The Vedas and Upanishads for Children

During my last visit to Bengaluru, my 3+ grandson led me to an intriguingly-named books library — Kahaani Box. It was very refreshing to visit a brightly-lit, cheerful lending library that is overwhelmingly biased towards children, with whole sections devoted to toddlers, juniors, young adults and, of course, adults too. 

While the adults section had a large collection of books, it were the children’s sections that were exploding with verve and vitality. One particular title there caught my eye: The Vedas and Upanishads for Children, by Roopa Pai. My first reaction was, “What?! A new book on the sacred texts of ancient India, that too for children?” 

Most of us have enjoyed taking a dip (or more) in the Ganga-Yamuna of India’s itihasa, the Ramayana-Mahabharata. And in their many native flows down the Krishna, the Godavari, Narmada, Cauvery and others. The grandeur of these epic poems has been celebrated for centuries in all forms of art, culture, music & dance both in India and abroad. Their minutest details continue to be exposited and extrapolated by eminent gurus, and showcased in books, cinema and TV. 

No doubt these itihasa, as well as purana relating to ancient India, draw their inspiration from the much older Vedas. Taking a dip in the Ganges is one thing but trekking to its origin in the mighty Himalayas is another. That too, the author wants to take children along with her! Of course, she is an award-winning writer of several books for children, including a much-acclaimed book, Gita for Children.

Having given a go-by with folded hands to the many tomes on the Vedas and Upanishads in my father’s library all these years, I decided to read this one book. The fact that it is meant for children gave me much confidence. Nothing like approaching an unknown subject with childlike curiosity.

I have since been gifted a copy of the book by my daughter, and read it several times. Without attempting to review it per se, let me instead jot down a few of my delightful learnings from the book:

Veda in Samskrutha bhasha (‘perfectly formed language’) means knowledge, and has close affinity to the word vidya. The Vedas, four in number, mainly comprise hymns (verses) in praise of the elements that sustain life on earth — Sun, rain, fire, wind and water — along with a random collection of poetry, stories, spells, incantations, mantra, musical notations and how-to guides for rituals.

The Vedas were compiled around 1,500 BCE, that is, 3,500 years ago, by not one but a legion of rishis (sages). Far from being scholars, they came from among simple nomadic, cattle-herding people who lived in the lap of nature. These individuals were, however, people who looked beyond their ordinary lives, driven by an insatiable urge to unlock the mysteries of the world around them through ‘thought experiments.’ Their commitment was akin to, say, the passion of scientists and sports personalities to pursue impossible goals and targets. 

Despite immersing themselves in inward contemplation in sacred groves for their entire lives, none of these brilliant intellects left their names as authors of the sacred texts. Because, for them, this knowledge was sruti (heard) by their inner minds, to be shared with others as pure knowledge, as opposed to smriti (works recollected by a person, or author) like the itihasa (which literally means ‘this is how it happened’). 

Also, the almost 20,000+ hymns of the Vedas were not written down as books (at least till as recently as 500 CE) but were passed on over 2,000 years through oral tradition, by generations of scholars who sang them to memory, taking utmost care to preserve the ‘sacred sounds’ exactly as they were originally received. Sage Vyasa, who wrote the Mahabharata, is credited with collating this vast body of literature into the four Vedas — Rig (Rik in Sanskrit means Praise or Light), Sama (meaning Song, with the most melodious chants among the Vedas), Yajur (referring to yagna) and Atharva (named after Sage Atharvan) — earning him eternal fame as Veda Vyasa (meaning ‘Compiler’ of the Vedas). 

Each Veda is built in the form of four layers: the Samhita (hymns, or liturgy), the Brahmana (their literal interpretations and how-to guides), the Aranyaka (re-interpretations on a philosophical level) and the Upanishads (also called Vedanta, being the last layer). The first two layers form the ‘action’ part, and the last two the ‘thinking’ (or wisdom) part. 

The Upanishads, about 200 of them, were the latter part of the Vedas, added between 700 BCE and 1 CE, that is, 2,700 years ago. While the Vedas are predominantly hymnal, the Upanishads attempt to revive, revitalise and carry their message forward in the form of stories, and (brilliant) conversations between teachers and students. In fact, the Sanskrit word Upanishad literally means ‘sitting down near,’ referring to students receiving knowledge from their teachers in a gurukul set-up. 

The Upanishads too were ‘revealed’ to the brightest thinker-philosophers of those times who studied the Vedic concepts in depth and came up with fascinating insights on diverse topics. Dwelling deep inside the forests of ancient India, these people conducted ‘forest academics’ on fundamental issues such as the origin and make-up of the universe, the nature of God(s), human life and its purpose, the pursuit of happiness, the right things to do in various situations, and many such thought-provoking subjects, seeking their answers in the Vedas. And their conclusions are startlingly wise, secular and liberal even by modern standards. By the way, several of the 10 principal Upanishads (Sankara’s faves, as the author says) have intriguing names such as Mundaka (Big Shave), Mandukya (Frog), Taittiriya (Partridges) and Brihadaranyaka (The Great Forest).

In these dogma-driven times, it is refreshing to note that the seers and sages of ancient India were fiercely open-minded and scientific in their intellectual pursuits. They acknowledged that, like in science, theories can be proved, improved and superseded, and even contested and disproved, over time. No wonder the Vedas and the Upanishads take into consideration the views of the agree-ers, the disagree-ers and even the fence-sitters. All types of views were welcomed, intelligent questioning was celebrated, logical and analytical scholarship applauded, and intellectual debate encouraged in the ultimate pursuit of knowledge and fact-based truth. Ultimately, it is for the individual to seek knowledge, pursue truth and worthy life-goals, and climb over the high walls of the ‘misery-yard’ in which he/she lives. No wonder all religions born in India, including Jainism and Buddhism, have their foundations in this core philosophy of individual inquiry guided by a competent guru.

As the author mentions in the book, the ‘thought revolution’ that brewed inside the forests of ancient India and the secrets it threw up grew into a sprawling body of oral literature that forms the basis of the culture, traditions, rituals and the way of life in India. The universal concepts of satya (truth), dharma (morality), ahimsa (non-violence), sahanam (tolerance) and shanti (peace) that emerged from the Vedas and the Upanishads have inspired and continue to inspire millions of people across the world.

The book is a treasure-trove of many more such nuggets. What makes it most readable is the author’s knack for intelligent, non-preachy story-telling, the racy, youthful and fun style of writing, the way sharp questions are asked and answered on behalf of the reader, the clever way of juxtaposing ancient concepts with contemporary issues, inclusion of multiple-answer queries at places to sustain interest, and her way of frankly pointing out instances where traditions have been corrupted or no longer relevant.

All in all, it is a smart and reader-friendly introductory book covering the many facets of a difficult subject, specially written keeping in mind the sense and sensibilities of today’s children. Which also happens to be enjoyable reading for ‘non-children.’

The Vedas and Upanishads for Children, by Roopa Pai. Published by Hachette India, 2019, 410 pages.