Taking us back to our Roots – Roopa Pai

Swapna Narayanan

India is a rich secular country having very deep roots in science, philosophy, spirituality, humanities, and art that is also well documented in texts such as The Vedas, The Upanishads, The Bhagwad Gita etc. A highly secular history seeped in gender equality, values and traditions. But more importantly, a history that encouraged ‘thinking through’ and ‘being fair to one and all’.

However, though it is well preserved, how many of us are able to read it and benefit from it today? With rapid modernisation, and some great advents in technology, science, medicine etc. we have evolved and moved ahead as a society. But at some level, we have missed staying connected to our deep roots. And now that we embark on a much larger goal of growth as a country, it is important we do not miss our basic premise – a lot similar to the tall edifice that has been planned without building a strong foundation!

While as a mother I ruminate on these aspects, in today’s highly dichotic, social media driven world, people like Roopa Pai come along with endeavours to take our children back to our roots, objectively empowering them with the knowledge of our rich history! Thereby, enabling them to charter a future for themselves that is steeped in culture and more importantly, well grounded.

And then you, as a mommy, heave a sigh of relief!

24068256_10155145062961794_3997696156343839203_nFor now, we have someone who will tell our children that India had many forest labs (as she calls it) about 3000 years ago, where the brightest scientist-philosophers contemplated the universe and reflected upon the already-ancient texts called the Vedas, gaining some startling insights into some deep questions like, What is the universe made of? Who am I? My body, my mind, my intelligence, my emotions, or NOTA?, in a manner that is easily comprehendible and who talks to them in their lingo. Someone who can tell the children that we had many women rishis who were highly learned, articulate and strong. And how? Using the format that works the best for children – stories!

I caught up with Roopa recently and spoke to her about her new book – The Vedas and Upanishads – that is doing very well and receiving a lot of acclaim.

Swapna:  Roopa, from your works it is clear that you believe the best way to teach moral of the story to children is not to expressly state the moral of the story. But practically kids learnt a lot of absolute moral values, which sometimes do not hold good in the current scenario. What’s your take on that?

imagesRoopa: I think the key is really to think of action not as right or wrong, but to perform every action mindfully. Very often, we go through our days doing things because of a particular social or cultural conditioning – boys don’t cry, good girls don’t behave this way – or because we are doing something to get a certain outcome from it – personal glory, some physical reward, emotional gratification, validation or appreciation from others (or ourselves!), and so on. We are so focused on the short-term high of the hoped-for outcome (which we know very well we cannot actually control) that we don’t think enough about the action itself and its impact on ourselves and others.

If we pause and think about what we are about to do, and ask ourselves a couple of basic questions, like: (1) Who does my action impact, both directly and indirectly? (2) Is this action (or thought) ethical i.e., is it fair to all concerned, including myself? (3) What are the possible consequences of the action I am planning to do? What would happen if I chose to change the action (or thought) I was about to indulge in? Which consequence would I prefer to deal with? Which consequence, in other words, would make me ‘happier’, or feel better about myself?

If we are mindful this way, if we pause and reflect about what we are about to do before we do it, I think the judgment of the world will not disturb us at all. But to be able to have that kind of confidence, you should have done mindful action over and over, until you trust the process more than you trust anyone or anything else.

When I speak to children about The Gita, I refer to this as ‘taking the time and effort to build a strong friendship with your inner Krishna, until you trust him completely.’

Swapna: The Gita, Vedas and Upanishads are all very relevant texts and gives us all the answers on life. However, the stories themselves are not easy to narrate in the present context. What has been your approach so far? How do you overcome the difficulty of narrating a story without focusing on the caste or gender aspect of it?

