Honoring Guru Nanak — And Whoever's Hanging On Your Wall

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guru_nanak_dev_jiIf Guru Nanak were alive today, the Sihk leader would be turning 544 years old — a mere child compared to Islam's 1,400-year-old Muhammad, Christianity's 2,000-year old Jesus, and Buddhism's 2,500-year-old Buddha. Still, as Guru Nanak would undoubtedly be keen to point out, he still has more than 300 years on Bahá'u'lláh, the founder of Baha'i. Whenever a religious leader's birthday rolls around, I try to think about them in human terms. About who they were during their lives, whether they were out for any glory or money, or whether they were surprised when their innermost passion brought them fame. All these men had something remarkable to offer the world; they wouldn't have gathered so much momentum if they hadn't. Nanak was devoted to providing an environment of inclusiveness — regardless of race, color or creed — and emphasized that there was but one God who dwells in all people.

One of the great recurring ironies of religion, of course, is that each time one of these visionary spiritual types waves off religious leaders and institutions of the past and discovers a new, purer version of truth, he later find himself  in the role of religious leader and his ideas the basis for a religious institution. As a young boy, Nanak was quite taken with spirituality and was encouraged to pursue his "divine" path. Around the year 1500, when he was 30 years old, he reportedly gave a speech, in which he said:

There is neither Hindu nor Mussulman (Muslim) so whose path shall I follow? I shall follow God's path. God is neither Hindu nor Mussulman and the path which I follow is God's.

Five hundred years later, and the path that Sikhs follow is Nanak's.

I wonder how many families have pictures of religious leaders in their homes — a reminder, perhaps, to act according to the values they hold dear and give thanks for the opportunity to hold such values at all. Born in a different culture at a different time, the religious influences, and thus the pictures, would undoubtedly be different. But the importance of such physical reminders of devotion would probably remain. It's the same reason humans possess Bibles and create shrines and visit places of worship, I suppose — so they can more easily "access" the universal element that allows them to breathe and love and be.

I'm an aesthetic minimalist, so I don't have a lot of photographs hanging in my home — religious or otherwise — but I have occasionally thought of creating a space for pictures of the people to whom I'm devoted. The people who remind me to be the person I want to be, and who are, quite literally, responsible for my existence. The people who help shape my thoughts and lead me in the direction I want to be going.

There would be my parents and grandparents and great grandparents as far as I could trace them. There would be my sister and brother and their families. My husband and in-laws. My daughter. There would be my friends and mentors and godparents (who did a very poor job at helping make me godly but a very good job of helping make me happy.) And there would be people I don't know but who have helped me think more deeply about who I am, how I am, and why I'm here. People like Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, KierkegaardNeizsche, Sartre, Freud, Darwin, Piaget, Einstein, LincolnMLK Jr., TwainHawking, Sagan, Goodall, Friedan, Steinem, Colbert, Oprah, E.T.the Buddha, The Beatles... Looks like I'm going to need a bigger house.

How about you? If not Nanak, who's on your wall?

God's (Alleged) Gender Proves Problematic for Some Parents

god About a year ago — when my daughter was six — I noticed that she had been sitting in silence for a surprisingly long time.

"Are you okay?" I asked.

"I'm sad," she said.

"Why are you sad?" I asked.

"Because," she said, "God is a boy and not a girl."

"How do you know?"

"I just know," she said, glumly.

"And why does that make you sad?"

"Because," she said. "I'm a girl."

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I don't spend a lot of time complaining about religion. Usually, I just don't see the point. Religion is so big and broad and amorphous. One person's going-to-synogogue-on-Saturday is another person's whipping-kids-for-talking-back. One person's giving-to-charitable-causes is another person's picketing-the-funerals-of-gay-soldiers. Just try to get two people to agree on the nature, purpose or value of "religion." But some things are just plain hard to swallow — in a universal sense. And, ever since that conversation with my daughter, the "gender" of God is one of them. Rarely, if ever, do children hear "Her" as a pronoun or "Mother" as a descriptor for God. Even "It" — which is the gender-neutral way that Muslims describe Allah in Arabic — sounds completely foreign to us.

This isn't to say, of course, that all religions conceptualize God as a man. They don't — not literally anyway.

