of the changes to the textbooks the Vedic and Hindu Education foundations proposed.
A few of the more contentious items were hedged: the Aryan migration theory would henceforth be described as a disputed theory; and the Vedas would be referred to as sacred texts, not songs or poems, as originally stated.
Soon after the decision, another group, the Hindu American Foundation, sued the state to accept more of the proposed changes. The Vedic Foundation was not part of the lawsuit. In September 2006, the suit was resolved primarily in favor of the state.