November 14, 2009    
Speech at Kannada Cultural Association of Southern California:  Children's Day Festival

Namaskar.  Thanks to the KCA for having me speak here today.  Not every country observes a Children's Day and not every cultural association celebrates India's Children's Day - so I'm happy we are having this function.
My topic today is a serious one - and something that we all ponder on a daily basis - and that is "Preparing Our Children For The Future."  Now, I'm not going to talk about SAT scores or how to help your child get Straight A's on their report report card.  My focus is something different - something that I think is not addressed often enough - and that is the cultural education of our children.  By "cultural education" I mean how children relate to and internalize Hinduism and their Indian heritage.
I see all these beautiful children here today, dressed in their Indian clothes and involved in their Kannada culture.  And it's wonderful.  But I think we need to do more.  Now you may think, "what is this lady talking about - my children love to eat dosai, they understand Kannada and speak some of it at home, and we even enrolled them in Bala Vihar and dance and music classes.  What more can I do?"  And I'm sure you're also thinking:  "She's so young - who is she to give a speech to us?"
But I'm exactly the type of person whose voice and opinion you should consider.  I'm young enough to remember, yet not too old to forget.  Some of you may have grown up in the US like me, and will relate to what I speak about.  Others may have come here more recently - but if you flash forward 20 years - it's your children who will be in my shoes.  You see, something happens when someone like me - someone who grew up in the US but with strong ties to India - reaches their mid-30's.  All my life I've strived for academic and professional sucess - a most Indian kids are taught to do.  I graduated from an Ivy League university and from a top-20 law school, worked at some of the most prestigious law firms in the country. I'm established in my career.  More importantly, I have a loving and supportive husband, 2 beautiful children, and a wonderful extended family.
But spiritually and culturally, I feel lost.  And I'm not alone in this.  It's a feeling that's shared across the country, and across the world among members of the South Asian diaspora of my generation.  You see, my parents were very active in the Telugu association in Philadelphia where I grew up.  I used to perform in our Telugu functions, attend Telugu classes.  In college, I even took a few Indian philosophy classes.  But I, and others in my shoes, are lost because we don't know HOW to express our Hinduism.  Our memories of Hinduism are of poojas performed by mothers or grandmothers, or temple visits - again with our parents.  Sure, we've read the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.  But the fact of the matter is that when we left home, many of us lost touch with our "Indian-ness" - we get caught up in our studies, jobs, social life, etc.  Of course there were a few visits to India, and random functions here and there, but culture was for the most part peripheral to our lives.  I can tell you that many Deepavalis and Ugadhis passed by without notice.
Now that we have kids though, we WANT to teach our kids about our culture - but HOW do we do that?  I've never performed a pooja myself - and I can't expect grandparents to always be around to perform them.  And frankly, what meaning does a pooja ritual have for me?  And what if Ganesh Chaturthi or Dussehra falls on a random weekday?  Do I take time our of my busy, hectic day to make sweets?
I'm finding that Indian people of my generation are NOT connecting with Hinduism - and there are 2 reasons for this:  (1) Hinduism is written off as too complicated - something that would require too much time - time we don't have - to truly understand it.  It's seen as something to be saved for retirement; and (2) Hinduism was never made relevant to our lives in the first place.  It doesn't hold any particularly special memories for us.  Kid here in the US celebrate Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter or the Jewish Holidays - they have traditions - families always get together.  We don't do that as Hindus - most of us don't even take a day off to observe our holidays.
Take for example Deepavali. Now I've asked several people, both here and in Bangalore when my husband and I were living there, if they could tell me what the real meaning of Deepavali actually is - as research for a book I was writing.  And you know what - I was astounded at the lack of knowledge.
If we don't even know the true meaning of what's perceived as Hinduism's most important holiday, if we don't understand the meaning and symbolism behind a pooja, if we think of Hinduism as something that can wait until retirement - then we're not only doing a disservice to ourselved, but to our children.  And in this busy, commercialized world we live in, if something has no meaning to us - why would we pause our lives to acknowledge it?
