Namaskar Y'all - 2015

In the Eyes of the Beholder

By Shyama Parui

Wrap up clay lamps – check
Sweep away rangoli – check
Gently pack the kandil (paper lantern) – check
Unpack Christmas tree and ornaments– to do
Sneak in the Elf on the Shelf and think of a name – to do
Inflate Santa toys.. sigh – to do

Looking through my list of holiday to dos, I realized how thankful I am for this year's wonderful Diwali and Durga Puja. It's also a great feeling that we have Thanksgiving and Christmas to look forward to. The pondering parent in me however poses the question - “What does this really mean to my kids?" Hopefully it means more than presents, parties and new clothes. A part of me wants to be a mind reader only because as a mother I desperately want to understand what my kids have absorbed from our religious celebrations, traditions, rituals and from books depicting illustrated tales of valiant heroes from our epics who personify the universal lesson that good triumphs over evil.

A few years ago I had written an article exploring children's fresh and innocent perspective on God. I had started off by asking my own children who were then 7 and 5, what they thought of God. Their mind went straight to the festivals. One liked Durga Puja due to the lively dance performances and the other had the most fun during Janmashtami. When asked why, the answer was simply and honestly stated as “it's so sweet to see Baby Krishna on the swing." A common belief was that Jai Jai (God) protects us and respects us if we are respectful. To them being respectful meant “thanking Ma Saraswati (the Hindu Goddess of Learning) for all the books we get, not stepping on the books and singing Om Jai Jagdish Hare." One interesting admission by my younger daughter was that she could not understand why Maa Kaali (Destroyer of Evil) was so angry. The raging image of Maa Kali with the “mundu-mala" (garland of demon heads) was confusing as she associated Gods and Goddesses with being kind, helpful and forgiving. One can certainly appreciate the complexity our religious stories present and provokes some thinking on this legitimate concern of what God is really like. There are no easy answers and yet do we want everything to be defined. One wonders!

Well, since mind reading is not an option, I decided to casually sneak in some of the same questions at the dinner table and attempt to unravel what their thoughts are today. To them God is a powerful being who gives them blessings when human beings deserve it and can take it away if they are not being good. “Kind of like Santa, except Santa will still get you something like coal if you are naughty" said one of them making me chuckle. They imagined that Gods visit us from their heavenly abode during festivals and will be there to protect us when the Earth is in trouble. Another astute observation was that a lot of people believe in festival traditions because of they get to meet friends, exchange gifts and share joy but some just do it because “they feel like they have to." True!

Living in a multicultural society, there are so many messages, some loud and clear, and some vague and filled with ambiguity. I'm sure that my innocent children will at some point in their lives be challenged about their beliefs, hear things that will shake their faith or have a different understanding of a supreme being. And as they make sense of this world in their own way, my personal belief is that they will develop a unique relationship with God and a spiritual connection that is theirs alone.

My quest to seek the wide eyed and trusting perspective of preschoolers, led me to two of the youngest members of our extended family. One is a very talkative and energetic little boy who makes it his morning duty to call everyone in his traditional “joint-family" to the place of prayer and make sure that everyone is praying. He is curious about all things related to “Ganpati bappa moray," his favorite Hindu God. The other young man, will join his hands and pray for good health when he or a family member is sick and when he is feeling better, he can be overheard saying, “God, please give me your blessing and my Papa big money. I really want Papa to get me lots of new toys."

Recently, a dear friend of mine shared that when her son thinks of God, he has a vivid image of a vast open land with flowers. He and his little brother are both convinced that God is watching over us all the time. Where do they get these ideas from? It's no secret that we live in an age with an abundance of information. Today's children have more resources than the “Amar Chitra Katha" series that my friends and I borrowed from the library or tales we heard from our parents and other relatives. And if I dig way back into my childhood, I can remember sitting through “kathas" (religious stories) at household pujas and while we may have picked up the moral of the story, my cousins and I mainly eyed the “prasad" (edible offerings) impatiently waiting for our turn to eat some. Turns out, even today things are not that different. With kids who have not yet had their double digit birthday, parents and colorful books continue to be the most common resources. But the older tweens or teens predictably turn to the internet. I can't blame them as I turn to Wikipedia, too, if I need a quick summary of the Vedas. Just being honest!

Listening to these bright young minds, I am impressed by their unique ways of making a connection with God. What their eyes behold is a gift in the form of a mirror that allows us to reflect on what we are teaching and the values we are transmitting.