By Mona Vijaykar
Here we are, ramping up to a season of Hindu festivals which began with Ganapati’s arrival in September. Yet, these occasions have evidently lost their original spiritual significance and are more likely opportunities for consumption of spirits, instead! Some Hindus do go through the motions of performing “sacred rituals” but, often, with the attitude of a child who is made to repeat a hundred lines in detention. Even multiple enactments of the Ramayana may have failed to rescue us from our ignorance. Some of us were probably mortified by the inconceivable Vanar Sena!
Apart from a few who have thankfully discovered Hindu wisdom from Masters across the globe, most of us are clueless about the precious knowledge preserved in the scriptures. With the absence of any formal Hindu spiritual education, I am reminded of the hapless “Dhobi ka kutta, na ghar ka na ghat ka.” As a result we have lost out on valuable tools to deal with life’s challenges. Generations of Hindus have grown up totally disconnected from the philosophy, due to what I call, the ‘Disneyfication’ of Hinduism.
A five year old child who wonders how his tooth falls and disappears will bite the Tooth Fairy explanation. He may even clobber his older brother for challenging his belief, but as an adult he will abandon the Tooth Fairy for the encyclopedia. The Disney approach to knowledge must lead to the channel of Discovery to acquire a logical, scientific understanding of life.
Yet, we Hindus suffer from a life-long Tooth Fairy syndrome, clinging to bizarre mythological stories from the Puranas, taking them literally, without attempting to delve into their meaning and symbolism as adults. Without decoding the superficial tales, popularized by Amar Chitra Katha and which hold enormous potential for entertainment, the deeper knowledge remains a mystery. Worse, any attempt to reveal their true meanings, may even invite the wrath of staunch believers like the toothless 5 year old.
I was invited to teach Hinduism to children at a temple in the Bay Area when a parent became incensed over a particular slide. A picture of Vishnu asleep on the coils of Ananta, titled “Personification of the Living Potential Energy” turned the poor man blue in the face. Needless to say, my sacrilegious classes were scrapped and replaced by a robotics class instead!
A while ago my friend, Savita, engineered an India in Classrooms’ Divali display at a friendly neighborhood church. In the midst of the buzz of eager visitors, I froze as I overheard an elderly Indian woman loudly describe the interesting phenomenon of Shiva attaching the head of an elephant to his son, Ganesh’s body! Amused, I listened patiently as she explained to her wide-eyed American audience, with the seriousness of a Roadshow host, demonstrating a wheel installation on TV. When I dared to interrupt the passionate discourse with polite skepticism, I was impatiently waved silent. So, I did what was best in the circumstance … took a deep breath and continued to watch the curious expressions on the faces of her captive listeners.
But the incident that really knocked the breath out of me was when a high profile attorney of part Indian heritage began her “empowerment” speech at a women’s conference with a reference to “Shiva’s raging testosterone!” She then proceeded to entertain her giggling Indian and American audience with Parvati ‘s gesture of “time out” and other gory details of the popular Hindu myth; by itself, a story without any redeeming value, yet, passed down as precious cultural inheritance.
Of course, had she known that Shankar and Parvati represent gross and subtle forms of energy; and that their “union” gives birth to all organic life, represented by the elephant and mouse, she would have missed out on all that delicious fodder for public amusement.
A high school student at Harker Academy once asked if Hinduism has evolved. My response was simply, “Hinduism as a practice has regressed…yet Hindu wisdom is the most evolved”.
As the editor of India Currents astutely states,” Being American is an idea…not an ethnicity,” being Hindu too is an idea, not a religion. A Hindu is one who lives in accordance with the laws of nature that govern our existence, (regardless of one’s religious heritage). A Hindu is environmentally consciousness, conserves our resources, helps preserve endangered species, and is mindful of his very intricate connection with all beings in the cosmos. A Hindu acknowledges the power of the indestructible Conscious Energy that is the unifying basis of all life. This pretty much renders a whole lot of us non-Hindu! By the same token, some Buddhists, Christians and Muslims may in fact fit the Hindu profile!
Just as Math principles are universal, yet taught by different Masters , through varied speech and methods, these core universal Hindu principles have been passed down through the ages by Masters across the globe through different practices and in the language of their times. Unfortunately, this universal wisdom has been lost in translation and reappeared in the form of seemingly different religions. eg. Buddha replaced the word Moksha with Nir vahana; Christians use the word “bondage” instead of “bandhana” and Muslims use the word Jihad for the war within.
No wonder, a young second generation Indian American confided in me, “Aunty, Hinduism just doesn’t speak to me.” And why would it, if the language (and I do not mean Sanskrit) that we use to convey the knowledge is so far removed from contemporary grasp? How does an Indian American child relate to, let alone be inspired by a story that was conceived in an ancient, alien context? How would a child benefit from multiple enactments of the Ramayana apart from gaining stage presence? Children have an incredible capacity to understand subtle concepts without being fed stories of “angry Shiva destroying tigers or chopping off heads.” If Hindu philosophy is taught through practical games and creative workshops, future generations may have the conviction to face adult challenges with faith and courage rather than succumb to confusion and hopelessness locked in blind belief. Let the path of discovery illuminate our minds so we are no longer Mickey Mouse Hindus.
Mona Vijaykar, mother of two global citizens, is committed to intercultural understanding as founder-director of India in Classrooms teacher assistance program (www.indiainclassrooms.org).
Picture by Rohit Markande, Courtesy Creative Commons.