The Graduate: A high school graduation inspires thoughts on raising a child in Krsna consciousness.
My husband and I take a seat on the shiny varnished bleachers in the large arena used for basketball games. The well-dressed crowd sits in anticipation as their sons and daughters, filing through the rear entrance in dark blue caps and gowns, prepare to graduate from high school.
I spot my son, Narayana, standing in the procession. His searching eyes meet mine, and we exchange grins. Unexpected tears fill my eyes. My husband squeezes my hand to comfort me.
I’m flooded with emotions and memories of the past seventeen years as a mother to my only child. Mental snapshots of his childhood appear: A plump colicky infant crying inconsolably in his wind-up swing. A mischievous toddler sneaking out of the room during nap time. A saintly looking four-year-old in saffron robes and shaved head, happily dancing in the temple to the rhythm of drums and cymbals. A child with a sleep disorder roaming our apartment at night, and me up watching him to make sure he is safe. A gurukula student standing with folded hands, reciting memorized verses from the ancient Vedic scriptures. A sensitive child lovingly holding a baby goat at the county fair. A frightened child coming to sleep with me at night. A sad child starting high school in public school after being in the gurukula since age five, sitting alone in the cafeteria, with no friends and too shy to talk to anyone. This mental picture increases the tears as I remember feeling his pain and so much wanting to protect him from the hardships of growing up in the material world.
Then there was the night he passed out in the field near our house. His concerned friends called us. When my husband and I arrived, he was conscious and lucid. He said he had fasted all day and had gotten sick on bad pizza. I wanted to believe him, but knew he was making it up. The next day he admitted to trying alcohol.
Challenges of Parenthood
Raising Krsna conscious children in our Western culture is a difficult assignment. It is said that it takes a village to raise a child. Unfortunately, most devotees don’t live in insulated Krsna conscious communities, and the influences of the dominant culture insidiously seep into our ashrams, temples, and communities.
While Hare Krsna parents of my generation chose to be devotees after many years in materialistic life, our children, though raised in a spiritual atmosphere, often haven’t made that internal commitment. They seem able to follow the path of Krsna consciousness in childhood, but as the influences of adolescence take hold, many turn away from the most basic practices.
Any parents who diligently raise a child in a Krsna conscious atmosphere, only to have their teenager reject, ignore, or devalue the teachings and practices, know the deep pain of perceived failure. We feel we’ve failed because we’re aware of the warning in the Vedic scriptures that we shouldn’t become a teacher, a guru, or a parent unless we can deliver our dependents from birth, death, disease, and old age, the main miseries of life in the material world. Still, if we’ve tried our best we can take heart from other teachings or examples in the scriptures. For instance, we find examples of atheistic parents whose child is a devotee of Krsna, and we find examples of Krsna conscious parents raising a child who becomes an atheist. Even Srila Prabhupada’s own children apparently didn’t take up Krsna consciousness wholeheartedly. The scriptures also teach us that if we become qualified devotees of the lord, as is Srila Prabhupada, then our family members are automatically delivered from material existence despite their own disqualification.
The Story of Citraketu
By the mystic power of Narada Muni, the son of King Chitraketu came back to life in the presence of his friends and relatives. He replied to Narada, saying: “According to the results of my fruitive activities, I, the living being, transmigrate from one body to another, sometimes going to the species of the demigods, sometimes to the species of the lower animals, sometimes among the vegetables, and sometimes to the human species. Therefore, in which birth were these my mother and father? No one is actually my mother and father. How can I accept these two people as my parents?”
-Excerpt from Srimad Bhagavatam 6.16.4
While it is the role of the parents to assist the child in making spiritual progress, children also inadvertently assist in their parents’ progress as well. One of the most dramatic examples of this is the story of King Citraketu, recounted in Srimad-Bhagavatam. King Citraketu was a respected king with great riches and power, but no children. His many wives were all barren.
Seeing the king’s distress, Angira, a great sage, visited the king and blessed him to have a son. Angira told the king that the child’s name would be Harsa-soka, or “Happiness-Distress.” The king assumed that the child would just be mischievous and naughty at times, as were all children, and so dismissed the omen of the child’s name.
Soon one of the king’s wives gave birth to a beautiful boy. The king, infatuated with the child and the child’s mother, neglected his other wives, who became distraught. Envy clouded their intelligence, and they plotted to poison the child. Seeing his dead son, the king lamented piteously.
Had the story ended here, the king most likely would have been consumed by his loss. But Angira Muni, accompanied by the transcendental sage Narada, appeared before the king. By his mystic power, Narada Muni summoned the spirit soul who had left the child’s body. Obeying the order, the soul re-entered the child’s dead body. Because of the presence of the soul, the body again became animated, and Narada asked the child to speak to his parents, the king and queen.
“According to the results of my fruitive activities,” the child said, “I, the living being, transmigrate from one body to another, sometimes going to the species of the demigods, sometimes to the species of lower animals, sometimes among the vegetables, and sometimes to the human species. Therefore, in which birth were these my mother and father? No one is actually my mother and father. How can I accept these two people as my parents?”
As the child spoke transcendental knowledge, the king realized the error of his perception. He had been thinking, “This child is mine, born to give me pleasure.” But now the king could see differently. The spirit soul he was thinking to be his son was occupying that body only temporarily. The king, now free of material illusion and attachment, could direct his affections toward the Lord, and he gained the highest happiness.
For many of us, our children’s adolescent antics serve to teach us lessons similar to those learned by King Citraketu. It is helpful to think of our children as “gurus” and be open to the many lessons they teach us, especially about attachment and detachment. In the Eleventh Canto of the Srimad-Bhagavatam, a saintly renounced monk shows how to extract spiritual lessons from all our encounters in the material world. He describes twenty-five “gurus” who have assisted him on his spiritual journey, including a pigeon and a prostitute.
From the pigeon the saintly person learned about the suffering of material attachment. He observed a male pigeon’s interactions with his family members. When the pigeon’s mate and offspring were caught in a hunter’s net, the pigeon became so disconsolate and disoriented that he too fell into the net.
The saintly person learned another lesson about detachment by watching a prostitute eagerly awaiting a suitor in the early evening. With each passerby she would become hopeful of getting a customer, but as the night wore on, she felt more and more discouraged. Finally, the prostitute became detached. She no longer desired degraded encounters as a way to make money. She was filled with peace, and her natural inclination to love the Lord awoke.
Emulating the example of the saintly person, we too should search for the spiritual lessons ever present in our daily lives. Our children offer us many situations in which to practice loving detachment. Adolescence is particularly rich with these opportunities.
A couple of years ago, I had the chance to speak with some Hare Krsna children who were now young adults. They kindly told me of their struggles navigating adolescence and assured me that my son would not be lost. The advice they gave me, and any parent raising teens, was to be your child’s friend and as much as possible give unconditional love and acceptance. I took their advice to heart, and I added two ingredients to their formula: set limits befitting the child’s age, and pray.
I take a deep breath and, coming back from my thoughts, wipe my eyes and focus the camera as I hear my son’s name called. He steps up to accept his diploma and certificate of merit. Another snap shot to add to my memories of raising my son. I’ll continue to pray for his spiritual awakening, so he can one day graduate from the material world and return to his eternal home.
This past year my son turned thirty years old. He is living in New York City with devotees who are serious about their spiritual lives. He is engaged to a lovely devotee and is working with devotees at the famous Donut Plant. Soon he will likely be raising his own Krsna conscious family.