A few days back when my husband was returning from the temple after maṅgala-ārati,he saw a little boy, perhaps four or five years old, walking around down the path leading to Śrīla Prabhupāda’s Samādhi Temple, serenely chanting on his beads. While this is not an unusual sight in Mayapur, it immediately brought home the fact that it is possible to induce even naughty, little boys to be engaged in the highest form of devotional service. Unfortunately, sometimes parents miss passing onto their children the very ideals that attracted them to join Śrīla Prabhupāda’s movement. One can get so preoccupied with one’s personal sādhanaand with fulfilling children’s immediate physical and emotional needs, that one may lose the real focus that one ought to have as a parent.
Going Against the Tide
We live in a world that defines success in terms of material achievements such as a big bank balance, a prominent position in society and ample sense gratification. The goal of education usually is to get a well-paying job. Through media and advertising, we are inundated with messages that encourage us to indulge our desires. The emphasis is on ‘getting more out of life,’ which essentially means that we should constantly be striving to improve our standard of living. In such a climate, being simple is often equated to being stupid.
However, we receive an entirely different point of view from the śāstras.Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam repeatedly emphasises that human life should be utilized to develop love of Godhead and should not be wasted in the pursuit of sensory pleasures:
“Life’s desires should never be directed toward sense gratification. One should desire only a healthy life, or self-preservation, since a human being is meant for inquiry about the Absolute Truth. Nothing else should be the goal of one’s works.” (SB 1.2.10)
The pursuit of material enjoyment and opulence, bhogaiśvarya, is condemned because it prevents us from developing the strong determination, vyavasāyātmikā buddhiḥ, required for making spiritual progress. (Bg 2.44) A simple life is conducive for spiritual practice for it declutters our mind and allows us to contemplate higher topics.
But to live such a life is like swimming against the tide. We must acknowledge the fact that when we chose to follow a Kṛṣṇa conscious lifestyle we are likely to stick out like a sore thumb among so-called normal people. We may face criticism or ridicule, from relatives, acquaintances, or sometimes even complete strangers. This may not be easy for children to handle. Therefore, it is not enough that we ourselves have the determination to continue in the face of active opposition; an important aspect of parenting is to transfer this faith to our children and equip them with the self-confidence to handle the challenges that they will inevitably come across.
I come from a Sikh family. According to Sikh religion, both men and women are forbidden to cut their hair. The men of this community are conspicuous because they keep long hair, which is tied in a bun and covered with a turban. Most of my cousin brothers were embarrassed by this and promptly cut their hair short when they were old enough to take the decision. The elders were dismayed by their attitude. But actually, they had done little to instil in the boys the desire to uphold the teachings of their religion. They did not explain why these injunctions were there in the first place or how one can benefit from following them.
It made me realized that if we want children to follow a radically different way of life, we must make the effort to explain to them why they should do so. The one thing that attracted me to Kṛṣṇa consciousness was that Śrīla Prabhupāda did not want blind following. He had all the answers and he painstakingly explained them over and over again, in his books and lectures. Similarly, it is important for us, as parents, to communicate effectively with our children and ensure that they are comfortable in their own skin.
Being Role Models
If we want to convey philosophical concepts to our children, it is essential that we ourselves ‘walk the talk’ and teach by our own example. Śrīla Prabhupāda explains:
“In teaching the children, you should refer very carefully to my books. The qualities of a brahman as mentioned in BG chapter 18: sama dama tapasocam[Bg. 18.42]. You must teach these qualities. These qualities will naturally come out, if you just give the process purely. The information is there in my books so if you strictly adhere to them then your program of teaching will be successful. First of all you must teach by your personal example. This is the principle of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu (apani acari bhakti pracaram). So you yourself must chant 16 rounds and follow the regulative principles and automatically they will do as you are doing. Then they will become strong Vaisnavas.” (Letter to Hiranyagarbha, Vrindavan, 19 August, 1974)
It would be impractical for us to expect our children to lead a mode of goodness life and learn to get by with less if they see us trying to keep up with the Joneses by buying the latest cars, gadgets, or fashion accessories. We cannot preach to them about not watching TV and then sit on the computer, browsing Facebook for hours.
