Ideals and Values/Duty of a Son or a Daughter towards Parents

From Hindupedia, the Hindu Encyclopedia

By Vishal Agarwal

Parents are the Most Important People in Your Life

Before you get married, your parents should be the most important people in your life. As children, we should obey our parents, grandparents, teachers and other people older to us. We should listen to them. We should serve them and help them. We should make them proud with our good behavior. The scriptures say:

The father, mother, teacher, elder brother and one's provider- these five are considered as one's superiors.[1] He who desires prosperity should revere these superiors at all times by all means, even if he loses his life.[2] The son should be devoted to them and make their care his first priority.[3]

In the scripture entitled Taittiriya Upaniṣad, it is said that when the students are graduating from their college, their teacher gives them the following parting message:

“May you be one for whom his mother is a Deva. May you be one for whom his father is a Deva. May you be one for whom a guest is a Deva. May you be one for whom his teacher is a Deva.”[4]

The idea is that we should respect, serve and worship our parents, guests[5] as well as our teachers even before we worship Bhagavān. This is a very unique teaching of our tradition. The western religions always place God before parents. Note that in our tradition, the mother is listed first, because she is the most respectable of all, more than even the father.

Why Must we Respect our Parents and Grandparents?

To Repay our Debt to Them
Because they give birth to us, endure great pains to raise us, educate us and get us settled in our lives. It is a lot due to their love and efforts that we become great in our lives. When we have our own children, our parents then play an important role in giving good values to our children as well. Therefore, when our parents are old and cannot take care of themselves, it is our duty to pay back their love, effort and blessings by serving them and honoring them in every way possible, even at the cost of great personal sacrifice. See the story of Śravaṇakumara below.

No Deva can equal the mother and no superior can equal one's father. Hence, no son can get relieved of the debt he owes to them.[6] No person can repay his parents even in 100 years for all the troubles that they go through to give birth to him and raise him to adulthood. Therefore, always try to do whatever pleases your parents and your teacher, because only then does any religious worship done by you will bear any fruit.[7]

Serving them is a most Pious Act
Serving our parents is for our own good and it leads to great rewards. Conversely, not caring for them is bad Karma. No prayer yields any fruit for the person who does not serve his parents and teachers. In the Mahābhārata, there is a story of a Brahmaṇa boy who leaves behind his elderly parents to advance spiritually. He acquires several spiritual powers, but discovers that even a butcher who had merely served his aged parents diligently was more advanced than him. The Brahmaṇa boy learned the lesson that serving one’s parents yields a much greater reward than abandoning them and pursuing your own selfish goals. Again, in contrast to our scripture's teachings, Jesus Christ in the Bible says that one must leave behind his parents and loved ones and not worry about them to demonstrate his love for God.

The lifespan, knowledge, glory and strength of him increase who pays respects to his elders regularly and serves them.[8] He who serves his parents and teachers truly respects all the teachings of the scriptures. And the person who disrespects them will never get the fruit of any worship.[9]

Therefore, as long as they are alive, no one should devote himself to any other religious undertaking. Rather, he should continue to serve them with full diligence and do whatever pleases them and is beneficial to them.[10] In fact, by serving one’s parents and teachers, a person fulfills all his major religious duties. Other religious acts like worshiping are minor, compared to serving these elders.[11]

The son who pleases his parents by his good qualities acquires the fruit of all good virtues.[12] Service to one's parents is the only essence of Dharma and it leads one to Moksha upon death.[13]

It is the Divine Command to us
Bhagavān wants us to serve our parents, because they are His direct representatives for us on this earth. Bhagavān has taught us that by serving our parents, we actually worship Him. See the story of Pundalika below.

Bhagavān Viṣṇu said to Ṛṣi Mārkandeya- “They who serve their parents, thinking of their father as the Lord of the Universe, and Mother as the holy River Ganga they indeed are My best Bhaktās.”[14]

Bhagavān Himself has set an Example of Devotion to Parents
In his various Avatāras, Bhagavān has Himself set an example for us on how we should respect our teachers and our parents. As Rāma, He went to the forest for 14 years, so that his father could keep up a promise given to step-mother. And even though Rāma had to undergo 14 years of hardship due to the machinations of his step-mother, he never became angry with her and forgave her always. See the story of Ganesha and Karttikeya below.
Saints have set an example for us of Devotion to Parents
Our saints have demonstrated their devotion to their parents in the lives. See the story of Śankarachārya below.

