There's a brilliant article by Devdutt Pattanaik on Hinduism and children, and is a must read for anybody who's interested in religion and are likely to be discussing this with kids. I think a lot of people end up treating kids as idiots when talking about religion in general, and Hinduism in particular, and consequently I think it is not surprising that kids go away with a very poor impression.
Devdutt gives a very sane and wise take on how best to do this. You should read the whole article, but here are some excerpts to get you interested:
What are some of the things a parent can do to get their child curious about their religion and culture without actually forcing them into learn about it?
By making the rituals fun. Rituals are about doing things. Rituals are choreographed to connect with us symbolically. Making rangoli can be fun. Cooking prasad can be fun. Doing puja – bathing the image, dressing it up, feeding it, singing songs to it – can be fun. The child will notice that the fun is associated with a deep reverence. Then he will question. Often this the point where parents turn rituals into "holy cows" and lose the opportunity to help their children gain an understanding of their cultural world.
My own moment of understanding of this point came when I read in my history books that Lokmanya Tilak pushed the whole 10-day, community Ganesh celebrations concept in Maharashtra as a way for getting people together and strengthening community ties. At that point I suddenly realized the social value of religion, and hence I've always been very supportive of the less stupid rituals and festivals, inspite of the fact that I don't really believe in God.
My other pet peeve about popular Indian religious writing is covered by the next question:
When it comes to Hindu mythology, there are either over-simplified books (geared towards kids) and there are the scholarly tomes. Neither is a good fit for a curious young person who needs something in between they can read independently. What kind of books would you recommend for them ?
My books! I became a writer because I saw this gap. Often the answers are not what the parents expect. The problem is that authors are burdened by wanting to make Hinduism look nice. The measuring scale is that of other religions. As a result writing becomes apologetic and defensive. People are trying but often I find writers have a poor understanding of the subject and so are unable to appreciate the complexities and so end up with awkward prose.
Try explaining the idea of Krishna surrounded by hundreds of milkmaids doing Raas Lila to a child. Are those girls, Krishna's friends? So is it ok for a boy to have many girlfriends? Are those girls his wives? So is it polygamy? Rather than answer such blunt uncomfortable questions, some writers escape into metaphysics – using words like Paramatma and Jivatma which, unless you are a believer, sounds like gobbledygook.
This really makes me want to go and buy Devdutt's books. I've already read his "Myth = Mithya" which I think is a great book. I'm now going to go and check outwhat else he's written.
On a related note, many years ago, meetu and I were browsing in Crossword, and decided to buy the entire set of Amar Chitra Katha comics they had. At that time, we did not have children, so this was sort of an impulse buy. Years later, now that I have children, I'm really glad we did that, because I read Amar Chitra Katha stories to my children at bedtime. And we have lots of fun discussions. From stories of ancient India (Ramayana/Mahabharata), to Shivaji and the Marathas and the Mughals, to the Indian freedom struggle, they are a great source of brilliant stories that kids absolutely love.
So you can imagine how glad I was when I saw this advice from Devdutt:
Do you have any recommendations for daily reading that may help a young person to navigate with greater confidence through their life – specially when the world outside is very dissimilar to the world inside their homes ?
Step 1: Read the Amar Chitra Katha. Step 2: Discuss the stories and don't let the comic be the end. Discussion is the key. Stories are to be told, not read. Step 3: don't reach a conclusion, don't justify, don't apologize, don't defend … just try and understand why the story was told by our ancestors.