Śrīla Prabhupāda explains that a child naturally wants to imitate the grown-ups around him: “Children’s nature is to imitate, because they have to learn. So nature has given them the propensity to imitate. So the first imitation begins from the parents. If the parent is nice Kṛṣṇa devotee, naturally the children become devotee. That is the opportunity of taking birth in a Vaiṣṇava family. So you are all Vaiṣṇavas. If your children do not become Vaiṣṇava in the future, then it is a great, I meant to say, fault on your part. So you should be very cautious, careful, that children are not going astray, they are becoming actually Kṛṣṇa conscious. That means you have to imitate, er, you have to be devotee, and they will imitate. By imitation, imitation, imitation, they will come to Kṛṣṇa consciousness. Then they will never give it up.” (Lecture SB 2.3.15, Los Angeles, 01 June, 1972)
Our lifestyle and attitude will determine what our children will aspire for in future. If we have a very hectic life and they see us chanting our rounds while we are dropping them off to school, or while stacking our cart at the supermarket, we are inadvertently giving them the message that devotional activities can be compromised when ‘real life’ takes over. To teach our children to live a simple life, we would have to simplify our own life. We need to arrange our life in such a way that we have enough time and energy to engage in Kṛṣṇa consciousness. If this means a change of job or relocation to another place—so be it. This will not only benefit us spiritually, it will speak volumes to our children about what one’s priorities should be.
When we decided to move to Mayapur, most devotees discouraged us from doing so. An early retirement at the age of thirty-six seemed impractical. But my husband reasoned that he had had a successful career and accumulated enough money for us to lead a moderate life on our savings. He wanted to engage in full-time service in Śrīla Prabhupāda’s mission before it was too late and his body was old and tired. One of the main reasons for our decision was to get away from the trappings of a big city and offer our daughters a more natural way of life. And so we moved out of our penthouse apartment, sold our four-wheel drive car and gave away the furniture, the linen, the treadmill, and hundreds of other things I had collected over the years.
We moved into an apartment in Mayapur’s Grihasta housing, perhaps 1/4ththe size of our previous house. The children no longer had their own room, nor a wardrobe dedicated for their clothes, another for their toys and a third for stationery and books. In fact, they didn’t have that many clothes, toys or books that each needed to have its own dedicated storage space. And yet, the last six years have been the happiest of our lives. My daughters know that we have to be careful with lakṣmīsince their father quit work, but they don’t mind because it has meant that they get to spend more time with him. If anyone is wondering how their children will manage if they start to live more frugally, I must mention that children are ones who adapt the fastest to a change in circumstances. Particularly, they take their cue from their parents. It was not easy to live in a house with questionable plumbing, draughty windows, an occasional snake in the balcony, and ants, mosquitoes and lizards as our constant companions. But instead of grumbling, we chose to focus on being under the shelter of the most beautiful deities, and being surrounded by devotees, the sound of harināma, and Mayapur’s gorgeous flora and fauna. We were grateful and appreciative, and so, naturally, were the children; sometimes more than us.
Ideally, just as the lotus leaf is untouched by the water it grows in, a devotee should be able to maintain a lifestyle centred around plain living and high thinking, even if he is living in a place that encourages sense gratification in every form and shape. One’s internal mood is important. However, most of us are affected by our external situation. So, we should strive to adjust it in such a way that we are in a peaceful environment. If our circumstances or preaching responsibilities do not allow us to reside in place that is closer to nature and away from the hustle-bustle of city life, we should at least try to spend some time during each year in a place where our children can appreciate the joys of living simply. During vacation, instead of going to Disneyland, we could plan to visit an ISKCON farm community, or live in a temple where they can engage in regular temple program and perform service.
The Right Association
Generally, people are affected by the opinions of their peer group, and children are no exception. If our children are in the company of children who are brand-conscious, or used to flaunting expensive things that their parents buy for them, sooner or later they too will want the same things in order to fit in. While we don’t want to be ‘helicopter parents’—hovering over our children and dictating who they befriend and how they interact—we may want to take the trouble of being familiar with their peer group and suggest they avoid spending time with those who appear to be stuck up and proud of their parent’s position or wealth, even if the latter are the ‘cool kids’ that everyone wants to hang out with. The safest course of action is to give our children the right values which will empower them to make the right choices. Then they will automatically gravitate towards children who are gentle and thoughtful.
