American Hindu parents are finding innovative ways to pass the faith on to their kids

(RNS) — Every day since March, 63-year-old Ranjani Saigal has posted a 90-second Instagram reel.

“I’m not a social media person,” said Saigal, who goes by “The Hindu Grandma” on Instagram. “I didn’t know what a reel was, I didn’t know what TikTok was, any of that. Like many other grandparents, I was like, ‘Social media? I should stay away from that.’”

But Saigal, who lives in Boston, was determined to reach the next generation of Hindu children, and she knew social media is where she’d find them. Through short educational videos answering questions such as “Why do Hindus wear a bindi?” or demonstrating a step-by-step everyday morning prayer ritual, Saigal has become a symbolic “dadi,” “ajji,” or “ammamma” to over 100,000 followers. 

“Somehow people seem to like to learn from grandma, and hence seem to listen in more,” she said. “People love their grandmas, at the same time they’re kind of missing in their lives. And I don’t know, it touches me a lot, so it makes me keep wanting to go with it.”

To Saigal, who is a trained purohita, or family priest, and a Bharatanatyam teacher, Hinduism is a “star-studded, gem-filled” tradition that has a real power to connect with youth. For her granddaughter’s first birthday, Saigal was able to gift her a copy of her own children’s book: “My First Om,” intended for the very youngest of Hindus.

Instagram posts by Ranjani Saigal, who goes by The Hindu Grandma. (Screen grab)

“The more Hindu a teacher you are, the more you should allow for questions,” she said. “It’s a religion of understanding and of knowledge, not of faith. And I think that kind of vibes with the modern generation.”

American Hindu parents and grandparents like Saigal are reckoning with how to keep their children connected to Hinduism against a nationwide backdrop of decreased religiosity among young people. From Instagram reels to children’s books, summer camps to Sunday school, Hindu adults hope to spark genuine excitement about the Hindu faith among second-generation youth, while offering them a community to belong to.

Roopa Pai, an award-winning author based in Bangalore, India, similarly saw a gap that needed to be filled. The author of India’s first children’s fantasy series, the “Taranauts,” Pai wrote “The Gita: For Children” in 2015; it’s an 18-chapter, kid-friendly version of one of Hindus’ most revered scriptures, the Bhagavad Gita, which takes place during the Battle of Kurukshetra.

Before taking on the project, however, Pai, who had never read the Gita before, had her concerns.

“First of all, I thought, it’s not meant for children,” said Pai, who was raised as a Lingayat, a community that does not practice Vedic rituals. “You know, it’s something that old people in their rocking chairs in the winter of their lives, after having experienced all the vicissitudes of life, settle into.

“And in India, the Gita is a living, breathing text, and people are very, very sensitive to what you may say about it,” she added. “So I approached the Gita with a very open, inquiring, curious mind as a piece of literature, not as a piece of scripture.”

Roopa Pai. (Courtesy photo)

Roopa Pai. (Courtesy photo)

Although the book is set in wartime, Pai says the dynamic Gita is chock-full of relevant lessons for children of any age. It is a metaphorical story, she says, in which the battlefield is in one’s own mind. Arjuna, the main protagonist, asks Lord Krishna for advice moments before he must fulfill his dharma, or duty, as a soldier, even though some of his beloved relatives are on the other side.

The author describes Krishna as Arjuna’s “best friend,” who instructs him to not let emotion cloud his dharma. In 700 verses, Krishna offers wisdom on morals, mindful action and the power of making the right choice against voices that will tell you otherwise — like, for example, when facing peer pressure to lie to your parents. 

Pai says her lessons for children from this are to recognize they are already whole, that “your best friend is with you” and always has their back, and they just need to cultivate that friendship and lean into it when they face problems. “I tell them, you know, every five minutes before you go to sleep, each night, sit and talk to your Krishna,” Pai said.

Pai, who has lived in New York and Florida with her two children in the past, says her book is widely read by children across the Hindu American diaspora. “That’s the other core thing in Hindu philosophy: that happiness is not to be pursued, that it’s a waste of time, which goes fully against the American thing of pursuit of happiness,” she said. “It says instead, put all your energies into finding bliss, contentment, peace that is long-lasting.”

She says parents and children are equally “surprised, startled and delighted” by the modern-day relevance of the centuries-old text. Through “The Gita: For Children,” she instructs children around the world on its practical implications, teaching, for example, that a student’s dharma is simply to work hard and study, not to focus on being the first in the class.

“It’s very nonpreachy,” she said. “It allows you to think for yourself, and tells you that, once you have thought about it in this way, whatever you come up with is valid, and that’s a very warming thought for children to believe that they are in control of their own destiny.”

For some parents in the United States, grounding their kids in Hindu teachings at home is critical for combating what they say are stereotypes about Hinduism taught in schools, such as an emphasis on caste or cow worship.

Vamsee Juluri. (Photo courtesy University of San Francisco)

Vamsee Juluri. (Photo courtesy University of San Francisco)

“The anxiety that has started is this awareness, you know, especially post 2000s, that the only time children learn about India or Hinduism in their school textbooks is just being two or three buzzwords,” said scholar and parent Vamsee Juluri.

A media professor at the University of San Francisco, Juluri was raised in India, where as a kid, he said, intergenerational Hindu practices were passed down without much room for questioning. But mythological stories on TV and in movies, along with the popular Amar Chitra Katha comics, kept kids entertained and intrigued by the gods.

In the U.S., he says, Hindus face a challenge familiar to many immigrants with children who have more American sensibilities and questions about the meanings behind traditional rituals.

“Until the ’90s, most Hindu American kids didn’t have an alternative other than these very clumsy, you know, weekend temple classes run by an uncle from India,” said Juluri, calling them “cosmetic cultural” Hindu. ”There is now more of an organic, American born and raised transnational community that has started to form in the U.S.”

He points to initiatives such as the Chinmaya Mission’s Bala Vihar program, which offers weekly Vedic classes and a yearly Gita Chanting Competition, as pioneers in the Hindu youth space. Many former students are now leaders, which adds to its relatability, he said. And with more initiatives popping up, Juluri has high hopes for the future.

“I think it’s delightful that there are people like the Hindu Grandma who are just conveying their joy about what they feel. The joy of talking squirrels or the elephant-headed God, the gentleness and the beauty of the traditions and the worship and the aesthetics,” Juluri said.

Saigal has heard from other parents and grandparents who use her explanations as trusted, authenticated resources for their own children’s questions, something she says most parents didn’t have in the past 30 years. “If you’re respectful toward the traditions,” she says, “without forcing them on your children, your children will also learn to love them.”

“In Hindu traditions, the word ‘God-fearing’ doesn’t exist,” she added. “I teach children, never do it out of fear. Never do it out of superstition, or so that something horrible doesn’t happen. I think we can get out of that thought.”

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