Books For A Dharmic Generation: The Essential Reading List
A Hindu society proud of its roots and ready for the world would be a result of the right reading material handed to it by its elders.
One of the most loved Puranic stories that a Hindu learns about in early life is that of Prahlad – the son of the asura king, Hiranyakashipu. In the well-known episode featured mainly in Shrimad Bhagavata, and then also in various Puranas, Prahlad learns about Vishnu even when he is in the womb of his mother. The great seer Narada helps the child imbibe the knowledge of Vishnu in an organic manner. Later, even as Hiranyakashipu has Prahlad study under the sons of Shukracharya, the great preceptor of the asuras, in a conventional education system, he is unable to stop his son from being a devotee of Vishnu.
Perhaps, the Prahlad episode, which highlights two different ways of imparting knowledge to a child, embeds in it the approach needed to bring up a dharmic generation.
We can force-feed a child and give her a lot of information on dharma and our culture and history. It works with most of the children, most of the times. However, with time, there are moments in the life of every child when there is introspection, questioning, rebellion, and criticism. Can the external material that we feed the child stand this test of her development, the teenager’s rebellion, and the adolescent’s scepticism – especially when the entire external and secular system of education, particularly in India, has a Hinduphobic bias against it?
For Indian parents, the situation is very much like living in the kingdom of Hiranyakashipu, irrespective of which political dispensation rules. The core values of the Nehruvian Indian education system demonises Hindu values as patriarchal, casteist, and obscurantist. Every effort has been made by the state education system to make dharma appear as a Brahmanical system of oppression. Our education system derives much of its view of dharma from both colonial and Marxist worldviews, both of which have no regard for the inherent worth of the Indic system. One popular ‘intellectual’ in Tamil Nadu once quipped, “The only duty of a Hindu when he becomes educated is to eschew Hinduism and get converted.”
Here, there is a possibility that Hindus who want a dharmic upbringing for their children fall into the trap of the homeschooling system, which is popular with the American Christian right-wing. However, this would not be the ideal state to be in as the Hindu dharmic worldview differs from that of the Christian right-wing fundamentally. For Hindus, science – particularly with its evolutionary worldview and the emerging cosmologies unveiled by ‘New Physics’ – is not a threat. Thus, while homeschooling can be a personal choice, it is not a good approach to dharmic education.
So, what should one do?
One answer could lie in a traditional method that Indians have had always — using the ability of the child to memorise. Most of the shlokas and hymns as well as subhasitas are committed to the child’s memory at a very young age. In Tamil Nadu, children start with a set of easy verses of good conduct called “Aathichudi”, attributed to legendary poetess Auvaiyaar. The verses, each starting with a letter from the Tamil alphabet and in the chronological order, are committed to the memory of the children and which ‘grow’ on them with time.
Let us take the first verse, for example. – Aram seyya virumbu. It largely translates to “always desire to do charity”. A child always “loves to give alms”, and, as it grows older, the meaning acquires greater depth. It is an Indic uniqueness that each language in India has dharmic texts, which have the ability to grow on children with time. The children can be made to learn them by heart. This would mean education not by rote learning but by sowing its seeds in the neural substratum. Gita verses, the sacred texts of specific sampradayas which involve reciting and/or singing should all be taught here.
In the case of Tamil Nadu, the Divya Prabantham and Thevaram, Thiruvasagam have been taught this way for a long time. Now with YouTube and other similar resources online, the tradition, which got diluted in the 1990s, can be revived. In this case, one can look at the way Kuldip Pai, a music guru, teaches his students not just music but also imbibes in them the spirit behind the verses they learn. In the field of classical music particularly, merely teaching the form without the spirit and values and visions has landed us in some awkward situations. A Hindu student who learns Thyagaraja’s verses should also realise that music is not just a medium of livelihood but a form of sadhana.
