EXAMPLES FROM THE ELDERS
I am convinced that a child growing up in a conventional home some
forty or fifty years ago was at a great advantage as compared to, so to speak, in
a modern nuclear home. Let me introduce the focus of our concern here
autobiographically. Nothing is as authentic as experience. On theories and
concepts, we can argue. But experiences do not encounter the quicksand of
I grew up in a conventional, if you like ‘orthodox’, Christian home. My maternal grandfather, a deeply spiritual person, was the patriarchal figure in the house. Perhaps the most significant aspect of the authority he exercised, as I now recognise in retrospect, was serving as the nucleus of the extended family.
He did this in two ways. First, he ensured that there were family prayers, morning and evening, at the appointed timings, each day. Second, he embodied in himself — in his attitude to life, his ideals and values, his willingness to carry the burden of the family as a whole and, above all, the air of transcendence he exuded — the spirit of the family. (This could raise the hackles of feminists. My apologies!)
All of these, especially the whole family being assembled for prayers twice each day, exerted a deep and abiding influence on me, without even his realising it. It affirmed an aspect of life that, otherwise, would have remained insubstantial and notional. I don’t think he made an overt or self-conscious effort to influence anyone. He endeavoured to be his natural and best self. That helped.
How did the spiritual discipline maintained in a lower middle-class home influence me? Why did it influence me so profoundly? And for a whole lifetime?
The spiritual ambience of the home made me realise early on in life that in addition to the immediate, material and tangible world, there was, beyond it, another order of reality. At the centre of that enlarged awareness was God. (It helped that in those tender days I was not a theologian or rationalist!) God was, for me, a refuge; especially in times of desperation. The fact that there were daily prayers, and those prayers were strikingly sincere, made me feel that God was somewhere near at hand. My childhood world was, therefore, incomplete without God and the larger order of awareness this kindled.
I know it is fashionable to discount “old-world religiosity”. But I shudder to think of what I would have missed in my formation as a human being without it! How exactly did I gain from this influence? It will be a mistake, which we often commit, to consider this from our adult perspective. The way a growing child of, say, 7 to 14 years of age, experiences his world is quite different from how it looks, when viewed through adult eyes.
Most people overlook the fact that religion affords a wealth of unique experiences. As a matter of fact, the way we ‘experience’ everything in life —at the stage of life that I am referring to — is greatly enriched by the aura of religion.
POWER OF TRANSCENDENCE
Consider just one example. I used to fast and pray for my mother who was chronically ill. Think of fasting as a mere renunciation of food! Then think of fasting as a discipline one maintains on behalf of a loved one, as a practice prescribed by religion, which, at that period in your life, thank God, you don’t question!
To me fasting was a powerful, even profound, experience. And I could see that my fasting brought relief to my mother. Ask not for the science of it; for I know not. But I know it happened. Now, the world in which you can fast and transfer the spiritual merit of it to your mother is a profound world.
The alternative to it is a world in which your mother remains alone in her suffering and you are only, at best, an anguished, helpless bystander. I felt that, through fasting for a purpose, I was at the threshold of God’s mercies.
For a child, this is an experience the value and power of which are hard to convey.
Because of the active religious ambience of my early life, I developed, a range of sensibilities and sensitivities that no school or college could ever have inculcated in me. The religiously vibrant experiences that filled this formative period in my life are largely responsible for my becoming who I am. They have gone so deep into the formation of my character and outlook.
Here let me merely give a hint. I have often wondered to what extent have I been in control of my life and destiny, and to what extent my life has been shaped also by divine providence. In the hard struggles of my life, the mere awareness that one is attuned to a force higher than oneself has been a great source of strength and confidence. It enabled me to endure! The mere intuition that one is part of a larger scheme of things is, in itself, very reassuring; as against having to labour all alone in the wilderness of life. It is not rarely that I have felt that the hand of God has sustained and carried me through. This has been the single most important source of my stability and endurance in hard times.
This larger awareness helped me greatly in preserving my emotional sanity. If we are cut off from this unique source of support and nourishment, and we have to depend entirely on our own strength, we succumb to bitterness and cynicism sooner than we imagine. The role of faith in life is that it enables us to see things within a larger framework of time. Even if individual events discompose us, we know that everything will work together to reveal the justice and mercy of God.
Faith is the assurance that there is a great deal more to a situation than is immediately apparent. Such a view helps to keep the doors of possibilities open long enough to let the ultimate logic of events to play out, lest we give up or give in before time. This is not a matter of sentimental piety, but of the meaty and mysterious logic of life. I admit, however, that those who exclude the transcendental from their outlook, could discount this with a sneer.
I do recall that in those days of crass poverty and deprivation, life was, somehow, beautiful. I have no doubt at all that the religious sensibilities I imbibed played a major role in enhancing the element of beauty in my awareness of experiences. To me everything, even ordinary things of life, was beautiful in those days! I found learning, for example, a beautiful experience. It used to fill my days with joy.
SETTING AN EXAMPLE
I endeavoured to be a role model to my siblings. And I found that sense of responsibility soberly beautiful. I followed every word that my grandfather ever said with respect and attention. I found that very beautiful. Beauty was not available readymade then. We had to discover beauty for ourselves in the warp and woof of life. It was not difficult! Life was beautiful even in the midst of pains and privations.
What I have shared so far is meant only to illustrate the fact that an ordinary home played a profound role in the formation of a young person in olden days. Today, we discount this almost completely. We pay scant attention to keeping the domestic ambience stimulating and formative. We fail to create, and sustain, a domestic culture conducive to the all-round formation of our children. We expect that teachers and schools will do everything. Sadly, there are many things that no teacher and no school, not even the very best in the world, can do for children.
The life-world of a modern child is filled with toys and amenities. Less commonly, it abounds in children’s books. Physical nutrition and material comforts are available aplenty. Parents fuss over their children quantitatively a thousand times more than their counterparts did half a century ago. But children, even in homes of extreme affluence, grow up seriously deprived. As a matter of fact, the more privileged a home is, the greater the deprivation children suffer in respect of some of the vital, and larger, aspects of human formation.
Life is not a theatre of fashions. Fashions wax and wane. But the essential needs of children remain the same. Human beings are natural creatures with supernatural destinies. If that is indeed so, how can we expect our children to be wholesome or even normal in their formation if they are brought up starved of the nourishment of the supernatural?