Parenting is an integral part of Krishna conscious householder life (gṛhastha āśrama). Genuinely Krishna conscious parents, together with their happy well-rounded children, provide a huge impetus within the broader society at large to develop appreciation and a deeper interest in Krishna consciousness. Moreover, when the family unit is strong, the members of such a family naturally become effective preachers. The foundation of a strong family unit rests upon and derives strength from transcendental sound vibration – hearing Krishna-katha and chanting Hare Krishna.
Knowing the role and duties of a Krishna conscious parent and how to effectively accomplish the goals of parenting is an essential foundation for developing a Krishna conscious family, and in turn community. To this end, I will summarize some essential aspects of Krishna conscious parenting via a simple acronym called S.M.A.R.T, hopefully helping parents easily remember and apply these concepts in their day-to-day lives. The S.M.A.R.T approach may also help parents evaluate themselves on a periodical basis. From time to time, one could introspect or have a conversation with one’s mentor – “Am I a S.M.A.R.T parent? How can I improve in this important area of my service? What resources do I need?” and so on.
ROLE OF A KRISHNA CONSCIOUS PARENT
The primary role of a parent – father or mother – is to facilitate a soul’s journey towards Krishna. Thus, Krishna conscious parenting entails becoming qualified to take up that role, accepting dependent(s) and rendering that service unto the particular soul(s) placed in their care.
In Srimad Bhagavatam 5.5.18, we find the instruction of Lord Ṛṣabhadeva to his one hundred sons and indeed to all of us:
“One who cannot deliver his dependents from the path of repeated birth and death should never become a spiritual master, a father, a husband, a mother or a worshipable demigod.”
How can one deliver one’s dependents if one does not have that qualification oneself?
Imperative: One must have the qualification or at least have the standard that Lord Ṛṣabhadeva talks about as a firm goal in one’s personal life and be committed to the path of pure devotional service. Then, one can deliver what one has to the dependents.
His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Srila Prabhupada, in his purport to Bhagavad-gita Chapter 7 Text 15, writes:
“We get information from revealed scriptures that when the baby is in the mother’s womb (an extremely uncomfortable situation) he prays to God for deliverance and promises to worship Him alone as soon as he gets out. To pray to God when he is in difficulty is a natural instinct in every living being because he is eternally related with God. But, after his deliverance, the child forgets the difficulties of birth and forgets his deliverer also, being influenced by māyā, the illusory energy.”
Srila Prabhupada is referring to the section in Srimad Bhagavatam which describes the plight of the living entity within the womb of the mother and how uncomfortable and painful it is. The child experiences even greater discomfort if the mother is not attentive to what she eats. The tender skin of the child gets scorched with acidic, spicy and unhealthy foods, while little worms constantly bite its body such that the child cries “Aaaaaaah – let me out of here!” As Srila Prabhupada notes, a very special pious child may fervently pray to get out of that situation. This is a natural moment of God consciousness. The dormant God consciousness of a living entity, sometimes but not always, awakens very explicitly and very intensely as the child prays to God “I will worship you this lifetime; I won’t forget you; just let me out of this circumstance!” But, as soon as he/she is born, forgetfulness resumes. This is a juncture where parents have an important role to play. The role of the parents is to assist the soul’s remembrance of God consciousness that occurred while within the womb and assist in fulfilling the desperate soul’s promise. As we know from personal experience, we need constant devotional reminders, as do our children. Somebody, somewhere, has been kind enough upon us to give us myriad reminders; in turn, we must extend that same kindness to our children.
In the Bhagavad-Gita, texts 6.41-45 a series of verses describe the destination of unsuccessful yogis. Such souls are given opportunities to take birth in righteous or aristocratic families or in the family of transcendentalists. Those who are devotee-gṛhasthas, enriched with spiritual training and wisdom, fall into the third category of transcendentalists.
