In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Children and Childhood in Hinduism

  • Introduction
  • Overviews and Edited Volumes

Hinduism Children and Childhood in Hinduism
Nita Kumar
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 February 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0215


The importance of the child in Hinduism cannot be emphasized enough and must be addressed at several levels. First, Hinduism recognizes, from as far back as the Vedas, that birth and childhood somehow best exemplify the philosophical conundrum that is life. Reproduction is power, and a child is power. Second, in the mundane world, the child is an essential connecting link between human generations, one that can guarantee continuity, reproduction, and purity if so desired. This link is the male child, and the desire for purity belongs to the upper classes, whose fears relate to miscegenation, leading to control of the child’s sexuality and frequently to early marriage. The resulting patterns of kinship and location in Hindu communities include relationships that figuratively reproduce childhood, where one member of a dyad is seen as childlike, that is, weaker. Several beliefs and practices bear witness to the importance of the child. While infants and toddlers of both sexes are adored as close to gods, the male child has importance at every phase of childhood, particularly after the yagnopavita (sacred thread) ceremony when a crucial phase of learning and formation begins. A male child is necessary to complete rituals that would close the circle for a dead ancestor, permitting them to finally leave their departed bodies. The female child is loved and cherished in a different way; however, in a scale of importance, she ranks lower than the male. Both genders stand, in different ways, for the name, status, and stability of the family and the larger kin group or community. When gods are worshiped as children, it is typically the male gods. Goddesses are spoken of as daughters, too, but more often as mothers, with worshipers assuming the role of child accordingly, though sometimes the worshiper assumes the role of mother vis-à-vis the god-child. While all this gives discursive importance to the child, individual children in history have been treated as community property and not necessarily nurtured for themselves. At the same time, the constructed nature of Hinduism—until the colonial period, Hindus did not use the singular term for the wide array of beliefs and practices that they practiced—makes it impossible to discuss one perspective on the child. In a similar way, “childhood” and “the child” are themselves historical constructs, datable from modernity. However, some scholars point out that even without a common name, a recognizable unity can be discerned in the beliefs and practices of those now labeled “Hindus.” Similarly, even if people did not talk of childhood or the child as separate, distinguishable entities before a certain time, the experience of the phase of life, and the relations of that particular age to others, did, of course, exist. In treating the attitudes of the religion presently called Hinduism toward the stage of life presently understood as childhood, this article addresses Hindu theogony and mythology, history, sociology, and literature.

Overviews and Edited Volumes

One finds in India some volumes with “childhood” or “children” in their titles, but these speak only tangentially of Hinduism. Their thrust is on state policy and social norms, which are, of course, important. The Indian state is ostensibly secular and must be held accountable for its secular, democratic claims. The studies do not acknowledge that almost all the children they are talking about are Hindus, and that this might therefore have a bearing on their subjects’ experiences or behavior. The logic here is that contemporary scholarship functions within a framework of modern epistemology, politics, and civics, using the language of “individualism” and “rights.” Postmodern scholarship tries to deconstruct this language, but it still relies on the assumption that while the epistemology may be expanded, it is still the only functional, that is “correct” approach. Scholars may also not use the term Hinduism when talking about their subjects because they implicitly respect the difference between Hinduism and formal religions, one in which Hinduism does not require “belief” or “faith.” This possibly leads to a lack of data from informants and observers on the role of religion in the lives being studied. Finally, a historical reason exists for the absence of the term Hinduism: scholars are rightly suspicious of ascribing a religious consciousness to their subjects when through so much of colonial history, the problem was precisely that Indians were predefined and overdefined by their religion. This section includes the surveys Anandalakshmy 1994; Behera 2007; Balagopalan 2014; Khalakdina 2008; Saraswathi, et al. 2018; Sinha 1981; and Sharma 2003, because, while they originate in different disciplinary perspectives, they include articles that provide information on the culture and philosophy that comprises Hinduism, often calling it “milieu,” “environment,” “background,” or “society and culture.” A different kind of survey looks directly at Hindu beliefs and practices, such as Marriott 1990, which seeks to construct an ethno-sociology of India that includes every role and relationship, including children and childhood; Patton 2009, which focuses directly on Hinduism and the child; and Kakar 2012, which uses a psychoanalytical perspective to paint a picture of Indian/Hindu childhood.