How Can we Serve our Parents?

The three sets of pictures below compare a good boy who is devoted to his mother, father and grandfather to a bad boy who does not.

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Cultural Norms in Treating our Parents and Grandparents:

There are many rules of etiquette that we follow for honoring and serving our parents:

  1. We never address our parents by their names.
  2. We never shout at them, even when we have an argument with them. We try not to talk back to them.
  3. We never sit with our feet facing them. If we sit on a chair with our legs crossed, the foot on the top should face away from them.
  4. We serve them food before filling our own plate.
  5. When there are insufficient chairs in a room, we give the seat to them and stand ourselves.
  6. We greet them with respect in the morning, and before going to bed.
  7. We try to fulfill their requests and wishes to the best possible extent.
  8. We do not smoke or drink in their presence and better, not even in their absence.
  9. We obey their wishes cheerfully and act on them.
  10. We defer to their opinion because they are wiser and more knowledgeable, if we are not sure of our own judgment and wisdom.

Serving Parents in their Old Age

In traditional homes, elderly parents live with their children and grandchildren (or in their close proximity) till their very end. As a result, they pass their last days happily, playing with their grand-children, and being served lovingly by their children whom they had raised with great effort and pain in their own younger years. In modern times however, many young couples do not want to take care of their old parents.

The excuse of these young couples is that they do not have enough money to take care of their kids as well as their own parents. Sometimes, both the husband and wife are working and therefore they arrange to have their aged parents housed in an old age home where a full-time staff takes care of them. Unfortunately, some people do not want to have their elderly parents around because they do not want to see them or do not want their own little kids to see them suffering of illness of old age.

In old age, people like to live in a fixed location and are not very comfortable moving around. Unfortunately, modern life has become very mobile. Job changes force us to move from one town to another. In many cases, we do not change our job, but it is the job itself that moves to another city because the employer decided to move their plant or office to the new location. Moving with elderly parents to following a new job to a new location can be traumatic for both the couple and also their elderly parents who are staying with them. And yet, it is not right to just leave behind one’s aged parents and live thousands of miles away from them.

Discussion Topics

1. What do you think are the benefits and drawbacks of elderly staying in old age homes versus staying with their own children? If your parents do live in an old age home, how can you make sure that you serve them and love them to the best possible extent? One example is filled out.

# Advantages of Old Age Home Living Drawbacks of Old Age Home Living
1 Professional medical care is available to them all the time. Several old age homes are very badly managed and elders do not have a good time there.
2
3
4

2. Your job moves to a new town that is 1000 miles away from the town where you have lived all your life with your parents. Your parents are too old to re-locate. How can you ensure that they are taken care off and loved even after you move out? One option of course is to decline the new job and continue staying close to your parents. What are some other options (two examples are filled out).

No. Steps taken by you to take care of your parents
1 Talk to your siblings or other close relatives to see if they can live close to your parents.
2 Look for the first opportunity to return to the town where your parents live.
3
4
5

Stories on the Devotion of Children to their Parents

Śravaṇakumāra, the Devoted Son Long, long ago, there lived a boy named Śravaṇakumara. His parents were very old and blind. Śravaṇakumara was a very devoted son and loved his parents a lot. Once, they expressed their desire to go on a pilgrimage to holy places. But, being very poor, they could not afford to travel on a cart driven by bullocks or on a chariot driven by horses. How could the little boy fulfill the wishes of his parents?

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Guess what! Śravaṇa was so intelligent and caring that he made them sit on two baskets and tied them to the ends of a stick. He then carried them on his shoulder and walked on foot towards Kashi – a holy place. He believed that duty towards his parents was of utmost importance.

