Leela claims motherhood in Hinduism journal

The interviewed individual is an American female, Leela Smith, aged 53, who spent several years of her life in the Indian city of Kochi, Kerala as a homemaker, adopted an ayurvedic diet that was followed by her entire family, and home-schooled her youngest child. Further, she took training in Carnatic music, learned hatha yoga and Sanskrit, and adopted Kalaripayattu, Kerala’s health system. In the year 2002, the whole family returned to the United States, and now resides in Oahu (Editors of Hinduism Today Magazine 2007).

 

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The interviewee, Leela, claims it was in the year 1978 that she had her first taste of Hinduism at age fifteen, at a hatha yoga session held in her neighborhood in San Francisco, California. With time, she grew more interested in yoga, and took to reading about it and its great benefits to an individual’s physical and mental wellbeing. She also decided to give up non-vegetarianism. A couple of years down the line saw her attending weekly meditation sessions somewhere in the city. She claims she had an unforgettable and life-changing vision of the Hindu God Shiva at his Mt. Kailash abode.

 

At age 22, she married Hank Smith, her husband of the past thirty-one years. While he accepted her beliefs and lifestyle, he showed no personal interest in himself adopting Hinduism. A few years after her wedding, Leela, in the year 1989, had her name legally changed from Leslie Smith to Leela Smith.

 

Her religious conversion was formally completed in December of the following year. She handed her apostasy statement to her local priest, who said he would formally release her from Catholicism, but had second thoughts and claimed he was told by the Bishop not to sign her release (which wasn’t true; the Bishop wasn’t in town to take the priest’s call). She approached a second priest (this time in her birthplace), who although considerate, refused to release her. In some weeks, she contacted the Bishop himself, who assured her the first priest she approached would sign her statement. In the end, a kindly and understanding Chinese-born priest signed her declaration, stating he understood Hinduism’s ethical conversion idea. This represents the student or brahmacarya phase, commencing with the initiation ritual (samskara of upanayana). The student is taught the sacred texts, prayers and other ritual skills including Brahmin discipline and service to one’s guru. Duty, law and morality (i.e., dharma) is the aim at this stage.

 

Leela had her namakarana ritual at a Hindu Monastery on the Kauai Island on New Year’s Day, 1991, with her eldest daughter, Anita. They then embarked on a month-long religious pilgrimage to Hindu ashrams and temples across Sri Lanka, Malaysia, and India. This, in her view, was a wonderful spiritual experience which reverberates in her mind to this day.

 

While her husband had not yet converted to Hinduism, their three children (all girls) were christened with Hindu names: Anita, Anisha and Aditi. The girls were raised as Hindus, under Leela’s guru’s guidance. A couple of years after her conversion, the family relocated to San Jose, and in the eight years they resided there, Leela, along with her daughters, joined other Hindu residents of the city once a week for satsang, as well as on all festival days. They studied Carnatic music and Bharata Natyam. The girls also joined summer camps preaching Hinduism.

 

Throughout this time, she sought her husband’s permission to pray for him, so that he may also be drawn to, and convert to, Hinduism. Her prayers were answered somewhere near the turn of the millennium, when her husband converted formally to Hinduism, adopted vegetarianism, quit smoking, and changed his name in legal records from Hank Smith to Lokesh Smith (the family decided to continue their original surname). His initiation ritual took place the following year.

 

In the year 2003, Leela’s husband, Lokesh, and eldest child, Anita embarked on a month-long pilgrimage to the Indian subcontinent, where the latter expressed her interest in learning Bharata Natyam, and joined the Lasya College of Fine Arts, Kannur, Kerala to earn a Master’s Degree in Bharata Natyam. Soon after, the entire family relocated to Kerala. While the five years they resided in India did, at first, prove rather challenging, Leela asserts that they were, on the whole, the best days of her life and a fulfillment of her heart’s deepest desires.

 

Opinion on Parenting

Leela claims motherhood in Hinduism is a rather scripturally-approved and religiously-performed woman’s role. The results of an ethnographic study of women sadhus by Denapoli are consistent with the above assertion. Women sadhus’ brave interruption into a largely male-dominated ascetic realm shatters a tradition, possibly creating room for gendered spaces, religious rituals and counter-narratives within the sphere of spiritual leadership and renunciation. But the perpetuation of specific motherhood, child-raising, domesticity, and femininity idioms simply upturn religious institutions of ascetism, instead of actively challenging or destabilizing ideas of females’ place.

 

Parenthood in Hinduism entails ensuring physically and mentally healthy and sturdy, obedient, and spiritual children. This requires equal sacrifice on both parents’ part. Diet, lifestyle and sex restraint for the child’s benefit continues to be adopted by a number of contemporary Hindus including Leela’s family. Parenthood, to Leela, entails leading through example. She believes it is her obligation, as a parent, to ensure her daughters are aware of the profound spiritual potential within all, of the duties required of all human beings, of values which have to be inculcated, and of the necessity of giving back to both the community and to the universe. Such Dharmic parenting is accompanied by considerable satisfaction and pleasure, moving beyond the materialistic world’s momentary pleasures. Both parents must be supportive of one another in the child-raising activity, despite personal differences, and must allow kids to question, amass facts, uncover their internal tendencies and abilities, and accordingly select their life path.

 

Leela and her husband, like other followers of Hinduism, are extremely possessive when it comes to their kids, and devote considerable energy and time to raising them. Owing to their conservative views and morals, they remain ever-concerned with regard to their children’s rearing and wellbeing. The girls are strictly expected not to taint their name or that of their family through any personal behavior. In contrast to other Western families, Leela’s daughters are more emotionally close to their parents and experience much affection and care on their parents’ part. Further, the parent-child bond continues to be strong even into adulthood and is expected to remain so in later life. This is the ‘householder’ phase of life where, after life’s greatest sacred ritual, vivaha (marriage), Leela has gone from student to householder. Wealth or artha is her goal here, as her duty is chiefly raising the family. This constitutes her highest dharma.

 

Like all pious Hindus, Leela’s family practices non-violent in all aspects of life, including food (vegetarianism). In the end, their goal after the numerous lives they lead is to achieve release from the circle of rebirths (i.e., achievement of moksha). According to them, moksha may only be attained after learning particular life lessons. Completing individual karmic situations resolves specific karmic issues, which implies a specific lesson is learned. She believes death denotes fulfilment of one life and an opportunity to enjoy a better rebirth, a chance at learning fresh karmic lessons, and subsequently progressing in their goal to attain moksha. This is the renouncing phase, where true devotees transform into wandering ascetics, giving up the world. Their end goal is moksha, attained through possessing nothing and desiring nothing. Rarely does anyone achieve moksha. The last step for the Hindu is shraddha (the rite of death), where the dead get transformed into a venerated ancestor, taking their rightful place within a good hereafter. This post-stage readies people for further rebirth till they attain moksha.

 

Applying supporting principles

 

The religion of Hinduism acknowledges a total of 4 life goals, which were properly applied in the aforementioned narrative (Bhsaskarananda, 2010):

 

1. Kama — fulfilling sensual desires.

 

2. Artha — acquiring material wealth and possessions.

 

3. Dharma — performing religious obligations.

 

4. Moksha — attaining liberation via God-realization.

 

References

 

Bhsaskarananda, Swami. The Hindu Way of Life. September 13, 2010. http://www.vedanta-seattle.org/articles/the-hindu-way-of-life/.

 

Editors of Hinduism Today Magazine. What is Hinduism. Hawaii: Himalayan Academy, 2007.


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