How To Introduce Religion to Children (Age 6)
Co-authored with Ritvvij Parrikh.
Our daughter is six years old. We have not formally introduced her to religion yet. No – we do not want her to be an atheist. Well, she could choose to be one, but that is her decision. In this post, we discuss why and how we (are and) plan to introduce religion to her.
India is a land where religion and God are everywhere. We could not hide her from it. So yes, she:
- Has visited temples, mostly with her grandparents
- Has been on long walks (and treks) on temple grounds
- Has seen cartoons like The Legend of Hanuman, Swami Ayyappa, etc. on OTT
But we have actively guided her away from any form of devotion, Pooja, Kriya. And every time she asks a question, we tell her that we will talk about it when she grows up.
In our opinion, she is too young to understand the nuance of religion. And without it, she would most likely follow it blindly with Bhakti (devotion) instead of questioning and understanding.
She should not learn religion until she can read by herself and comprehend well. She also should not learn religion until she can intellectually engage or debate a topic.
Eventually, we believe in leveraging religion and deities as a means for self-improvement, argument, and discipline instead of fearing his wrath.
Let us delve into each aspect.
Indic religions are nuanced
The divide between what you see versus what it means can be sharp. It is easy to misunderstand Indic religions without the basics. People tend to:
- Follow the specific deity or a specific religion that their parents follow
- Deeply identify with one specific deity or a specific religion
- Go so deep into Bhakti (devotion) that they stop questioning why and just do it for the sake of doing
- Sometimes the devotion is so deep that they stop leveraging religion for the betterment of the human experience
From our limited study, below are a few principles we think are core:
Most Indic religions are interoperable. Most religions born out of India — Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, Jainism —follow the same basic tenants of the Dharmic tradition i.e., Karma and Reincarnation. Beyond these, each sect is free to interpret its way of worship.
There is no concept of apostasy. All forms of worship or not worshipping are okay, till you stay Dharmic. It is okay for someone to start with Shakti worship, move onto Vaishnavism, and towards the end of their life, pick up Jainism.
Anything can be God. The Indic God can be a man, woman (Devi or Mata), transgender (Ardhanarishwar), an animal, or nature — River, Mountains, Sun, Wind, Fire, etc. — and specific natural forms like the confluence of rivers. These coexist with ancestor worship.
Worship of the feminine is vital. All villages have a Devi temple (feminine), irrespective of whether they have any other temple.
You can emulate the Gods. Except for Shakti, Brahma, Vishnu, and Mahesh, most Gods were humans (avatars) who were extremely mindful during their lifetime and achieved great deeds. They live like humans with all the pain, suffering, and struggles. Yes, there are elements of fantasy but they might have been added later during the Bhakti reform.
The same God has different forms. For example, Shakti Mata is prayed in various forms — Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kali, Durga, Annapurna, Sati, Chandi, Parwati, etc. Similarly, Krishna is prayed as a toddler and an adult.
Freedom to question the Gods. The Indian Gods do not give commandments. Instead, you can ask them questions, and they explain. Even Krishna had to face questions from Arjun on the battlefield of Mahabharata. This discourse is what became the Bhagwat Gita.
Technology to improve
Dharma is not merely theoretical, it is designed to help you live the best life. Your spiritual journey is all yours, and Dharma is completely customizable for your needs. Depending on your context — who you are and what you are trying to achieve — you can pick a religion, a God, and a form of that God to best achieve what you are trying to do.
For example, in the Shakta tradition
- Traders and business people pray to Shakti, in the form of Lakshmi.
- Students and academia pray to Shakti in the form of Saraswati and Gayatri.
- Farmers and shepherds pray to Shakti in the form of Bhudevi and Annapurna.
- Warriors pray to Shakti in the form of Durga. The battle flag of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, a Sikh, had the image of Durga. Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj prayed to Bhavani Ma.
Similarly, people pursuing physical fitness pray to Shiva, a form of Hanuman. In the South, when they pick up weapons, they pray to Kartikeya Murugan, the son of Shiva.
Eventually, minus Bhakti, God becomes a tool or technique to achieve a transformation in you — learning or growing into something or outgrowing something. You debate with the Gods to clarify your doubts. There is no right or wrong. What matters is growth!
Sabi has chosen Swami Ayyaapan — the supreme deity of Sabarimala — as her chief deity because she relates to him. Manikandan is of Sabi’s age. Like Sabi, Manikandan too is learning martial arts under a Guru. Manikandan cannot fly or do other magical things and is primarily a very mindful human being. Finally, Manikandan becomes Swami Ayyappan, now a God, through years of learning, practice, and patience.
