On a recent flight, I found myself sitting next to a couple with a 4-year-old daughter who kept getting tossed across the aisle, between the father and mother, depending on who had the time and energy at the moment to engage with her. I couldn’t help feeling sorry for the poor child as I watched her interaction with her parents which seemed like some kind of quiz session or test. Rather than being left to simply play or observe, for most of her waking time she was incessantly quizzed about names of colours, animals and countries, forced to recite numbers until 20, and inflicted with all kinds of questions that would surely classify as intellectual torture for a 4-year-old.
I hope I am wrong but it seemed like this was how many interactions between the parents and child went, going by the poor child’s general air of hyperness and distraction. I wonder if they had ever just let her be to herself for a moment – just to sit quietly or observe.
Yet the above episode is no rare occurrence in today’s mind-dominated society which makes one wonder – what chance do we have for real peace and happiness with such early conditioning?
An Enlightened Mother’s Lullaby (Story of Queen MadAlasA)
The general tendency of parents is to fill their children’s head with information, prodding them to learn as much as possible as quickly as possible to better compete in the academic rat race. As one of the parents of the little girl on the flight confided to me, even nursery admissions have become so competitive in India!
But can we really blame the system and carry on in ways that smother the essential well-being of those we supposedly love? We are not compelled to.
An enlightened parent would bring up a child very differently. The example of Queen MadAlasA in the BrahmAnd PurAna (in an episode called ‘MadAlasA UpAkhyAna’) is a lofty one but nonetheless something to take inspiration from.
Queen MadAlasA was a brahmvAdini and yOgini. She kept the company of sages and saints, learning Vedantic thought from them and eventually gaining enlightenment. She and King KuvalayAswa (also called Ritadhwaja) had 4 children: 1) VikrAnta 2) SubAhu 3) Shatrumardana and 4) Alarka.(1) With the first three children, Queen MadAlasA introduced the Vedantic teachings of “Atma Vidya” from the very moment of their birth.
As she would rock the cradle to calm the crying babies, she would sing a lullaby reminding the babies that they are the Immortal soul, the Pure Consciousness. The lullaby (known as jOla-pATa in Telugu) is a set of 9 shlokas that begins as follows:
shuddhO(a)si rE bAla na tEsti nAma
krutaM hi vai kalpanayAdhunaiva
panchAtmakaM dEhaM idaM na tE(a)sti
tvaM cha asya rE rOdiSi kasya hEtOH
O my infant! Don’t cry. Thou art Ever Pure and art Nameless and Formless. The sorrow is related to your physical body which is made up of five gross elements. Thou art beyond these ephemeral, imaginary forms. Thou are That! So, don’t cry.
The entire lullaby (included further below) expresses VairAgya (dispassion) and Viveka (discrimination), the faculties essential to a jnani.
A Mother’s Satsang
Satsang means association with Truth or the Highest. Most generally, gatherings where disciples or followers come to listen to a spiritual teacher or guru are referred to as Satsang. However, human beings’ first satsang is usually with the mother – for a baby, the mother is everything, the highest thing in its world. It is no wonder that the role of the mother has always held such an important and sacred position in Indian culture – something we often forget in today’s economically-driven societies.
As Bhishma Pitama says in the Mahabharata (Anusasana Parva)(2)
The UpAdhyAya (teacher of the Vedas) is superior to even ten AchAryAs (ordinary instructor). The father is equal to ten Upadhyayas. The mother is equal to ten fathers or even the whole earth. There is no senior equal to the mother. Verily, she transcends all in respect of the reverence due to her. It is for this reason that people regard the mother to deserve so much reverence.
Unconscious parenting where the parent is not cognizant of their impact on the child seems to be very commonplace today. The display of parents’ bad habits including for instance anger and frustration, or treating the child as a possession and not an independent being, can profoundly shape the child’s mind and its future possibilities.
Queen MadAlasA’s sharing of her wisdom with her first three children from the earliest time, impacted them so profoundly that all the three princes grew up to be sages. They had no interest in the temporary material world i.e. of ruling the kingdom and each of them took sanyaas (renunciation) and wandered away to the forest to practice tapas (austerities).