The Indian state can be accused of providing history education that has kept the students culturally illiterate. If parents want their children to be immune to cultural illiteracy and help their wards become culture and history literates, then the best starting place for such children is the Amar Chitra Katha (ACK) collection of Anant Pai. ACK presents Indian history and culture with all its regional variety and linguistic pluralism in the form of comics. It is indeed a challenge to make a child in India aware of the vast and varied regional and linguistic manifestations of that one underlying Sanatana Dharma. Where the state failed Indians in this regard, Pai achieved a great victory on his own.
From the message of the Upanishads and Gita, the life of Buddha and Mahavira, Ramayana and Mahabharata, the great epic of Silapathikaram from South India to the life of Subramanya Bharathi, the supreme sacrifices of Sikh gurus in the north and the valiant resistance put up by the Assamese against the invaders – ACK introduces your child to different aspects of Indian heritage. If every Hindu sits with his or her child, in the age group of five to 10 years, with an ACK at least one hour every two weeks, then they would be successful in equipping their kids with the knowledge of dharmic heritage.
Vishal Agarwal, a concerned Hindu parent, who also runs a temple school in the United States, has been preparing curricula for teaching dharma to children. He insists on three criteria for dharmic education to children. They are:
One, the dharmic knowledge provided for children should be woven around stories from Hindu scriptures and the lives of our great saints, scientists, rulers, artists, etc. We all like to watch movies because they tell a story in a certain appealing way. Similarly, dharmic principles are more easily conveyed through these inspiring stories, and the children tend to remember the underlying message quite well.
Two, one should try to give them an all-inclusive and global perspective of dharma, highlighting our influences outside of India, and also give examples from the lives of non-Indian Hindus. Even where one talks about leaders of specific sampradayas, or scriptures of particular sampradayas, the sources we give should tend to focus on those aspects that are generally acceptable to most Hindus.
Three, we must respect the intelligence of students by keeping the curriculum rigorous.
ACK fulfils all the three criteria set by Agarwal. As the child grows, his or her spirit of inquiry deepens. You may soon have a rebellious teenager who questions everything that has been handed to her. It was easy telling your child that the world was created by Brahma, sustained by Vishnu, and destroyed by Shiva. Now the child learns Darwin and questions what she considers mythology. Now is the time for you to explain to the child how the Puranas differ from mythology.
On the other hand, you can proactively introduce your teenager to the writings of evolutionists like Carl Zimmer and Stephen Jay Gould. You can also encourage the children to watch Inherit the Wind. Teenage years are also a good time to introduce her to Carl Sagan’s Cosmos – both the book and the video series. This would help your teenager realise what Puranas really are.
Agarwal points out the caution we need to exercise in this regard: “Coming to science, it is essential to emphasise, for instance, how the timescales in our tradition correspond to modern cosmic physics timescales. However, we MUST NOT indulge in pseudo-science by making outlandish claims like ‘The Vedas contain all the principles of Nuclear Physics’ and so on..”
There are two books here we need to introduce our teenagers to, which may be considered a “heavy” read. Nevertheless, introducing them is our duty.
In 1976, the vice-chancellor of Bangalore University and a strong rationalist, Dr H Narasimhaiah, invited Swami Ranganathananda of Sri Ramakrishna Mission to speak on science and religion at the university’s first inaugural session of its lecture series on “Science, Society and the Scientific Attitude”. The university later published those lectures as a book for presentation to the graduates at its annual convocation. In the same year, Swami Ranganathananda delivered another lecture titled “Faith and Reason” at the Gwalior Ramakrishna Mission. Both these lectures form the book Science and Religion. This little book can provide an inquisitive teenager with the proper values to explore the common grounds between dharma and science.
When, say, you are going to drop your daughter, who is interested in the mysteries of atoms and the universe and/or intricacies of philosophy, off at her college hostel, Tao of Physics by particle physicist and author Fritjof Capra is a good book you can gift her. It explores the striking parallels between the worldview unveiled by modern physics and that of the so-called ‘Eastern’ knowledge traditions.
