Two Thoughts

A while ago, I was reading a book on a Yogi – T Krishnamacharya – by his son. In my ignorance, I had never heard of this remarkable Yogi and Yoga teacher who had been trained in the Himalayas and had lived in Chennai, and as a householder, set up a training institute on Cutchery Road in Mylapore. It is still being run there in an old, somewhat dilapidated building.

In this book I came across the advice given by Krishnamacharya to his son – “never worry about your children or grandchildren”. It was as if lightning had struck. He says that once your children have grown up, your responsibility for them ceases. They are adults and no longer your charge.

This I realize is said in the context of the Hindu thinking that we are all souls or atmas who have incarnated on Earth for our own purposes, the goal being to experience our karma. Our children are ours only to be taken care of and brought up to adulthood. At some stage, they are here to experience their own karma and there is no more role for us to play in their lives. I remember having heard that till the age of twelve, they are the instrument of their parents’ karma. Whatever happens to them till then is a result of their parents’ actions in their past life. After that it is the result of their own karma and that is why the parents cannot blame themselves for what goes on in the lives of their children especially after they grow up. Their experiences are their own.

The corollary of this and what remains unsaid is that people should stay in their own lives and detach themselves from their children – or indeed from any other individual, no matter if related in any way – because each atma is separate, at least on earth, and must find its own way ahead. This is possible only with non-attachment, which is the ultimate goal of a Hindu. This is a very difficult achievement for anyone after years of attachment and the difficulty is attributed to Ajnaana, which actually refers to lack of wisdom or non-enlightenment. Very few people can hope to become non-attached even in the last few years of life, which is why the dying person wants his family around him at the end. It is not a good or sensible desire for the dying Hindu.

In the old days the Kings were expected to hand over their reins to their children when they became fit to rule. To avoid supervising or interfering, they moved to the forests with their wives, and lived in non-political retirement. At a later stage, they began to lead an ascetic life. The ordinary householders did not have the luxury of leaving the city or village, or rather, the forests could hold only so many, so they stayed at home and began to devote themselves to their prayers and practice of detachment.

We, in modern society, are the householders who are unable to withdraw into the forests. We are still involved with our lives and the lives of our children, largely because we live in a digital age. We can communicate with anyone, we can visit each other, and there is no need to rely on the postman for any updates. While not being actually present, we have the illusion of being there.

When we were younger, it took us more than a week to get news from someone, if the postman was regular. Telegrams were reserved for bad news generally. Visits were for summer or for attending a wedding, generally in a village or in the hometown. Attendance depended on the financial position, which was usually poor. So it fell to one person to represent the family at the wedding and meet the other relatives and catch up on years’ worth news.

I think of M seeing us as a 22 month-old on the video call and saying Hello Patti and See you later Patti, and, I remember D at the same age, seeing her father after a four month absence and asking me who that Uncle was. (D was more talkative than most toddlers at that age.)

The question is how to cultivate detachment enough that we stop worrying about how our children are getting along. There are enough disquieting things in their lives for us to be anxious about, no matter how much they try to reassure us that they are all right. It may be hard for us to believe. But what they are saying is probably that it is not for us to worry about them because it is their life and they can and will deal with it. It is still hard to believe, but this is where we have to fall back upon our age-old Hindu belief that it is time for us to move out figuratively into the forest. Whether they are happy or sad, it is for each person to carry their own burden.

When I think about it, my grandparents – at least one widowed grandfather – played no part in my father’s life after settling his wedding. My father was married at the age of twenty-one after moving to the city in search of a job, and after that my grandfather knew nothing of my father’s life beyond the facts of our births. That was his own doing because he lived in the village and had a second family to care for. But he was not alone in this. This was the general state of affairs in most families of that time. So my grandfather was content living his life in his distant village and my father struggled along in his. My father would have appreciated some help and support no doubt, but it was not the practice then.

Now we are back to that way of thinking due to circumstances – which mean that this is the age of the NRI parents. This is a misnomer in itself because it is the children who are the NRIs, not the parents. As NRI parents, we see up close, yet paradoxically from an invisible distance, the lives of our children. There is much that we wish could change in their lives, much that we cannot do anything about, but watch helplessly nevertheless. A person who is baffled by the Internet is not necessarily stupid. He is probably wiser when it comes to life. He could not have survived otherwise. Life has thrown so many things at him.

Many young Indians seem to believe they are rebels, when there is nothing to rebel against. They are free to shape their lives any way they wish, because they are in a new country where they face no interference, but instead of retaining what is valuable from their old lives and adopting what will add more value from a new country, they seem bent upon throwing away everything that is from their past. It is a case of throwing the baby out with the bathwater. There is no need for a wholesale rejection of their past because what they are today and are proud of being, has been shaped by the way they were brought up back home. If travel helps to broaden the mind, then migrating should do so even more. A person who has lived in different countries should add breadth and depth to his vision. Addition, not subtraction, should be the desired goal.

I began by talking about detachment but have wandered off the subject, but perhaps not too far off. Our children have their own lives, however happy or unhappy they may seem to us. It is not the life we would have chosen for ourselves or was ever thrust upon us, rather. We have lived the way we best could and our choices are very limited now. Realistically, we cannot create happiness for our children or protect them from the vicissitudes of life, much as we may like to. For one thing, it is the life they have chosen for themselves and it is what they have, not what we see. For another, we are only passing through. We will have to go back to our home far away both literally and metaphorically, and it is better to imagine they are all right rather than worry over them. This is the modern life which mirrors the old days when my grandfather had no connection with our life. We are connected to many digitally, but not in fact. Technology has made this connection easier, but also a lot more difficult for us to insulate ourselves from the outside world. Insulation is needed in the face of helplessness. Detachment is even more helpful. That comes from Vairagya which is determined detachment – or, a steely intent to let go. Vairagya requires constant practice and is very difficult, needless to say.

3 thoughts on “Two Thoughts”

  1. Some things get added, many things get subtracted. The things we subtract are relics of the past, and while we can gain experience and insights from the past, it is disingenuous to hold on tightly to it.

    In experiencing the world as well as taking action, the only thing that ultimately matters is the present, here and now. Even the philosophy behind karma yoga is not to withdraw from action and experience, but to be detached from it even as you participate in the world.

    You’re certainly not responsible for the happiness of your children, and moreover you shouldn’t feel responsible for it. But getting there doesn’t need require you to insulate yourself, you just need to see that this is true.

  2. That is the result of Ajnaana – we know the truth, we know what we must do, everything is clear, but practicing it is what we have to strive for. Emotion veils the truth. Turning our backs on emotion and setting out on the path ahead is difficult for everyone except for the wise. Hence the striving for wisdom and a hardened heart.

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