Devotee children are very special. Who they were in their previous lives is a big mystery. Yet this much is certain: somehow they are very special. There is one child that I know whose family lives in a place distant from devotee association. Very rarely does he get devotee association. However, when he gets into congregational chanting association, he is a natural! First, the mother shared with me this anecdote and then she sent me a picture of the child sitting with a cardboard box (for a harmonium) where he enthusiastically looks around and eagerly calls out “Let the kirtan begin!” At his home, he doesn’t have a harmonium. Where did this ‘harmonium imitation’ come from? And, during the whole kirtan, he is completely absorbed. He loves kirtan! Who was this boy in his previous life? I’m sure, as parents, you have had your own moments of wonderment about your children and their identity.
The S.M.A.R.T acronym refers to five essential aspects of Krishna conscious parenting: Service; Mahājano yena gataḥ sa panthāḥ (example-setting); Affection (love and detached caring); Responsibility; and Training. Let’s explore each in some detail. It is worth noting at the outset that a parent devotee’s sadhana of hearing and chanting is the sustenance for all these five states of consciousness.
Parenting is not about proprietorship. It is wrong to think that “this child is my property” or “I’m the controller”. Parenting is a service, soul-to-soul, with Krishna in the center. Parenting is a service to draw the dependent’s soul into the eternal association with Krishna. The attached conception is “my child, my son, my daughter” etc. It is not wrong to speak like that, but the consciousness is wrong if it is an expression of proprietorship; for such illusory proprietorship gives rise to corresponding expectations. “Look kid, don’t do this – I have an expectation, how many times have I told you – if you keep doing this, you are gonna spoil my expectation – I am gonna let you know it either verbally, non-verbally or even physically – I am the controller and you are controlled – got it?!” That’s not good.
A parent is meant to be Krishna’s instrument. Let us recall the aforementioned verses from the Bhagavad-gita 6.41-45.Krishna has a system in place. The system is: First, the soul of the child born in a devotee family is a transcendentalist who has not yet attained perfection on the path of spiritual life. Such a soul is given quality transcendentalist parents. Parents are instruments of Krishna to assist that soul to attain the next spiritual level and ultimately to the perfection of love for Krishna. In that sense one can be attached to the service of parenting – a service given directly by the Supreme Soul.
However, the detachment part is recognizing that the soul also has a free-will. As long as there is free-will, of necessity along with birth there will be packaging of karma and guna. Each soul has tendencies for certain behaviors due to past material conditioning. A parent should be detached enough to allow the child’s free-will, karma and guna to manifest. This is a very important lesson. Allowing the free-will of the living entity doesn’t mean you stop caring, but if you assume the position of material attachment, then the expectation dynamic escalates and your ability to give spiritual shelter is depleted. You lose your capacity to be the servant and instead falsely act as a controller.
Mahājano yena gataḥ sa panthāḥ (Example-setting)
How to accomplish the objectives of Krishna conscious parenting? For that matter, how do you accomplish anything in this world? By setting a proper example. People in general and children in particular like to follow examples. It is by achar (conduct) and prachar (teaching) that you accomplish something. This is true in the field of parenting, as well. Parents should lead by example, but they should also be good followers of their guides and teachers, contemporary and ancient.
Within Krishna conscious family life there is meditation on sound vibration – regular hearing and chanting – that takes place in the home. This is a core feature of example-setting. In addition, what is also very important is the quality of exchange between the mother and father, such that the child can look up to his/her parents and understand “That’s what loving exchange is like! Now I know how to do it!”
Consider: loving exchange is more than just the superficial behavior of the parents but the quality of exchange between them.
Many parents have described to me that “As they do, their children want to do.” Have you watched children with a little bead bag?-There may not be even any beads inside, but they want a bead bag –to imitate their parents’ chanting. Another example is when the parents do arotik, children want to ring the bell or they want to offer some article. After some time, they often want to have their own altar so that they can ring their own little bell, wave their own incense, offer some water, offer a flower, etc. While the child is simply following the behavior of its parents, it is the duty of the parents to gradually train their dependent regarding the quality of corresponding consciousness that should guide each behavior. Parents tell their children “Be careful, it is Krishna, and Krishna’s property.” And the children say, “Yes mommy, yes daddy”.
