O God! How do I explain this to you?

BlogHer Original Post

Thanks to the festival season in India, I must've made a dozen phone calls to family and friends, exchanging greetings and accounts of how we observed the festival. It's a nice feeling. A good excuse to make that call you have been postponing for a while now.

But a chance comment from a family member about what my husband and I were doing at home to keep up the traditions, led me to think: How do I feel about religious traditions? As a couple, are we religious?

If we do become parents, what are we going to tell our child about religion and God?

This is a particularly complex issue for an Indian. Religion permeates and defines everything in our lives – our festivals, our lifestyles, our traditions, clothes, music. Yoga may be a fabulous form of exercise in the West, but in India it comes all wrapped in spirituality. You can sing your way to the ultimate spiritual experience. Ours is a culture that stitches history, social interactions and religion into such an interwoven fabric that you can chose to wrap it around yourself or shed it off, but you cannot miss it. It's there. All around you. All the time.

I was raised by parents from different religions. Both were scientists. Both were religious. But my house was rituals-free. We observed festivals whenever we could, wherever we were at a given point of time. We accepted invitations to ceremonies and prayers no matter what religion. But we learned to pray individually.

I understand that it must've been particularly difficult for my parents to decide what religion we should be raised in.

Or maybe it was easy enough. I grew up comfortable in the warmth of both their faiths, not once realizing as a child that the two could be antagonistic in the real world. I was first introduced to Christianity on a cool December night by my Hindu father, who read out the story of Jesus Christ from a book in Bengali.

My strongest memories of celebrating my favorite Hindu festival (that I wrote about in my last post) are those with my (Christian) mother and sister, when we went shopping for new clothes that she then packed for us to take to our aunt's house where we spent the festival season.

I attended a Catholic school, so prayer was an intrinsic part of my daily life. I read (and absolutely loved) several Hindu mythological stories in popular comic books.

My mother insisted that we pray. But she never told us how and who we should pray to.

I once asked my father what he thought about religion. He said religion to him was about personal faith. He asked me to keep an open mind to all religions and their teachings. He said I could choose and follow whatever teachings guided me best through my life. That should be my religion.

I understand that lot of Indians of my generation probably did not enjoy the religious flexibility that I had. We are born into religions.

I will not get into why my parents chose to deal with religion the way they did. But it served me well. The ambiguity helped me not only keep an open mind to discussing religion, but also released me from any obligation to believe one way or the other.

The one invaluable outcome of their approach: I am not afraid of religion and I have learned to insist on my right to question it without fear of persecution.

I have grown to regard faith as a personal matter and I hate the fact that in my native country I need to fill out my religion in forms related to a random set of things like school or college exams, or even while applying for residential hostels. I have refused to do so a couple of times -- insisting that my religion is humanity -- and have, in most cases, successfully argued my way through.

I am all for scientific inquiry and reason. But I pray. Probably because that's what my mother asked me to do. It's ingrained. I have developed a personal relationship with God (if I may call him/her/it/whatever so). But I jealously guard that relationship and I am not in a mood to share or talk about it.

So, recently, I asked my husband if he believed in God. He said he didn't see any reason why he should, since there was no scientific evidence for it. He also said he had little patience with rituals, especially those he didn't understand.

Then came the tricky question: So what's our attitude towards religion going to be? Are we atheists? What are we going to tell the children when they come? And since – despite having exposure to the same religion – my husband and I come with different traditions, which one of those are we going to establish as our own as a family? Or are we ready to discard them all?

In a world that wages wars over religion, how do we teach our children to embrace it? Or maybe we should teach them not to?

My husband's reaction gave me insight into how we think about religious traditions. He said:

(a) I am not religious, but I can't say for sure what role my parents' religiosity played in my success.

(b) I don't want my children looking for spiritual answers elsewhere simply because I have neglected to provide them with the experience.

Indeed, it is extraordinary how a good number of Indians revere science and scientific inquiry, and some of us even call ourselves atheists. Yet we accept and follow religious traditions without batting an eyelid. No questions asked.


Several reasons come to mind:

(.) Doubt. Despite scientific advances, we still don't know a whole lot about nature and creation. As long as certain things remain inexplicable, God's going nowhere.

(.) Habit/indoctrination. Children absorb their parents' messages deeply. We believe because we've been told to.

(.) Discipline. It gives a sense of purpose. A pattern and a structure to life. You know where you are going. It tells you why you are here.

(.) Hope. Life is unfair. Religion gives us hope that there is a way to right the wrong.

(.) Bonding. Religious traditions can bond. It gives a reason for families to set aside differences and come together to celebrate.

(.) Fear of loss. For Indians, religion is largely synonymous with tradition. Renouncing religion could mean end of traditions and the beginning of social isolation.

(.) Life lessons. Traditional, moral and social values are best told through religious stories. They are catchy, interesting and have a sense of finality about them.

(.) Diplomacy. We follow traditions simply because we don't want to displease family. Social acceptance is a huge part of this. I recall some of my relatives dreading social backlash when a cousin – a born-again Christian – decided not to baptize his children, even though they were being raised Christians. He decided it should be their choice, but relatives panicked and begged him to toe the line just for their sakes. Not very different from some of my Hindu male friends who have openly disagreed with the concept of a thread ceremony (that establishes them as Brahmans), but have gone through with it nevertheless as part of a family tradition.

(.) Faith. We truly believe in it. So we think it's okay to pass it on.

Obviously, a lot of modern mothers (and daughters) are concerned. Moppet's Mom wonders at Moppet Tales about how she should influence or refrain from influencing her daughter's religious choices.

