Childhood Studies Hindu Views of Childhood and Child Rearing
by
Usha Menon
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 February 2017
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791231-0183

Introduction

Considerable material—textual, literary, and ethnographic—is available that discusses and elaborates on Hindu understandings about childhood and children, and their psychological and biological health as well as their social and spiritual development. In much of this literature, childhood is thought to begin before birth and end during late adolescence. This material can conveniently be divided chronologically into the ancient, the medieval, and the contemporary, although, speaking numerically, contemporary sources far outnumber the ancient and the medieval. Thus, there are the Dharmaśāstras (law books dating back to at least 200 BCE) that weigh in on the rights, responsibilities, and appropriate treatment of children in society, as well as ayurvedic texts (Āyurveda being traditional Hindu medical practice thought to have begun somewhere around 200–100 BCE) that ponder child development, both physical and psychological. Later, the devotional literature of the medieval period—in particular the poems of the poet-saint Surdas (15th–16th century) that focus on the exploits of the child-god Krishna—describe in lyrical and evocative detail the traits and proclivities that characterize children and childhood. And then there are modern texts, written in English by Indian and Western authors that explicate Hindu ideas about the divinity of children. Apart from such contemporary investigations, there are other works on Hindu views of the child and the Hindu experience of childhood that fall into two predominant categories: the cultural-psychological and the political-economic-legal. The former analyzes and interprets Hindu constructions of childhood and Hindu child-rearing practices and family dynamics, and the latter examines issues like the exploitation of children, including child labor, the Indian juvenile justice system, and the state’s role in ensuring that children in India have a modicum of access to nutrition, healthcare, and primary education. From the perspective of psychological anthropology, the Six Cultures Project, initiated and supervised by John and Beatrice Whiting, has been seminal in attempting a cross-cultural comparison of the effects of child-rearing practices on the acquisition of culture and the development of personality across six cultural contexts, including Hindu India. Finally, since the late 20th and early 21st centuries, there has also been burgeoning research on the Hindu child’s experience of immigration into the West, most particularly to North America and the United Kingdom, and the process of cultural assimilation that the Hindu child experiences. This article is restricted to material either written in English or translated into English; texts written in modern Indian languages are not included.

Indigenous Texts

The significance of the three texts included in this section lies in the fact that they have had, over the ages, a powerful influence in shaping Hindu understandings of what it is to be a child (Olivelle 2005), the meanings attached to childhood (Surdas 2015), and on Hindu child-rearing practices (Caraka 1896–1913, Olivelle 2005, Surdas 2015). Thus, the overwhelming importance of a mother in her child’s life (Caraka 1896–1913); the commonplace tendency to indulge young children (Olivelle 2005); and the widely shared tendency to see the divine in a child’s playfulness, mischief, and even sulkiness (Surdas 2015) are all cultural beliefs and practices whose roots can be traced to these texts.

  • Caraka. Charaka-samhita. Translated by Avinash Chandra Kaviratna. Calcutta: Chakravarti, 1896–1913.

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    English translation. This is Ayurveda’s foundational text. Holistic in its approach and assuming, first, an identity between man and nature and, second, that human life involves unceasing transformation, it identifies the factors that lead to optimal development in childhood, both physiological and psychological. Of these factors, the most essential it postulates is a close physical and emotional connection between mother and child across childhood but, most particularly, during the first five years of life.

  • Olivelle, Patrick. Manu’s Code of Law. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.

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    With Suman Olivelle. This excellent annotated translation of the Manudharmasastra, the two-thousand-year-old treatise on Hindu social norms and cultural postulates, is invaluable because it elaborates on a particular cultural understanding, prevalent even in the early 21st century, that says children should be treated indulgently. Though marginal to the social process, Manu considers children to be a privileged and pampered group, having no responsibilities or duties. Even when children violate social norms, Manu suggests they may be gently rebuked, never chastised.

  • Surdas. Sur’s Ocean: Poems from the Early Tradition. Edited by Kenneth Bryant and translated by John Stratton Hawley. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2015.

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    In this new translation of Surdas’s work, a subset of poems focuses on Krishna’s childhood. Surdas portrays the relationship between devotee and god as a maternal one, with the devotee being the mother and God her doted-upon child. These poems have so seeped into popular consciousness that they have shaped Hindu child-rearing practices and Hindu attitudes toward children: children are idealized as being close to divinity, capable of experiencing ananda (divine bliss), and therefore, deserving of all indulgences.

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