  • Anandalakshmy, S., ed. The Girl Child and the Family: An Action Research Study. New Delhi: Government of India Ministry of Human Resources Development, 1994.

    A government report that presents overall data about girls in rural India, in various chapters on gender socialization, work, education, and family relationships.

  • Balagopalan, Sarada. Inhabiting “Childhood”: Children, Labour and Schooling in Postcolonial India. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave, 2014.

    A rich study, both theoretically and ethnographically, of the tensions experienced by working-class children caught between the expectations of a neoliberal state regarding a proper, educated childhood and a historically produced situation where working for their pittance of livelihood is both a requirement and, paradoxically, a pleasure because it is an index of freedom. An excellent review is by Nandini Chandra in H-Childhood, H-Net Reviews, available online.

  • Behera, Deepak Kumar, ed. Childhoods in South Asia. Delhi: Pearson Longman, 2007.

    The essays in this collection give rich ethnographic material on poor and marginalized children, not discussed in the usual way as simply victims of politics (even though the introduction is misleading in this regard). We see children’s lives for what they are, although the poverty and marginalization could also be understood in a more complex historical and social context.

  • Kakar, Sudhir. The Inner World: A Psychoanalytic Study of Childhood and Society in India. 4th ed. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780198077152.001.0001

    Originally published in 1978. Based on clinical experience, the theories of Freud and Erikson, and a personal knowledge of Indian (Hindu) culture, Kakar builds a model of childhood experiences and development in India. He uses only adults as subjects, with the justification that their memories of childhood point to what was valuable from childhood experience and are, therefore, a better guide than the observation of children in their environments.

  • Khalakdina, Margaret. Human Development in the Indian Context: A Socio-cultural Focus. New Delhi: SAGE, 2008.

    Addresses questions such as “What makes the environment of the individual from the East different from the individual in the West?” seeking to look into the deeper correlates behind clichés such as “the Indian child is submissive, non-aggressive and dependent, unlike the child from the West.”

  • Marriott, McKim, ed. India through Hindu Categories. New Delhi: SAGE, 1990.

    Marriot’s theorization has been influential through generations of scholars and is regarded as having constructed a model of Hindu society that may be made to fit any instance of fieldwork. He relies throughout on Hindu categories of thought, collected from texts and ethnographies. His theory is laid out in the introduction, followed by chapters authored by his students who draw on his ideas.

  • Patton, Laurie. “Hinduism.” In Children and Childhood in World Religions: Primary Sources and Texts. Edited by Don S. Browning and Marcia J. Bunge, 217–226. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2009.

    A comprehensive overview of the approach to children in textual sources, and to some extent in sociological and historical studies as well. Of special value are the excerpts from primary sources. Important questions include, “Do actions in early childhood also sow seeds of karma?” Patton gives one possible answer in the story of “Mandavya on the Stake” in the Mahabharata, in which Mandavya declares that before the age of fourteen, karmic “fruits” will not be sown” (p. 273, fn. 10).

  • Saraswathi, T. S., Shailaja Menon, and Ankur Madan, eds. Childhoods in India: Traditions, Trends and Transformations. London: Routledge, 2018.

    An ambitious volume, striving to give an overview of the state of the child in India today, but one that does not have enough coverage on “religion” and “culture,” with the exception of the chapter by Sarada Balagopalan.

  • Sharma, Dinesh, ed. Childhood, Family, and Sociocultural Change in India: Reinterpreting the Inner World. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2003.

    The subtitle refers to the approach of the book: questioning the relevance of Sudhir Kakar’s 1980 study, both because of its static nature—it depicts an unchanging mythopoetic worldview of India—and because of its limited data. The chapters of Sharma’s volume attempt to critique and also to fill in some of the gaps in Kakar.

  • Sinha, Durganand, ed. Socialization of the Indian Child. New Delhi: Concept, 1981.

    A collection of articles from a conference in the 1970s, somewhat dated, striving to make a beginning in the study of child development, psychology, and socialization processes.

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