Roopa: Actually, whatever patriarchy or casteism is attributed to The Vedas and Upanishads and The Gita, I have found that it isn’t quite overt and instead it is a matter of interpretation. For instance, in all three, women are hardly ever mentioned, let alone discussed, whether as equals or inferiors (the only two who appear at any length are the sage Gargi, who questions the great Yajnavalkya in a public forum as an intellectual equal, and Maitreyi, wife of the same Yajnavalkya, who shows a keen desire to learn about the true meaning and purpose of life, and is lovingly accepted as a disciple by her delighted husband – both stories from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad). You could certainly ask, ‘Where are all the women?’ and deduce that since they appear so seldom, they were treated as inferior in society, but you cannot find actual verses in The Vedas or Upanishads which are openly sexist or misogynistic. (PS: In all, 31 women rishis are mentioned in The Vedas).

downloadThen there is the story of Satyakama in the Chandogya Upanishad. Satyakama does not know who his father is but is eager to be accepted as a student in the gurukul of the Rishi Gautama (only Brahmins, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas were accepted as students in Vedic gurukuls). When Gautama asked him about his lineage, he says, without a hint of diffidence, that he does not know. He goes to declare, as his mother Jabala has advised him, that he would like instead to be known as Satyakama Jabala, his mother’s son. Hearing that confident assertion, Rishi Gautama is overjoyed. ‘None but a Brahmin would speak the truth so fearlessly! Come, dear one, let us begin the instruction!’ he says. This story reinforces the message that it is one’s own nature, and not one’s birth or occupation, that determines one’s varna. Even if you do not want to see it that way, this story shows us clearly that while lineage is considered important, exceptions were made.

Here’s the thing, really. Looking at and judging a particular age’s social mores through the lens of the mores of the present is a pointless exercise, especially when that age was between 3500 and 2500 years ago. After all, there is nothing in the world, now or then – no ideology, no moral code, no person – that is entirely without flaws. One of the strongest messages of our ancient texts – whether we are talking Vedas, Upanishads or the Gita – is to question everything, to never believe anything without trying it out for yourself, and to trust your gut. Whatever their perceived shortcomings and / or sins of omission and commission, no one can deny that the ancient texts contain great lessons for all humankind on how to live joyfully in the world. It’s up to us to take what we believe is good and wise and true from them, what we individually believe is relevant and useful, and discard the rest.

But we cannot do that if we don’t know what they contain! And that’s what I keep in mind while narrating these stories to children. I am only equipping them with the knowledge of the stories, not attempting to influence them in any way. The other thing I try to do is be honest. I would not deliberately conceal something that I believe is problematic. Instead, I bring it up and then urge them to look at it from every angle before they make up their minds.

Swapna: In these times of feminism and associated concepts, there are two schools of thought on the upbringing. One, focus on teaching your daughter to be equal. And two, focus on teaching your son to respect the opposite sex. We believe it goes hand in hand. But how do you particularly deal with questions related to gender in ancient texts, because there are some stories which clearly lean towards male dominance as practised during that time?

Roopa: There could be several texts that are openly patriarchal, but my area of knowledge is only the Vedas, Upanishads and the Gita, so I can only speak of those. And in my reading, they are not misogynistic.

As for whether to empower your daughters or sensitise your sons, I think both are equally important. But what is even more important, I think, is not to narrow it down to either. If we as parents can teach our children, by example, to be good people, to be people who are so secure in themselves that they do not feel threatened by anyone else, people who derive their happiness from the deep fount of joy inside themselves and not from other people or things or situations, we would have a better than brilliant job. It is fear and love (of something outside of oneself) that manifest as anger and hate – if we can teach them to be fearless and to love themselves, we will have done our part.

Swapna: Sometimes women face particular challenges just because they are women? Please let our readers know the best way to deal with such issues.

Roopa: I think my answer to the previous questions covers this. Whether you identify as male, female, neither or both, the lessons are the same. Spend time getting to know yourself. Think before you act. Trust your gut. Be fearless (knowing that fearlessness does not have to involve anger or hate). Stay true to your nature (do not get swayed by other people’s opinions). Fulfil your dharma – as a student, spouse, friend, sibling, child, parent – to the best of your ability, expecting nothing in return but the validation of your own conscience.

Swapna: Being a qualified engineer, you must be asked a lot of times how did you foray into writing for children. We get that, but what we would love to know is how you made that leap. What was the process, was there any uncertainty in your mind at all? What does it take to forget about what the world says and follow your passion?

Roopa: Oh, this one’s easy. I always knew I wanted to write, and write for children. Engineering was a detour. The moment I had finished and made my parents happy, I plunged into what I really wanted to do. 🙂

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