The King became quite disappointed with this situation. He desperately wanted one of his sons to take over the kingdom from him and so he told the Queen not to bring up the fourth child (Alarka) in the same way. The Queen complied and did not give the child ‘Atma jnana’ but instead initiated him into ‘Pravritti MArg’ i.e. the path of working in the world, with the mind directed outward (as opposed to the ‘Nivritti MArg’, the path of spiritual contemplation). Alarka went on to become the King but the seeds planted by the wise mother (although in a different way) were also in him and later he too gained Brahma-jnana from Jagatguru Dattatreya.
Bringing up the kids in the Age of AI
One of the saddest things I see around me is young children addicted to smartphones and the reason is nothing but parents’ ignorance or neglect. Another unfortunate thing in modern cities is the lack of ample green open spaces, parks, zoos, aquariums, etc. because one of the healthiest things for children is to bring them up with close contact with nature.
One of the great advantages of technology (and the impending AI revolution) is that we are able to delegate the more mundane activities of the mind to it, leaving our minds more free to focus on higher things. In practical terms this means kids should be encouraged to take up practices that allow them to cultivate their mind towards a higher potential. Apart from spending time in nature, kids should be introduced to meditation and yoga and also Indian classical arts. Indian classical arts, whether they be performing arts (Natyashastra) or martial arts are unique because of their focus on the spiritual dimension (see for instance the recent article on LWP: ‘Art Beyond Aesthetics: the Spiritual Dimension of Natyashastra‘). Similarly, learning Sanskrit and Sanskrit chanting, something that was part of traditional Indian education, has now even been scientifically proved in the West, to improve brain functioning.(3)
An interesting and innovative educational model I have come across is Isha Samskriti, a school set up by Isha Foundation under the guidance of Sadhguru Jaggi Vasudev who says that allowing the body and mind of a child to grow to its fullest potential is the fundamental and most important thing – once that base is set, everything else happens well. So at Isha Samskriti, children are only taught English, basic Mathematics and Sanskrit in the way of usual school subjects, with the focus being on Yogic practices, Indian classical arts such as Bharatanatyam and classical music, and martial arts such as Kalaripayattu (which owes its roots to Dhanurveda). As the school proclaims, “These intricate art forms have been used for thousands of years not as an entertainment or a hobby, but as a spiritual process”.
A new perspective on education is needed in the age of AI. As information and increasingly knowledge is transferred from human brains and into technology, we need to take a serious look at what it’s really worthwhile teaching children at school that is not more efficient to delegate to Google or AI. Are schools like Isha Samskriti the solution? For some, yes definitely. For others that might be too drastic a step. The most important thing to recognise however is that we can make conscious choices for ourselves and our children. We can be slaves to the machine if we choose to. But we are not compelled to.
This issue will be a significant one for the world to solve in coming decades and one where I believe India’s traditional wisdom can prove useful.
If parents become more conscious of a child’s needs as a human being as opposed to as a future commodity in the marketplace of the world, then we can start helping to develop better human beings. Perhaps this wisdom demanded of us is the birthright of the coming generation?