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One day, when they were crossing a thick forest, the old parents felt thirsty. So they said – “Dear Śravaṇa, we are very thirsty. Please go and see if you could get some water for us.” On hearing this, the young boy went looking for water in the forest. At the same time, King Dasharath was passing through the forest for hunting animals. He was so skilled in shooting arrows with his bow that he could hit his target with arrows just by hearing the animal’s sound.

As it was already late in the night, the King was hiding on a tree at the bank of a river and waiting to hear the sound of an animal so that he could take aim and shoot. Soon, Śravaṇa happened to come to that same river bank to fill his jug with water. As he immersed the jug into the river water, King Dasharath heard the bubbling sound and immediately fired an arrow in that direction of the sound, thinking that it was a deer.

Can you guess what happened? Yes, King Dasharath’s arrow hit Śravaṇa Kumar. Immediately, the injured Śravaṇa screamed in extreme pain. Realizing that he had hit a human and not a deer, King Dasharath rushed to the river bank. He saw that his arrow had pierced the heart of poor Śravaṇa.

Even though Śravaṇa Kumar was in great pain, he only thought of his blind parents who were thirsty for water. He said to King Dasharath – “I had come to fetch some water for my blind parents but I have not been able to fulfill their wishes. I am not angry with you for killing me, because it was just my bad luck. But please do take this jug of water because they are thirsty and are waiting for me to bring them some water.” Speaking these words, Śravaṇa Kumar breathed his last.

Dear children, what do you learn from this story? The story shows that although Śravaṇa was a little boy, he was very devoted to his parents. He was also intelligent in planning a way to take his parents on a pilgrimage and was ready to sacrifice his life for them at any moment. Even when he was dying, he only thought about getting water for his thirsty parents. Therefore, we remember Śravaṇa Kumar even today as an ideal son and hope to have children who are as devoted to their parents as Śravaṇa Kumar was to his parents.

Further Reading: Story of a Modern Day Śravaṇa Kumar

Story: Kṛṣṇa visits Pundalik, the Devoted Son and therefore His Devotee The city of Pandharpur in southern Maharashtra in peninsular India has the famous temple of Viṭhoba, a form of Kṛṣṇa. The temple has been associated with the Warkari tradition and has attracted dozens of saints in the last several centuries.

The shrine’s origins are related to one Pundalika who lived with his wife and old parents. Pundalika treated his parents with disdain. Once, his parents requested Pundalika to take them for a holy dip in the Ganga river in the city of Varanasi. Far from assisting them with their pilgrimage, Pundalik got angry and literally turned them out. “Go on your own, and fend for yourself on your journey to Varanasi,” he said to them.

But, after a few days, he had a change of heart and thought that perhaps he and his wife too could visit Varanasi and get the benefit of the pilgrimage, and then bring his parents back. He was filled with remorse and guilt for ill-treating his own elderly parents. He woke up his wife, and they set out on their horses to look for his parents. Luckily, he found them soon. He took them respectfully on horseback to Varanasi, and after the pilgrimage was over, they all returned home.

Now onwards, Pundalika was a changed man. He was now devoted to his parents. Far away in the city of Dwaraka, Kṛṣṇa heard about the beautiful transformation of Pundalika and He decided to visit him. His wife Rukmini asked Krishna, “Why do you want to visit Pundalik?” Krishna replied, “Because by serving his parents, he has been worshiping Me all the time.”

When Kṛṣṇa reached Pundalika’s home, the latter was absorbed in massaging his father’s feet and therefore did not pay attention to the visitor. But when he noticed the divine light emitting from the body of Krishna, he turned around and said, “My Lord, I am serving my parents right now and cannot leave the feet of my father unattended. But I am throwing this brick at you. Kindly use this as a stool till I am done with my father, and then I will come and attend to you. Krishna humbly stood on the brick, waiting patiently for Pundalika, with His hands on his waist, his arms akimbo.

When Pundalika’s father went to sleep, he went to the door to welcome Kṛṣṇa. The Lord was so pleased with Pundalika’s regard for his parents now, that he asked Pundalika to request a boon from Him. Pundalika had just one request, “Bhagavān, please stay with me forever on this brick.” Kṛṣṇa complied and transformed Himself into the Mūrti of ‘Vitṭhala’ [15]. Pundalika was too declared a saint after some time. Over his samādhi in a temple on the Bhima river, a Śivalinga was erected. Even today, pilgrims first visit the Śiva temple before offering worship at the Vitṭhala temple in Pandharpur. This story shows how Pundalika earned the blessings of Bhagavān by doing his duty towards his parents.

