06/17/2012 12:52 pm ET Updated Aug 17, 2012

How Fatherhood Has Made Me a Better Hindu

A popular narrative in the Bhagavata Purana, one of Hinduism's most beloved and venerated wisdom texts, involves a king who meets a forest-dwelling sage. The sage's peaceful demeanor and obvious contentment, even amidst apparent poverty, astound the king. "Who is your guru?" the king asks, eager to know where the sage learned in such a way. In response, the sage enumerates a list of 24 gurus -- a list of unlikely sources of wisdom that even includes natural phenomenon, and animals -- each of whom demonstrated to the sage a valuable lesson that he incorporated into his spiritual practice. Of course, the numerical list is merely illustrative; for one who is eager to learn, the sage explains, the world is filled with countless teachers. Though most of us tend to think of gurus in a strictly singular sense, and while many Hindus do accept one particular guru as their primary spiritual guide or mentor, they are also encouraged to learn from others. Indeed, Hinduism holds that anyone -- and ultimately, everyone -- can be a part of our spiritual growth if we can develop the ability to see them in that way.

I have had to remind myself of that principle, and of the story of the sage and his 24 gurus, as I've played the role of a father to my daughter, Shruti Sara, for the past three years. At certain times, bogged down by the seemingly mundane aspects of child rearing, it has been hard to discern the spiritual dimension. At others, though, the presence of the Divine has been palpable and awesome.

Has being a father helped me to be a better Hindu?

In a certain superficial sense, the answer is no. As much of a joy as Shruti has been, and continues to be, she has also dramatically uprooted our lives. My wife and I have had to severely reduce our involvement at our local temples, and cut back on seva (service) that we can perform there. Attending festivals and holiday observances have become less about honoring the deities being celebrated, and more about juggling diaper bags and car seats or managing temper tantrums and picky eating. Meanwhile, at home the situation has scarcely been better. Regimented practice and worship have taken a backseat to keeping up with a toddler's largely spontaneous and unpredictable needs. Being woken up in the middle of the night by a crying child has rendered early morning meditation a near impossibility. Our home altar, once diligently maintained as our family's dedicated sacred space, now suffers from bouts of neglect or only sporadic tending to -- an abandoned shrine amid the ruins, a temple besieged by Mickey Mouse plush toys and Dora the Explorer dolls. And Ami and I have sometimes felt like relics as well -- ridiculously exhausted versions of our pre-parental selves, clutching our wooden japa beads and trying to focus on our prayers, but fighting a losing battle against sleep and distraction instead.

And yet, on a deeper level -- on a level, perhaps, that invokes the spirit of the sage and his 24 gurus -- my first three years of fatherhood have taught me a great deal about what it means to be a person of faith, and have forced to evaluate and re-evaluate how I wish to live out my spiritual path, my Dharma. Being a father has been a blessing in my life, yes, but it has also been a catalyst for my spiritual development in a way that I've never experienced before. In this sense, Shruti has not only helped me to be a better Hindu; she has helped me to re-define what being a Hindu is all about.

She challenges me to separate the essential from the ritual.

I remember being struck by this idea one day when I was attempting to perform sandhya vandanam, a form of worship that many Hindus perform at set times every day. I sat with closed eyes, trying to concentrate on the prayers, when I felt a slight tugging on my janoi, three sacred threads Hindu priests wear looped over the torso, meant to symbolize purity in thought, word and deed. I looked down to see Shruti -- only a few months old at the time -- crawling into my lap and gripping the three consecrated cords in her tiny hands; suddenly, she bit down on the threads and began chewing on them! Whether a plea for attention or simply a consequence of teething, the incident seemed a fitting metaphor for Shruti's attitude toward ritual and principle. While orthodox Hindus might be horrified by the thought of a baby teething on items that must be kept ritually clean, it may help to remind us what those items are supposed to symbolize for us in the first place. If we become so focused on the ritual that we cannot recognize purity and innocence in the form of a child, might we not be missing the forest for the trees?