Her situation represents that of several urban Indians who follow through with traditions, but at some point, are faced with questions about what they believe and why.

She gets a helping hand from her father, who responded to her post in a hugely quotable email, parts of which she has shared in her blog here.

I am quoting from both posts:

The mom's dilemma:

"...For simplicity's sake I say we're Christian, and while it is factually correct, I often feel like a hypocrite saying it. Moppet's Papa and I are Christians simply because of the families we were born into but neither of us practice the religion. Sure, we got married in a church, and Moppet has been baptized, but that was more for our extended families than for us. Christmas and Easter are celebrated, but as social events, not religious ones...

...It never really worried me until Moppet arrived. Because I don't know how I'm going to explain this to Moppet. I would like her to understand the religion she is born into, but I want her to choose the religion she follows, if at all. And I don't want my own beliefs, or lack of them, to influence her choice.

But is that possible? Parents are such enormous influences on their children. And aren't we really, at some level, bringing up our children to be stronger, faster, smarter, more successful versions of ourselves?”

of wisdom from Moppet's grandfather

...There is no right way to bring up children. In spite of the mountains of parenting wisdom all around us, every parent has to go through the trial and error method to bring up their kids. One is never sure one is right. One has to do what one believes is right, and leave it there. Fortunately for children, parents are not the only influencers. In fact, the tendency of adolescents to rebel against their parents is one of the most beautiful things in life. So parents should not take full credit or blame for the way their children come up.

While there is no one right way to bring up children, I believe there is one wrong way. That is being too sure of oneself and being rigid about it.[...]Be yourself. Be honest with yourself and with Moppet. You will influence her thinking, but don't for a moment think that it will be so deep that there will be no room for other influences.

DotMom writes at Karma Calling about her ritual-free, spiritually-enlightening upbringing in a Hindu Brahmin family and how she raises her son just the same way. (Fabulous post. Do read):

...I do have a mandir [altar, Snigdha's insert] in my house, but that’s because my mother-in-law gave one to us. There is a treadmill in front of it and we do wear shoes while running. When Chip asks me to recite the Ganesh Stotra (again learnt from my mother-in-law) while he is on the potty, I don’t hesitate. This is not a cheap thrill or an act juvenile rebellion. It simply is because I believe that all things are sacred in the same way all things are not...

...If you have to question the purpose of a ritual it can be safely eliminated. This is the DotMom’s law. Rituals are defined by people, not the other way round. The questions of the soul cannot be answered by doing poojas following instructions from a CD. If it were that simple we’d all be enlightened. The answers cannot be found by reading Hanuman Chalisa (and the likes) a thousand times each day while the mind drifts to the kitchen, the children, the TV schedule. Meditation is more than sitting lotus-posed in silence. I have found moments of utter clarity and lucidity in the din of the office when I intensely write a complicated piece of code or in the evening listening to Bach while folding laundry while Chip screeches or in my car stuck in traffic, Kishori Amonkar rendering Bhoop on the car stereo...”

Usha Vaidyanathan of Agelessbonding was spared the challenge of discussing religion intelligently with her child. But she wonders how moms should react when the “dreaded” question comes up.

Quoting from an addition to the original post:

.... I have a relative whose family are believers of a cult – a particular person who is considered to possess divinity and she is worshipped by her followers as Living God. Now the parents drag their child to these prayer meetings and she is forced to pray before a picture of this person. And if she questions ( she is 9 and very precocious) she is told that she would suffer from bad karma and the child is terrified to ask questions now.

Isn’t this a form of child abuse?

What gives us as parents the right to impose our beliefs on the child? Shouldn’t the child be allowed to work out her/ his equation with God when the time comes rather than preempting things by introducing her/him to our beliefs and faith so early in life? Isn’t it then that much more difficult to breakaway from all that you have always been told to be true?

Shefaly Yogendra (like me, probably not a parent), takes on the issue at La Vie Quotidienne from a (grown-up) child's point of view. I particularly like the way she puts this in the Indian context, and why this is such a big deal for us:

...I grew up with the motto my father taught me: Question everything.

Particularly in a complex and nuanced culture such as India’s, questioning is often seen as disrespectful. Especially if such questions are directed at elders, asked incessantly and asked to a point where the said elders starts to fidget with discomfort or be forced to confront the possibility that they have accepted things as given, without questioning them...

...Religion was discussed, of course, because in India it is unavoidable. There are just so many religions around us and news headlines are often framed in religious terms for ease or simplicity. Sometimes religion is even central to issues, even if it got there through the meandering streets of politics...

But what form of religion one should follow was never discussed...

...We discussed religion as a matter of personal choice, not as something that was linked to some higher being or God or whatever you wish to call it. We discussed religion because of its overt importance in Indian politics despite our unique brand of secularism (on which I highly recommend Edward Luce’s commentary in his book In Spite of the Gods). We talked about religion because I had Christian, Muslim, Sikh, Jain and Parsi friends in school, whose festivals were different and who therefore brought goodies to school at different times from when Hindu children brought them. (Children are often more interested in goodies than in God!) ...”

As a couple, my husband and I will probably always live a life of reason, and so will our children, if and when they arrive. Our challenge therefore will be to separate the tightly entwined threads of faith, religion, tradition, truth and reason. We are as much in the process of learning as the children of the world are, but at some point, we need to be ready to answer questions.

Any and all help is welcome :)

Children and religion talk by other Indian bloggers:

The Rational Fool

An Unquiet Mind

Chutney Spears

Worth Reading


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