Original Interview in Heart Crossings blog
A lot has been written by children of FOB parents about their coming of age in the west while being brown and sometimes Hindu. Unfortunately, little is any practical use for it. Much of this genre of writing is about the consequences of omissions, mistakes, short-sightedness and such on the part of the FOB parent. While it is great to know what not to do for and to our children born in the west, what we really need is help to get it right.For me, that help came in the way of a website that belongs to Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik who among other things is Chief Belief Officer for the Future Group. Browsing through the articles on his website, I found the thought process and style of writing that would resonate with any young person who is curious about Hinduism irrespective of where they are born or raised. For a parent, there is a lot to learn too – understanding the underpinnings of Hindu mythology and more importantly how to introduce children to it.
Dr. Pattanaik was kind enough to answer some questions are relevant to parents like myself.
1.What is the best way to introduce Hinduism to young children who are an ethnic and religious minority in the country where they are born and being raised?
I think the children must be told that different people look at the world differently. This is the most critical thought that a child must be given. A cat looks at water differently from a fish. A horse looks at grass differently from a lion. So differently people see the world differently.
Once this idea is established children must then be told that every person thinks their view is the only and correct view. But it is not so. We must allow others to have their views. That is love. And others must allow us to have our views. That is love too. Without this foundation, it will be difficult to help children deal with the pressures of being a minority.
2. What are some of the things a parent can do to get their child curious about their religion and culture without actually forcing them into learn about it ?
By making the rituals fun. Rituals are about doing things. Rituals are choreographed to connect with us symbolically. Making rangoli can be fun. Cooking prasad can be fun. Doing puja — bathing the image, dressing it up, feeding it, singing songs to it — can be fun. The child will notice that the fun is associated with a deep reverence. Then he will question. Often this the point where parents turn rituals into ‘holy cows’ and lose the opportunity to help their children gain an understanding of their cultural world.
Parents, most often because of their own lack of knowledge, turn the sacred into scary. The child will sense whether the parent truly respects the rituals and finds them empowering or if he doing it merely to reinforce his threatened identity. Often no one knows the reason why a ritual is performed and that is ok. Parents have to admit that they don’t know the reason and they are doing what their parents did and following tradition. Its ok not to know. And it is not necessary to understand everything in the world. Sometimes understanding comes over time. I notice many people have this urgency to know the meaning of rituals immediately. The search for meaning is either frustrating or leads to some rather bizarre conclusions.
3.When it comes to Hindu mythology, there are either over-simplified books (geared towards kids) and there are the scholarly tomes. Neither is a good fit for a curious young person who needs something in between they can read independently. What kind of books would you recommend for them ?
My books! I became a writer because I saw this gap. Often the answers are not what the parents expect. The problem is that authors are burdened by wanting to make Hinduism look nice. The measuring scale is that of other religions. As a result writing becomes apologetic and defensive. People are trying but often I find writers have a poor understanding of the subject and so are unable to appreciate the complexities and so end up with awkward prose.
Try explaining the idea of Krishna surrounded by hundreds of milkmaids doing Raas Lila to a child. Are those girls, Krishna’s friends? So is it ok for a boy to have many girlfriends? Are those girls his wives? So is it polygamy? Rather than answer such blunt uncomfortable questions, some writers escape into metaphysics — using words like Paramatma and Jivatma which, unless you are a believer, sounds like gobbledygook. At one level they are true, but like all symbols, there is no one answer. There are layers of answers. Many answers one finds are usually not what parents expect or find appropriate, because these stories are catering not just to children but adults.
To simplify them without being simplistic (and sometimes stupid) requires a lot of effort. The story is trying to show the idea of love that is unfettered by law and custom; thus the milkmaids are in no way related to Krishna. Now this idea can be quite scary to a parent. One has to go in stages. Simplistic answer initially then more complex ones. There is no one standard answer. There are many answers, each one suiting one’s age, one’s temperament, one’s emotional and intellectual maturity. This is Hindu pluralism.