Parenthood is celebrated across the world, among all religions, but there is something in the Hindu view that transcends the basic understanding of this precious and responsible role. This ‘something’ is much deeper than enjoying the sensual pleasures of watching the children grow and spending life with them. The Hindu view of parenthood is deeply rooted in the notion of duty and Dharma. Practicing Hindus perceive parenthood as a part of following the Dharma (righteous duty) of running a family system (Grihasta Ashrama), which is a life of sacrifice and duty combined with happiness and spiritual progression.
This righteous way is much more than training the child in good manners and cleanliness, and helping him/her to succeed materially in the world. It also includes enabling the child to develop control over his life (via the senses), grow into a strong & healthy individual, understand and realize the existence of a higher consciousness, perform his duties on becoming an adult. The parents are not only obliged to impart worldly and materialistic education to their children, but also to impart Dharmic and spiritual education. This way ensures that the children contribute back to their family, the society, and the nation, while retaining their individuality of thought and simultaneously working towards Self-Actualization. Thus, the Hindu view of upbringing children not only concentrates on facilitating the child to attain Artha- wealth and material prosperity, but also focusses on enabling children to work towards attaining all the four goals of life- Dharma (righteous duties), Artha (wealth), Kama (material desires), and Moksha (liberation).
To understand the role of children and the duties of parenthood in Hindu culture and tradition, one must study the Hindu concept of Grihasta Ashrama and Samskaras.
Hindu scriptures recognize four stages of life: Brahmacharya (student stage), Grihasta (marriage stage), Vanaprasta (retired), and Sannyasa (renunciation). After a person finishes his student life, he enters Grihasta stage by getting married. Hinduism recognizes marriage or Vivaha as resting on three pillars: Rati (desire), Praja (offspring), and Dharma (marital duties, including parenthood). That is, having children and upbringing them, are an intrinsic part of marriage and a righteous duty enjoined on the parents. Thus, there is a nuanced recognition of the fact that people desire to have children and that children enrich love and strengthen bonds within a family. The importance of children in a family can be gauged by the fact that the term for son in Sanskrit is ‘Putra’ and for daughter it is ‘Putri’. The words are derived from the word ‘Put’ and they means a person, who frees the parents from the clutches of a realm of suffering named ‘Put’. Thus, children are recognized as those who will save their parents from suffering and instead impart happiness and joy to them. For this reason, the scriptures (Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 1.5.17) state that a couple can live a fulfilling life on earth only by having children.
Therefore, unlike certain prevalent notions regarding children, Hinduism does not view children as a burden (especially in case of a girl), or as a commodity to gain profit from (especially in case of boys). Instead, Hindu scriptures ask people to perceive children as bringers of happiness and deliverers from suffering, and hence it makes it a righteous duty on the part of parents to give such children a proper education and upbringing.
Regarding the duty of the parents towards their children, the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad (1.5.17), states that parents should impart education to the children and help them understand their SvaDharma (duties in life). Though the verse actually imparts a highly contextualized instruction, applicable to Brahmana Varna, a generalized essence can be derived from it. In essence, the verse asks parents to make their children aware that once they grow up to become adults, then it becomes their SvaDharma to study the scriptures (to develop proper Vivekam to discriminate between right and wrong), perform duties according to Guna and station in life, and practice of devotion (for purification of mind and spiritual progress.). In other words, the teaching of the Upanishad is that the parents should not only impart secular and materialistic education, but should impart a wholesome education that facilitates children to understand their Dharmas (righteous duties) and attain self-actualization.
The extent of responsibility towards children in Hinduism is further demonstrated by the number of Vedic sacraments (called Samskaras) that Hindus have for children, which are supposed to be performed by parents not only outwardly, but with complete dedication and devotion. Shabara Bhashya on Jaimini Sutra (Verse 3.1.3) defines a Samskara as “an act, which makes a certain thing or person fit for a certain purpose.” Thus, it is an act of ritual purification, which intends to facilitate individuals become competent to perform Svadharma, by purifying their mind.
Of course, nothing is compulsorily imposed on today’s parents. There are about 40 Samskara ceremonies, of which 16 are followed commonly and half of them are done for the wellbeing of the child at different stages of life. For example, the Garbhadhana Samskara (rites when you want to conceive a child) imparts a notion of devotion and sacredness to the whole act of sexual intimacy. It involves chanting of mantras and invoking various deities for the purpose of preparing the womb of the mother, for the proper formation of frame (fetus) of the child upon conception, for the healthy and potent sperm that can cause conception and finally for successfully causing the conception respectively (Hiranyakeshin Grihya Sutra 188.8.131.52).
Then, you have Pumsavana Samskara, for the physical growth of the fetus, especially for having a male child, and Simantonnayana, for protection of the mother and a proper physical and mental growth of the fetus. These three are the pre-natal Samskaras, whose purpose is ensuring proper conception, protection of the fetus and the safe birth of the child.
After the birth of the child, there are many Samskaras like Jatakarma (performed just before the umbilical cord is cut, and imparts long life, intelligence, strength, and character to the child), Namakarana (officially naming the child), Anna Praasanam (first feeding of solid food), Chudakarma (removal of hairs for the first time), Upanayana (ritual of initiation into Vedic study), Vivaha (marriage), etc. till the death of the person.