Let me share with you a very personal story.
In my final year of college, I found myself in a hospital because a member in my family was very sick.  It was very difficult for me as a 21-year-old to deal with this news.  Fortunately, by the grace of some divine force, the worst was avoided.  But that first year of recovery was the most difficult period of my life.  I continued my plans to attend law school - but it was so very hard to concentrate on my studies.  What I needed in my period of helplessless was spiritual guidance.
There was a large Indian community in Nashville where I went to law school, and a beautiful Hindu temple. But who would I approach for spiritual guidance? A random priest? My peers? Ironically, I found the guidance I needed not through the Hindu community, but through a group of young Bahais who met weekly to discuss and debate passages from various spiritual texts, including the Gita.  This group of young people was so knowledgeable about their religion - about the true meaning of their religion - it was remarkable.  Being able to talk about spirituality helped me to survive my first year of law school.
In Telugu we have a saying:  rEpu manadhi kaadhu - tomorrow is not ours.  We don't know what the future has in store for our kids - they may face difficulties more severe than mine.  But they will face daily challenges - rejection by a friend, jealousy, peer pressure.  And as they get older, they will only be more reluctant to share their difficulties with us.
But what we can do for our children is to provide a strong foundation in culture and spirituality.  Because if their spirit is weak, they won't have the will to do much of anything.  But if their spirit is strong - nurtured - they will be able to achieve what they are capable of and to reach their full potential.
It is my life experiences which led me to develop gnaana  - dedicated to making the Indian culture relevant to children's lives - so that they will be inspired to really understand the true meaning of the culture. 
What I see is that we don't have the right tools, the right materials - age-appropriate materials.  Attractive materials.  We want our kids to learn Kannada, but the first time they actually see a Kannada akshara is when Mom scribbles something on a piece of paper - maybe when the child is 3 or 4.  My son learned his ABCs by the time he was 2 - not through me, but through this noisy green Leap Frog caterpillar - I'm sure something similar happened with your kids.  Just look at how Sesame Street or good schools present educational concepts - it's fun, hands-on.
I believe that culture is like a language - it must be learned early - from birth - in fun, engaging ways.  I ask that you really think about your child's relationship to culture - are they engaged, inspired? Are you making them learn about it, or is it something that they want to learn about on their own? Can you distill the true meaning of a holiday for them - so they can explain the spiritual meaning to friends? Is culture a part of their daily lives - relevant to their daily lives - so it's something that will stay with them throughout their life? Or is it something that's only invoked on weekends or special days?
The Indian culture is rich beyond imagination - and through a child's eye can be made magical.  There are devataas and rakshasas, Maharajahs and powerful mythic creatures, great mathmeticians, artists, and freedom fighters - all with a story to be told, with a lesson to be learned.  But all this knowledge is gathering dust in an attic.  My mission, and the mission of gnaana is to rummage through that attic, to find the treasures, dust them off, and present them to our children - the children of the future.  I want children to have powerful memories of how fun learning about our culture can be.  So that they'll learn about the true meaning - and form their own communities with others to discuss and debate at all stages of their life - so that they'll have spiritual support in their time of difficulty.
I'll leave you with an anecdote about my son, Ahilan - he's 3 years old.  It was Deepavali, and we had come home from a party that night.  We lit candles, and opened a few small presents. I took him in my arms and recited a verse from the Chandogya Upanishad - I'm sure you've heard it before, it refers to the Atman:
There is a light which shines beyond the world.
Beyond everything, beyond all,
beyond the highest heaven.
This is the light which shines withing your heart.
And I said to him:  "Ahilan, you have a little light in your heart too, because you're a good boy.  That's why we celebrate Deepavali - it's a big party for that little light in everyone's heart that makes us good."  And the look he gave me made me melt - that's a powerful memory.
Thank you for your time.
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