Christianity describes God as a Trinity: the father (God), the son (Jesus) and the Holy Spirit (who the heck knows). The Catechism of the Catholic Church makes clear that "God is neither man nor woman." Yet, that statement is immediately followed by: "He is God."

There's that He again.

Similarly, in Sikhism, Guru Granth Sahib is known for saying God was indescribable, but then the guru repeatedly referred to this indescribable being as "He" and "Father." Even Hindus, which have goddesses out the yin-yang, still describe their top god — Brahma — in entirely masculine terms. Judaism's God is, perhaps, the least manly of the bunch. Still, though, Jews — like Christians — are pretty tied to the language of the Torah/Old Testament. And, there, as we know too well, references to God are overwhelmingly male-dominated.

I Googled "God" today, and guess how many images of women came up?

Now, let me be clear: I am not weighing in on the debate over whether God is a man, woman, both or neither. That is one debate that will always be completely irrelevant to me personally. But there is no denying that we, as a society, continue to couch God in male terms. Even those of us who don't believe in God do it. At very early ages, American children are encouraged to form their images of God as a man. Specifically, an old man. Even more specifically, an old man with a beard.

Now, if you're a little boy, this is probably a nonissue. No big deal. Completely innocuous. But if you're a girl — well, one need only look at the conversation with my daughter to see that the distinction is a huge deal. Just huge.

When girls hear — and they all hear it — that the entity in charge of the whole universe, the one who has all the power, is a boy (more boy than girl, at the very least!) it changes things for her. It gives her a new perspective on her life and life in general. It limits her. It may even sadden her.

And that — on a very personal level — saddens me.

I dare say, it should sadden us all.

Anyone else have similar experiences or thoughts on this? If so, I'd really love to hear them.

A Shopping Guide for Nonreligious Parents (Part I)

In honor of the Judeo-Christian month of giving, I'm offering a few recommendations to add to your shopping lists. These are items I have bought myself, or will buy, or might buy, or probably won't buy but that doesn't mean you shouldn't. Seriously, if you want some assistance in "introducing" world religion and religious concepts to your kids, these are excellent tools. I'll be publishing this in two parts: The first today, the second on Monday. Don't look for this list to be repeated next year, by the way. In 2013, I'll be recommending you buy only one book: Mine.

1. People by Peter Spier. Touted as "a picture book for all ages," People is the best celebration of diversity I've ever seen in book form. Spier is a spectacular illustrator, and offers the sweetest introduction to religion and culture. His little figures are charming, and for children who may never run into Arabs or Africans on the street, it's all the more important. You'd never know the book was written in 1980, but for one single page devoted to different kinds of "communication." Records and cassettes and walkie-talkies are among the most "modern" communication methods pictured. Available on Amazon: $10.36

2. "What Do You Believe?" This book, published just last year by DK Publishing, is a stellar example of how to talk about world religions in neutral terms. The design is excellent and very modern, and the book is full of great information — but not too full. That is, it's not exhausting to look at, as so many of these types of books can be. It includes pages on world religions, as well as atheism and agnosticism — all of which are handled with a high degree of respect.  This is likely to appeal most to slightly older children, 9 and above, but I'd get it early and make it a book shelf staple. Available on Amazon: $11.55

3. DYI Paper Buddha. These things are just plain cool. They come in kits and would be great for kids who like to build things. I love the idea of having my daughter make this little guy — or one of the other Hindu gods offered in kit form — and reading a little bit about Buddhism or Hinduism out loud to her while she does it. The kits are made in New Delhi by cartoonist and animator Kshiraj Telang. They are all limited edition and sold in Indian rupees. Hurry while supplies last! Available on Toonoholic for 99 rupees (roughly $1)

4. Dreidel. I wrote about how to play the game of Dreidel last year as part of my Hanukkah post. It's such a fun game for kids — and cheap! I highly recommend it as and entry into talking about Judaism and the origins of Hanukkah. Plus, it's got a fun song that goes with it. (South Park's version is here.) Simple wooden dreidel available on Amazon: $1.89

