I often say that the Muktiveda doesn’t give patterns for us to imitate, but rather principles for us to interpret and apply to our context. Honoring parents is one such principle.
In order to know some of the contexts in which the word ‘honor’ occurs in the Muktiveda, I checked a few instances at random. In almost all the contexts, this word means showing respect, concern, love, compassion, relationship, etc. Interestingly, in the same way it is also used in showing honor to God.
Keeping this in mind, we need to consider not only the context of the Muktiveda but also our particular social/cultural and even religious context when we interpret this principle in honoring our parents. We know well that however we belong to the universal body of the Lord, we cannot uniformly apply this principle.
For example, in marriage, honoring parents in the western context will be different from India. In India, however modern we become, arranging and conducting the marriage is not only the responsibility and social obligation of parents, but also related to their social prestige. Keeping this mind, whether for love or arranged marriages, consent and involvement of the parents are important to ‘honor’ parents. A bhakta can negotiate with her/his parent about her/his convictions and expectation, but honoring them generally means to allow them to play their social role.
We cannot give a uniform principle for everyone to adopt; each bhakta should decide with the help, advice, and prayer of others depending upon the rapport with her/his parents. But it is advisable to settle everything before the marriage function. Once the rituals begin, don’t interfere even if you don’t agree with a sudden demand from their side. That will hurt them and also bring shame to them before others, which cannot be corrected later by any means.
In all those areas where a bhakta feels uncomfortable regarding ritual and other religious/cultural things, keeping silent and accommodating the demands of parents is honoring them. This is not syncretism or compromising with one’s bhakti in the Lord. Don’t do anything in the name of “taking a stand for the Lord”. When we have compromised in so many other areas in our lives, accommodating to the demands of our parents is not compromising, but honoring. I would recommend this principle for all the once-in-a-lifetime events: marriage, death, house-warming, marriage of siblings (particularly one’s sister), etc.
One bhakta wrote to me about this question of honoring parents, particularly in the case of if there is no bhakta of the Lord available in one’s community.
First of all, there is no Muktivedic sanction to claim that a believer should marry only another believer. If it is possible, it is left to the choice of a particular bhakta, but we cannot make it a normative principle for everyone.
If one believes in the myth that marriage between two believers will make the family life smoother, one is to free to believe in it. Being a single person, I have no right to say from my experience. But out of my interaction with so many couples — both bhaktas, others, and mixed couples – I can say for sure that a marriage can work well based on the humanitarian principle of give-and-take, adjustment, accommodation, love, care, concern and commitment etc.
I have seen several couples who without having bhakti in the Lord are leading a wonderful family life. My parents are the best example before me. In spite of all the problems they faced in life — even between them – they never allowed their marriage to become a wreck. Similarly several couples who are believers have messed up their marriage.
Keeping faith/bhakti as the main criteria for choosing a marriage partner is a myth according to me. Close relatives like parents are involved with the life of the couple from beginning to end, while doctrine may change over the course of a lifetime. Of course many people can prove me wrong from their personal life, and I cannot disagree with them. But every coin has two sides.
My second point is that aside from chosing a marriage partner, I believe every marriage is blessed by God as He instituted the family as the foundation of society — irrespective of personal faith. It is like the grace of God which is common to all.
Third, Indian parents don’t bring a wife for their son, but a daughter-in-law for the family. Though some parents with selfish motives will choose a girl of their choice, it can be generally said that most parents will choose the best girl possible to be a daughter-in-law. So a bhakta can find peace in honoring his/her parent in this too.
Fourth, as I said there is place for a peaceful negation with one’s parents. Though social prestige is tagged with the marriage function for parents, parents will not do something that will spoil the joy and mood of their children at these once-in-a-lifetime events. Those who depend upon their children for their financial and physical needs may have no choice, but they will swallow that pill bitterly and it will leave a bad taste until the end of their life. Such things remain as a thorn in the family even for the next generation. Religious rituals related with life cycle events (samskars) are not only connected to deities and faith, but much more to cultural and social connotations.
My point again is that by honoring parents we are not dishonoring the Lord or disobeying Him through some compromise with our bhakti. Just because we come to know the word “compromise” does not mean we can impose it on everything that we do. More than a mere social obligation, reciprocal act, attitude, dharma, responsibility, it is a birthright to honor our parents.
In the name of honoring our parents we need not do any immoral, unethical, or criminal acts. But by being guided by the Holy Spirit with clear Muktivedic principles (properly interpreted and understood) we should joyfully honor our parents as much as we can as our birthright.