To understand the context of this statement let me tell you a bit about me. I’m a Hindu Gujarati. My father was born in the Indian state of Gujarat and was one of six children whilst my mother was from Kenya and one of seven children. Both grew up with every imaginable hardship – financial, hard discipline, emotional starvation – and their marriage was arranged via elders. There was no dating; they simply saw a photo of each other. Hinduism and Gujarati customs were an everyday part of theirs (and my) childhood; certain days were observed as ‘vegetarian’ or ‘semi vegetarian’ (fish but no meat), certain foods were prepared on particular days and I was completely accustomed to hearing what not to do to avoid bad luck.
The language of Gujarati is my mother tongue but I confess that whilst I can speak it, understand it and read a little, unless I’m speaking to someone (usually) elderly, I default to speaking English even when I’m being spoken to in Gujarati.
My parents brought me up to follow many things (including the nail thing on a Saturday which effectively reduced my weekend opportunity to get my nails done by more than 50% when you take Sunday trading hours into account). It’s only later in life and especially after I’ve had my own children and am more spiritually inquisitive and aware, that I’ve started to question why we say and do certain things in our culture.
walking the tightrope of luck
The beliefs I was taught were a mix of what I would loosely call religious and cultural. Religious practices included praying, going on pilgrimages and observing key festivals whereas cultural practices would include things like:
- Not putting the household rubbish out after dark because good fortune would leave through the open door
- Never leaving a shoe or slipper upturned because it attracted bad luck
- Not washing your hair for the entire nine months of your pregnancy to protect mother and child from infections (dreadlocks anyone?!)
- Not tapping/waggling your foot because it invited bad luck
- Eating a tablespoon of natural yoghurt before an exam for optimum performance
And hundreds more practices like this. To this day, I’ve never found a universally accepted reason for the ones I was taught – or even a rational reason at that.
do as you’re told
I was also taught obedience and that parents are the personification of God so you do as you’re told and don’t challenge – which limited the possibility of conversation around why. Add to that the difficulty of reverence to parents who sometimes behaved in ways that were morally questionable and you get a flavour of the emotionally conflicting and stifling aspect of my childhood which was probably an unwitting resemblance of their own.
I’m forever grateful to my parents for the material sacrifices that they made. Like many parents of their generation, they slogged night and day to create a life for their children which would be far enhanced materially and educationally than their own. This was the dream; this is what they lived for. But, being a parent is about so much more than this too.
parenting through fear vs.love
I don’t believe that being a parent in itself qualifies you for reverence and even if you do achieve this from your children, if it’s motivated by fear then the depth of loving feeling won’t necessarily accompany it.
Respect and admiration from your children is earned; it’s not owed.
For me being a parent is an opportunity to demonstrate those qualities which you value and want to see in your own children – truth in speech and action, acceptance, compassion towards others, manners, promotion of self-worth, tolerance – and so much more.
I’ve come to realise that relatability is everything. Unlike my younger self, I encourage my children to enquire and be inquisitive whether it’s about our culture, the world and everything in between.
I want to leave my children the legacy of my culture in such a way that they treasure it and pass it on for generations to come. But I know the way I was taught to follow things won’t fly with them.
Immersive appreciation – not blind obedience – is the only way forward.
For example, I observe the Sheetala Satam ritual. On this day, we don’t use the cooker (so usually eat cold food) and light a diya(sacred lamp) offering prayers to Goddess Sheetala. There are many stories about why this day is observed; some say it’s about protecting children from chickenpox, others say it’s because back in the day, people only had a basic earthen stove and it was an opportunity to thank God for the resources He’d provided for us to survive. I’m not sure which version is correct but the reason I observe it – and tell my children about it – is because it teaches me humility. In not using the cooker all day I’m reminded how fortunate we are to have the food and resources we do and to be thankful for them.
For me, this is the take home message; it’s relatable and whatever the future brings when I’m no longer around, the message of gratitude and humility is everlasting.
my banned womb
I’m also happy to observe this custom because I’m not harming anyone by practising it.
By comparison, I was recently told that I wasn’t allowed to participate in a traditional Shrimanth ceremony* (baby shower) because seven years ago I’d suffered a miscarriage (more in my blog Don’t say the ‘M’ word). I couldn’t believe that the same people who comforted me with assurances that my unborn child was actually a gift from God fulfilling their last karma** were now using my miscarriage as a reason to exclude me from being present and joining my family on such a happy occasion – and citing our culture as the reason for this. Apparently, even though I’d successfully delivered two healthy children my earlier miscarriage meant I wasn’t considered whole.
This experience made me question what messages and legacies we want to define our culture for generations to come.
To take someone’s past unfortunate experiences and use them against them isn’t just a sure fire way for future generations to reject our culture, it’s an affront to humanity at its core.
I’m not prepared to subscribe to any aspect of my culture which alienates or denigrates people. To me culture means inclusivity, celebration of heritage and strengthening bonds based on the foundations of mutal love, promotion and pride.
I don’t want to shed my culture, I want to celebrate it but I want to define my culture positively and set practices and beliefs which enhance and promote people and their wellbeing – not use it as a tool to divide.
To me, culture is captured by togetherness and servitude. It’s sharing meals and resources, celebrating each other’s successes, offering a hand when life gets tough and observing customs which tighten this thread of humanity between us.
Future generations won’t accept legendary tales or customs which shun members of the community. We live in an age where children want answers backed up by reasoning or the satisfaction of their innate sense of justice fulfilled. My humble advice? Be prepared to be asked questions and don’t be afraid to say you don’t know but you’ll find out. And when you do get an answer to your question about why you do certain things, pause and ask yourself if you agree with the message you’re conveying to your children.
We are the beholders of how we define our culture to our children – we’re not slaves to following things we don’t want to or don’t agree with just because that’s the way it’s always been done.
When we’re at the crossroads we can choose the ignorant path of fear or the illuminated path of education and enquiry.
In Sanskrit the teacher is known as Guru which translates as the remover of darkness/ignorance – we are the primary teachers of our children so let’s use this empowerment to shed practices which harm others and redefine our culture so that it’s exclusively rich in love, acceptance and service to all.
*also popularly known as Godh bharai/Khodo Bharavo which essentially translates as “filling the lap” of the mother-to-be with abundant good wishes for a safe and healthy delivery.
**In Hinduism it’s believed that the cycle of birth and death continues until all past misdeeds have been compensated for through good action thereby enabling a person to merge with God and be truly free of this world.