We took Sabi to the Ayyaapan temple in Delhi. Sabi decided to wear her Krishna dress and took a bow and arrow to the temple.
Preparing the ground
Reading. Since age one, we have been working hard towards teaching her first phonics and reading. She has progressed sufficiently. Reading diverse books opens her up to different ideas.
- How to Foster an Affinity for Reading in Toddlers (Age 1-3)
- How To Develop a Reading Habit for Children (Age 5-8)
Expressing ideas. At age three, we introduced her to doodling to communicate ideas when she lacked words. Now she is learning to write.
Sticking to one thing. Over the years, she has tried out many things. But one thing has stuck for over 18 months now — Seido Karate. She looks up to her Guru (Kiyoshi). Progressing slowly but steadily in one field gives her a sense of how much effort it takes to grow into one thing.
Habit. We brought out the idols from the temple and spread them across the house and integrated them with her daily life. We installed a Shiva Linga (from father’s side) and a Parshwanath (from mother’s side) on two 15-year old Banyan Bonsai trees that she waters regularly.
Introducing religion to her
Applying it towards a goal
Over the last two years, we have been slowly building Sabi’s physical strength. We started with long walks on weekends, 2000 steps initially, and now at least 10,000 steps. Over time, we have trained her to run a bit — three repetitions of 4-min runs. Next, we signed her up for Karate, and then some physical training.
She is increasingly approaching the age that we can introduce strength training.
So we started training her with Mudgars or Hanuman Gadas (Mace) and with it, the discipline and following of Lord Hanuman. Instead of teaching her to pray to God, we are hoping that she lives it.
Experience the diversity
This Diwali (October 2022) we finally decided to pick up a 4000 km road trip across Delhi, Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh to make her experience the fundamental principles of Indic religions.
Throughout the trip, we chose temples to showcase the diversity of the Indic religions. Each temple became a discussion point. We carried our Gadas during the road trip and exercised at most of the below temples.
To witness Shaivism, we visited:
- The iconic Eklingji which has been the ruling deity of the Mewar Royal Family since 700 AD.
- We further covered three Jyotirlings: Somnath on the Gujarat coast, Omkareshwar on the banks of the Narmada, and finally Mahakaleshwar in the ancient city of Ujjain.
To experience the Shakta tradition:
- Our toughest climb was to up the Girnar Hill in Gujarat. Six-year-old climbed up 5000+ steep steps to reach the Ambaji temple.
- We covered three Shakti Peeths (more on them later). The first one was a 1000 step climb up to visit the Ambaji temple, Gujarat. The second one was a Mahakali temple right next to Somnath. The third one is the Harsiddhi temple in Ujjain.
To introduce Jainism, we:
- Hiked 3500 steps up to the Jain temple of Adinath on top of Palitana Hill.
- And on the climb up to the Girnar Hill, we visited the Jain temple of Neminath.
For Vaishnavism, we visited Shrinathji, Nathdwara in Rajasthan. This temple is generally prayed to by traders and business people.
For nature worship, we witnessed the Narmada Aarti i.e. prayer being offered to the river Narmada.
Finally, for Buddhism, we visited the ruins at Sanchi.
We missed visiting Sikhism spots. That we intend to cover in a future trip.
Realize the connection
Shiva and Shakti are deeply interrelated. Ambaji, a form of Shakti is deeply respected in the Jain tradition. Hanuman, an avatar of Shiva, followed and prayed to Ram. It is all interconnected.
More fundamentally, our existence is deeply related to this land. Yes, the Indian subcontinent might not have existed in the form of a modern nation-state or as one empire. But the belief system is spread across this land and this land alone.
- The spots that Ram and the Pandavas took during their respective exile spanned across this same geography.
- Spread across South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Tibet), are 51 Shakti Peeth temples that are associated with the #Shaktism tradition of Hinduism. (image to the left below)
- The 12 major Shiva temples called Jyotirling are spread across this land. (image to the right below)
Acknowledge the past
One aspect of this entire endeavor is knowing and acknowledging that most of the temples we visited have been destroyed multiple times over by Muslim rulers sometimes for the iconoclasm that their religion asks for, sometimes to humiliate Hindus, and other times to loot. It is a reality that she should know.
As the next step in her entrepreneurship journey, she considered writing down her learnings about Indic religions and sell a book. We bought a scrapbook and helped her produce one polished copy. She was extremely proud.
Conclusion: It took her 3-4 weeks to produce one copy. She realized that there was no way she can mass-produce these books manually. So she dropped the idea of selling the book.
Nothing much. I think our Mudgar or Gada training will go on for another year. If she decides to pick up Kalaripayattu, then she will switch deities.