Hindu parents reflect on how to share tenets of the faith with their children

As Hindu parents celebrate Diwali, they reflect on how to share tenets of the faith with their children, writes Anjali Hazari

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 November, 2013, 7:01pm
UPDATED : Monday, 04 November, 2013, 7:22pm

On Sunday, Rittoo Ahuja and her family celebrated Diwali, the festival of lights, along with thousands of other Hindus in Hong Kong. They first visited her husband Satinder's office, where she performed a pooja, a kind of ritual, to pay homage to Lakshmi, the goddess who represents both material and spiritual wealth, before taking their employees out for a celebratory lunch.

In the evening the family conducted a more elaborate pooja at home, which included presenting prasad - food offerings to deities which are later shared among devotees - and lighting earthen lamps called diyas, whose light is symbolic of the festival.

"Diwali is all about lighting the lamp that removes the darkness of ignorance. Then life becomes a joy," says Ahuja, a respected teacher of Hindu scriptures called the Vedanta.

"To find the light within which illuminates all our experiences and live in that light is what the Vedas teach us to do."

Although local celebrations are less elaborate and the rituals less rigorous than in India where Ahuja grew up, the underlying spirit of the festival is alive in Hong Kong. Protracted celebrations begin a month earlier, with people getting together for dinners, tea parties and even barbecues.

Then there are the Diwali balls, which are unique to Hong Kong. Bollywood stars are sometimes flown in specially to entertain guests at these. Gambling traditionally takes place, too. According to legend, after the goddess Parvati played dice with her husband Lord Shiva, she decreed that whoever gambled on Diwali night would prosper in coming year.

Beyond its polytheistic image and identification with rituals, Hinduism is built on a broad set of philosophical beliefs that are meant to serve as a general guide to life, though they are rooted in Indian culture.

Devotees in Hong Kong organise classes for different age groups at temples, social centres and private homes to help people understand the teachings outlined in scriptures called the Vedanta.

"While Hinduism includes aspects of Indian culture, Vedanta is the philosophical foundation of Hinduism and is universal in its application," Ahuja says.

A portmanteau word comprised of veda (knowledge) and anta (the end of vedas), it implies the goal of knowledge is to know the self. The authority of Vedanta stems from three canonical texts, the Brahma Sutras, the Upanishads and the Bhagavad Gita, which teaches the art of living.

Because religious practices are dynamic and are reinterpreted in new contexts, it is a challenge for followers here to figure out which parts of Hindu tradition to embrace and endeavour to explain and pass on to their children.

For Monika Parker, an Austrian stress resilience coach who attends Ahuja's adult classes, the main messages of the Bhagavad Gita are clear and they "speak" to her.

"We are all one, whatever the race, colour or religion and by hurting others we only hurt ourselves; suffering is a direct result of desires; and lastly do your duty detached from the rewards," she says.

"The three messages are deceptively simple, yet so difficult to live by. The fun has been in the trying and in the observing that whenever I changed, everything around me changed."

Long-time resident Rakhee Nandwani says she made it a point to send her son Nitin for Bal Vikas (literally "blossoming of the child") classes when he was a little boy.

The tenets of Bal Vikas foster the understanding and practice of the five virtues of satya (truth), dharma (righteousness), shanti (peace), prem (love) and ahimsa (non-violence). They also inculcate habits self-discipline, cultivate humility and help nurture in children a desire to be of service to humanity.

This lays the foundation for self-realisation, Nandwani says, which is why she made the classes a priority. "You can mould clay when it's wet. Once it hardens it can only be broken, not moulded. Bal Vikas is a moulding machine of sanskaras [virtues for life]," she says.

In India, decades of economic growth and improved social mobility have led increasing numbers of young people to subscribe to the notion that being born into a Hindu family recuses them from seeking understanding of the doctrines of the faith.

The opposite seems to be happening in Hong Kong. For example, Rishis Techchandani still makes time to study the Vedanta "to realise the essence of my cultural heritage".

Similarly, Nandwani's son, Nithin, now a sales director, says: "I have a great interest in spirituality as I don't see any purpose to life without understanding and realising the purpose of life," says Nitin.

Hindu parents' desire to give children a holistic education resonates with Radhika Ahuja, Ritoo's daughter, who continues to draw on the wisdom of the Vedanta as an adult.

"Parents are increasingly recognising the need for education to be more than subjects and grades.

"The values of truth, righteousness, peace, love and non-violence are what young minds need to attain true happiness. Students can learn to see happiness as success [and] not academic success as happiness," says Radhika.

"Although it is important to attain good grades, a person can only be labelled as being educated once he or she epitomises these values. It takes a lifetime to incorporate them into our daily lives."

The festival of Diwali, then, is to celebrate this light of awareness within oneself.

There are four paths towards achieving such awareness and self-knowledge, Ahuja says.

Bhakti yoga describes a spiritual path based on devotion or surrender to a chosen deity. When the seeker strives to discover his true nature through the power of reason and knowledge, such self-realisation is attained through jnana yoga.

Karma yoga is the path seekers take when attainment is sought through selfless action and service. And raja yoga is the main practice for all seekers, where experiencing one's true self is achieved through the practice of meditation.