Ganesha and Karttikeya – Who won the race One day, Bhagavān Śiva and Devi Parvati called their two sons Ganesha and Karttikeya. Parvati said to them – “I want you two to have a race. Both of you should start from here. Then go around the world one time and return here. I have a very tasty mango. Whichever one of you comes first, will get to eat this mango.

Now Karttikeya was very happy when he heard this. He was sure that he will win the race, because he can fly on a peacock. But Ganesha only had a mouse on which he could travel. So how Ganesha could beat him in the race?

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As soon as their father Śiva said ‘one, two, and three…..” Karttikeya sat on his peacock and started flying on his peacock to go around the world. But Ganesha did not even start! Instead, he folded his hands in a ‘Namaste’ and bowed in front of his parents. Then, he just took a round of his parents, and said – “Dear Mom and Dad, you are more important to me than the whole world. Therefore, I will just go around you three times.” Just after Ganesha had completed his third round, Karttikeya landed back on his peacock.

Karttikeya was so happy to see that Ganesha had not even left that place. “Aha,” he said, “I have won the race.” “No,’ said their mother Parvati, “It is your brother Ganesha who won.” Karttikeya was shocked. “This is cheating, Ganesha did not even leave this place,” he said.

But their parents explained to him – “Look, we only wanted to test you two brothers. Ganesha won because he showed that he loved his parents more than the whole world. But you thought you can leave your parents behind and win a prize. So, the mango will be given as a prize to Ganesha.”

Karttikeya learned a very nice lesson from his brother Ganesha. He learned that no one else in the world cares for us as much as our parents. Therefore, we should always give more importance and respect to our parents than anyone else in the whole world. This is what Ganesha had done, and therefore he won the race!

Story: Śankaracharya Changes the Course of River for his Mother In the late 7th century CE lived a young boy Śankaracharya with his widowed mother in the village of Kaladi in the Indian state of Kerala. One day, his mother fell ill and she was no longer able to walk from a hut to batch in the river that flowed at a distance.

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The little boy Śankaracharya got together his friends and dug a channel from the river that flowed right past his home. Now his mother just had to walk out of their home for a dip. This channel dug by Śankaracharya still exists to today. After sometime, Śankaracharya wanted to become a Sadhu in pursuit of spiritual knowledge. His mother was very worried at that because he was her only support. However, Śankaracharya made sure that his relatives would provide for his aged mother. He also promised to her that he would return to see her whenever she needed him. Many years later, when Śankaracharya had become a very learned and a famous saint, he felt that his mother needed him. By his yogic powers, he flew back to his home where his mother was waiting for him before she breathed her last. By his spiritual powers, he had her get a darśana of Viśṇu and Śiva. When she passed away, he prepared for her cremation.

According to tradition, a Sadhu is not allowed to cremate his parents, because he has technically ended all his relations with everyone. So, Śankaracharya prayed and by a miracle, the wooden pyre with his mother’s body lit on its own. Those who had gathered around to criticize Śankaracharya saw the miracle and felt ashamed at their own harshness. They asked the saint for forgiveness and he obliged.

Notes & References

  1. Kūrma Purāņa 2.12.32
  2. Kūrma Purāņa 2.12.33
  3. Kūrma Purāņa 2.12.34
  4. Taittiriya Upaniṣad 1.11
  5. This category includes the poor and needy people too.
  6. Kūrma Purāņa 2.12.36
  7. Manusmṛti 2.227-228
  8. Manusmṛti 2.121
  9. Manusmṛti 2.234
  10. Manusmṛti 2.235
  11. Manusmṛti 2.237
  12. Kūrma Purāņa 2.12.35
  13. Kūrma Purāņa 2.12.38b
  14. Nāradapurāņa 1.5.53
  15. ‘Vit’ = brick; ‘sthala’ = location, station