5. Fulla Doll. I referenced this doll in a recent post. It's a line of Barbie-like fashion dolls for Muslim girls, and I'm TOTALLY buying one for my daughter. The abaya and hijab that Muslims wear is really interesting to kids. Getting little ones used to different styles of religious dress (so they can see it as something normal, rather than something weird) could go a long way in building an understanding of Islamic customs. (By the way, check out these pictures published on Slate today — it's a photo series on  documenting the Arab woman's experience of being veiled!) Fulla dolls available at Muslim Toys and Dolls: $34.99

6. Little Book of Hindu Deities: From the Goddess of Wealth to the Sacred Cow.  When it comes to giving kids and parents an overview of Hinduism, this book by Sanjay Patel is the best. It's small and cute and bright and to the point, and a fantastic resource for getting a handle on the deal with Hindu gods. Just having on my bookshelf has been wonderful for me. When I need a quick reminder of who Krishna is or why Ganesh is important, I know exactly where to go. Available at Amazon: $8.82

7. Voodoo dolls. To heck with major religions, right? Let's get into some of those fun-filled folk religions! In Africa and Haiti, as well as in New Orleans, voodoo dolls are used to focus energy and blessings to those they represent. They are commonly made with items that are easily found in those regions. The instructions with this cute set advises kids to send good blessing to your friends or turn them into mean people to relieve stress and have some fun. They really are just fun little toys, but it would be a great excuse to explain a bit about the "magic" believed by some folk religions. Set of 11 available on Amazon: $6.74

8. Sikh Play Set. It was ridiculously hard to choose between all the Sikh play sets on the market! My gosh! There are just so many to — oh, wait. No. That was nativity sets. Sorry. When it came to Sikh play sets, there was the one. This one. And it seems only to be available in England. And it's expensive. So I'm doubting a lot of you will buy it, but I still think it's terribly neat. I love the book about the gurus that comes with it, and kids would have a great time inspecting the "artifacts" in the bag. Available at TTS: 74.95 pounds (roughly $120)

9. Meet Jesus: the Life and Teachings for a Beloved Teacher by Lynn Tuttle Gunney. This book came highly recommended by reader Kimberly B. The book is described as emphasizing the "humanity rather than the divitity of Jesus, giving the story broad appeal for liberal or progressive Christians and non-Christians alike." Kimberly said her kids loved it. I'm definitely buying it. Available on Amazon: $10.26

10. The Tao of Pooh Audiobook. (You cand find it free on youtube, too.) I read this book in college, and loved it so much I also read the Te of Piglet, which was good but not as good. Author Benjamin Hoff shows that "Pooh's Way" is amazingly consistent with the principles of living envisioned by the Chinese founders of Taoism. It's very fun and cute. The audiobook would be great for a road trip with a slightly older child — 11ish maybe. Available on Amazon: $14.59

For Part II, click here.

 

Sikhism in 60 Seconds

Twelve years ago, a mass murder sparked America's interest in Islam. Now it's happening again — only, this time, the religion is Sikhism. As Sikhs all over the world today mourn the loss of six of their own who died Sunday in a Wisconsin temple, they also find themselves explaining who they are to a country mostly unfamiliar with their customs and beliefs. "We are pretty sure that this is a hate crime because there is so much ignorance," Rajwa Singh of the Guru Gobind Singh Foundation in Rockville, Md., told NBCWashington.com. "People mistake us (for) either being Taliban, or being part of Bin Laden’s network, or al-Qaida because of our turbans and beards."

Let us not be the "people" Singh speaks of. Here  is Sikhism in a nutshell.

Sikhism is a relatively new religion, having been founded in 1500 in the Punjab (northwestern region) of India. It boasts some 30 million adherents worldwide and 314,000 in the United States.

Like most major religions, Sikhism has a "star of the show" — a single person who found a new way to live and brought that message to his people through a traveling ministry. In this case the star was Guru Nanak Dev, who (like Buddha) saw suffering and confusion in the world and set out to bring peace, compassion and truth.

Nanak's message was fairly simply. There is one God — or "Waheguru" in Punjabi. Waheguru, whose literal translation is "Wonderful Teacher," is believed to be a shapeless, timeless, genderless presence that created many worlds, including ours. Sikhs do not embrace the traditional notion of heaven or hell. What they seek is a "spiritual union" with Waheguru, which they attain through a balance of work, worship and charity. They also put great importance on avoiding the "Five Evils": ego, anger, greed, attachment and lust.

