Monday, September 7, 2015

Gita for Children, by Roopa Pai

The Gita for Children, by Roopa Pai

Yes, there is a need for one more book on the Gita. This one fits a particular niche quite well.

On the one hand you have over-simplified adaptations of the Bhagavad Gita that throw in a sentence or two from the text but fail to either capture the essence or its substance, leaving the young reader none the wiser at the end. On the other hand you have scholarly translations with detailed commentaries that bring a life's worth of study to bear on the subject, are a joy to read, but are ipso-facto mostly out of reach of most children, unless assisted by an adult. Then there are books that seek to bridge this gap, like Swami Chinmayananda's "Gita For Children" - but even that is more a parent's reading companion than a book meant to be read by children.

Roopa Pai's book, "The Gita For Children", therefore fills a much-needed gap. It's a book written for children, makes even the difficult sections of the Gita accessible to children, and which patiently explores some of the knottier questions that arise when reading the profound work. Actual shlokas from Gita are also present - the most obvious ones are all there - but used sparingly.

Rather than do a shloka-by-shloka translation, followed by an exposition - which would have turned the book too voluminous and off-putting for its core audience - Roopa Pai takes a chapter-by-chapter approach, interspersing these with shlokas from the Gita and with her own takes and "lessons".

One of the knottiest problems for many readers of the Gita has been the whole concept of "dharma", especially when seen in the context of what is arguably the most famous shloka in the world - as Roopa writes: "If the Gita's philosophy were reduced to one shloka... it would be Shloka 47 of the second chapter of the Gita."

Making this understandable to adults is a challenge, and has been for millennia. Part of the blame must lie with faulty translations that conflate and equate "dharma" with "duty", or overly simplistic translations that make it sound like the doer should not "expect" or "worry" about the fruits of action. I want to reproduce some extracts from the book that talk to this shloka and the concept of "dharma":
"For instance, don't expect to top the class just because you studied really hard, or get disappointed when you don't. In fact, according to the Gita, performing an action (studying) because you want a certain result (to come first) is completely flawed action; the right way is to study simple because that is your work, your duty as a student. ...
The trick, really, is:
1. To never perform you action with an eye on their results...
2. To never neglect your duty...
3. To treat your work as your sacred duty..."

The examples used are such that children will relate to, and explained without rushing through, or into. I expect children reading, and nodding their heads as (hopefully) the import of the message sinks in.

Similarly, there are examples that children and young adults will relate to when she talks of the importance of discipline in the context of karma-yoga. In-between these in-betweens, she also manages to inject some food for thought for children (and hopefully, adults alike). Like, the concept of 10 avatars, and how the order of these avatars "actually holds the secret to the evolution of man."

Or when talking about seasons, she brings up a very interesting point, that "The Indian New Year is not 1 January, when everything is cold and asleep and dead, but somewhere between end-March and early April, at the beginning of spring, when the sun has chased away the last of the winter chill and new life is bursting out of everywhere. In other words, at a far more logical time to celebrate new beginnings than 1 January."

Pages from Roopa Pai's book
If one had to go digging for quibbles - and I can be quite a fastidious digger - then well, yes, at least one reviewer took offence at the "flippant" tone. I am not sure I would call the tone flippant, because the matter is covered with requisite seriousness. Second, you cannot adopt the dry tone of an academic tome and still expect children to be attracted to the book - it simply does not work that way. Some of the dialogue between Partha and Keshava is certainly presented in some instances as light banter, but much of the special bond of friendship between Nara and Narayana comes through nonetheless. What I would however call out as quite unnecessary is her succumbing to the occasional temptation to secularize the text! I will leave it as an exercise to the reader to spot those few instances!

Actually, an important question would, or should be: if this is a book for children, how can I -an adult, a middle-aged adult at at that - sit in judgment on the book's success or failure? Valid point, and this is my response.
First, I read the book, alone, on my own. Second, after having read the book - and liked it - I started reading it out to my children. It helped that they had a better than average knowledge of the Mahabharata; I didn't have to explain the context of the Gita, nor the characters, nor the ending, and so on. Having read half the book to them, I can say, judging from their responses and interest, that the book meets the expectations of its intended audience.

Therefore, parents - go forth and share this book with your children. Read it - with them, to them, without them - any which way. You cannot go wrong with the Gita! A lifetime may not be enough to appreciate fully the Gita, but the sooner one starts, the better!

(Roopa Pai is also a children's writer, and wrote the eight-book series, "Taranauts", so she certainly knows a thing or two about writing for children!)

Disclosure: This review is based on a gift copy of the book.

The Facebook page for the book carried a nice introduction (and link) to my review.

Book information:
Hachette India
ISBN-10: 9351950123
ISBN-13: 9789351950127
July, 2015
Amazon India (Paperback)
Kindle India

Kindle Excerpt:

© 2015, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.