Is Hindu worship just helicopter parenting?

Indian woman performs morning puja on sacred river Narmada ghats on April 26, 2011 in Maheshwar, Madhya Pradesh, India.

Freud famously hypothesized that the Judeo-Christian God is a psychological projection of nagging parental issues. Thomas B. Ellis of Appalachian State University in North Carolina continues this psychoanalytic tradition by explaining the origins and purpose of Hindu puja, or devotional worship, as compensation for emotionally distant parenting. The religious studies professor contends that puja soothes imbalanced adults starved for parental affection. This desire for emotional contact is transferred onto the stone idol. Affection-starved children also cling to their collectivist communities and become averse to contact with outsiders. Ellis’s theory would seem damning of Indian culture if he didn’t also argue that puja expresses social adaptations which aid survival in tropical regions fraught with contagious diseases. Such practices may look neurotic to outsiders, but they work.

Ellis’s thesis marshals extensive ethnographic, sociological, and epidemiological data. His argument hinges on human behavioral ecology, which holds that human activities vary and thrive according to usefulness in their respective environments. The extent to which these behaviors are genetically determined is less important than the focus upon the actions themselves. The better suited a culture is to any given context, the more members will enjoy success in reproduction and survival. Degrees of success will always vary according to circumstance, but so long as one group out-competes its neighbors, its way of life will dominate the behavioral ecology of the region. From this Darwinian perspective, there’s no ideal parenting style, only different styles which do better or worse in different environments.

India, of course, has been jokingly dubbed “the land of 330 million gods.” No single god, text, or theology defines “Hinduism,” although the puja ritual is employed almost universally across the subcontinent. With a few exceptions, each local sect performs ceremonies of praise and propitiation to its oftentimes unique combination of deities. Of the sixteen ritual actions which make up puja, Ellis highlights those that relate most to his theory of pathogenic containment, most notably: washing the deity and adorning the idol with flower garlands, and darshan, the ritual act of reciprocal gazing in which devotees seek to capture the full attention of the deity. According to Ellis, these procedures directly arise from the Indian propensity for distant parenting styles, the resulting attachment complexes of insecure individuals, and ultimately, an ingenious social system for disease control.

According to Ellis, Indian parents tend to be physically close but emotionally distant, an approach known as the Pediatric Model. Identified by psychological anthropologist Robert A. Levine, this parenting style finds infants kept near a caregiver at all times, breastfed frequently, and weaned late in life, but paradoxically, the child receives very little in the way of personal or emotional nurturing – particularly in regard to eye contact. The Pediatric Model is most frequently found in tropical locales, such as Indonesia, Africa, Central America, and India, which are plagued by a wide variety of contagious pathogens. Ellis speculates that the parents’ emotional distance may arise or be encouraged by the high rates of infant morality seen in these precarious climates. He contends that individuals raised under the Pediatric Model tend to display an “insecure-anxious attachment style,” and as a result, they long for strong caregiving figures, adhere to collectivist social norms, and generally distance themselves from neighboring tribes.

There’s an astonishing diversity of religious and language groups in India and other tropical areas, and ingroup collectivism and outgroup hostility are most frequently formed along these boundaries. The Indian caste system – popularly understood as being a four- or five-part hierarchy – is an immensely complex system of interlocking, yet socially isolated ingroups. The puja ritual, Ellis explains, expresses this tribal tendency through the symbol of the deity. At the beginning of the ritual, the idol is purified (reflecting the avoidance of disease transmission). At all other times, it’s protected from the “evil eye” of potential enemies (reflecting the outgroup hostility). Since any immunity to disease variants tends to be shared by closed social groups, the isolationist impulse – expressed in puja’s preoccupation with purity and boundaries – reduces potentially infectious encounters with outsiders. Ellis isn’t claiming this behavior is an ingenious feat of conscious social engineering. The divisiveness of the caste system is simply a uniquely successful social strategy in population zones plagued by malevolent microbes. The more exclusive the club, the less likely an unfamiliar bacterium will make it past the bouncer.

This implicit outgroup hostility is a corollary to the adoration of the deity found in puja. Through food offerings, prayer, and ritualized “reciprocal gazing,” Hindus seek to enjoy the deity’s full attention and adoration, if only for a moment. This behavior, Ellis argues, arises from and satisfies the “insecure-anxious attachment style” produced by the Pediatric Model found in tropical areas. Basically, Indian gods become the gushing helicopter parents that most Hindus never had. A strong sense of collective identity with one’s caste and community is found alongside this religious affiliation, tightening the core against infectious invaders.

As described by Ellis, this behavioral cycle is essentially a feedback loop which begins with disease causing high infant mortality. This evolutionary pressure favors the Pediatric Model, which gives rise to a cultural aggregation of unmet desires for attachment. Endemic emotional want produces both affectionate deities and collectivist societies, each promoting the tendency to shun impure outsiders. In tropical environments teeming with pathogens and parasites, the propensity to exclude outgroups and rally around familiar faces who share common immunities should lead to higher survival rates than other social systems. Ellis might not provide an ultimate explanation for the puja ritual as a whole, but he portrays it as both an elegant artform and an expression and amplification of an unconscious adaptive strategy.

Ellis takes great pains to emphasize that the Pediatric Model – or any parenting style – isn’t inherently good or bad, only more or less successful in one environment or another. As Hindus come to inhabit more sterile, urban environments which are likely to enjoy better health care, we’re left wondering if shifting social environments will render puja and its accompanying approach to parenting obsolete, just as modern human rights concerns are dismantling the caste system. An adoring god may be a lifesaver in a germ-saturated jungle, but when described in the psychoanalytic language of pathology, puja just sounds like another urban neurosis. Whether true or false, such a conclusion is bound to alienate believers who refuse to imagine their gods as cultural engines for gene production. Ironically, militant atheists tend to be put off by such evolutionary views because they portray religion as more than mere superstition. This perpetual tension puts the scientific study of religion in hot water, where fascinating ideas about the world are constantly boiling to the surface. We should appreciate scholars like Thomas Ellis for turning the heat up.

For more, read “Evoked puja: The behavioral ecology of an equatorial ritual“ in the Journal of the American Academy of Religion.

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