I know very little about Hinduism but interested in learning more.What I do know about Hinduism is that it share some roots with Heathenry. It is probable that the language and cultures of India stem from the same ancient civilization as European culture. The most accepted theory now is that a group known now as the Proto-Indo-Europeans had a civilization northwest of the Caspian Sea that spread southeast into the Middle East and India and northwest throughout Europe. You can still see traces of our shared history in linguistics. For example, the word “priya” in Sanskrit means “beloved” and comes from the same root as the Norse goddess Frigga, whose name also means “beloved.” Mythological similarities also abound, including the idea of the sacred cow as provider. For example, in Indian culture the Earth goddess Prithvi, while in the form of a cow, was milked by an incarnation of the preserver god Vishnu so that the Earth could have grain and vegetation. In the Norse creation myth, a primordial cow allows Ymir, the first living being, to suckle her for food as she (the cow) licks the father of the gods out of a block of ice.
Suffice it to say, I find I have enough in common with Hinduism that I feel comfortable in its practices.
Just south of Austin is Radha Madhav Dham, one of the largest ashrams (a location for Hindu spiritual retreat) in the U.S. For years I’ve been wanting to visit it. Last weekend I finally decided to take the girls there to experience Hindu culture with me. We arrived on a misty Saturday morning to an almost empty parking lot. The building is large and ornate (with plenty of signs warning us not to take photographs, which other people ignored. But we followed it, so I have no photographs to share) We headed to the front of the temple where signs instructed us to take our shoes off. After complying, we entered the lobby.
Immediately we were greeted by the front desk and offered a mix of raisins and almonds which they called something like “parti” (if somebody knows the real name, I’d appreciate it!). My four-year-old was happy to partake. At the temple, the statues of the gods are only viewable at certain times a day (called darshan) and covered by a curtain for the rest of the day. I’d made sure we arrived during darshan. With our almond mix in hand, we headed into the temple (they encouraged us to go in, even with the food). The temple interior is a square room with a ceiling painted to look like the sky. Across from the entrance, the deities stand in colorful display, with a female in the front sitting in the most honored position. At this particular temple, they believe all gods are manifestations of the same one god, and that any form of the god can be worshipped depending on what the seeker wishes to attain in his or her life. At Radha Madhav Dham, they have chosen Radha Krishna, a representation of divine love, as their focus of worship.
I was excited to show my girls a place where a female was worshipped as a supreme being. Watching the smile on a girl’s face when she sees her own gender as worthy of worship is a pretty cool experience. My eldest even pointed out that their representations of Krishna, the blue god who plays the flute and is generally recognized as male, looks very feminine. When one of the parishioners explained to her that he is both male and female, she took it in stride and accepted that as okay. It makes me proud to see my girls growing up with open minds.
After the temple viewing, we walked the grounds. They have a beautiful pool in the back of the temple as well as a lovely walk out to a natural pond. We viewed sculptures of Krishna and Radha, and the girls were entranced by bas relief of elephants and peacock feathers, and highly disappointed that the damp weather had driven the live peacocks into hiding. I promised we’d come back to see them.
Before we left, the youngest asked if we could go back into the temple one more time. Not knowing when we’d get a chance to come back, I agreed that we could. The girls took a longer look at the statues of Radha, Krishna and others, and we looked at the sacred writing on the temple walls. I pointed out the sanskrit to the eldest and we talked about how that was a different alphabet. They also both spent time sitting in the chairs and just looking around.
A few devotees entered at this point, and then a spiritual leader of some type (I’m not sure what to call him) came in. He came up to the three of us and asked if we would be interested in joining them for a silent arti, a short ceremony that received the gods’ blessing through a lamp (the kind with fire). I asked the girls if they were interested. They were, and after they promised to stay silent, we gathered with a few other people in front of the shrine. Everyone stood except me. I knelt so that I could put an arm around each girl and help them keep their promise to be silent. (A necessary precaution, it turned out. They were good, but they’re curious children and had questions.) The leader raised his lamp to the statues and circled it as the rest of us watched. After a couple minutes, he turned to us. Each person in turn placed their hands over the lamp and drew them up to their face, bringing the blessings from the candle to them. When the leader offered the candle to us, my elder daughter immediately followed suit, and I helped the younger do the same. Afterward, we thanked everyone for letting us participate, and headed home. The girls seemed to find the whole experience interesting and were very well behaved. I was proud of them.
I have always enjoyed visiting various religious institutions and experiencing ceremonies from other ways of looking at the divine. This was my first time to do so with children. It’s strange in that the experience becomes less personal–I can’t get lost in my own meditations or feel quite the same “spirit” that I do when I’m not responsible for shepherding young ones–but it was still a unique and special experience to be able to see their wonder at being a part of something so foreign from their own experience and yet so deeply meaningful to others.
Do you have any experience with Hinduism? What about with taking children to experience other faiths?
+ Featured Image: Radha-Madhava Deities in Mayapur Chandradoya Mandir 2005 by Atma