Well-meaning parents and grandparents often give children a copy of the Bhagavad Gita. It could be either a pocket-sized version of the original, which becomes little more than a talisman, or a version of ‘The Gita for Children’, which is likely to be read once and then tossed away. So how exactly does one introduce the Bhagavad Gita to children in such a way that they return to it again and again?
1.) Start at the beginning
Just as Maharshi Veda Vyāsa prepares the listener to receive the Bhagavad Gita by telling the story of Mahabharata, the best way is to start at the beginning with our children too. We need to prepare their minds to receive the divine wisdom of Bhagavan Shri Krishna. Knowledge of the Mahabharata sets the context for being able to understand and appreciate the Bhagavad Gita much better.
2.) Tell small stories from the Mahabharata.
Anyone who observes how children follow series like Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or the heroes of Marvel comics will know that the key is to start with a compelling story filled with interesting details. The wealth of the greatest story ever told, longer than the Iliad and the Odyssey put together, is readily available in our culture, for us to enjoy. If the main function of literature is to prepare one for life, imagine the range of vicarious life-experience available in 100,000 verses of the Mahabharata.
3.) Connect with Arjuna.
Focus on stories about Arjuna and his childhood. Here is one story that we can share again and again, which shows the essence of his spectacular success: One day, Guru Dronacharya gave all the Pandava and Kaurava princes a test. The task was to shoot the eye of a wooden bird. The story goes that he asked each prince what he saw in front of him, just as they were getting their arrows ready. All of them replied with a list of things they saw around them, like the trees, branches, birds and leaves. But Arjuna said he saw only an eye, and nothing else. This story illustrates his single-minded dedication to his goal. Arjuna was his Guru’s favorite student for a reason. He practised diligently, and went way beyond what was taught to him, as illustrated in the incident when Guru Drona chanced upon him practising to shoot arrows in total darkness. These stories serve as an inspiration for every student.
If you have to pick one character for your child to make friends with, who better than Arjuna the supreme warrior, an Atiratha, a romantic hero, the incomparable devotee to whom Bhagavan revealed His True Self? Arjuna has kept countless generations of Bharatiyas fascinated by his prowess, so much so, that his name still remains a popular one for little boys.
4.) Keep it interactive.
Ask children if they can identify the different names of Arjuna, Draupadi, Bhishma etc. Let them make a Mahabharata quiz to entertain others in the family. A thoughful parent can engage children in discussions and analysis about various characters. Use the inexhaustible supply of anecdotes to discuss their unique strengths and weaknesses. Look up interesting tales about Bheema and his love for food, about Duryodhana’s jealousy of his cousins, about Gandhari’s self-control and hidden powers.
5.) Make it a family activity.
Watching B.R Chopra’s Mahabharata together can not only be an engrossing family activity, but also give more rich material to discuss together. The trick with children who initially refuse to watch is for a parent to watch one episode daily and tell the story at dinner time. The resulting curiosity will soon tempt the child to join you in watching every day.
6.) Have multiple sources at home.
Investing in different versions of the Mahabharat is also a good idea. Start with the 3-volume Mahabharata of Amar Chitra Katha to entice the youngest reader with pictures. Once kids get interested in the story, they will read all the versions you have, to cross-check the information, and pick out new details to use in their quizzes.
7.) Build up the drama.
When our brave, fearless, handsome warrior is at the cusp of the great battle, in the theatre that he has trained all his life for, he collapses in the chariot and tells his charioteer that he cannot fight! Read Chapter One of the Gita with children, and let them imagine the scene with great warriors assembled on both sides, blowing their conches. The confused Arjuna depicted here is someone they can relate to and sympathize with, in addition to being someone they already look up to.
8.) Emphasize the psychological battles we all face.
This is a good time to dwell on the battle being fought in Arjuna’s mind. How does the Supreme Pychologist Bhagavan Shri Krishna understand his plight, and talk him out of his dejection? You can introduce children to concepts like dharma, dharma-yuddh and dharma-sankat to make them understand the complexity of decision-making in life.
9.) Use details about the War of Wars.
There is so much interesting information on the wars in Mahabharata that will engage children. The details of the various battles fought have been well analysed. Look them up, or have children do the research themselves. Many children would be fascinated to know that there were at least 18 types of battle formations used in the war, including the famous Chakravyuh that took the life of Abhimanyu. They will also notice that each warrior’s conch and weapons had unique names.
Now that your child knows all the key players, has identified completely with Arjuna, and is invested in the hero’s sucesses, it is time to listen to the message of the Bhagavad Gita. You will find a completely engrossed, receptive child absorbing the message and returning to it, again and again, as a guide to life.
10.) Finally, don’t forget to take it forward to get young adults into deeper thinking.
Around the age of 16, you can introduce them to Swami Chinmayanda’s Bhagavad Gita, which has a thoughtful introduction to Vedanta through an analysis of Arjuna’s grief. Children at this age are mature enough and ready to read the original text, with commentary by Swami Chinmayananda himself.
It is said about the Mahabharata, ‘Yadihāsti Tadanyatra yannehāsti tat kvachit’ meaning, ‘Whatever is found in it is found elsewhere; what is not found in it doesn’t exist anywhere’. What can be better preparation for life than immersing oneself in this masterpiece? Through familiarity with situations in the Mahabharata, and by ongoing study and reflection upon the Gita in their formative years, children will benefit enormously. What better gift can you give a young Bharatiya?
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