Reflections on how parents in Western countries can pass down dharma to their children and future generations
By Keshav Fulbrook
I am an american hindu of anglo-christian heritage who left my faith of birth at the age of thirteen. After a period of seeking in different paths, I developed and pursued a profound interest in Sanatana Dharma from the age of 19 to my current age of 26. I had my namakarana samskara at the age of 22, wherein I was named Keshav by the pandit of my hometown mandir. I have studied diligently, through Kauai Aadheenam initially and through the resources of the Arsha Vidya and Arsha Bodha Center up to present. I am on my fourth year of Hindi language study and am slowly working on learning Tamil, Nepali and Sanskrit.
During my visits to temples and various Hindu events, I meet people, often older than myself, who are curious about what sparked my passion to learn and dedicate such a large part of my youth to studying the teachings of the rishis, yogis and siddhas of our tradition. “I moved to the US and my children are being raised here,” one person told me. “I am trying to get them motivated to learn about our sanskriti, shastras and dharma. What are your recommendations, as a person who has been interested in these things from an early age, to a parent who wants to cultivate this same interest in their children?” Time and time again I encounter this question. I frequently see parents concerned that their children are moving far away from the culture, values and philosophies which had been faithfully preserved for generations in their families.
The first bit of advice I offer is to not underestimate the value of planting seeds. It is a fact that many individuals may not develop a spiritual interest until somewhat later in life. When that interest develops, however, the samskaras planted by their upbringing will prove invaluable in orienting them. The key to this is the key characteristic of so many other endeavors: regular spiritual practice and detachment. Take them to temple whenever you can, let them know it is important that they are present during your home pujas. Encourage the study of shastras and the recitation of shlokas at mealtime, before bed and upon waking. It was in seeing the example of a good friend of mine who was committed to his sadhana that my path became solidified for me. Trust in the power of your own example and leave the result in the hands of Bhagavan.
In my experience, language was an invaluable asset in being firmly established in a tradition other than the one I was born into. A language conveys not only words, but a worldview. There are many ideas which can be expressed more richly in Indic languages (especially Sanskrit, of course) whose meanings are skewed or somewhat lost when conveyed in English. This is because the Indic languages were formed from a prevailing dharmic context. Dharmic ideas are more easily conveyed because of this. Hindu thought permeates the Indic tongues. Encourage the study of your matri bhasha (native language) along with Sanskrit. This will serve as an anchor for them in the future.
I also recommend taking them on pilgrimages with you. If you visit India regularly or semi-regularly, take them to holy places if you can. There is something powerful which occurs during darshana which defies my ability to express in words. Before I became committed to the Hindu path, I attended Ganesh Chaturthi pujas. The samskaras impressed in me during those pujas eventually germinated into a significance I couldn’t fully appreciate at the time.
My last personal recommendation is to practice and encourage meditation. Nothing I mentioned above would have been possible had I not learned how to meditate from the age of 13 onwards. An inward-facing mind is a key, a shelter and a ship that will cross innumerable oceans and endure the samudra manthanas of life.
Reaching out to Hindu parents for their input on how to cultivate a love of Hinduism in their children, I received a plethora of thoughtful replies from parents of varying backgrounds, mainly based in the US. A Hindu father of Indian descent who wished to remain anonymous home-schools his son. “Preserving Hindu culture wasn’t an explicit goal for our homeschooling decision, but it certainly is highly relevant to our hopes for our son,” he told me. “I don’t drill anything about Hinduism into him, but occasionally share stories in the context of whatever we are talking about. He knows this is a very big predilection for me and respects it.”
The emphasis on not overly or strictly imposing Hindu observances on children was a common theme in many of the responses. The core message was essentially to be the best example that you could and make your preferences known to your children without being unyielding. This same respondent went on to say, “My solution to parents’ concerns is to redirect their emphasis in Hindu pedagogy as just informational and practice-based to a broader cultivation of Hindu sensibilities about current issues. The most important thing parents could do, frankly, is to step up to the plate and encourage conversations about fighting Hinduphobia in school and elsewhere.”
Vandana Jain, a Hindu of Indian descent living in the US, mentioned she and her husband were initially less conscious of their Hindu roots, but their appreciation deepened through facing the various challenges their lives threw at them. “For both of us, inculcating good human values in our children was very important. However, looking back, I wish we had been conscious enough then to give them a solid foundation in Sanatana Dharma early in their lives.” She explained how she had met her guru and how that catalyzed many life changes for her and her husband. “We started attending satsang, and our children saw us make time in our life for spirituality. However, we still did not articulate to them the fact they were being raised as Hindus. Somewhere around 2011, I heard Rajiv Malhotra speak for the first time. I was blown away by what he said, and so many missing pieces of the puzzle fell into place for me about my own way of thinking. I read up more on his ideas, and they had a big influence on how we spoke to our kids about Hinduism, our traditions and culture.”
Vandana discussed some of the benefits and unique challenges of raising Hindu children in the US. She mentioned that aspects of American culture such as hyper-individualism being emphasized at such a young age made cultivating values like humility, gratitude and deference to elders more difficult. “When as a Hindu parent I would try to make a change, I would hear my kids tell me that the world around them thinks differently. I was for quite some time this person in their lives who seemed controlling, too traditional, too much into religion. This would not have been the case had they been raised in a Dharmic way right from the beginning,” she reflected. “However, this did not stop me from continuing to communicate with them Dharmic ideas and concepts to challenge their popular culture conditioning.”
This statement in particular struck me, and it highlights another theme I noticed in many of the responses. That theme is to trust your own parental instincts. Even among a million other influences, never underestimate the power of yours. Do the best you can to provide a foundation for them and trust them to grow with your support.
The final interview I conducted was with Lakshmana Dasa and his wife Syama Priya. Lakshmana, a Caucasian Hindu of Canadian descent, recounted how his previous wife’s family ostracized him for being Hindu and did not agree with their grandson’s being raised in his parampara. “One of the most heart-wrenching experiences of my life,” he recalled, “was when my son’s grandmother fed my son meat right in front of me because she took it upon herself to make sure he was getting enough protein, because she was a nurse and was taught that if he didn’t eat meat his brain wouldn’t develop.” This myth is indeed all too common. As a side note, I am glad that college nutrition courses in Western universities are beginning to debunk many of those myths surrounding vegetarianism and are recommending plant-based diets, with inclusion of dairy, for their health benefits.
Lakshmana went on to explain the ravages of his community’s ostracism for his faith and the toll it took, which eventually and regrettably ended his first marriage. He has been married to Syama Priya for eleven years now, and they raise two children in their household. Having lived in various parts of Canada, they still occasionally struggle with lack of support or understanding from the extended community.
Both Lakshmana and Syama Priya stressed one thing as essential: The best approach is to be the best example for your children and leave the rest to them. Offer the seeds and inspiration, but trust them to make use of those in finding direction in their lives.
Keshav Fulbrook, 28, is a student of Political Science at the University of Montana. He is an avid student of Vedanta, Saivism, and a Sri Vidya upasaka. He lived in India during his Hindi language studies. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org