In the early stage of parenting this is merely child’s mimicking behavior. The greater service of passing on bhakti to the child is not a one-time thing; it is an ongoing training of how consciousness needs to be proper, in addition to proper behaviors.
AFFECTION (Love and Detachment)
Children should not only feel a devotional atmosphere in the home because their mother and father are devotees, but also feel a loving atmosphere. Children should not only feel the love or affection towards themselves from their mother and father but also feel the love between mother and father because it is very important for a child to experience that. The opposite creates a problem. The opposite leads to disparity between the mother and the father and forces the child to subjectively take sides. That is a very bad position for a small living entity to be in – to choose one of the parents over the other, to take sides.
When parents have disagreement, many times children will openly say “Please do not argue.” It is natural that there is disagreement, that’s the way of this world. Srimad Bhagavatam describes and Srila Prabhupada elaborated on many occasions that disagreement between people or between husband and wife is like clashing of the bamboos in the forest when the wind blows. There is a big sound and if you know that it is just the clash of the bamboos, you don’t take it seriously. Similarly, if there is a loving atmosphere, even if there is disagreement, the child can understand that it is not to be taken seriously. Still, it is best that even if there is some disagreement it is best not to have it in front of the children or to be able to very peacefully resolve the conflict.
Unfortunately, it is not always like that. Striving to resolve differences in this manner is the ideal.
Taking this point out of the context of family life for a moment – imagine a guest that comes to one of our temples. One devotee is treating them so nicely, then another devotee is treating them so nicely – but when the guest sees that when those two devotees get together they are quarreling – what’s the message that they get? “Do I want to be part of this organization where you treat me nicely but you treat each other badly? Maybe I am better off as a visitor, being treated nicely, rather than being part of the other dynamic.”
Children may feel the same way when parents fight with each other. However, in the case of a child within a family, such a dependent has no choice: they cannot opt to remain a visitor! They are dependents and they can’t go somewhere else. To avoid such awkward situations for their children, parents must create a loving atmosphere.
Generally, people have a material conception of love. They equate ‘love’ with attachment. But real love is on the platform of detachment from matter. Detachment normally implies “I don’t care.” However, when the love or care goes to the soul there can be detachment from all circumstantial things, all features of material duality – while conscientiously addressing anomalies and needs in a caring mood. This is one essential key to the art of detached caring which parents must learn.
One devotee I interact with is a chaplain in hospitals for people who are on the verge of death. Every day she watches people die. Without transcendental knowledge of the soul and the opportunity to serve the soul on the verge of the body’s demise, such a day-to-day experience can be a profession filled with darkness instead of light. It is virtually impossible if you are attached to circumstances or materially entangled with the person’s suffering condition. However, if the caring goes to the spiritual platform there can be room for detachment. Life’s circumstances keep changing because the material world is ever changing, but the well-being of the soul is unchanging. The point is that caring should go to the soul, in addition to the other forms of professional care. Similarly, the whole dynamic of parenting becomes debilitated if attachment is too strong on the material platform. Parents should primarily allow the conditioning of the soul to transform by spiritual influence not merely by enforcing or dictating behaviors. We do not like to be dealt with like that, where someone is constantly applying pressure for us to change behaviors. Why would we think that someone else would like to be dealt with that way? When children are small, they don’t have a choice. But, when they grow up, they will repeat acquired unhealthy behavioral patterns in their exchanges with others and/or with their own dependents.
Parenting cannot be taken lightly. It is a heavy responsibility, although it is very rewarding when properly done. As discussed earlier, all of Lord Rsabhadeva’s sons did not become grhasthas. Those who didn’t become grhasthas took a position in society where they were giving shelter to others. There is a great responsibility for those who give shelter to others. This does not mean that “The spiritual master will deliver us, and we will just hang out”. However, everyone who accepts a dependent has responsibility. Someone may say “I didn’t know this before I became a parent.” Still, the duty remains: it is the responsibility of parents to deliver their dependents from the cycle of birth and death.