Also, we should ensure that they frequently meet with other devotee children. They will be reassured to know that there are other families also who don’t have a television at home, who would rather go out for book distribution than for a movie, who make pizza at home from scratch (and sometimes the cheese too) and who wake up while it still dark outside and ring a bell in front of beautiful deities. There are many devotee families who despite being materially opulent chose to have a very simple lifestyle and would rather use their money in serving devotees or donating to ISKCON projects. This is the kind of association we seek for our children.
We should encourage our children to observe the lifestyle of renunciants in our movement, so that they may appreciate the fact that many of them come from well-to-do backgrounds but have voluntarily given up material luxuries to serve Kṛṣṇa. Sadhus, by their enthusiasm and cheerful demeanour, practically demonstrate that they are better off without the burden of maintaining excessive material possessions, and that simplicity is an asset, not a disadvantage.
In the section in Śrīmad-Bhāgavatamwhere Narada Muni’s previous life is described, Śrīla Prabhupāda writes: “The irresponsible life of sense enjoyment was unknown to the children of the followers of the varṇāśrama system.” (SB 1.5.24, purport) I was particularly struck by this statement because it is so contradictory to the life children are generally leading nowadays. It is taken for granted that children are playful and frivolous, and it is unimaginable to most people that they can be taught to soberly engage in practical devotional service. But devotees understand that actually this is the only thing that will give our children true happiness in the long run, so they come up with all kinds of innovative ways to dovetail the children’s natural propensities into Kṛṣṇa conscious activities.
An essential aspect of simple living is to engage in austerity – not for the sake of it, but for the sake of pleasing Kṛṣṇa. Śrīla Prabhupāda suggests that the children should be induced to practise austerity in such a way that they consider it great fun:
“If they are not spoiled by an artificial standard of sense gratification at an early age, children will turn out very nicely as sober citizens, because they have learned the real meaning of life. If they are trained to accept that austerity is very enjoyable then they will not be spoiled.” (Letter to Satsvarupa, Delhi, 25 November, 1971)
I recently came across an inspiring Facebook post by Samba Prabhu, one of the gurukul teachers. He writes:
“While I was in school teaching this morning, some of the junior boys with a student teacher were playing in the field next to our house. They saw my wife sweeping our garden path, and asked if they could come into the house and look around. They knew that some of the older boys had helped me build it, so they had a sense that its part of their territory. She was busy, so she said, ‘If you want to help me cleaning, sure.’ She thought that would change their minds, but these were gurukula boys. ‘Yes Mataji,’ they gleefully said. Then invading the house, they immediately spotted where all the brooms and brushes were and set to work! She was surprised, as they went from room to room, cleaning cobwebs and sweeping. One of them opened a cupboard and spied a step ladder. “Can we use it to clean around the fans?” Their enthusiasm was bewildering!
Śrīla Prabhupāda told us that children are happy in any circumstance. In gurukula they mop and sweep twice or three times a day, but because they do it with their friends it becomes a source of fun. Cleaning our wooden house with all its stairs, landings and the elevated attic walkway was extra exciting for them. When they came back to school, they ran up to me and excitedly told me how they cleaned my house, how they ate all our cherries (that Saci had given them), how they saw my old sword and all my bows and arrows. Next thing was that the boys that didn’t go, were all asking me, ‘Can we go to your house!’”
An excellent example of how children can derive joy out of simple things.
Austerities don’t seem half as austere when performed in association of devotees. Many of us have had the experience of performing service for hours at end during a festival, and feeling exhausted but blissful at the same time. Personally, we find that it is easier to engage our daughters in service when we do it together. We work better as a team—whether it is learning ślokas, cooking for Kṛṣṇa, going for maṅgala–ārati, chanting or doing kirtan.