Sikhism is about the most inclusive religion you're likely to find, which is part of what makes Sunday's killings feel particularly brutal and senseless. "Sikhs believe that no matter what race, sex, or religion one is, all are equal in God's eyes," reads a Wikipedia passage. "Men and women are equal and share the same rights, and women can lead in prayers.

Sikhs have one sacred text, called the Guru Ganth Sahib, a book that reads a bit like an extended poem. The book is a compilation of traditions, teachings and philosophies learned from Guru Nanak and his nine successors, all of whom were hand-picked by the previous guru. The last of the nine died in 1708.

Oh, and one last thing: Sikhs don't trim their hair or beards because they wish to remain as close to their natural state — the way God made them — as possible. They wear turbans to show their devotion to their religion and, for more practical reasons, to keep their long hair from becoming tangled.

Religious Picture Books Have Much to Offer — But Choose Wisely

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Can we talk about religious picture books for a minute?

I'm assuming most of you didn't read your kid a religious bedtime story last night. And that it rarely occurs to you to wonder what new Islamic, Hindu or Christian children's books came out this year. I'm also willing to bet you don't spend a lot of time in the religious section at your public library.

But it might be time to start.

For the last month or so I've been obsessed with religion-books for kids — mostly because my own knowledge of religious stories is limited, and I'm always looking for language to use when talking through certain religious concepts with my daughter. At any given time, I might have 15 of these things stacked in my office, and another dozen on hold at the library.

As you can imagine, kids' religious titles run the gamut. Many focus on religious holidays — Rosh Hashanah, Diwali, Christmas, Eid. Others contain more over-arching material — stories about Buddha or Muhammad or the parables of Jesus. Some are meant to "educate" and are much too comprehensive, dated or dry for most little ones to enjoy; others are beautifully illustrated and clearly written with children's interests in mind.

Because a good number are written for religious children, not all of them are a good match for secular families. The worst of the bunch are indoctrination materials, which — in my opinion at least — pose far more questions than answers. But the best can be quite good. They offer fun stories, interesting settings and clever text — and they do it so well that they don't feel like "learning experiences" — even though that's exactly what they are.

Of course, it's sometimes hard to tell the good from the bad and the bad from the ugly. Which is why I'm endeavoring to sort through the lot in search of the best and most helpful reads to pass on to you guys. (How nice am I?) In the meantime, though, I thought I'd offer some advice on choosing titles that won't confuse your child, offend you, or bore either of you to tears.

1. Choose a book that will appeal to your kid

You know your kid and his taste more than anyone else. You know when a book (or toy or game) has a good chance of holding his interest, or no chance at all. If your 7-year-old is a real boy's boy who's going to roll his eyes at an Easter story about a little girl and her lamb, put it back. If your daughter is only interested in princesses, maybe choose a book about the Jewish Princess Esther over a book about the Hindu God Shiva. Religious literacy isn't about cramming shit down kids' throats; in fact, it's quite the opposite.

2. Go for age-appropriate

Like No. 1, this is usually pretty easy to judge by a quick glance. The cover art and the amount of text on the first couple of pages are good guides. And, of course, if you're at all worried about violence or other adult situations, be sure to flip through the book before handing it on to your little one; lots of religious stories depict people — not to mention God — doing some pretty gnarly things.

3. Make it relevant

If you want this stuff to be at all meaningful, it's probably best not to introduce reading material completely randomly. Read her a Ramadan story during the month of Ramadan, a Good Friday story around Easter. You don't have to have some big master plan, of course, but do try to introduce each book with a sentence about why you're reading it — why this book, why now. As a side note: Many books out there are what I would call "secondary" books — books that are great to read AFTER your kid has been introduced to certain concepts. Hoppy Passover, for instance, is a sweet book about a bunny family that holds a Seder. But because it assumes some basic knowledge of Passover, it might be better as an accompaniment to another book — rather than standing on its own.

