Third Plenary: Reflections From Different Religious Traditions on How Poverty Affects Children
Reflections from the Hindu Tradition
Dr. Mrs. Kala Acharya, Director, K. J. Somaiya Bharatiya Sanskriti Peetham, India
Child occupies an important place in family. Indian tradition worships Lord Krishna in the form of child. This form is known as Balkrishna, which means Krishna as a child. The devotees install his image in house, worship him, sing him lullaby, wake him up with a song in the morning and offer him sweets fondly. A couplet in a beautiful hymn, which is very popular, runs as under:
"I bow down to that Child Krishna who, by his lotus hand, puts his lotus foot in his lotus mouth."
"Kamravindena padaravindam, mu- kharavinde viniveshayantaml vatasya patrasya pute shayanam, balam mukundam manasa smarami". Not many references are found in the Hindu scriptures addressing poverty related issues in regard with children. This is not because the problem was not so important; it is because it was handled tactfully. The needy children got a helping hand but they were not burdened under obligations towards those who helped them. As we are aware, in ancient times children used to go and stay in their preceptor's house for twelve years to learn the sacred lore or archery. All those rich and poor, high and low used to get equal treatment.
The fees were to be paid only after completion of education and for the poor it could be waived off or was paid by the king. An instance of a disciple by name Kautsa who was unable to pay his fees to his preceptor sage Varatantu finds a place in the Sanskrit epic Raghuvamshah by Kalidasa. King Raghu arranged to pay his fees.
Hinduism addresses the problem of poverty-affected children through the concept of charity. Food and education are two basic needs of children for which the teachers and the taught are to be taken care of. The Agni Purana, one of the sacred scriptures of Hinduism, inspires people to give a helping hand. It says, "One who gives wealth to teacher and food to students earns the merit of making all the gifts." "Vittam dadyat upadhyaye chhatranam bhojanadikam / kimadattam bhavet tena dharmakamadidarshina".31
In the 19th century there was a custom known as Madhukari. The word Madhu means honey. Just as a bee goes from flower to flower and collects honey, the poor students used to go to a house on a particular day, say Monday; to other house on Tuesday and were fed there. This arrangement was made on the basis of understanding between the householder and the recipient. This provision was meant only for those who were learning in schools and whose parents could not afford to feed them.
This was one of the ways to help poor children. If the request for food was addressed to a male member, the student would say, "Om, bhavan bhiksham dadatu," "O gentleman, please give me alms." For a female member the request was, "Om, bhavati bhiksham dehi," "O lady, please give me alms."Students asking for food were not looked down upon.
The problem of orphans is not so critical, as the system of joint family still exists in India, especially in rural areas. In metropolitan cities the joint families are now-a-days disappearing for want of space. However those children who have lost their parents are taken care of by their relatives. The orphanages exist mostly in cities or towns. These are run through charitable trusts or sometimes are aided by state government. As Swami Vivekananda says, "But the basis of all systems, rests upon the goodness of men. No nation is great or good because parliament enacts this or that, but because its men are great and good."32 For addressing issues with children we need not rely only on government, the people themselves should see what they could do.
Charity is one of the ways. Among all gifts the gift of food is considered as the most significant gift, for obvious reason; nobody can survive without food.
"Food gives energy to living beings. On food the life depends. This entire universe is sustained only on account of food", says the Mahabharata33. Now days, people prefer to give donation to orphanages for distributing food in the memory of their family member who has passed away.
Educating children is more practical than charity. Instead of giving a fish every day, it is better, they say, to teach art of fishing. For educating a child Hinduism had the facility of 'Gurukul' the hermitage of a preceptor where a child could opt for learning the sacred texts or skill of archery or polity. The girls were, mostly, educated at their homes.
After independence the scenario changed. In the nineteenth century social reformers brought change in situation and now women are in forefront in all fields. Since 1950s Indian government and nongovernment organizations have undertaken several programmes to alleviate poverty. In India around 11 million children work as child labourers. This is due to the problem of illiteracy, which has been a serious issue. In spite of government and NGOs' initiative we are not able to solve the problem with 100 percent success.
Whether religion can show us a ray of hope? Indian tradition says, "Those parents who do not educate their child are his/her enemies. An ignorant child does not become in an assembly as a heron does not become in the flock of swans." "Mata shartuh, pita vairi, yena balo na pathitah/na shobhate sabhamadhye, hamsamadhye bakoyatha."
"Each soul is potentially divine", says Swami Vivekananda34. "My, children, the secret of religion lies not in theories but in practice. To be good and to do good - that is the whole of religion."35 The first duty is to educate the people. "First of all comes the gift of food, next is the gift of learning, and the highest of all is the gift of knowledge."36
Food is provided to students in order to put a brake to drop outs. Books, uniform, shoes and school bags are provided in the schools catering to the needs of the underprivileged. This service is provided by local bodies of government and also by charitable trusts.
It is observed that in the history of mankind and also in the contemporary times on the one hand religions have been directly or indirectly used as instruments for sowing seeds of hatred, for waging wars, for persecuting followers of other religion destroying their sanctuaries and religious monuments while on the other hand they have contributed greatly to the wellbeing of mankind by inspiring people to undertake charitable acts such as building hospitals, schools, and orphanages, and have always extended a helping hand to the weak, the destitute, the victims of natural calamities from time to time, recognizing the fundamental unity of mankind. It is a fact that religions have a tremendous power to establish justice in the world. It has been rightly said, "Religions, in cooperation with one another, can do a great deal to rehabilitate mankind and give to life meaning, purpose, and value...They can also do much for the establishment of peace in the world. Where politicians have failed, religions may succeed, provided they cooperate and recognize their mutual worth and potentialities; and provided they pool together the tremendous resources of religions and channel them in the direction of world peace. The major world religions, in cooperation with one another, may bring out the latent treasures hidden in each religion and help humanity at a time when it is facing one of the most acute spiritual crises in history."37
Let us not just speak about it, let us join our hands in our endeavour of removal of suffering. Let us direct this tremendous force of religion to poverty stricken children and their burning issues. Let us bring a smile to the face of the child
I conclude with the prayer: "Let all living beings on the earth be cheerful. Let all be free from ailments. Let all see wellbeing. May no one suffer."
31 Agni Pur ana 211.55
32 The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta, 1985,Vol.5,p.l92.)
33 Mahabharata Anushasana Parva. 63.7
34 The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta 1985. Vol. 1.257
35 The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta 1985.Vol CW 6.245
36 The Complete Works of Swami Vivekananda, Advaita Ashrama, Calcutta 1985.Vol CW7.159
37 Seshagiri Rao, K.L., Mahatma Gandhi and Comparative Religion, Motilal Banarsidass Publishers Private Limited, Delhi, 1990, p. 124