How do you teach your children about religion, particularly your own? Are the parents responsible for this vital task, or should they call in some outside help? It’s a question I faced when I became a parent almost five years ago.
I am a Hindu who was born in New Delhi and lived in India until I was 8, before immigrating to the United States with my parents and younger sister. Throughout my childhood, Hinduism wasn’t something I formally learned; it was a natural part of my everyday life.
My parents did pujas (prayers) with my sister, Aditi, and me every evening in front of the makeshift mandir (temple) on top of their bureau in their bedroom. We celebrated all the major holidays, including Diwali and Holi, with parties and more elaborate pujas. Aditi and I spent Saturday mornings in India watching episodes of the Mahabharata and Ramayana on TV and listened intently to bedtime stories from our mother based on Indian mythology.
Following this tradition became more challenging as I grew into adulthood and got married. My husband, Mahir, who is from Mumbai, and I live in New York City, where we have never been starved for an Indian community. But, perhaps like many Indians who came to the United States as children, our careers and mainstream life took precedence over our religion as we grew up.
This slipping away of an integral part of my roots didn’t bother me at all until I gave birth to my daughter, Meenakshi. Sometime in her first year of life, I started feeling urgently that she should learn all about her religion. Mahir and I started doing a short puja with her before she went to bed, but we felt inadequately equipped to be her sole source of learning and wanted something more.
When it comes to kids’ classes in New York City, there are almost too many options, whether it’s gym, music or art. That’s not the case with those on the Hindu religion – I could only find three for kids.
We picked Bal Vihar, one of the most popular offerings in the area. Part of the Chinmaya Mission, a religious group founded in 1953 in Mumbai by Swami Chinmayananda, the school is focused on teaching the age-old philosophy of Advaita Vedanta. The school came to the United States in the early 1970s, according to Runjhun Saklani, the secretary of the New York mission, when a handful of parents said they wanted an organized way to teach their children Hinduism.
Bal Vihar started in 2002 in the New York City area in a small way: four or five children met in apartments, where volunteer teachers taught them devotional songs and prayers and the names and meanings of the gods and goddesses.
By the time we enrolled Meenakshi in Bal Vihar classes in 2011, there were classes around the country, and Ms. Saklani estimates that more than 5,000 children attend Bal Vihar in the United States today.
Manhattan sessions meet on Saturday mornings for 90 minutes at the Allen Stevenson School for children ages 3 to 10. The class starts with the students congregating in one room to sing bhajans, a kind of devotional song. Then they divide into different groups by age, where they read Indian mythology stories and talk about the values these tales teach. Younger children like Meenakshi, who was 3 when she started, do activities like coloring in pictures of gods and learning their names.
The sessions end with everyone coming together again for aarti, another type of devotional song, and prasad, which is usually a piece of fruit and chocolate.
I knew the classes were resonating with my daughter when during our nightly pujas, she started reciting bhajans beyond the Gayatri Mantra we had taught her. A few months after she started, she was teaching me the words to devotional songs I had forgotten, like the lyrics to “Raghupati Raghav Raja Ram.” She even sang these tunes on playdates with her Indian friends.
The classes also gave Mahir and I the chance to re-engage with Hinduism, and when it came time to enroll for the new year, which runs from September to June, I immediately sent in a check (the classes are free, but the school charges $600 per student in Manhattan to pay the cost of renting space at the school).
But one day last summer, our always-opinionated child, now 4, declared that she didn’t want to go to Bal Vihar that fall. She wanted to take soccer on Saturdays instead. I tried my best to convince her, but in the end, I decided to give in. I didn’t want to force Hinduism on her for fear that she might be completely turned off on it.
So for now, it’s up to Mahir and I to make sure that Meenakshi retains what she has taken in so far and keeps building on it. We don’t do this job nearly as well or in the structured way that Bal Vihar can, but we try, through reading her children’s Indian mythology books, listening to bhajans during car rides and having small Diwali parties with her friends. And if she is interested in taking Hinduism classes again, we’re fortunate that in New York City, they do exist.
by By SHIVANI VORA
Hinduism classes for kids in the New York City area:
Bal Vihar (in Manhattan, Brooklyn, Long Island and Westchester)
Hindu Samaj (in New Jersey)
Hindu Temple Society of North America (in Flushing, Queens)