Exploring Mental Health Through The Bhagavad Gita

Illustration by Soumitra Ranade (R)
Illustration by Soumitra Ranade (R)

Mythology has been sailing high in popularity over the last decade or so. On the international stage, Rick Riordan has been banging out one book after another, adapting Greek, Egyptian, and Norse myths into bestselling young adult novels. In India, Devdutt Pattanaik’s Jaya and Sita, among others, have broken the mould when it comes to rewriting Hindu epics, and Amish Tripathi’s Shiva Trilogy and Ram Chandra Series have re-imagined Hindu myths as fantasy fiction.

GITA: Battle of the Worlds is the latest book to turn to Hindu mythology for its inspiration. In this children’s book by Sonal Sachdev Patel and Jemma Wayne-Kattan, readers meet Dev, a young boy who has just lost his father and is embroiled in grief, anger, and frustration. Dev encounters a sprite-like being, Sanjay, who explains that he can help Dev deal with his emotions, but to do so he must enter Dev’s body and find Prince Arjun. As he embarks on his quest, Sanjay travels up Dev’s spine, encountering starving mobs, thieving gangs, water worlds and lands of fire, until at last, he finds Arjun on the battlefield, ready to fight for Dev. The book is a re-interpretation of the Bhagavad Gita, a re-imagination of one of Hinduism’s most important texts as a fantastical children’s adventure story, with important messages about emotion, mental health and well-being, and the power of meditation weaved throughout. We spoke to author Sonal Sachdev Patel about her relationship with the Bhagavad Gita, her writing process, and her hopes for GITA: Battle of the Worlds.

Illustration by Soumitra Ranade for "GITA: Battle of the Worlds"

Homegrown: When did you first learn about the Gita?

Sonal Sachdev Patel: “When I was little, I used to watch my mother read the Bhagavad Gita. Our mandir, the temple we had at home, was right outside my room and from my bed I could see my mother every day, sitting in front of the mandir and reading. It was really lovely actually - I remember seeing her early in the morning, totally quiet, with just the dim light of a diya illuminating the pages of a big old book. That was my first contact with the Gita.”

HG: What has your personal relationship with the Gita been like?

SSP: “Well, really, I didn’t actually read the Gita until I was an adult. The first Gita translation I read, I found really difficult to understand. It was only when I read the interpretation of the Gita written by my guru, Paramahansa Yogananda, that I was actually able to get an insight into the Gita’s teachings and philosophy. He takes a different interpretation of the book, focusing on the epic battle that is the backdrop to the Gita’s philosophy. It was only when I went back and read this version of the Gita that I was able to really understand and appreciate it, and what its teachings meant to my everyday life.”

HG: A lot of the messages in this book relate to dealing with stress, grief, and mental health issues. How did you come up with the idea to use the Gita to discuss mental health?

SSP: “I think the main idea of the Bhagavad Gita is that its teachings are meant to help people with the battle of life. In working on this book, I didn’t necessarily intend to use the Gita as a way to look at mental health - I wanted to bring out the teachings of the Gita and make this idea of ‘tackling the battle of life’ more understandable. And among the teachings of the Gita, there is a lot that can be helpful when it comes to dealing with mental health, so the discussion of mental health worked itself into the book on its own.”

HG: Do you think there is a universality to the Gita and its teachings?

SSP: “I co-wrote this book with a friend who is not Hindu and was not familiar with the Bhagavad Gita prior to this book. I was speaking to her about the Gita, and she found that the Gita’s messages and teachings really resonated with her. That confirmed my belief that the Gita really is universal, and that it has so much to say about humanity. The Gita’s “battle of life” has got nothing to do with just Hindus, it’s an experience everyone goes through and it applies to everybody. Too often religion is appropriated to be exclusionary, but so much of religion has to do with the similarities we all have. My hope is that this book will be able to portray the Bhagavad Gita’s teachings with their true universality.”

HG: Do you think this book will only be beneficial to children?

SSP: “I do think this is a book that anyone can enjoy. In fact, we’ve had so much interest from adults, who say “You know, we’ve never read the Gita either and we want to learn its message for ourselves or to be able to help our children understand it ourselves and to be able to have a discussion about the Gita with them.” This book is also not just a retelling of the Gita - it’s a story, and that story is about this young boy who is dealing with a lot of emotional turmoil after the loss of his father, and this story is something that, independent of its message, anyone can appreciate and joy. Children probably won’t find it significant that the journey of Sanjay is up the spine, but adults may realise that the energy is meant to go up the spine in meditation. All these nuances, paralleled from the original translation or from the deeper meaning of the original Gita, are weaved throughout the book and will be appreciated by adults but not by children.”

Illustration by Soumitra Ranade for "GITA: Battle of the Worlds"

HG: What would you say is the number one lesson in this book and the original Gita?

SSP: “Well, I think there are primarily two main lessons at the crux of the Bhagavad Gita, and this book. The story of the Gita, and of this book, is of an internal battle, an internal struggle that takes place within each of us every single day - the struggle between our good tendencies and our bad tendencies. This, I feel, is the first message of the Gita. The second message the Gita has to offer is on how we can deal with this struggle, and that we can use yoga and meditation to help win this battle. Children probably won’t find it significant that the journey of Sanjay is up the spine, but adults may realise that the energy is meant to go up the spine in meditation. All these nuances are weaved throughout the book and are paralleled from the original translation or from the deeper meaning of the original Gita.”

HG: What was the process of adapting something like the Gita into a children’s book? Were there any things you had to leave out?

SSP: “The key concept we kept in mind when adapting the Bhagavad Gita for this book was that we wanted to show the messages of the Gita instead of just telling them, and we wanted to create a story that was captivating by itself. We wanted to create a book that focussed on a story first, and message second. We didn’t want to preach the messages of the Gita, we just wanted to weave them into the book, so that it would be more interesting and accessible for children. To illustrate the concept of this internal battle, we took the epic battlefield of the Kurukshetra and we placed it inside the body of a young child, so instantly the setting is different from the original, but the messages are still the same.”

HG: Why do you feel it’s important for young children to have information about texts like the Gita?

SSP: “Because I feel the messages of the Gita are so important and helpful to our daily life, I think it’s important to give young children an understanding of in order to empower them with this knowledge. I also think, in part, that it’s important to change that relationship with texts like the Gita that young people have nowadays - they aren’t just irrelevant or boring, and they hold so much interesting and important knowledge. It’s been really great to go around to schools and see young children learning about meditation through this book and realising that it is something that they can use as a tool to improve their lives.”

GITA: Battle of the Worlds is available on Amazon and at bookshops across the country.

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