Not encouraging sense gratification for the children doesn’t mean that they should be restricted from playing. It just means that it should not be considered the primary objective of their lives. Also, the recreation should also be such that it is not detrimental to the children. Urmila Mataji aptly calls the television the ‘one-eyed guru’ referring to the way it causes everyone to gaze at it with rapt attention and imbibe the message it conveys. Unfortunately, the internet is even more insidious and all-consuming than the TV. Perhaps the greatest service we can do to our children today is to provide them engagement which will keep them away from devices. Seeing the children in Mayapur running around and playing hide-and-seek outside, picking not-yet-ripe lychees and mangoes off trees and having water fights in the summer reminds of my own happy childhood in pre-internet days. Unfortunately, over the years I have also observed that lesser and lesser children are now seen outside, even here in Mayapur where devotees like Atitaguna Mataji have taken great pains to maintain a lovely playground for children, complete with sand pit, tree house and many swings.
Simple living doesn’t have to be dull or boring. In fact, limited resources encourage one to be more creative. I am sitting at my daughter’s desk as I write this article. Pinned on the bulletin board is a custom-made calendar painted to match the room’s colour theme and at the window I can see the beautiful, hand-crafted dream-catcher that her best friend made for her. The rangolis made by the young girls in Mayapur to greet Sri Sri Radha Madhava’s elephant procession are breath-taking – not only are they artistically exquisite, they usually depict an important, philosophical concept. The procession itself is led by boys playing drums, performing kirtan, holding torches, chanting mantrasand serving the deities atop the elephant. One of the boys on Radha Madhava’s elephant periodically stands up and while precariously balanced puts on a fascinating show of waving the cāmarasfor the pleasure of the deities and Their devotees. Our children are bursting with talent, we just need to provide them the appropriate outlet.
Love, Not force
Śrīla Prabhupāda emphasized that spiritual progress can only be made when the desire to do so comes from the heart. We should inspire our children, not force them.
“Regarding your question should force be used on children, no, there shall be no forcing the children to do anything. Child should not be forced. This is all nonsense. Who has devised these things? If we want them to become great devotees, then we must educate the children with love, not in a negative way. Of course, if they become naughty we may show the stick but we should never use it. Child is nonsense, so you can trick him to obey you by making some little story and the child will become cheated in the proper behavior. But never apply force, especially to his chanting and other matters of spiritual training. That will spoil him and in the future he will not like to do it if he forced.” (Letter to Brahmanya Tirtha, Ahmedabad, 10 December 1972)
Spiritual activities should not appear to be punishments for children.
“If a child is trained properly in Krishna Consciousness, he will never go away. That means he must have two things, love and education. So if there is beating of child, that will be difficult for him to accept in loving spirit, and when he is old enough he may want to go away—that is the danger. So why these things are going on—marching and chanting japa, insufficient milk, too strict enforcement of time schedules, hitting the small children? Why these things are being imposed? Why they are inventing these such new things like marching and japa like army? … They should run and play when they are small children, not forced to chant japa, that is not the way.” (Letter to Bhanutanya, Hyderabad, 18 November, 1972)
Accepting a life that is diametrically opposite to the way most people live can sometimes feel unnatural. Unless we give them a happy experience, children will either not be cooperative, or as soon as they are grown-up, they will shun the association of devotees and go away. This does not mean that that we should not discipline our children, but we should not be harsh. Chastisement must be balanced with more than enough love and affection. Most children are anxious to please their parents. It is our duty as parents to provide them the appropriate goals and give them all the support that is required to achieve them. We should acknowledge and praise their positive achievements.
We have often used Śrīla Prabhupāda’s method of transcendental trickery. For example, maṅgala-āratisweets were the incentive for them to go to for maṅgala-ārati.Prasadam treats are always a great motivating factor! In addition, whenever my husband and I feel that it is appropriate for our children to accept certain austerities, we talk it out with them. Whether we would like them to chant sixteen rounds daily, or undertake the systematic study of Śrīla Prabhupāda’s books, we discuss how they can fit it in their schedule and why they should do it. On our part we are gently persuasive, but ultimately, it is their decision. That way they accept the responsibility for undertaking the task and feel a greater sense of satisfaction while doing it.