These Samskaras are primarily done by parents under the guidance of a Hindu priest and the child participates in them. The purpose of these rituals is to remove the faults (both biological and Karmic faults) that the child may have inherited from its parents and thus ensure the child is born and develops into a physically, mentally and spiritually healthy individual (Manu Smriti 2.27). The Samskaras further intends to impart values like compassion towards all creatures, forbearance/patience, freedom from jealousy, cleanliness, mental-calmness, auspiciousness, generosity and freedom from desires (Gautama Dharma Sutras 8.23). The scriptures go a step further and declare that it is better to perform few Samskaras by ensuring the development of the above mentioned values, than performing all the Samskaras mechanically, without development of inner values; since, only the former is beneficial and not the latter (Gautama Dharma Sutras 8.24-25). No other culture covers the growing stages of a child in such detail in terms of invoking positive energies, imparting positive values, along with the constant remembrance of duties.
What differs from western events of communion and baby shower, is the understanding that a human birth has much more capabilities, than a mere animal birth and the amount of restraint & sacrifice that Hindu parents assume in bringing up the children with this understanding. The importance of human birth has been beautifully brought out by Adi Shakaracharya in his Vivekachudamani, wherein he states: “Very rare indeed are these three things and happen only due to the utmost Grace of God—a human birth, a burning desire for liberation, and the blessed refuge of an illuminated sage.” It is this understand, which makes Hindu scriptures to enjoin having offsprings as one of the righteous duties of married couple; it is this understanding, which makes Hindu parents to celebrate each and every event in a child’s life; and it is this understanding, which makes Hindu scriptures recognize that parents have a duty towards ensuring that children not only get worldly education and material successes, but also get a Dharmic education and attain Spiritual Self-actualization.
The role of parents is vital in the education of children. A child learns the most from the mother, especially in the beginning years of life. The father’s role has always been that of a facilitator and a role model. A teacher only comes into picture at a later phase of childhood. In fact, both the parents are the best guide, teacher, and a friend to children. Thus, the famous Hindu saying from Taittiriya Upanishad (1.11.2) states: ‘maatru devo bhava, pitru devo bhava’, recognizing how parents are the very manifestation of divinity. But, the role of a mother towards her children goes beyond imparting education. She pours all her love and care towards her child, all her activities become directed towards her children, and in many a sense she dedicates her life itself to nurturing her children. Thus, many Hindu texts, including Ayurvedic texts speak about various modes of life (Paricharyas) exclusively for women, designed to ensure physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing of the mothers.
In the Vedic times, it seems that the whole society was living with a great deal of spiritual understanding. In spite of obvious attachment of children towards parents, there was a certain amount of detachment that lead to living more responsible lives. There were Gurukulas, which not only imparted worldly education, but also took care to ensure that children did not develop excessive attachment to worldly pleasures. Parents sacrificed their love and affection towards their children, so that their children could develop values like detachment, self-control, etc. in the Gurukulas, without any disturbance.
In today’s world, this is very hard to practice. While the typically good western parents totally focus on things like good manners, grooming, etc., still the essentials of parenthood stay limited to ensuring the wellbeing on the physical plane, and thus making children a slave of their minds and desires. Though, many Hindu parents are not following much of the tenets of parenthood advised in the Hindu texts, they still seem to have affinity towards sacrificing for children. For example, unlike the West, leaving little children alone at home and going for parties was never a norm for Hindu parents. And even today it is not a norm. Many Hindu parents still live together, in spite of serious differences for the sake of giving better lives to their children. This is because the Hindu culture tells people to live by their duties, to put duties before personal comforts. After all, it is obvious that what two people can do for a child effortlessly, would take much more effort for a single parent to achieve.
With the number of divorces and single parent families increasing in the West, children will learn the same, to move on into the emptiness of worldly reasons. However, this should not be misconstrued as an endorsement of toleration of abuse within a marriage. In fact, abuse within a marriage causes as much trauma to the children as to the spouses and in such cases, divorce remains the only option. The point is, divorce should stay as an exception and not become a norm. Add to this, the universalization of the latest western view that all unpaid domestic work is of no value, since it does not add to GDP. Under these emerging ‘modern’ worldviews, sustaining families will become even more difficult. The patience to tolerate small differences is decreasing day by day. On the one hand, we have Islamic society, which appears to limit the role of parenthood to a mere numbers game of controlling religious narratives. On the other hand, we have many people, including Hindus, who are increasingly giving birth to children, without the conscious resolve to give anything back to society and civilization.
In the current society, the role of a parent has been reduced to teaching the child to bring wealth and success back home. This is not a Hindu view. Hindu view of parenthood ensures a strong, healthy, spiritual and dutiful offspring, while prescribing equal amounts of sacrifices for the mother and the father. Restraint in sex, diet, and lifestyle for the benefit of children is still accepted quite normally by many practicing Hindus. Parenthood is all about leading by example. It is the duty of every parent to let the children know that there is a deep spiritual potential in everyone, that there are duties that each individual must perform, that there are values that must be cultivated and that a human being must give back to the society and the cosmos itself in some way. There is a lot of happiness and contentment in this Dharmic way of parenting, which rises beyond the quick moments of pleasures that the materialistic world offers. Both the parents should ensure support to each other in raising the children, in spite of whatever differences they may have. They must let their children question, collect knowledge, discover their own inner tendencies and choose their path of life accordingly.
Unlike the West, parents earn a lot of respect in Hindu Dharma, because our governments don’t yet calculate the extent of unpaid work of parenting. Once calculations happen, the superior values like love, sacrifice, etc. attached to parenthood will disappear, and only laws will control the relationships. This is not to suggest that there are no good parents or happy families in the West or elsewhere. Nor is it being suggested that all families within the Hindu society are good and perfect. Instead, when certain modern trends in parenting, especially those inspired from the West, are compared to the ideal Hindu view, the later seems to be more meaningful, wholesome, and imparts a deeper meaning to life itself.
(This article was published by IndiaFacts in 2016)
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