British-born Indian author Sonal Sachdev Patel talks about her children’s book Gita: The Battle of the Worlds, co-written with Jemma Wayne-Kattan, a retelling of the Bhagavad Gita, which also touches upon issues of mental health and the role of meditation for kids.
You book is inspired by the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda and his book God Talks With Arjuna. Tell us something about how it inspired you.
God Talks with Arjuna inspired me greatly as it was the first time that I felt I could relate this long discourse of Krishna to Arjun to my own life. Yoganandaji explains that the battle that takes place between the Pandavas and the Kauravas is actually a metaphor for the battle that takes place between our good and bad tendencies every day. So this battle is actually an internal one, and in our story, we transport the reader inside the body of a modern, relatable child that they can identify with. This battle can be seen in a number of ways – the battle between the two warring families, the battle between the external and internal and the battle we face in overcoming the challenges that life throws at us every day.
What was the starting point for the story of Dev, the little boy in your book?
I watched my mother read the Gita every single day since I was born. I saw what a special relationship she had with this text. When I read Paramahansa Yogananda’s interpretation, it gave me a new insight into the Gita that really inspired me. I wanted my children to have a connection with this holy scripture and see the relevance of it to their modern day lives. That was what led me to want to create this new story, and that’s when I approached my childhood friend Jemma Wayne Kattan to co-create this new work. Having meditated for over 25 years, I had an insight into my Guru’s teachings and as Jemma is a prize-winning author I knew she would be a brilliant partner to collaborate with. Our friendship has spanned over 30 years and combining our skills on this project has been such a dynamic and energising process.
You have used the Gita as a theme running through the book, of destroying ego and conquering negative thoughts, to move forward. Why is it important to communicate such ideas to kids?
Our children need guidance on how to navigate the journey of life. Our education system does not necessarily arm them with these tools. We teach them how to do calculations and how to conduct scientific experiments, but what do they do if they feel angry or jealous? What if they feel depressed or down about themselves? What if others make them feel this way? How can they cope with the difficult challenges, that in different ways, we all face at some point in our lives? The Gita contains the guidance we need, and we can give it to our children in a digestible and relatable way through our book.
In your book, the child Dev is depressed. Do you have anything to say about childhood depression and how one can deal with it?
Sadly, mental health issues in children are a worldwide problem. In India, mental distress is believed to be a key reason why one student commits suicide every hour. In the UK, one in every 10 children has a diagnosable mental health disorder. Using the guidance in our holy scriptures can be helpful if it is distilled in a way that is accessible and engaging for children. Meditation, which is a central theme in our book, can also be very helpful.
What are the concerns that kids are battling in the modern world?
In today’s world, kids are bombarded constantly by the technological advances we have made. Of course, there are so many advantages to these but the flip side is an increasingly restless and dissatisfied generation which we can see in the mental health statistics above. Meditation is a powerful tool that has scientifically proven benefits. Our main character Dev uses meditation to help him master himself, which in turn enables him to defeat the various characters and challenges that he faces in our adventure story.
Can you tell us 5 things that kids can learn from the Gita?
There is a lifetime of learning that can be taken from the Gita but 5 top things that our young readers have told us are as follows:
- Meditation as a tool for bringing about peace.
- The eternal nature of the soul – death is not the end.
- Karma – you reap what you sow – try and do good.
- Krishna – the best friend you could ever have.
- Introspection – the power of looking at yourself and assessing your positive and negative traits.
What has been the response to the book from parents and kids?
The overwhelming response has been positive. The surprising part has been how many parents have purchased the books for themselves; even adults without kids. We have heard many say that they want to know the essence of Gita’s messages but have found the original too daunting to even pick up. Being a 100-page adventure story, our book is an easy and engrossing read.
The West is eager to know about this ancient Hindu text and we have had interest from Hindus and non-Hindus alike. In India, we found that many children knew the story of the Pandavas and the Kauravas but less than 10 per cent had read some or all of the Gita.
As somebody who has spent time in India and the UK, what has Indian spirituality and even the Gita meant to you?
In the West, we try and hold onto our Indian culture as we are aware that we are away from the motherland! Indian spirituality has been a powerful influence in my life and I am very grateful for it. The Gita teaches us how to win the battle of life, which is something I think everyone wants to know, and certainly an insight I wanted to share with my children.
What first drew you to Krishna and why?
I don’t like the idea of blind faith. I don’t like being told what do. I suppose nobody does, but some like it less than others! My mother has always been a lover of Krishna so I grew up watching her devotion to him and wonderful stories of his playfulness. However, this can only take you so far, and my mother always encouraged me to see the true spirituality behind stories rather than sign up to any dogmatic preaching.
When I was approaching my teens, I went to Los Angeles to attend a meditation convention. There, I learned scientific techniques of meditation. It was through the practice of these techniques that I developed a real relationship with Krishna. In my opinion, you can only feel so much through stories and pictures of Krishna. His love, peace and kindness must be experienced for yourself. That was key for me. I didn’t want to trust in someone else’s word, I wanted to know for myself. Meditation is the key to unlocking that understanding. In our book, we take the child through what it might feel like to connect with Krishna. Again, it was important to both my co-author and myself that we did not patronise children in any way. Therefore we were mindful to show the messages through the story itself, rather than preaching to kids.
What else are you working on currently?
My main work is in the social impact space working with vulnerable communities in India and the UK. I am also working on a project to bring some key aspects of Hinduism to the young parent generation in a modern and relatable way. Finally, we have had an interest in creating an animation of the book – watch this space!