A follower of Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, and a seasoned journalist who loves Eastern thought: the duo behind Gita: The Battle of the Worlds (Harper Collins India), Sonal Sachdev Patel and Jemma Wayne-Kattan have come up with an interesting way to teach children about spiritual concepts. eShe caught up with them.
Why did you decide to come together to write this book?
We have been friends for over 30 years and wanted to combine our strengths.
Sonal had been looking for a way to bring the timeless messages of the Gita to children today. In her work in her family’s charitable foundation, she has seen firsthand the mental health crisis and issues that young people face.
The Gita has so many tools to help us cope with these kinds of challenges, but sometimes it can be hard to understand the deeper meanings in the text.
Jemma has a wealth of experience in both journalism and fiction writing. Her first novel was longlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction, and much of her writing touches political, religious or cultural themes.
On hearing Sonal’s early explanations of the Gita battle symbolizing the battle within each of us, Jemma immediately wanted to put the story physically inside the body of a child. Much energetic back and forth of ideas followed, and the story was born.
What age group are you targeting?
This primary target age of this book is 9 to 11 year olds. However, it can be read to much younger children who may primarily enjoy the story and take only some of the meanings away, while other messages may slowly bubble into their consciousness.
Your protagonist is a young boy who has recently lost his father. What was the inspiration behind this story-line?
We didn’t want to preach to children, so it was important that readers would be able to relate to the characters as modern-day incarnations who share the challenges that they face.
Our character Dev has recently lost his father, and sadly, grief is something that many of us have to deal with at a young age. Whether this is the challenge, or other aspects of family life, difficulties with friends, problems at school, pressure from the Internet – all of these issues can lead to similar emotional fallout. This is the state of turmoil that Dev is in when we meet him at the beginning of the story, and he is struggling to cope.
However, when a sprite-like being, Sanjay (who represents divine introspection), goes inside his body and confronts Dev’s emotions in the form of warriors and different lands, we are able to literally weave our way, with Sanjay, through the turmoil, and see first-hand how some of the messages from the Gita can help children like Dev better cope.
You have brought in kriya yoga, chakras, besides concepts of Gita and so on. Why do you feel it is important for young children to understand these topics?
Paramahansa Yogananda showed that meditation, and specifically Kriya yoga, is a central tenet of the Gita as it is through this tool that we can access our true soul nature.
These aspects of meditation and right activity are incredible tools for children to help them navigate their lives in a peaceful and harmonious way. It is never too early to introduce these concepts, as long as they are done so in an age-appropriate and engaging way.
You both seem to have been drawn towards religion / spirituality in the course of your careers and personal lives. How do we instil spiritual values in our children, who are brought up surrounded by gadgets and ‘virtual’ relationships?
Sonal: From a young age, I watched my parents practising the true spirituality behind religion. Not only did I watch them doing their puja in the mornings but also being kind to all in their paths – and never showing any discrimination. They showed us the universality of Hinduism.
Children do what we do, and not what we say. The best way of instilling spiritual values into them is living them in our everyday lives. Therefore, we recommend parents read this book alongside their children.
Jemma: I grew up in a Jewish home with a father who is the great-grandson of an orthodox rabbi, and himself is an atheist. Our dinner table was always full of debate, challenges, asking questions – something I think is essential to an active faith.
We have seen throughout history so many ways that religion can divide, ways that it can be politicized and distorted, but beneath such appropriation is a spirituality that has the power to lift people, to allow them to connect with each other and something greater, and these values are as relevant in the world of gadgets as they ever were.
Jemma, your bio does not suggest any connection with Hindu philosophy! When did you get attracted to Eastern spirituality?
For me, the attraction was not Hindu philosophy specifically, but the universality of the messages within the Gita that can be appreciated by people from all religions and even those with no religion at all.
During the research phase I loved learning about the myriad tales and beliefs related to Eastern spirituality, but the essence is about how to live well. How to enable one’s good tendencies to keep in check the bad. How to overcome the battle and turmoil within ourselves. This is not unique to Hinduism, but relevant to all of humanity.
Sonal, living away from India has obviously not severed your connection with its stories and values. Please share your thoughts on why religion has become a ‘bad word’ in today’s India and is being used more for political brownie points rather than moral and social good. How can we fix this?
I think NRI parents can be even more concerned about ensuring they preserve their culture because they are away from their motherland! My parents came to the UK in the 1960s from East Africa, and they brought us up with strong Indian culture and values.
It is sad to see religion being used for political gain, rather than for moral and social good. I believe we can fix this by looking at the true universality behind all religions and the many things that unite all people.
Krishna’s messages to Arjuna are for all humanity. In fact, in our story, when Krishna reveals himself to Arjuna, we have chosen to depict his heads across a wide spectrum of ethnicities, representing all people from all backgrounds and showing the universality of both the divine being himself and his messages.
This interview was first published in eShe magazine’s May 2018 issue.
It was co-published on CNBC TV18.