By Genesia Alves
I didn’t sing my children lullabies. All the lullabies I knew — my mother’s, my grandmother’s — were hymns. Christian hymns, gentle, soothing but still, religious.
In my early adulthood, I became aware that religious practice was something you learned from your parents. Of course, its intensity depended on individual families, spanning the range from “cultural affinity” to “authoritative brainwashing”. But the dichotomous thinking of religion seemed at odds with the rest of our upbringing – learning to question, to accept other points of view, to think for ourselves.
In our small circles, religious views and practices are evolving. Even how you would classify your own beliefs needs more nuance than the erstwhile “religious, atheist or agnostic”. There is definitely now a spectrum. Globally though, religiosity is on an upward trend. In India, inspired perhaps by politics, we’re hot and bothered in a climate of religious hostility, replete with its petulant, incendiary vocabulary – “minority”, “offended sentiments”, “tolerance”. Does that mean that we are less inclusive than 20 years ago?
If we want an equitable, peaceful future for our kids, it is imperative that we start the conversation about religious literacy now. Around the world and in India, inter-faith families are already old hands at religious literacy. It requires beginning to try and understand not just “other” religions, but (if you practise,) also your own. Where do your beliefs come from? How do they stand up to scientific questioning? Is your religious practice “thick”: mindful, educated, self-assured, personal and peaceful? Or is it “thin”: a superficial performance, whose lack of depth is camouflaged by noisy, boisterous proselytizing and fervour?
After “us”, we talk about “them”. Religion is a cultural cue. You hear “I’m culturally Jewish”, “I’m culturally Muslim”. Again, the spectrum is highly subjective, but it usually suggests that the person observes some of his inherited religion’s rituals and holidays, but perhaps bears none of its grudges, accepts none of its disgusts.
We live in a fairly cosmopolitan, multi-faith demography, but every day I notice that what passes for “knowledge” about religious cultural identities is part parochial humour, part cliché. We believe appropriating festival customs — decorating a plastic tree, eating biryani, lighting fire-crackers — is adequate. Our ignorance does nothing to dispel toxic generalisations and disgusts. Your children and mine hear the fallout of this superfluous “understanding”: “non-vegetarians are dirty”, “their girls wear such tiny clothes”, “their girls are not allowed to finish their education”, “they’re cowards”, “hypocrites”, “terrorists”.
Happily, it is those rabble-rousing grudges and disgusts that are most vulnerable to religious literacy. My 10 year old’s Sikh best friend doesn’t cut her hair. When my daughter asked, the little girl said, “It is my religion”, but didn’t know more. Also members of that girl’s family, did have regular haircuts. So, we went to Google. As always, the kids learned almost every single practice and belief, yours and “theirs” is replete with debate about authenticity and interpretation. Welcome to the beautiful, peaceable spectrum.
I grew up being a Catholic in Oman, a Muslim country. My mother told us more stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata than we read Bible stories at Sunday School (on Fridays). Her knowledge of Hindu mythology came from a beloved college teacher called Professor Phadnis. His words transported us into this amazing world, so different from our Christian tales. The gods had human flaws, the demons extenuating back-stories.
I was hooked. I studied Islam, read up on Judaism, Zoroastrianism, Bahá’i. I indulged a teenage fascination for Wicca and neo-paganism. Then Kabbalah, Scientology and one man who, allegedly, part of a global suicide-cult, killed himself because his spaceship had docked outside earth. By the time it came to marrying a Sindhi man in a Sikh durbar, I was quite at home.
In our aspirations for our children, we imagine global milieus, comfort and fluency in trans-national situations, a limitless horizon. All of these will be peopled by a spectrum of belief systems. You can’t hope to cover the entire gamut but you can equip your children with tools to be open-minded, inquisitive, respectful.
My husband and I leave the “religion” box unchecked in forms. It is, in our opinion, redundant. Our kids have no spiritual strangleholds, no grudges, no disgusts. I hope they swell the ranks of future adults whose spirituality is private and whose humanity is an all-embracing, mindful practice. And when religion has ceased to be a big deal, I will sing my mother’s hymns as lullabies to my grandchildren. Because then, they will just be old songs of love.
Genesia Alves is a writer and mother to three children
In this column, parents and educators will address issues that are in the news and talk about how to sensitise children to them