Can a cuddly deity be a powerful means of passing on faith and culture to very young children?
In recent years, a handful of small businesses in the UK and the US have appeared selling religious stuffed toys to parents of children under the age of 10.
The Hindu-born parents are the commercial brains behind many of the brands, hoping to maximize sales ahead of Diwali, the festival of lights to be held on November 4 this year.
Three-year-old Jayden often sleeps with his stuffed animal of the Hindu god, Hanuman, who, at the push of a button, sings the popular Hindu hymn “Hanuman Chalisa”.
Her mother, Manisha Varsani, says she helped both of her children learn, recognize and form a meaningful connection with a Hindu divine form she grew up with, watching her mother worship,
“I think it’s nice enough that when they go to bed they hear this prayer … it calms them down before bed, but it also helps convey that little bit of culture and faith,” she says.
“I think we’re losing it to our generation of parents, so when it comes to my kids’ generation, everything will disappear.”
In recent years, a number of small businesses have appeared that have started selling Hindu deity stuffed toys, mostly online.
Modi Toys, in the United States, has sold over 40,000 of its products worldwide, including the cuddly Krishna, Ganesha and Hanumans, since opening the business in 2018.
Meanwhile, Leeds-based Plush India sells around 100 of its Ganesha and Hanuman soft toys each month.
Jayden’s Hanuman Singing Plush comes from the new brand, Plush Legion, which extends its range of religious musical plush toys to all major faiths.
In addition to the stuffed animal singing Hindu deity, its products include a tender Jesus singing the Lord’s Prayer, a fluffy Star of David playing the Shema, and a stuffed mosque with an Islamic call to prayer.
The founder of the company, Sheena Parmar, came up with the idea in 2016, immediately after becoming a mother herself,
“I grew up in a culturally different part of Watford. I am Hindu but I went to church and many of my friends were Muslims … I loved learning about other religions growing up and didn’t realize how much it would awaken in me after I had my son. “
But will an approach to passing on the religious tradition that is proving popular among Hindu parents work in other faiths?
“I obviously did a lot of research to make sure I respect every single faith as much as possible in the way I designed the products,” says Ms. Parmar.
“I don’t want to offend anyone, but I guess next year will prove it to me. Personally, I think our Christian toy would make a great baptism gift.”
Marcela Jadeja-Soto grew up as a Christian in Costa Rica and now lives in North West London with her husband and two little boys.
While he initially loved the idea of a cuddly Jesus to comfort his children at night and share biblical stories that he felt conflicted with the idea of owning one,
“We shouldn’t really have images of God the way we interpret the Bible and as a Christian I feel that God is not actually a toy … so the idea of seeing Jesus next to Peppa Pig in the corner of my living room makes me feel a little uncomfortable “.
But Barbara Nelken, who is Jewish, says she was quite taken by the tender Star of David when she saw her at the Plush Legion market kiosk in her area.
While she thinks her grandchildren would love it, she isn’t sure the Shema is the most appropriate prayer choice to attach to the toy.
“It’s actually a very important prayer,” says Ms. Nelken. “When we say that we put our hand over our eyes to focus … so I think the toy is nice but maybe it would work better with a livelier song.”
While the transformation of divine forms into dolls seems to be taking hold in the Hindu community, there are other religious toys on the market, such as the characters produced by The Desi Doll Company, which aim to make learning Islam fun for children of all ages. origins.
And although collectively it’s easy to dismiss dolls and tokens as frivolous – some research suggests that toys could indeed serve as powerful acts of faith.
Dr Leighanne Higgins, who specializes in religious-related eating habits at Lancaster University, says that although derogatory labels such as “Jesus junk” or “holy hardware” are often applied to religious souvenirs, her research reveals how individual people will buy them and then give them personal stories and meanings.
“A devoted Catholic lady I met was very defensive about a small glowing statue of the ‘Madonna’ she had bought on a pilgrimage. She was almost ashamed of it, but then described how it made her feel safe and secure when she’d wake up in the middle of the night and see it glow in the dark, “says Dr. Higgins.
And while she isn’t aware of this nascent religious stuffed animal market, Dr. Higgins thinks it’s a brilliant way to help children understand the sweet beauty that religion can give its followers.
“The power of the teddy bear is so symbolic, personal and important to children – then actually infusing it with faith is a brilliant idea because it is a great way to be able to help children understand religion and not fear the faith somehow, “she says.
To find out more about this, take a look The BBC Radio 4 Sunday program.
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