Children get interested in listening to stories from the ages of three or four. In fact they pester the parents and the grandparents for stories. This interest in stories is a natural part of the growing process of children. It is true of children everywhere, regardless of the country, language, social background, economic background, gender or any other such varations.
Children learn language and basic communication skills during the ages of one, two and three as adults converse with them. During the next stage, which starts at about the age of four or five, they start learning, through stories, many things about life such as relationships, families, ups and downs, courage, compassion, culture, history and so on. The stories fire their imagination about their own future life. They dream about what they want to do in life based on what they come to know through the stories.
A story in which one character deals with another in an unfair manner, inspires them to stand against injustice in their adult lives. They learn about many other things important to life, such as hard work, collaboration, staying together, seeking and giving support, kindness, forgiving, connecting with nature, living in harmony with nature, etc., based on how characters in the stories respond in various situations and challenges.
Until a couple of generations ago, the source of stories for children used to be elders of their families. Soon after sunset, the story telling used to start in the moon-light, with children gathering around the elders. All of this has changed in the modern times. The interest in stories is natural and hence persists, but the source for the stories has changed. In today's world, children have to resort to books and videos, unfortunately, for stories. This shift has resulted in three major problems which go hardly noticed.
One, there is no one to answer the questions that arise in the minds of children while they watch the videos or read the books. Children have to make up their own answers. This gradually breeds the problem of 'self-righteousness' in them. The psychological and sociological background of the recipient could be very different from that of the story teller, because of which what the child receives could be entirely different from what the story teller intends to convey.
Two, each child imagines a scene or object differently in his or her own way, such as when one hears about the miles-long arms of Kabandha or Lanka set on fire by Hanuman when his tail was lit with fire, or about the ten heads of Ravana. But when the child watches a video, he or she sees only the imagination of the artist, and is deprived of the opportunity to imagine it by himself or herself.
And then the third and the most critical one, is that the videos and books connect the children with the past, but removes the organic link, i.e., their own parents and grandparents, from the equation. We are, in fact, seeing a whole new generation that grew up watching or reading stories than listening to them from their parents or grand-parents. This generation is well aware of many things, but does not know how to connect with people. They are extremely conversant with global issues and high morals, but do not know how to share with and care for the people in their lives. Too little of sharing and too much of arguing has become very common among this generation. Imagine what would happen to spouses who are so poorly equipped with the skills of caring and sharing! Is there a surprise in the rate of divorces ticking higher worldwide? There are clear deficiencies in the psychological growth of the current generation compared to the previous generations who grew up listening to stories from the elders. Psychologists need to study and bring forth the ill-effects of not telling stories to children to the attention of the general populace. Parents and grandparents should not ignore the urge of the children for stories, which is only as natural and as strong as the urge for food.
To let go the opportunity of telling stories to children is to let a great tool to shape them slip through our fingers. Children do not become brave by taking Karate classes, but by listening to stories about brave people, told to them by parents or grandparents. But unfortunately in these days of atomic families, two-career families and single-parent families, it is becoming all but impossible to spend quality time with children, let alone tell stories. The little time they could spend with children is barely enough to get the 'homework' done by the children. Growing up with such a thin interaction with their parents, the children, as they step into teen-years and beyond, do not know how to make a meaningful conversation with parents. The resulting communication-breakdown is all too prevalent in these modern times. Young people of today's world do not involve their parents in making critical decisions about life, be it regarding the higher education choices, career choices or matrimonial choices. Elders these days are able to do nothing more than remain as spectators, when they see their children get into a problematic relationship or when their marriages teeter under stress and strain. Many a marriage is under stress and at the brink of failure now-a-days, regardless of how long the couple knew each other before marriage, how critically the horoscopes are checked for compatibility, or how expensive and involved the wedding celebration has been.
To be fair, we must say that many parents these days are actually doing their best to be friendly with their children. But the friendliness is only good for making a conversation on casual topics, not on serious topics. Stories serve as an excuse, and as a great medium to make conversations even with young children, about the big things in life, such as marriage, inheritance, getting through tough times, etc. And parents and grandparents should make every effort to use that medium.
The next question is, what stories to tell? What are the good, useful and valuable stories? We, the Indians and people of Indian descent, are very fortunate in this regard. We have many stories from those of crows and sparrows, all the way to Panchatantra, Ramayana and Mahabharata. Children, till the age of four or five, would be mostly interested in fun and silly stories. But from the age of five and six onwards they are ready for complex stories like Ramayana and Mahabharata. These epics contain not only the main stories, but many other stories embedded in them. Each offers a topic of significance about life, characters that are interesting and twists and turns that keep one engaged. But the problem now-a-days is that even parents and grandparents do not know the details, nuances and embedded stories. Their knowledge is limited to the main story line only. Also, of late, because of religious conversions and animosity between religions, some people, on the one hand, are developing fanatic devotion to Ramayana and Mahabharata and some others, on the other hand, are developing baseless hatred. So much so that one has to be cautious in making a mention of any of the stories from these great treasures in public, unfortunately.
