“Vedas and Upanishads made me appreciate what makes Indians uniquely Indian”

said Roopa Pai, author of The Vedas and Upanishads for Children in conversation with Janani Rajeswari S.

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The book ‘The Vedas and Upanishads for Children’ by author Roopa Pai is making waves. Young readers feel that it’s a fun way of learning about Indian cultural heritage. However, some older people who bought the book for children were intrigued by it too and ended up reading the book. Excerpts from the interview with author by Janani Rajeswari S.

AABP: How did this inkling towards ancient texts like the Bhagavad Gita and The Vedas and Upanishads happen? What made you write about them?

Roopa: I have always been a huge fan of Indian mythology. I hadn’t explored ancient Indian philosophy much until Vatsala Kaul-Banerjee, my editor at Hachette, suggested I retell the Bhagavad Gita for children. Having never read the Gita in its entirety, it was a daunting thought that I resisted for months. When I finally committed to the idea and began reading the Gita, I was overwhelmed by the fact that it is a fabulous self-help book for all humanity that transcends age, race, gender or religious affiliations.

Knowing that the Bhagavad Gita was the distillation of the wisdom presented in the Upanishads, I was tempted to enter that sprawling forest of philosophy. They are the fourth and final layer of the Vedas – which is why they are called Vedanta or the end of the Vedas – so those texts had to be part of the book too.

AABP: After trying hand at simplifying ‘The Gita’ for children, tell us why you chose to demystify the Vedas and the Upanishads?

Roopa: I enjoy taking complex subjects and trying to make them accessible to kids (and also adults who haven’t explored them before). My books are not meant to be exhaustive or comprehensive. They are just meant to present the big picture, along with a few examples and stories to make the subject clearer to the reader.

AABP: How was the journey like before starting the book?

Roopa: Before writing, I spoke to a number of people who were familiar with the Vedas and Upanishads, and asked them to recommend books that I could read to know more. After reading the books and getting some familiarity, I went online and read more, getting different perspectives. In the third pass, I listened to discourses about the Upanishads by various thinkers and scholars and monks, getting a deeper understanding. It was only after this that I began to write. Through the writing, there was more reading and re-reading, more listening and re-listening.

AABP: On a personal front, how has writing this book made a difference to you?

Roopa: Writing any book changes you in obvious and subtle ways. But writing about scriptures and philosophy, particularly from your own land, can be an exhilarating experience, although you don’t agree with it entirely. Researching and writing about the Gita and the Vedas and Upanishads has led me to a path of thinking and discovery that I would have probably never ventured into, otherwise.

It has made me see and appreciate many aspects of what makes Indians uniquely Indian. It gave me clues about why our world view, influenced greatly by these ancient stories and wisdoms, is so special.

It has made me believe firmly in the idea of an India that is secular down to its DNA, no matter what political parties – and all political parties are guilty of this – may try to do to change or destroy it.

AABP: What are the challenges that you faced through this journey of writing?

Roopa: Even retaining so much information was indeed a challenge – my editor had to fight for the right to keep the book at 424 pages. The original idea was to do a book that was slimmer and similar to the size of The Gita (264 pages). But even bringing it down to 424 pages, meant doing multiple rounds of editing. And this, after I had restricted myself to writing about just a few important concepts and telling a few important stories!

There was yet another challenge. Indian texts offer themselves up gladly to any seeker, allowing each one to interpret it any way they choose to. So my research, which involved understanding how different people saw the texts, was just the route – in the end, I had to process them and come out with my own interpretation and stand by it.

AABP: What are the things you kept in mind when it came to your target audience: children?

Roopa: I believe that children are old souls with a wisdom and understanding of the world that we don’t often credit them with. They may not have factual knowledge of physical things. Yet, they understand emotion and what is the right thing to do, at a gut level, before the process of living in the world and growing into adults muddles their convictions and makes them doubt themselves. The good part is that child still exists in every adult, even though he/she may have been locked up somewhere inside.

So when I write for children, it is for the child within every adult. Of course, any example given to illustrate a point will be based on a child’s life experience that he/she could readily relate to. But again, the good part is that since every adult has gone through such life experiences too, they are also able to relate to these examples.

AABP: Interestingly, your book goes beyond explaining the text by including back story, after story and relating to practical life. Tell us more about it.

Roopa: I believe strongly that to bring a lesson home to a child, to demonstrate that an ancient text is just as relevant today as it was when it was first composed – you have to connect it to something that one is already familiar with. While I was researching the Vedas and Upanishads, I was stunned – and pleasantly surprised – to find that so much of it lives on in Indian life today – like the ‘Satyam eva jayate’ inscription that we chose to use on our national emblem, which is from a verse in the Mundaka Upanishad. I had to share my a-ha moment with my readers, of course!

I also discovered that Vedantic thought has influenced, delighted and brought peace to not just Indians but also scholars, writers and common people across the world. They were all interesting stories, so I put as many of them in as I could.

AABP: How has the response been so far from children and others who picked up the book?

Roopa: I was not sure how this book would be received. One is easily moved by The Gita as it is a conversation between two best friends in a life-and-death situation and involves some high drama (Krishna revealing his Vishwaroopa form to Arjuna). Plus, the Upanishads are not part of a fabulous, sprawling epic story like the Gita is, instead, they are hardcore, mystical philosophy.

Despite all this, the book has had a very positive response – both adults and children seem to be enjoying it, although they are taking longer to read it and digest it. It makes me very happy indeed.

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