FREMONT — No, the Hindu goddess Parvati is not leader of the world's elves, as one U.S. teaching tool described her. And for Mona Vijaykar, the puzzling misconception points to a deeper problem of context in some middle-school social studies classrooms.
"People continue to have a Disney kind of understanding rather than a Discovery kind of approach," she said, referring to the two TV channels. "The myths are only a steppingstone to understanding the higher forms of knowledge."
Vijaykar of Saratoga, 50, will discuss the significance of Hindu symbols and traditions at a free seminar and lunch Saturday at the Fremont Hindu Temple as part of her initiative, India in Classrooms. She has brought her ideas to Forest Park Elementary and Mission San Jose High in Fremont since beginning the nonprofit in 2003 and said her discussions adhere to state curriculum standards.
Although the seminar is aimed at sixth-grade social studies teachers, she said parents and other instructors are invited to learn what lies beneath the superficial aspects of Indian civilization.
Parvin Ahmadi, interim assistant superintendent of instruction for Fremont schools, said any of the district's teachers are welcome to attend.
"We actually have people from various cultures who are invited to different classrooms," she said. "You try to connect whatever happened in the past to today. The more you read a story for what it is and don't connect it to the real world, the harder it is for students to grasp the ideas."
Maha ElGenaidi, executive director of Islamic Networks Group, said her nonprofit has a similar mission of supplementing school teaching on Islam, in accordance with state rules.
"Teachers use materials that are outside of the textbooks all the time," she said, listing newspapers, Time and Newsweek, the Internet and even Hollywood films. "They are supplementing very specific curriculum."
Vijaykar said training in graphic design helped her decode meanings in Hindu symbolism that evaded her even while growing up in India, where she moved around with her father's banking job and attended Catholic schools.
"We really were not given any exposure to our culture," she said. "I had no clue that I was going to be using my graphics background in this manner .".". to really look at this in my mind's eye, not just my two eyes."
Vijaykar, who lived for 13 years in Fremont, said when she visits schools to augment textbook lessons on India, students will ask her about what animal they might reincarnate as, rather than where the idea comes from. She feels that is a waste of teaching time.
"There's a broader thing here. That is to show our cultural similarities," she said. "I'm a global person. I'm not trying to glorify Indian culture in any manner. My understanding is that the whole culture evolved on science."
In terms of Hindu deities, she said the four-armed god Vishnu is less important for his fantastic appearance than for his cosmic lesson.
What "really blew my mind" about his symbolism, she said, was a statue she saw of Vishnu, who maintains the order of the universe, lying on a serpent on the ocean.
"These visuals really made no sense to me growing up," she said. "Now, I understand. It is potential energy which is forever dormant on the ocean of space and time. The coils of the snake represent eternal time.
"Energy can never be destroyed. That energy is worshipped in its various forms. That force is the basis of everything."
That idea parallels the law of conservation of matter and energy in physics that says matter and energy cannot be destroyed, only changed from one form to another. It also coincides with the religious concept of the soul, an essential part of life that transcends physical death.
Vijaykar said her son once asked if having a Christian girlfriend would present problems for him in the long run. She told him the only trouble would be if one of them asserted his or her religion was superior.
"It's all about compassion, it's all about love," she said. "The core knowledge is the same. The masters tried to explain the knowledge in the language of their times, and it got lost in translation.
"What I'm trying to do is take us back to the fact that we all go back to the same roots. Math is the same everywhere. Same with religions in India."
Reach Todd R. Brown at 510-353-7004 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHAT: Seminar on teaching Indian traditions
WHEN: 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday
WHERE: Fremont Hindu Temple, Saraswati Hall, 3676 Delaware Drive, Fremont