Author Note: I review the book “The Gita: For Children” by Roopa Pai. It is a National bestseller and award winning book. There would be many reasons why someone would want to read the book, but the book blurb asks the question “Why haven’t you read it yet?” Below are some reasons why someone would not want children to read the book.
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Beware of Adjectives
The author uses adjectives like “cranky grandparent” and “penny pinching parents”. By nature, some parents or grandparents might really have those characteristics, or some children might be thinking of their family that way even if the family does not display those characteristics. But an author using these adjectives in a book which is supposed to be read by impressionable minds will lead to inception of such ideas in majority of the children. The next time a parent refuses to buy something, the child will think “Oh I have such a penny-pinching parent!” rather than thinking that the parent could be doing it to ensure a better future for the child. And when a grandparent says something not very agreeable, the thought would be “What a cranky grandparent I have”. The author might sound “as cool as the Americans” where it is common to think of families in a negative manner but that will also lead to importing the broken-family culture of America. A lot of people would want to teach positive thinking to children, but such indirect impressions on the minds of kids will lead them to think otherwise.
Deep Western Universalism
There is a paragraph where the book talks about how Science and Spirituality are against each other. The author might have read western literature and assumed that the “Science vs Religion” phenomenon exists everywhere in the world and she is passing on this wrong information to the next generation.
Myth of Hindu Sameness
The book says “most religions in the world preach ….. that all creatures are equal and that they should all therefore be treated equally”. That seems to be an assumption made by the author without taking into consideration that Abrahamic religions are followed by majority of the population of the world, and their principles state that human beings are superior to other living beings. Also, within human beings there is a distinction based on gender and whether someone is from the same religion/sect.
Aiming for Whiteness – relentlessly
As the book is written for kids, the author has tried to explain concepts using day-to-day examples. It is necessary to check whether this practical aspect of the book is really teaching some Dharmic principles or leading to more colonization of the Indian mind.
The names of people mentioned in the book, can be classified into 3 categories depending on their usage.
- The names from Mahabharata itself – these are all Indian names. It might sound obvious that these are Indian names but because Hanuman gets referred to as “monkey god”, it becomes necessary to note that the book uses real names from Mahabharata, although “Grandsire Bhishma“ makes it sound as if he was a grandfather from the colonial era. Do we need to be so good at English that we change the rasa (रस) of the topic?
- Names used to explain the concept of caste – These are all Indian examples.
- Names used to give examples of good behavior in line with advice of the Gita – Atticus (character from To Kill a Mockingbird), Carl Sagan, Rudyard Kipling, Batman, Martin Luther King Jr, Madam Curie, Albanian nun, J.K. Rowling, Paul McCartney, Michael Jackson, William Shakespeare, Oppenheimer, Brigadier Farrell, Santa Claus, Neymar, Pele, Rick Riordan and a passing reference to Mahatma Gandhi. Most of these role models are white and the non-whites (including Mahatma Gandhi) are the ones approved by the western world. These examples can lead to the inference that we have a civilization that has passed on the Gita for many thousands of years but our ancestors were so dumb that no one has been able to live the advice so far, on the other hand there is a civilization which was introduced to the Gita recently but there are so many people living the advice of the Gita! Hence, if you want to inculcate good values just keep aping the west.
The general tone of the book sounds as if a foreign author is telling foreign children about some aliens called “Hindus”.
Very often the book uses phrases like – “In the Gita, which is the holy book of Hindus”; “what the Hindus call reincarnation – the process by which they believe”; “many Hindus will be able to quote”; “according to the Hindus, Krishna is absolutely a God”; “The Hindus believe that God isn’t someone or something that lives outside of us. God they say lives within us”; “in some Hindu traditions”; “acc to Hindu mythology”; “devaloka, abode of Hindu gods” [Emphasis added]. This will make kids think of Hindus as some aliens rather than their ancestors. Also questionable is the need to describe a cheerleader as “blonde blue eyed”.
Alleviating the White Man’s Burden (or is it Roopa’s burden )
Would any author use the phrase “the man hanging on the cross” to refer to Jesus Christ? Here we have an Indian author writing a book on Bhagavad Gita which will mostly be read by Indians, but she uses the phrase “monkey god” to refer to Hanuman. Why would the author do that?
One possibility is that some people think that English readers are so dumb that they will not be able to read or pronounce words originating outside the European continent.
Second possibility is the normal Indian colonized mindset which makes one think “I need to be perfect at English. I also need to be perfect at pronouncing proper nouns used by Westerners even if they originated from languages other than English. (Note – perfect means western pronunciation). But when it comes to Indian words, I need to simplify it for the westerners even if that involves trivializing my own culture.” An example from day-to-day life is – There are no restaurants translating Uttapam as “Paratha” for its Hindi speaking customers, but you will find restaurants translating Uttapam as “pancake”.
This book has other places where Hanuman is called Hanuman, so the author expects the readers to know Hanuman very well. Then why translate it to “monkey god”? Does it arise from the thought process – “I better teach children the trivialized words from the beginning so that they can perform better while talking to foreigners. It is our duty to not trouble the Gora Sahib with non-English words”. Now that Rudyard Kipling is a role model, it becomes imperative to proactively alleviate The White Man’s Burden by making Hanuman sound like a character out of The Jungle Book.
Is the Gita a commodity that can be customized to attract customers?
At some places in the book, there is advice which sounds quite frivolous for a book on Gita – punch a pillow when you get upset, flip channels on TV if feeling stressed. The explanation of Kshatriya includes “men on less noble missions – to wipe out an entire race, to assassinate a president, to bomb a village out of existence, to kill children” and also “ a bully in the playground”. Examples for Tapas include “recite your 12-19 times tables every morning, get out and play something for an hour every evening”. There is a section where the author explains “Single-minded devotion to any cause will be rewarded” and she gives examples of people working hard in their own field but who are mean to others – giving the reader the notion that you will get success as long as you work hard, and there is no need for ethical behavior.
Just like the attempt to bring convenience to food has turned it into junk food, the attempt to bring convenience to philosophy will lead us to junk philosophy.
A White certificate for a Brown philosophy?
Many people cite quotes by scientists like Oppenheimer to stress the importance of the Gita. Why do we consider them as judges of Indic knowledge even if they were not philosophers or thinkers? Due to our colonized education, we have been brainwashed to think that white scientists know the ultimate truth. As for science and technology in India, there are many people lamenting about the lack of innovation. The innovation takes place in some other country and we only have manufacturing or service industry jobs. To find a solution to that, kids are raised to become more westernized assuming that western education helps with innovation. It leads to a dangerous situation where it reinforces the need to copy the west rather than think on our own.