By Devdutt

Published on 21st July, 2019, in Mumbai Mirror

How do you teach a child about Hinduism?

There are no easy answers out there How does a child in India learn Hinduism? Unlike Bible classes of Christians and madrasas of Muslims, Hinduism is not ‘taught’. You acquire it by living it — participating in household rituals and community festivals and listening to stories told by your parents. Some have gurus. Some visit temples. There is nothing standardised about the message or the medium.

This absence of standardisation proves a huge problem when people migrate to other countries. America is a case in point. The opportunities in America are great. Many people migrate to America for economic reasons, for better prospects. They are essentially economic migrants, not political refugees. The people who go there are from the best universities in India and while they were studying, they were focused on math, science and language. They were not so bothered about culture. Culture was something they took for granted. However, the moment they reach America and get married and they have children, the idea of culture suddenly emerges, because they realise that their child is growing up in an ecosystem very different from their own. In this ecosystem, the child has to be taught Hinduism. Therefore, Hinduism, now, suddenly must be formalised, structured and transmitted.

Imagine a Hindu child, growing up in America, watching his parents worshiping images when all his friends say idolatry is evil. Imagine a child seeing his parents bow down to an elephant-headed god with four arms, and the books around him talk about aliens with different kinds of heads and faces. Imagine the child watching parents waving lamps in front of a new car, or painting kolams, outside the door of their house, tying a ‘toran’ on the door, or celebrating festivals like Diwali for the return of Ram, or the victory of Durga — characters that seem more like fantasy figures.

This explains the almost virulent hatred of some extremist American Hindus for words like mythology. They live in a country where a virgin birth is considered normal, where the resurrection of Jesus Christ is considered history. They live in a country where the president of America takes his oath of office in the name of God. This is something very different from India, which is a secular state, and no head of state uses the name of god when he takes up an official chair. America, for all its trappings of secularism, is a highly Christian country, with a strong bent towards xenophobia: a discomfort, especially with Islam, in the wake of
9/11. It is a country where the Bible often decides whether women have rights on their bodies, whether homosexuality is normal. This kind of prescriptive religion is completely alien to Hindus generally.

How does a parent in America teach Hinduism to children? Hinduism reached America through Swami Vivekananda, Paramhansa Yogananda, Mahesh Yogi, and other such gurus: mostly men, many of them celibate, wearing saffron robes, presenting ideas of monastic Hinduism, through Vedanta. They established ‘missions’ — a concept alien to Hinduism but prevalent in Christianity and Islam. They tend to make Hinduism overtly puritanical and covertly patriarchal, without even realising it.

The academicians in America, on the other hand, strongly influenced by ideas of social justice, based on Christian and Islamic paradigms of equality, present Hinduism as an oppressive force, which is highly misogynistic and only caste-based, and thus, make it sound like a frightening religion of savages and pagans who need conversion. Considering the fact that many missionary activities in India are funded by churches in America, one cannot take these things lightly.

Further, the other forms of Hinduism that have reached America are very new age and hippy — like yoga, tantric sex, chanting of Om, transcendence and levitation. It serves the new age population, especially among the affluent communities of San Francisco. It frightens the Christians. And it also terrifies middle class Hindu householder morality.

All of this makes Hinduism rather confusing to a child growing up in America: his parents are often caught between Nirguna Hinduism (which says that god does not need to have form), Saguna Hinduism (where god is given the form of Krishna, who is worshiped with Radha, who is not quite Krishna’s wife) or Shakta Hinduism (which worships Kali, who dances on Shiva, making it an extremely complicated way of explaining it to people, especially those who are unable to understand metaphors). Thus, one should empathise with parents raising Hindu kids in America. It is not easy. There are no easy answers out there on how to educate them, in a religion that does not have a formal, regulated structure of Abrahamic faiths.

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