As she has grown older, Shruti's own blossoming devotion has brought this idea of essence and ritual home for me. She insists on offering her own stick of incense at the altar each day. She dutifully and devotionally twirls the unlit stick of incense before the sacred images while reciting her own simple prayers; afterward, Ami or I light the incense and allow it to burn out in a holder a safe distance away. To some, the whole thing might seem like nothing more than a game of make-believe. From my vantage point, though, I see a profound spiritual exchange take place. For those few moments, Shruti's eyes are keenly focused on the altar, her attention seems fixed, her heart is open and her mind is captivated. That she is not deterred by the fact that the incense is unlit when she offers it just underscores this; it is almost as if she intuitively understands that the scent is meant exclusively for the benefit of the Divine -- and he certainly accepts it, and the love with which it is offered, with or without the act of striking a match.

In her own way, she has tapped into the simple essence of this practice in a way that I still struggle to. For all my technical proficiency and adherence to complex ritual, I am humbled and inspired by her simple devotion.

She teaches me how to see with wonder, and hear with my heart.

It is amazing to see Shruti discover something or hear something new. Her eyes grow wide, her cheeks become flush, her speech quickens and her voice gets higher. There is not a trace of cynicism or a hint of taking anything for granted. The underlying fears and doubts that often plague us, even as we are being blessed with wonderful or profound experiences, are conspicuous by their absence.

This is obvious in the way Shruti approaches the stories we tell her from sacred texts and Hindu folk traditions. She has an insatiable appetite for these stories -- "Tell me Ramayana stories," she often demands of me as I'm trying to change her into her pajamas -- that seems to only grow with each re-telling. This amazes us. For her, these aren't mere fairy tales to entertain her as she drifts off to sleep. They are living statements of truth, as real and meaningful to her as my literal descriptions of what I did at work earlier that day. When we describe Hanuman leaping across an ocean or Lord Krishna lifting a mountain, she accepts it with a simple and grateful heart and allows herself to be fully delighted by it.

I know that realists will likely dismiss this, and critics may even fault us for filling our daughter's head with "superstition." Frankly, the cynical side of me is also tempted to write it off as childish innocence that will fade away when the real world comes crashing in. But Shruti has taught me that I don't have to give in to the cynicism. If Shruti can be delighted by Krishna lifting a mountain, then why can't I? And if I truly believe that he is the cause of all causes, the one who created the mountains in the first place, shouldn't I see life itself as just as much of a miracle and source of wonder?

In teaching me to hear more with my heart, Shruti has radically transformed the way I approach my own faith. I am beginning to realize that, ultimately it is less important whether my intellect can prove that the stories in the texts are literally true or not. What is critically important is that there is Truth there, and that it has the potential to deeply touch my soul if I can approach it with a sense of child-like wonder and gratitude.

She inspires me to be better.

"True victory is not being better than another," a Hindu aphorism advises us, "but in being better than your previous self." As a father, I've come to realize that the joy of parenthood is inextricably tied to the loving burden of responsibility. My words, actions, and even consciousness are no longer my own -- they are now part of the subtle and explicit reality I am creating for Shruti. She is a constant observer and student, and the words I speak and things I do are creating impressions in her world. Hindu philosophy calls these impressions samskaras and considers them the building blocks of spiritual development.

I was given a wake-up call on this front when Shruti began speaking. I found myself slightly embarrassed to hear my own words coming out of her mouth. I started to notice her picking up on other things -- my inflections, or speech patterns, or phrases I just uttered by habit. Soon she was also imitating the way I sat, the way I slammed doors, even the way I lazily scrolled through my iPhone at the dinner table.

One day she picked up my meditation beads, adopted the exact posture that I had been sitting in, and began to mimic my chanting. It was as sobering as it was endearing. She is watching. She is learning. I have been blessed with a beautiful and precious gift, but I have also been entrusted with a serious responsibility.

The Bhagavata Purana, the same text that described the sage and his 24 teachers that I referenced earlier, has strong words of caution for parents. "One should not become a mother or father," the text says, "if one is not prepared to help their children achieve liberation." If I want to be a Hindu father, or a father who lives his life based on Dharma, I have to take that advice seriously. I have to constantly strive to be better than my previous self.

Shruti Sara helps to remind me to strive, even -- especially -- when it is hard and seems hopeless. She gives me the most elegant reason to try. I am certainly far from perfect, but in sincerely trying to share my love and guidance with her, perhaps I can give her a tiny glimpse into the love and protection of the Divine, the perfect parent of us all.