We know that Rama had to go to the forest. But why did Seeta choose to go along with him? What exactly did she say to Rama? What words did she use to make her case? How did Rama respond to her? This detail tells how a woman who loves her husband and who can keep her head straight in such trying times of a great calamity befalling her husband, reacts. It is details like this that we are failing to convey to our children. You can easily imagine the difference between a child growing up listening to such poignant conversations and the one who does not. Children, these days, are growing up without ever getting exposed to such serious topics in the entirety of their formative years.
Not telling stories to children amounts to shirking our responsibility of providing a critical growth ingredient to them in their formative years. It is to alleviate this problem that the 'Read Ramayana' program has been conceived. Ramayana consists of twenty four thousand Slokas in total, and twenty thousand Slokas excluding Uttara Kanda which is often considered as an 'add-on'. If one reads Ramayana at the rate of a hundred Slokas a day, one can complete it in two hundred days, i.e., in about seven months. But there is no need to rush to complete it that fast. It would rather be more enjoyable and useful if one reads it at a more leisurely pace, say a hundred Slokas every weekend. At that pace it takes two hundred weeks, i.e., about four years, to complete reading Ramayana. It is just like watching television serials over many years. Ramayana, as you shall discover, is the first ever 'serial story' known to mankind. The story does not progress much in each and every Sarga. Rather, each Sarga offers a lot of detail, conveying something of significance about life. And the value and joy of reading lies in catching that detail. The 'Read Ramayana' program is designed to assist you in telling the story of Ramayana from beginning to end to your children or grandchildren over the course of four years at a leisurely pace.
You can start reading to them when they are at the age of five or six, and complete it by the time they attain the age of nine or ten. This is the age during which their interest in stories is at its peak. This is the age during which their idea of life takes shape. It may take a few weeks to get used to the routine of reading the story to them, but it would become part of your weekly routine before you know. You can either read Ramayana to them directly, or read it for yourself ahead of time and then narrate it to them in your own words. It will be nothing but extreme joy for you every week, listening to their questions and imagination, as you narrate the story to them. The bonding between you and the children develops new sprouts every week while you read the story to them. The memories of reading Ramayana for four years would last for life, both to you and to the children. The experience of reading Ramayana to children will remain an indelible mark on the sand dunes of time that slip through your fingers too easily and too fast. The rock solid bond that develops over the course of four years will survive all the turbulences that may arise time to time in the future. There would be no need to go to a psychological counselor, even under the most trying circumstances.
Now-a-days, it has become common for many elderly people to visit their children abroad for months and spend time with them and the grandchildren. It presents a great opportunity for the grandparents to read Ramayana to the grandchildren. Reading Ramayana can be continued even after the visit is complete, through video calls. It can be used as a great opportunity to tell grandchildren many things about the culture and family traditions, for which you may not get an opportunity otherwise. Children feel bored if you want to tell them about culture and family traditions for their own sake, but not if you discuss them while telling a story. Children are more at ease with the mother than with the father, and even more so with the grandparents. Grandparents should not waste the natural intimacy that the children feel with them. Reading Ramayana should be used by them as a means to connect with the new generation in a deep manner, with heart-felt discussions and exchanges.
The mechanics of participating in the Read Ramayana program are simple. First of all, you go to the website www.readramayana.org and submit your email id. You will immediately receive a signup form in email. You fill the form giving your preferences and details. You can choose the script in which you want to get the Slokas, which could be Devanagari or Roman or Telugu or Tamil or Kannada or Malayalam or Gujarati, and so on. Similarly you can indicate the date when you want to start reading Ramayana, which could be the birthday of the child, or another auspicious day or a festival day like Srirama Navami. You would also furnish the details like your gender, birth year and country of residence while signing-up. These details help the program organizers gather statistics about the demographics of the readers. Once you submit the form with these details, you will start receiving Ramayana Slokas every week starting from the date you have chosen, starting from Balakanda. You will receive one or two or three Sargas, which add up to about one hundred Slokas, every week. You will receive the Slokas in the script you choose and the meaning in English. Any interesting details or background or notes about the Slokas will be provided on the side.
We are trying to add the audio of Ramayana recited by Vedic Pundits soon, so that you and the children can learn to recite the poems by yourself. We are also hoping to provide the meaning in other Indian and international languages in due course.
ReadRamayana is completely free. It is run by Krishna Sharma, who lives in the USA but with his heart still living in India, with the help of many volunteers from across the world.
Over nine thousand people (see www.readramayana.org/?p=stats) have completed reading or are currently reading Ramayana through this program. We hope that lakhs of people will utilize this program and make Ramayana a tool to connect with the new generation.
Please visit www.readramayana.org for more details and for signing up.