Born a Jain, I've always hoped for a children's book on the beautiful philosophy that's over 2000 years old.
Jain, a word derived from the Sanskrit word 'Jina' describes the path of enlightenment and salvation over successive re-births by removing karma and embracing an ethical and spiritual existence. It also prescribes non-violence to living creatures, including plants. It's peaceful nature and compassionate and thoughtful way of life are wholesome life lessons for any child.
A month ago, on the auspicious Jain occasion of Mahavir Jayanti, authors Nirav Gudka and Sunita Shah of The Jai Jais published "Mahavir", the story of the 24th Jain Tirthankar Lord Mahavir, an Indian prince, who left royal life to pursue spirituality and spread the teachings of Jainism, achieving salvation around 500 BC.
For me, this was a special moment in the world of diverse children's literature - not just for the Jain community and its youth - but for the world community. Beyond the religion, there is so much power in the way of life that Jainism advocates: non-violence, truth, strong morals, equality, resilience and compassion for all living creatures including plants, that it's a great piece of philosophical literature for young children to be exposed to.
The author Nirav Gudhka, also an automotive specialist, is tremendously passionate about Jainism, teaching its philosophy and spiritual lessons to young children within the North London Jain community, including his own two kids. He has now incorporated this in "Mahavir". With gorgeous illustrations and perspective narrative, the story of Mahavir is an excellent introduction to the philosophy of Jainism for little children.
Here's my author Q&A with Nirav himself, hope you enjoy reading it and learning more about the fascinating Jain philosophy.
Q: Tell us a little about yourself and what inspired you to write this belated Jain story for children?
A: I was born and raised in London, and am happily married with two adorable children. I have a passion for the study and teaching of the Jain religion. I've studied Jainism for many years, and a large part of that has been spent sharing what I've learnt with others. Initially, this was in the form of adult study groups, which then evolved to a Children's Sunday school at my local temple. Very well-attended there are over 30 children coming through our doors every week. In early 2019 Sunita Mistry Shah, the founder of The Jai Jais, reached out to collaborate on the first Jain Jai Jais book – specifically on the life of Lord Mahavir. I jumped at the opportunity to create a unique offering that exposes children to Jain values. I myself am trying to instil Jain values in my own two children and books are a wonderful way to do this, especially as there is very limited child-friendly reading material related to Jainism.
Mahavir is a very important figure in Jain philosophy. He's the most recent of 24 special gods, called Tirthankars, and was instrumental in spreading the principles of the religion to the masses - the very same principles that are followed by Jains the world over, more than 2600 years after his own liberation. The main premise of the religion is that every human has the faculties to become a liberated god themselves, and as such can lead an existence of complete and unwavering peace and contentment, independent of external requirements. They do so by following Lord Mahavir's example, leading a life of extreme non-violence, total detachment and complete internal focus.
Q: I know your 3-year-old son Veer has recently been diagnosed with a rare genetic cancer, Fanconi Anaemia, and is looking for a stem donor. Have you read the book to him, what impact has the book had him?
A: Veer is already well-versed on the story of Lord Mahavir. He attends the religious classes I run on Sundays - and recently we've been focusing on Lord Mahavir's story, in celebration of his birthday. We have been doing this in the form of a couple of songs that touch on many aspects of Mahavir covered in the book. When I read the book to him, he was extremely excited. He loved pointing out parts of the story and associated images, that related to what we've been learning in class.
We named Veer after Lord Mahavir - the name means 'brave'. We often remind him of this, to ensure he stays mentally strong through his condition. I hope that by repeatedly hearing the story of Lord Mahavir, and knowing he was named after him, Veer will have a stronger connection to the principles that the story tries to convey, and he should draw strength from these in his own personal life.
Q: What message would you like readers of the book to take away?
A: I'm hoping that readers come to appreciate the beauty of the Jain religion. It's a very simple religion, whose key principles reflect the ideals that many people aspire towards today - world peace, non-violence, equality, resilience and self-reliance. Whether it's a child or an adult that picks up this book, there's much to be gained. The main aim of the book is to convey the core principle of Jainism - that happiness does not come from external things or people, it only comes from within ourselves. Tapping into that internal happiness is the key to becoming the best we can be, and for a Jain, that is to become a god in one's own right - just like Mahavir.
Q: The illustrations are beautiful - James Ballance has done a fantastic job - what role, as the author, did you have in designing these?
A: To my great joy, I had a huge role to play in directing the creation of the images. It was my job to guide James, and inform his choices. The Jain religion is prescriptive on most things, including iconography. I was very conscious of the traditional rules that the images had to fit within. I was also acutely aware of the artistic value add that James could infuse, to appeal to young kids. I enjoyed working with James to create these images - I have an eye for design, but don't tend to use it that often - this was a great opportunity to flex that muscle in a meaningful way.
Q: Is this going to be a series? Have you got any more Jain stories lined up?
A: The hope that is we can build on this book to bring other Jain titles to the Jai Jais line-up. There are no firm plans as of yet - we've been very focused on this book alone. I have a few ideas on future projects. There are other important gods like Lord Mahavir in Jain history, we could pick up out a few of those. Additionally, there are a few stand-alone stories, based on other less prominent personalities, that could make for interesting reading.
Q: I understand that £1 from each book sale will go to the Anthony Nolan charity - can you tell us a little bit more about the life-saving work they do?
A: That's right - the book's actually dedicated to my son Veer, who as you have pointed out earlier, is looking for a stem cell donor. His condition means that his bone marrow is not working properly, and so his blood counts are dropping. The only way to treat this is a stem cell transplant. In a strange coincidence, the same requirement has befallen Sunita's family. Her nephew Jayden has leukaemia and has recently undergone a stem cell transplant himself.
Anthony Nolan is the leading UK charity in the UK working towards recruiting high-quality donors to the donor register, all of whom are potential lifesavers for Veer and Jayden. The work they do is amazing. Unfortunately, at present, only 2% of the UK population is registered as stem cell donors. Similar low levels exist worldwide. Asians, in particular, are underrepresented on the registers - and as a result, Asians have a very low chance of finding a matching donor compared to those of Western descent. We have been campaigning to change that. Each donor registration is very costly to Anthony Nolan at £40. Our donation will hopefully make a big contribution towards raising awareness of the charity's efforts - and fund the recruitment of a few more lifesavers, one of whom may be the match for Veer.
Q: How did you conduct the research for the book? Or was it a family story that you have grown up with, that has been passed on through the generations?
A: Actually, I had already pretty much written this story, prior to being contacted by Sunita and the Jai Jais. To celebrate Lord Mahavir's birthday in 2018, I'd written a playscript for the older children of our Sunday school to perform for the elders and other children. For the Jai Jais story, we used that script as a foundation and formatted it as a storybook.
For the original script, I drew on stories I was already familiar with from my many years of exposure to the religion., To make sure my understanding was correct, I researched various external sources and spent time fact-checking, particularly as I wanted to ensure the book catered to all denominations of Jainism, which have differing accounts of some aspects of Mahavir's story. This also informed the illustrations in the book.
You can get a copy of the book here
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