Full text of Queen MadAlasA’s lullaby:
शुद्धोऽसि रे बाल न तेऽस्ति नाम कृतं हि वै तत कल्पनयाधुनैव । पञ्चात्मकं देहमिदं न तेऽस्ति त्वं वास्य रे रोदिषि कस्य हेतोः ॥ (१) O Child! For what reason you are crying? Don’t cry. Thou Art ever Pure and Eternal, devoid of Names and Forms. You are the form of Bliss, untouched by sorrow. You have superimposed the sorrow upon yourself and owing to ignorance, are wailing. The sorrow arose owing to the false identity with body and hence experiencing sorrow you cry. Since Thou Art Existence, Knowledge, Bliss Absolute and not the body consisting of 5 elements, where is the point in crying? All these names and forms are ephemeral and are imaginary. So, don’t cry. न वै भवान रोदिति विश्वजन्मा शब्दोऽयमासाद्य महीसमूहम । विकल्प्यमानो विविधैर्गुणार्थैः गुणाश्च भूताः सकलेन्द्रियेषु ॥ (२) Don’t Cry! Thou Art Ishwara – the Creator and Lord of the Universe. As the creation is a “vikalpa” born out of ignorance, where is the point in wailing and crying? Hence, don’t cry. भूतानि भूतोपरि दुर्बलानि वृद्धिं समायान्ति तथेह पुंसाम । अन्नाम्बुदानादिभिरेककस्य न तेऽस्ति वृद्धिर्न च तेऽस्ति हानिः ॥ (३) Just as the gross elements in combination among themselves, are subjected to increase (वृद्धि) and decrease (क्षय), similarly, this body, made of gross elements, too, is subjected to change and decay. The Inner Self (Atman) is beyond these attributes, untouched. And, Thou Art That. Hence, don’t cry. त्वं कञ्चुके सज्यमानो निजेस्मिन्नस्मिंश्च देहे मूढतां न व्रजेथाः । शुभाशुभैः कर्मभिर्देहमेनं मदाभिमूढैः कञ्चुकेऽस्मिन्पिनद्धः ॥ (४) Thou, having worn this armor called “body”, becoming deluded, are identifying with it. Thou Art the Witness but out of ignorance and under the influence of “I-ness” and “My-ness” are trapped in the meshes of samsAra. Hence, don’t cry. तातेति किञ्चित्तनयेति किञ्चित अम्बेति किञ्चिदपितेति किञ्चित । तवेति किञ्चिन्न ममेति किञ्चिद्भौतेषु सर्वं मुहुरालयेथाः ॥ (५) By getting entangled in the mesh of Ignorance called samsAra, this “body” is identified sometimes with father, sometimes with son, sometimes with mother, sometimes with brother, sometimes as a relative, as a friend as a foe etc. in several births down the line. All these are due to false identity of attachment with the body owing to Ignorance. This ignorance is due to non-awareness of the identity with the Supreme Innermost Self which is of the nature of Bliss. दुःखञ्च दुःखोपशमं शमाय भोगाय जानाति विमूढचेताः । तान्येव दुःखानि पुनः सुखानि जानाति विद्वानविमूढचेताः ॥ (६) In order to do away with sorrows, the ignorant fool runs after momentary pleasures. The intelligent, being endowed with power of discrimination, would strive to do away with both pleasures and pains. For him, just as pain is an obstruction, so is pleasure. Such a person is called “vidvAn”. Thou Art That. Hence, don’t cry. सहोत्थितं दर्शनमक्षियुग्मं अत्युज्ज्वलं तत्कलुषं वसायाः । कुचोऽति पीनं पिशितं घनं तत्स्थानं ततः किन्नरकं न योषित ॥ (७) Upon careful observation of the anatomy of a woman, one comes to the conclusion that it is made up of flesh. Not knowing this, the deluded men run after them and thus, they end up getting entangled in pain and the cycle of birth and death. यानं क्षितौ यानगतं च देहं देहेऽपिचान्यः पुरुषो निविष्टः । ममत्वमथ्याॅन्न तथा यथा स्वे देहेऽतिमात्रं च न मूढतैषा ॥ (८) On this earth, take birth several bodies, upAdhis. These are subject to change (called yAna) (यान). But, there is a Supreme Self called “Purusha” who is seated inside the body who is Eternal and Witness. Thou Art That, O Child! Don’t identify yourself with the yAna but Thou Art that Supreme Purusha. Hence, don’t cry. Note: समानेप्यभिमानविषये देहे एव दृढं अभिमानं कुर्वन्नति मूढ इत्याह यानं इति (ie., the Jiva abhimana is called yAna)
Notes & references:
(1) Another aspect of the story that further reveals Queen MadAlasA’s wisdom is regarding the naming of the children. The first three children were named by the King who chose names that invoked valour, strength and greatness. Queen MadAlasA had laughed at each of the names when the King had announced them and so the King had asked her to go ahead and name the fourth child. The Queen chose the name Alarka which means “mad dog”. The Queen likewise laughed at this name also. When asked, the Queen later explained to the King that the reason for her laughter was the absurdity of giving a name to the Nameless, Formless Absolute (Brahman) and moreover, going even further and taking the given name so seriously!