A dharmic should also have the knowledge of other worldviews and philosophies. So, gift your child Will Durant’s Story of Philosophy and he or she will also enjoy reading Jostein Gaarder’s Sophie’s World. Simultaneously, introduce the teenager to Is India Civilized? by John George Woodroffe and Sri Aurobindo’s Foundations of Indian Culture.
For those who are more socially inclined, and to an extent all are, the right way to begin reading Swami Vivekananda is his Chicago Address and then for those among us who want to understand Vivekananda in his essence, two books are a must-read before one decides to enter his complete works. One is Arise, Awake — Swami Vivekananda’s Rousing Call to Hindu Nation, which is a compilation of his writings and words painstakingly put together by Sri Eknath Ranade, the founder of Vivekannada Kendra. The second book is for the philosophically inclined, Living at the Source: Yoga Teachings of Vivekananda, compiled by Ann Myren. For those who want to read Vivekananda’s collected works and those who want to simply understand Vivekananda’s vision, these two books are key.
Sister Nivedita’s Web of Indian Life and Kali the Mother are important reading material for students of Indian culture to get an Indic perspective of spirituality and culture. If you want to be an educationist who combines the dharmic with the scientific, then Sister Nivedita’s letters on education should be an important source material you should have read.
And when your son, who has just returned from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), talks about how Indian culture is Brahmanical and that everyone but Brahmans is devoid of education until the Evangelists came, you have to hand him Dharampal’s Beautiful Tree. Then, with time, you can give him the collected works of Dharampal, which can be downloaded from the web. Additionally, taking your JNU-returned young ward to a tour of the Centre for Indigenous Knowledge Systems (CIKS) will definitely help along with the Dharampal books.
An important continuation of Dharamapal’s works is the History of Indian Science and Technology series by the Infinity Foundation. If you are building a library for Indic knowledge systems, it would be incomplete without the volumes published under this series. Any dharmic student interested in science and the history of science should have read these volumes along with Dharampal’s works.
When your child starts justifying temple destruction by giving ‘economic reasons’, it is time to give him or her the two volumes compiled by historian Sitaram Goel on what exactly happened to Hindu temples in history.
Remember the Capra book you gifted your daughter? Make sure she does not stop there. Capra wrote a series of books elaborating on the emerging holistic worldview in all domains of knowledge – from psychology to medicine to social sciences. So buy her Turning Point. And, of course, you can have a comparison of the systems that Capra speaks about with the dharmic systems India still has. For example, after your daughter has read Turning Point, give her that small booklet by Ram Swaroop, Gandhian Economics, and you will be the reason for her excitement when she realises that Swaroop had some profound insights that Capra would arrive at independently later.
Further, if your child is interested in psychology, get him Ram Swarup’s The Word as Revelation: Names of Gods and Meditations: Yogas, Gods, Religions. After this, gift him Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief by Andrew Newberg and Eugene G D’Aquili.
If you are interested in ecology, then surely you would have all the books of James Lovelock in your study. If not, make sure you do. They provide you, again, with an important insight into how ecological thinking works. At the same time, try to get Pankaj Jain’s books which unfortunately are not easily available in India. Further, in the same cause there are books by Nandita Krishna on Hinduism and ecology and Vandana Shiva’s Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Development. These books are important because as you encounter pseudo-scholarly Hinduphobic views, these books will provide you with a better reading of ecology as a science as well as a socio-cultural phenomenon.
A Hindu lives amidst a war. Future empires are empires of the mind, said Winston Churchill. The colonialist was right. Empire building through the colonisation of mind is in full swing and the politically conscious Hindu finds himself in a minority. However, in the struggle for minds, it is not numbers but tools of the mind that will decide who wins. Fortunately, the open nature of Hinduism, along with its pluralism, gels well with the spirit of science. To utilise this harmony, we need to be deep-rooted in our own tradition and allow noble thoughts to reach us constantly. We need to do the samanvaya and forge our weapons of the mind – which will not bring division and destruction, nor aggression and arrogance, but as Vivekananda said, allow the coming generations to seat Mother India on her rightful throne and proclaim her to the world in the voice of peace and benediction.
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