Let’s be real – it can be extremely difficult to explain religion to a young child who comes armed with boundless curiosity and the ability to ask one seemingly simple question an endless amount of times: “But why?”
My toddler loves his Baby Ganesh – he dutifully yells “Ganapati bappa moraya!” and does namaskar every time he walks by the toy. But he, and my 8-year-old niece, have lots of questions: “Why does Ganapati have such big ears? What is he holding? Why does he have a trunk?”
As someone who doesn’t consider themselves particularly religious, these questions can be a little stressful. I’d like my child to choose his own path in life, spiritually, but I’d also like him to learn about Hinduism, about the meaningful rituals and traditions that shaped the lives of his great-grandparents, grandparents and, to an extent, his mom.
This isn’t exactly easy – Hinduism is thought to be the oldest religion in the world and has millions of gods, such as Brahma, Durga and Saraswati, which all symbolize different aspects of one being. Ganesh is one of the most recognizable, thanks to his appearance but also due to what he represents – the ability to remove obstacles, bestow wisdom and bless new beginnings. To make things more complex, each god is linked to an animal – Brahma travels on a swan, Durga is often with a lion, and Ganesh has his mouse.
As a former journalist, I decided to dive into the problem the same way I spent years reporting news: Taking something complicated and tailoring it to tell the audience.
Here are a few ways to approach the story of Ganesh and spark children’s curiosity note only about the elephant-headed god, but about the lessons they can apply in their lives now.
The trunk: Ganesh’s trunk symbolizes flexibility – it has the power to destroy or protect, sometimes at the same time. It can teach us to be adaptable with our own powers and use them wisely based on each situation.
The broken tusk: Ganesh’s broken tusk teaches us to gather our life experiences and retain the good lessons and habits and throw away the bad ones. Read “How Ganesh Broke His Tusk” to your kids for a child-friendly version of the story.
The big ears: His big ears encourage us to listen wisely. Listening is a great way to learn from others and also to use the wisdom of others to make our own decisions.
The big belly: The stomach empowers us to consume and digest all parts of life – good and bad – and work to overcome and learn from them.
The modak or laddoo: The sweet treat Baby Ganesh holds in his left hand is a reward for dedication, sacrifice and hard work.
Here are a few books and resources to help kick-start your lessons:
“Hindu Gods: The Complete List” (Video)
Avani Nadkarni is a former journalist who currently works in tech PR and is forever navigating the tricky balance of trying to raise her child in the U.S. while teaching him about his Indian and Sri Lankan roots.