Although we are not bringing up our kids within a particular religious framework, I do not want to deprive them of the fabulous stories that religious mythologies offer. I think familiarity with these mythologies is a cultural and academic advantage apart from their imaginative possibilities. The danger, I think, is taking these mythologies as dogma, which I hope the lack of religious framework will prevent.
Since I was raised Christian my childhood was steeped in Christian mythology, with other religious stories being deliberately excluded, and I felt this lack later when I was fuzzy on even the basic Hindu stories that are so intertwined in the cultural life of India. On the other hand, at least I was familiar with one mythology.
When it came to my kids, I had no particular preference in terms of the order in which I introduced particular mythologies to them, but I would have assumed that I would have started with the Christian one. Instead, it so happened that we got started on Hindu mythology, following the Amma Tell Me About … series. I think it may have started when I borrowed from our local library, no less, for a presentation on Diwali at the kids’ kindergarten and they really enjoyed the story. I was also reading up on Hindu mythology myself for the PhD so our interests dovetailed nicely. The library had several of the other books in the series, on Krishna, Holi, etc. and we went through these too. Finally, the kids got me to order the whole set of 10 books for them.
While these books do a good job of concisely retelling the myths in terms of covering the major aspects of each story and the illustrations are lovely, I think the author falls into the trap of trying to use rhyme and therefore ends up using some unwieldy words. Using rhyme in children’s books is a fine art – it is hard to use age appropriate language and not seem like one is stretching oneself to fit the sentence into the rhyme scheme. Also, the morals at the end of each book reduce the complexity of the myths. For example. Rama is associated with “goodness and virtue”, Laxman with “loyalty” and Sita with being the “ideal companion and wife”. You can see why I have a problem with this right? Sita is, as is typical for women, reduced to being an adjunct to Rama. Which to be fair she mainly is, but the original myths allow for her to assert herself particularly when she refuses a second agnipariksha, a part of the myth that is omitted in this series. In fact, when Nene was glorifying Rama as the ideal, the best, etc. I just couldn’t resist telling him that even our heroes make mistake and mentioned Rama sending Sita back to the forest and putting her through an agnipariksha. To say he was shocked would be an understatement. I’m happy that he got at once that this was less than ideal behaviour on Rama’s part without me having to explain.
Once while having lunch with a friend from Mainland China, she brought up religion. She is being increasingly drawn to religion – something she didn’t have access to on the Mainland – as a panacea for what she terms her ‘political sickness’ (i.e. her sense of disgust, sadness, bewilderment at the social injustices resulting out of the political system in China, which have been worsening over recent years). We are both moving in opposite directions: She grew up with no religion and now coming to it as an adult; I grew up steeped in religion and have moved away from it as an adult.
She asked me: How do you teach children good values without religion?
My answer: Harry Potter.
When I think about where I got my values, it was, yes, partly religion but also my parents’ role modelling and Enid Blyton books. The latter, I think, played an even stronger role in shaping my value system than Christianity did. I had a very Blytonesque belief in honesty, loyalty, “being plucky” etc. While I’m not entirely comfortable with her British upper class assumptions anymore, I believe Harry Potter provides the ideal substitute for today’s children.
In fact, much of the underlying mythology of Harry Potter is Christian but refined for our times. Harry Potter also is remarkable for evading absolutism and showing that every character has shades of grey (making it more like Hindu mythology in that sense).
A while ago, I rewatched the series and the kids tried to watch with me, but it proved too scary. Recently, though, Nene asked me to read the books to him. And so began a new tradition. Every day for the past few weeks, we’ve been reading a bit of the books. We’ve finished The Philosopher’s Stone and are now on Chamber of Secrets. The kids even watched the first movie and enjoyed it because they knew the storyline. We did fastforward past the scariest Voldemorte part even though Nene begged us not to. I’m more ambivalent about Chamber of Secrets, even the book, because the voice in Harry’s head is kind of scary. I probably might stop at the second book, though Nene is not going to be happy.
Still, I’m happy that we have started on this particular mythology.
In between, I found that Mimi was getting a little impatient with the Harry Potter story. It is kind of complex for a five-year-old without tolerance for scary parts. She had been asking me Jesus for a while, so I suggested to her that we could read the Bible instead.
In comparison to the exciting happening in the Hindu myths, the Bible stories seem tame and hadn’t caught my kids’ fancy. I had tried reading to them from a children’s Bible gifted to us but without much success. Last year, during Easter, when they got curious about the festival, I decided it was high time they knew at least the basics, and read them out the crucifixion party. They enjoyed that story, but I think they were more transfixed by the blood and gore aspect of being nailed to a cross than the edifying moral of personal sacrifice. Which wouldn’t come through unless one knew the whole story. Further attempts to read from the Bible did not bear fruit. Then this December when we were in Goa, we visited a mechanical crib – which is basically a large-size crib set up in a compound with moving elements – and I explained to the kids the story as we walked through and they were very fascinated.
So, last week, I decided to skip the Old Testament and start with the Christmas story. So far, Mia has been pretty interested. Again, I’m not 100 per cent pleased with the Bible I have. The pictures are good and the length of each section ideal, but there are some aspects of the story that I’m not sure about, plus it has a tad too much sacred language (well, okay, it’s a Bible, but kids who are not brought up in the faith might be nonplussed at “the Lord God Almighty” type phrasing).
Recommendations for mythology retellings appropriate to six years olds are welcome. I’m looking for stories that stick to the major original tales, not reinterpretations for the moment. Though retellings that focus on the women in Hindu mythology would be welcome. Also Muslim religious stories for kids? I remember reading someone has recently done one, but not sure there’s an illustrated version. Of course, we should do A Thousand and One Nights at some point, but that’s a different genre I think.