What Do We Owe Our Parents?

Authors: Sachin Sankar, D. Samarender Reddy

We both are nearing our 60s. So, quite naturally we keep hearing from our friends about the old age issues that their parents are facing. In some cases, they are with their parents and taking care of them, not having gone abroad. In some cases, they are the only children of their parents and they find themselves abroad due to the initial career choices they made early on in their lives and their parents are here in India left to fend for themselves. Most such people employ some caretakers and make flying visits whenever a serious problem occurs in their parents’ health. Then, there is one friend of ours who told one of us that he chose not to go abroad because he was the only child of his parents and he wanted to be around to take care of his parents when they became old, and he has been managing to do that.

Now, the question arises, what is the right thing to do by our parents? Do we make all decisions, plans, and career moves based on how it impacts our parents? In the process, how do we address what we owe to, say, our spouses and children?

Someone said, “The first half of our life is ruined by our parents, and the next half by our children.” But, jokes aside, when we turn to our scriptures and epics, matters become even more puzzling. For instance, while we have the sterling example of Rama sacrificing his personal goals and selfishness to uphold his father’s word, on the other hand we have Prahlada openly defying his father in cultivating his bhakti for Vishnu. You could say that there is a clear cut distinction here in that Rama in honouring his father’s word was not doing any adharmic thing, whereas Prahlada in disobeying his father was following a superior dharma. And, we know that in most of our cases, neither our parents are as demonic as Hiranyakashyapa nor are we as self-sacrificing as Rama. Is there a middle ground to this?

Interestingly, both the Bible and Quran echo the above sentiments, as noted by Arzani Habibreza in his article “Ethical Responsibility of Children Towards their Parents in the Quran and the Bible” (Ethics, Winter 2014, Volume 3, Number 4[34]): “Children’s ethical responsibilities towards their parents as reported in the Bible can be summarized in six different concepts: reverence, obedience, care, tribute, and support in senility, while in Quran these duties have been expressed under seven subjects: reverence, benefaction, obedience, courtesy, care in senility and support and prayer. The research has been done based on library method by referring to scriptures, although some of their exegeses for more elaborations have been applied as well. Based on the findings of the research, there are many similarities between the Quran and the Bible in this regard, for instance: children have commitment towards their parents, they are required to obey them in all cases except for their invitations to committing sins, parents are entitled to some rights even after death which should be fulfilled by children and …. There are some differences though, such as: in all Quranic verses Allah plays a dominant and pivotal role, special attention has been paid to mother in Quran while in the Bible, father has greater significance, in the Bible, harsh punishments have been mentioned for the children disobeying parents while in the Quran there is no mention of them.”

Taittiriya Upanishad says:

Maathru Devo Bhava
Pithru Devo Bhava
Aacharya Devo Bhava
Athidhi Devo Bhava.

Honour thy Mother as God.
Honour thy Father as God.
Honour thy Teacher as God.
Honour thy Guest as God.

And, so, how do we balance out our own pursuits and careers with this clear imperative to honour our parents. Some may question the validity of what Taittiriya Upanishad is saying, and some others may seek to know the exceptions to such imperatives.

In what sense should we understand the imperative to honour our parents as Gods, setting aside for the moment that many may not even believe in the concept of God? What Taittiriya Upanishad seems to be implying is that just as any (wo)man who believes strongly in God may try her/his utmost to do everything not to “displease” God, so also we should not “displease” our parents. And, this principle seems to be guiding us as to how we should conduct ourselves to our parents irrespective of whether they are old or not.