Training children in Krishna consciousnesses is one of the most important aspects of parenting. Transcendental sound vibration should be the foundation for such training. Parents should have a strong culture of sadhana before conception, during pregnancy and after the birth of the child. To illustrate the importance of sound vibration, the story of Prahlad Maharaja is very instructive. Prahlad was born to a demoniac father, Hiranyakasipu, and so he did not have any chance of hearing about Lord Krishna.
However due to the grace of Narada Muni (who knew that he was a pure devotee) he heard the Bhagavatam, while in his mother’s womb which awoke his Krishna consciousness.
In the context of Krishna conscious parenting, the role of sound vibration cannot be underestimated. Śravaṇaṁ kīrtanaṁ is the foundation of bhagavat-dharma and our primary processes of devotional service.
Husband and wife should immerse themselves in hearing and chanting before conception, so that when conception takes place a very qualified soul is attracted to take shelter and the parents have the capacity to deliver what the child deserves. It makes it easier if the parents prepare in advance, but whatever the stage is – whether the mother and father come into Krishna consciousness before marriage, at an early stage of marriage or after they beget children – the principle to be observed is regular and strong sadhana.
Srila Prabupada has taught us that children should be trained in such a way that they have first-class character or divine qualities that Krishna describes in the Bhagavad-gita. The duty of the mother and father is to build character. Character is more valuable than skills. A very nice example from the scripture is the concern that Yudhisthira Maharaja had when Maharaja Pariksit was born and when they did the jata-karma ceremony. The priest who did the horoscope spoke highly of Maharaja Pariksit. Yudhisthira was happy to hear that, but he wanted to know if this child would follow his ancestors. One may have good qualities but those qualities can be spoiled by not following the great souls. So how do you transmit the core character of ‘following’ to your dependent? By leading with love and by being faithful followers themselves, parents will successfully transmit ‘following’ to their children. And, as noted earlier, displays of love should be not just toward the child but between the mother and the father. Obedience immediately follows behind a loving exchange when it is consistent.
Then real character develops.
In the 13th chapter of Bhagavad-gita, texts 8 to 12, wherein Krishna speaks to Arjuna about items of knowledge or divine qualities, Srila Prabhupada writes: “The best process for making the home pleasant is Krishna consciousness. If one is in full Krishna consciousness, he can make his home very happy, because this process of Krishna consciousness is very easy. One need only chant Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare, accept the remnants of foodstuffs offered to Krishna, have some discussion on books like Bhagavad-gita and Srimad–Bhagavatam, and engage oneself in Deity worship. These four things will make one happy. One should train the members of his family in this way. The family members can sit down morning and evening and chant together.”
Engaging in Krishna conscious activities together with family is very important. We have our preaching mission. There have been times when the members of our society neglected their family responsibilities due to disproportionate focus on the preaching mission. That created problems, big problems. I know many parents that felt terrible about neglecting their family duties.
If the Krishna consciousness within the family unit is very strong, that will positively impact the lives of so many people. We are a preaching mission and we have temples. We want to take part in temple activities, not only because the leadership or administration wants us to and we feel obligated, but because we want to. However, it’s not a trade-off between preaching mission and family responsibilities. As noted earlier, I contend that if the family unit is very strong in Krishna consciousness, they are amongst the best preachers. Conversely, somebody may be very active in the preaching field, but, if their family life is a mess, they are not going to be as effective.
Brahmacharis should be very good brahmacharis, sannyasis should be very good sannyasis and grihasthas should be very good grihasthas. And all should collectively and cooperatively preach together from that position of strength. The children will emulate that same spirit happily and not later stray from the path of bhakti because they experienced their family situation to be dysfunctional.
In conclusion, if the foundational practices of bhakti are very strong, one will be in a better position to deal with the complexities and challenges of parenthood and fulfill its objectives. There is a critical need for lots of good training and very strong relationships from those who are guiding you. For those of you who became parents before you became devotees, take guidance without delay and maintain strong relationships with your guides. It will be more difficult for those who are guiding you to do so if you already have formulated other conceptions and habits.
Be a S.M.A.R.T Krishna conscious parent!