4. Check for historical accuracy

This is a biggie. As secular parents, the point of reading religious books is to teach our kids about religion. When authors take poetic license or manipulate religious history to the point where the stories are no longer accurate, the value for us is gone. Religious people might believe that their kids will get the "full story" eventually, and may not be worried about these deviations. Hell, they might even prefer revisionist history from time to time, especially when the revision creates a more believable, desirable or compelling story. But we as secular parents are looking for the truth. And, just as often, the inaccuracies insult both believers and nonbelievers.

5. Watch out for white-washing

That a story is "accurate" doesn't mean it's complete. Bible stories (especially the ones you find in the Religion sections at major bookstores) often are abbreviated to sound kinder, gentler, and more understandable. (The story of Noah's Ark is not nearly so charming when you consider that God went on to exterminate every living creature on earth, for example.) I do understand the desire to make stories age-appropriate. I've found myself struggling to explain certain religious violence to my daughter in a way that won't give her nightmares. But if a story needs to be white-washed in order to share it, maybe it's not time to share that particular story. I'd love for my kid to see Chinatown someday; that doesn't mean I need to watch it with her tonight. That said, if you find yourself sharing a cleaned-up Bible story with your child, no sweat. Just explain that there's a bit more to the story than that, and you'll tell her the rest when she gets older.

6. Be aware of slants and bias 

Although it may surprise you, this is not necessarily a deal-breaker for me. Even books written from a religious perspective can be really well-done and educational. It all depends on the nature and degree of the slant. With some titles, the only slant is the point of view. An author might use "we," for instance, instead of "they" when talking about the religious group featured in the book. But as long as you are comfortable addressing these slants as they pop up — "The author uses 'we' in this story because he, himself, is Muslim," for example — then this shouldn't be a problem. Some books, though, are more overt, and secular parents would do right to leave those behind. Sermonizing books will do nothing but confuse your child and annoy the hell of you. If you think you might be looking at such a book, but aren't sure, here's a hint: Flip to the back, and find the story's denouement, summary or wrap-up. That's where most authors put their "morals" — and if the book has a preachy element, you'll find it at the end.

 

Holiday Cheat Sheet for Nonreligious Parents

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We here at Relax, It's Just God believe that religious literacy and tolerance doesn't just happen. We parents have to make it happen.

Unfortunately, saying the word “Hanukkah” once a year and pointing out burkas in the airport just doesn't cut it. A true religious education requires context. Tolerance requires action. If you want your children to be interested in and respectful of those around them, you must knit a sense of interest and respect into your childrearing — today and throughout the year.

That's why major religious holidays are such fantastic vehicles for religious literacy. And the best part? Thanks to this here Holiday Cheat Sheet, you don't have to know a damn thing about any of them. We're one-stop shopping for on-the-go parents. Click on one of the links and in just a few minutes, you'll find out why that holiday exists, how it's celebrated and fun ways to convey its meanings to kids.

So stop letting those vaguely familiar-sounding holidays pass you by in a blur of Phineas and Ferb re-runs. Seize these small but wonderful opportunities to introduce your kids to religious concepts and figures — while also showing compassion for the people who hold these concepts and figures so dear.

September

Quick! What the Hell is Yom Kippur (Judaism)

Quick! What the Hell is Rosh Hashana? (Judaism)

October

Quick! What the Hell is Diwali? (Hinduism)

Quick! What the Hell is Hajj? (Islam)

Quick! What the Hell is Eid al-Adha? (Islam)

December

Quick! What the Hell is Hanukkah? (Judaism)

Quick! What the Hell is Christmas? (Christianity)

January

Quick! What the Hell is Epiphany? (Christianity)

Quick: What the Hell is Mawlid al-Nabi? (Islam)

February

Quick: What the Hell is St. Valentine's Day? (Christianity)

Quick: What the Hell is Ash Wednesday? (Christianity)

March

Quick! What the Hell is Purim? (Judaism)

April

Quick! What the Hell is Easter? (Christianity)

Quick! What the Hell is Passover? (Judaism)

May

Quick! What the Hell is Vesak Day? (Buddhism)

Quick! What the Hell is Pentecost? (Christianity)

July

Quick! What the Hell is Ramadan? (Islam)

Quick! What the Hell is Eid ul-Fitr? (Islam)

There's more to come, so please keep checking back!