But, what if our parents want us to pursue a profession or career in which we have no interest? They may want us to pursue medicine or engineering as a course of study and profession but we may be interested in philosophy or literature? Of course, one could discuss the issue with them and try to see what their reasons for that are, and if those reasons do not seem “reasonable”, and you cannot convince them otherwise, what ought you to do? Can you resort to some broader principle like “Look, they ultimately want me to be happy, and I will be happy only if I do philosophy. So, in the long run, when they see me happy they will eventually be ‘pleased’ with my decision even though in the short run it may ‘displease’ them?” But, what if they want you to become a doctor not only because they think it might make you happy but also because they feel it will elevate their status and prestige in society? An even more thornier problem can arise when they expect you to do something that they know is more in their own interest than yours? In the Indian context, similar issues can be raised with regard to the person you may want to marry who your parents may not want you to marry.

Taittiriya Upanishad also says, “Satyam vada / Dharmam chara”, that is, “Speak the truth / Practice dharma.” What if doing these things comes in conflict with what will “please” our parents? Maybe therein is the exception to the earlier rule of honouring parents as gods; that is, do not try to “please” parents if it involves telling lies or doing some adharma. Then, the question arises, how does one determine what is “dharma”?

This sets up the discussion nicely because, after all, as long as one does what is one’s dharma it should not matter whether in doing so if one “pleases” one’s parents or not, because as we saw earlier Prahlada was justified in “displeasing” his father by following his own svadharma. So, how does one determine what one’s dharma is in any given situation or context whenever any decision has to be made?

Maybe the answer is in the question itself. That is, you determine the dharma in each situation or context by fully understanding what that situation or context is in which you are making the decision. Of course, in so doing one runs the risk of getting it wrong, hence one is well advised to depend not just on one’s own resources and cognitive abilities but to also consult others. In each such situation where you are facing an ethical dilemma, there is no one unambiguous answer. One should consider the situation from the angle of all the stakeholders in your decision and see what is the best possible thing you can do considering what is best for everyone concerned and not see it merely from the narrow considerations of what is in your best interest. Hence, necessarily there will be some trade-offs you will need to make with any decision you take because not everyone’s best interests will be perfectly aligned under every decision node. And, you have to make that hard decision of what is the trade-off that sits easy on your conscience, one you can live with. As a thumb rule, one could say, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” For instance, when making decisions about how to take care of your old parents, you could well reach that decision by honestly asking yourselves what you would want your own children to do if you were in your parents’ current position. Of course, it is an easier thing to figure out what is the right thing to do than to follow it up by doing that right thing. That said, sometimes what may seem in the short run to be the most “inconvenient” thing to do, may well turn out to in the long run to be the wisest thing to have done because karma needs some time to catch up with us.

Then, there are some instances where we may be faced with two equally compelling dharmic choices from which we have to choose one. How do we decide in such instances? To put it more concretely, we can ask the question, “Was Gandhi right in sacrificing his family responsibilities in fulfilling his wider obligations towards his country?” We feel that the Existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre answered that brilliantly in his 1946 lecture entitled “Existentialism is a Humanism”, in which he made the case that neither Christian ethics nor Kantian deontology are very helpful with actual, real-life ethical dilemmas. One such dilemma he presented was about a young man who has to decide whether to join the anti-Nazi resistance or stay at home with his frail mother, and concludes that the answer to ethical questions is always dependent on the details of every particular case, and that therefore we need to “trust in our instincts.” Here is the relevant excerpt from that lecture of Sartre:

“As an example by which you may the better understand this state of abandonment, I will refer to the case of a pupil of mine, who sought me out in the following circumstances. His father was quarrelling with his mother and was also inclined to be a “collaborator”; his elder brother had been killed in the German offensive of 1940 and this young man, with a sentiment somewhat primitive but generous, burned to avenge him. His mother was living alone with him, deeply afflicted by the semi-treason of his father and by the death of her eldest son, and her one consolation was in this young man. But he, at this moment, had the choice between going to England to join the Free French Forces or of staying near his mother and helping her to live. He fully realised that this woman lived only for him and that his disappearance – or perhaps his death – would plunge her into despair. He also realised that, concretely and in fact, every action he performed on his mother’s behalf would be sure of effect in the sense of aiding her to live, whereas anything he did in order to go and fight would be an ambiguous action which might vanish like water into sand and serve no purpose. For instance, to set out for England he would have to wait indefinitely in a Spanish camp on the way through Spain; or, on arriving in England or in Algiers he might be put into an office to fill up forms. Consequently, he found himself confronted by two very different modes of action; the one concrete, immediate, but directed towards only one individual; and the other an action addressed to an end infinitely greater, a national collectivity, but for that very reason ambiguous – and it might be frustrated on the way. At the same time, he was hesitating between two kinds of morality; on the one side the morality of sympathy, of personal devotion and, on the other side, a morality of wider scope but of more debatable validity. He had to choose between those two. What could help him to choose? Could the Christian doctrine? No. Christian doctrine says: Act with charity, love your neighbour, deny yourself for others, choose the way which is hardest, and so forth. But which is the harder road? To whom does one owe the more brotherly love, the patriot or the mother? Which is the more useful aim, the general one of fighting in and for the whole community, or the precise aim of helping one particular person to live? Who can give an answer to that a priori? No one. Nor is it given in any ethical scripture. The Kantian ethic says, Never regard another as a means, but always as an end. Very well; if I remain with my mother, I shall be regarding her as the end and not as a means: but by the same token I am in danger of treating as means those who are fighting on my behalf; and the converse is also true, that if I go to the aid of the combatants I shall be treating them as the end at the risk of treating my mother as a means. If values are uncertain, if they are still too abstract to determine the particular, concrete case under consideration, nothing remains but to trust in our instincts.”

Thus, these situations are what would be called as Dharma Sankat (ethical dilemmas). And, these have been faced by people in all ages. Let us illustrate with two famous examples from the history of India to throw light on how two giant religious personalities approached these dilemmas in their life. First, let see what dilemma Buddha faced. It is only too well-known to need recounting here as to the circumstances under which Siddhartha Gautama (future Buddha) feels the calling to go in search of the solution to end sorrow once and for all. It has to be remembered that at that time was 29 years old, and by most accounts he was married to Yasodhara and had a young son Rahula at that time. Yet, he could not but obey the higher call and pull of finding a solution to life’s sorrows by shaving off his hair, putting on the ochre robe and going forth from the home life into homelessness. This, of course, meant abandoning his wife and the young Rahula, but we cannot sit in judgement on Siddhartha’s action because that is how he saw his svadharma at that point in time, to which he stayed true as borne out by his becoming the Buddha or the Awakened One after a period of 6 years, at the age of 35.

The second is the instructive incident from Adi Shankaracharya’s life where he takes up sanyas only after he gets the permission from his mother to do so (at that point his father was no longer alive). Shankara was attracted to the life of Sanyasa (life of a renunciate) from early childhood. His mother disapproved of it initially and refused permission to his taking up sanyasa. A story describes Shankara at age eight going to a river with his mother, to bathe, and where he is caught by a crocodile. Shankara called out to his mother to give him permission to become a Sannyasin or else the crocodile will kill him. The mother agrees, Shankara is freed and leaves his home. But, before he embarks he promises his mother that he will return back upon her death to perform the last rites. True to his word, Shankara returns back, discards his ochre robes momentarily and clad in the layman’s clothes of white performs the last rites of his mother much against the objections of the local orthodox Brahmins who try put pressure on him that being a sanyasi he cannot perform the ceremony.

What better way to round up this essay than by recounting the anecdote from the highly popular 1975 Bollywood movie Deewaar, which exemplifies the exalted status given to one’s parents, in particular, one’s mother. Yes, we are talking about the dialogue that Shashi Kapoor, playing a cop in the film, says when his elder brother, played by Amitabh Bachchan, who has taken to a life of crime, taunts him by asking him, “I have money, buildings, cars, power, status. What have you?”. Shashi Kapoor replies simply and tellingly: “Mere paas Maa hai” (Mother is with me).

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