Joshua M. Greene teaches Hinduism at Hofstra University. The author of several children’s books of stories from India, including Kaliya, Serpent King and Krishna and the Mystery of the Stolen Calves, his latest book, The Littlest Giant: The Story of Vamana, was released on March 18, 2014.
1. Tell us a little about your background as a storyteller, a student, and now a teacher.
I was raised by my mom, who had been an actress, so I’m sure that was an early influence. In the '60s, my career path was journalism, and when I met my spiritual teacher Prabhupada in 1970, he encouraged me to publish children’s books. I took that as a life’s mission.
2. When did you start writing stories for children and what inspired you do so?
During my first trip to India, in 1971, I did not speak a word of Hindi or Braj—the local language in Krishna’s village Vrindavan. But I met an old man who told stories by using a Pichwai painting, a series of images on a five-foot-square silk cloth. Imagine a graphic novel laid out on a single sheet. What I didn’t understand in words came clear in those images. Ever since, I have taught using lots of visuals and graphics.
3. How long have you been teaching bhakti yoga, and how would you describe your practice?
Prabhupada encouraged his students to teach from the beginning of their devotional life. Whatever we learned each day, he wanted us to pass on to others. But how well you teach depends on how well you listen. So I guess I would describe my practice as listening, giving others full attention, and servicing them without expectation of return. Bhakti is highly personal in that way.
4. You’ve written an impressive number of both adult, including Here Comes the Sun: The Spiritual and Musical Journey of George Harrison and Gita Wisdom: An Introduction to India’s Essential Yoga Text, and children’s books. What have you found rewarding about both experiences?
My adult books are mostly biographies of people who followed a path to enlightenment. Some paths are darker than others, for example the Holocaust survivors in Witness: Voices from the Holocaust or the Alabama lawyer who prosecuted Hitler’s henchmen in Justice at Dachau. Other paths are filled with light, such as Mr. Harrison’s. What turns me on is finding out what makes people go past their limits to do things they never thought themselves capable of doing.
5. Do you believe books can help shape a child’s character? In what way?
I don’t think so. Shaping a child’s character is the privilege of sensitive care-givers. Books can assist as tools of informed, loving child-rearing. What a book can do is to be a child’s best friend when grown-ups can’t.
6. You’ve adapted a number of stories from ancient Indian texts into children’s books. How do make otherwise esoteric subjects accessible and relevant to children today?
We need to examine our own reactions to “ancient” stories. If we judge these stories to be myths, fictions, something “long ago and far away,” then I doubt we can make them relevant. On the other hand, if we respect the stories and their characters as real people, and if we go deep inside the stories to find the kernel of truth which transcends time, then maybe we can tell that story in a meaningful way to young people today.
7. What’s on the horizon for you?
A biography of my teacher Prabhupada, more books for children, and greater attention to my own devotional practice.