But what to do if children refuse to follow suggestions that we make for their benefit? Well, instead of blaming them we have to analyse where we have gone wrong as parents that our children do not have the desire to perform activities that will be pleasing to Śrīla Prabhupāda and Lord Kṛṣṇa. In most cases, it is our failing that we are not able to present Kṛṣṇa consciousness in an attractive way.
While simple living is recommended to bring one to the mode of goodness, unless it is complemented with high thinking, it will not help us make spiritual progress. Caitanya Mahāprabhu was unimpressed with the brahmacārīwho was subsisting on milk alone. Whether we are living at a farm, in a holy dhāma, or in our āśrama-like-home in the middle of a city, if we fail to inculcate Kṛṣṇa consciousness in our children, then we may be successful in ensuring that they have a peaceful life, but according to Lord Ṛṣabhadeva we would fail in our duty as parents: pitā na sa syāj jananī na sā syāt …
na mocayed yaḥ samupeta-mṛtyum. (SB 5.5.18)
Lord Ṛṣabhadeva demonstrates what it means to be an ideal father. He did not mince his words when giving instructions to His sons:
“My dear boys, of all the living entities who have accepted material bodies in this world, one who has been awarded this human form should not work hard day and night simply for sense gratification, which is available even for dogs and hogs that eat stool. One should engage in penance and austerity to attain the divine position of devotional service. By such activity, one’s heart is purified, and when one attains this position, he attains eternal, blissful life, which is transcendental to material happiness and which continues forever.” (SB 5.5.1)
Although it may seem counter-intuitive that austerity will give happiness, He explains that austerity is required to perform devotional service, and the result will be attainment of a life of permanent bliss which is far superior to a life of fleeting happiness derived from material sense gratification. What an encouraging way to advise His sons to perform tapasya!
Parents have the responsibility to guide their children just like a spiritual master guides his disciple. Sometimes we are active in preaching to other people but we neglect talking to our own family. We expect that being in a Kṛṣṇa conscious environment is enough for the children to pick up all they need to know. We send them to Sunday School and teach them shlokas. We may even insist that they sit through Śrīmad-Bhāgavatamclasses or lectures given by visiting sannyāsīsor senior devotees. While this gives children exposure to the philosophy of Kṛṣṇa consciousness, it must be supplemented with personal guidance that they receive from their parents who know them through and through and can help them understand how the philosophy relates to them individually. Teaching our children the word of scripture will give them the determination and enthusiasm to follow the path less trodden, the one that leads to Lord Kṛṣṇa and an “eternal, blissful life, which is transcendental to material life and which continues forever.”
Put Down the Devices, Pick Up the Bead Bag
Śrīla Prabhupāda pointed out that the modern way of life requires immense time and effort to gain paltry comforts:
“Why should you go in the city, hundred miles in car and again hundred miles come back and take unnecessary trouble? … What is this nonsense life, big, big cities and always people busy? If he wants to see one friend, he has to go thirty miles. If he has to see a physician, he has to go fifty miles. If he has to go to work, another hundred miles. … Simply increasing artificial life, even for shaving, a big machine is required. What is this? Simply wasting time. Devil’s workshop. Make life very simple. And simple living, high thinking, and always conscious to go back to home, back to Kṛṣṇa. That is life. Not this life, that simply machine, machine, machine, machine.” (Lecture on SB 6.1.49, New Orleans Farm, 01 August, 1975)
Today a country’s advancement is measured in terms of its technological competence, but according to Śrīla Prabhupāda the use of machines and gadgets has unnecessarily complicated our lives and taken our attention away from the real goal of life. On the other hand, a life based on the principle of simple living and high thinking is a happy and peaceful one.
“We have manufactured in so many ways encumbered ways of life. Therefore we have neglected spiritual life. And because we have neglected spiritual life there is no peace. If you want really peaceful life, then you have to make your material necessities simplified and engage your time for spiritual cultivation. Then you will have peace. And that is the best type of civilization. Plain living, high thinking.” (Lecture on SB 5.5.3, Boston, 04 May, 1968)
As parents, we have to choose what kind of life we want to subject our children to, and what kind of life we want to inspire them to follow. For the sake of these lovely souls growing up in Śrīla Prabhupāda’s movement I hope we will all choose wisely.
A recording of a class that I gave on the same topic: