SANTA MONICA, Calif. — Children are usually the primary complainers about Sunday school, but when Mudita Bahadur started looking for excuses not to take her children to the Hindu temple on Sunday, she knew she had to make a change. “One, it’s dogmatic and two, it’s inconvenient,” she said of the Hindu classes held a 45-minute drive away from her home in Santa Monica, Calif.
Bahadur decided to take her children’s religious education into her own hands. For the past three years, she and other Indian parents have been teaching their children about religion in each other’s living rooms.
The do-it-yourself approach permits them to instill pride and progressive values in a traditional manner, the parents say.
Today, 10 families rotate hosting the Santa Monica Bal Kendra (children’s organization) one Sunday a month from 10 to noon. The children, ages 6 to 12, sit on the living room floor in a circle with a handful of parents surrounding them.
After Bahadur led the circle in Sanskrit prayers at a recent meeting, the host, Berkeley Sanjay, gave a lesson on the caste system. He directed the students to pick up their shoes, designating them as shoe cleaners — a category of untouchables — and move to the edge of the room. One leaned over the couch to get closer to her mom, who was playing the role of Brahmin, or priest.
Sanjay forced the girl to step away. “Is this allowed?” he asked. “Can people holding onto shoes touch the Brahmin?”
After discussing how and why the caste system came to be, Sanjay asked the kids how they felt. Separated, frustrated, abandoned, they answered.
“People who are actually in that position probably feel much deeper,” 12-year-old Adya Mohanty, Sanjay’s daughter, said. She had learned about caste from a textbook in her sixth grade class, but she appreciated her father’s hands-on lesson. “Here, we considered whether it was right or wrong.”
At a Hindu temple, the religious leaders might be defensive about an issue like caste, said Manjusha Kulkarni, the executive director of South Asian Network and one of more progressive parents in the group.
Kulkarni says she never enrolled her daughters in a formal religious education program because she had bad experiences at temples. One priest, for instance, told her that women shouldn’t work outside the home, Kulkarni recalls. After Hurricane Katrina, another priest dismissed her five-year-old daughter’s questions about suffering.
“Here’s a child asking a question that’s really fundamental to religion — why do bad things happen to good people? And he’s not taking it seriously at all,” Kulkarni said.
The Bal Kendra group also attracted Kulkarni because it reminded her of the group she grew up with in Montgomery, Ala. “The reason we had to form it is because there wasn’t anything — there wasn’t an institution to go to,” she said of her childhood group.
Even today, temples are found only in large cities with a high concentration of Indian Americans, said Gordon Melton, a religion scholar at the University of California, Santa Barbara.