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If you do not have mythology you cannot be human: Devdutt Pattanaik

Posted On : August 06 2018



The Great Indian Film and Literature Festival (GIFLIF) was back in Bhopal for its third edition. Over the past years the event, organised by White Wall Media, in collaboration with the culture department, Government of MP, and powered by Rabindranath Tagore University, in association with MPSTDC, LIC, Dilip Buildcon and Dainik Bhaskar, has established itself as a landmark occasion for theatre, literature and film lovers of the city.


I had planned in advance to attend the second day session (August 4, 2018) of the event as Pattanaik, one of my favourite authors and a mythologist, was to speak about his writing on a subject he knows best — mythology. My expectations to see a jam-packed hall wasn’t far-fetched. The excitement was palpable to hear it straight from the prominent mythologist himself.

Saumya Kulshreshtha, a writer in her own right had come all the way from New Delhi to moderate the session with Devdutt Pattanaik. As both of them took center stage there was a hush of anticipation. Saumya introduced the renowned author to the all-ears-and-glued-to-the-seats audience. Pattanaik has written 40 books on Indian mythologies besides the innumerable write ups and stories he has penned. The first question Saumya asked Devdutt was about Bhimbetka — Devdutt had visited the World Heritage site the first thing in the morning. “I went to Bhimbetka today, and I was amazed, it’s the earliest art form that humans have created. Bhimbetka, I can say, is the ’cradle of civilisation’, replied the author summing up as softly as possible about the ancient rock art. 


As to what the rock paintings represent, Pattanaik said, "Who knows whether it was a father showing his children how animals look or simply it could have been imagination expressed on a blank surface!" He further said Bhimbetka tells the history of ’human evolution’. "We get to know what the humans of the time lived, like they were hunters, what they ate, their anxiety, their poetry, death, purpose of life and for the first time we see a representation of a horse," he added.

The talk then progressed to what more he wanted to see in and around Bhopal. The author lamented that the tight itinerary prevented him from going to Sanchi, a place he dearly wanted to visit as this was the the place where a statue of Goddess Lakshmi was found for the first time. Talking about the stupas, he said he had heard, read and seen pictures of the beautiful torans around the stupas that depict the Buddhist world view. Elaborating on the architecture, the author praised the intricate carvings of Jataka Tales and women, mostly scantily clad and dancing in gay abandon around trees. This, he emphasised, depicts how women of that time were more free than now.

Saumya then steered the conversation back to Bhopal. Devdutt said he has heard of ’Raja Bhoj’ and was reminded of ’Singhasan Battishi’ the throne of Vikramaditya — on which, Raja Bhoj wanted to sit. However, the 32 statues on the throne give 32 value educations to Raja Bhoj before they allowed him to sit, which ostensibly meant that a person should have 32 qualities to become a ruler. "But sadly today, we should consider ourselves lucky even if one quality was seen in our leaders," Devdutt said, while he waxed eloquent on the city’s Tribal Museum. Talking about the muesuem, he said, “It should not be called a museum, it’s a living tradition of the tribal heritage of the region.” Saying this, he also described a common factor in all the tribal communities. He said, “I had gone to Canada and met some tribal communities there. I came to know that they do not plough the land as they believe this will hurt Mother Earth, the same value that I found here in the museum. Tribal communities will sow seeds than till the land. Tribal communities have such common values everywhere.”

Finally, the conversation veered towards Devdutt Pattanaik’s home topic — Spirituality. He said, "Spirituality is personal truth, a personal journey. So therefore we say ’my Krishna, my Shiva’." Delving on Indian philosophy, he said, “It is based on debt. In Hinduism God is not a judge, so we do not have a ’judgement day’ or ’kayamaat’. For us, God is someone who keeps records of our karmas or deeds, which we have to repay in our next birth." Talking further on Indian beliefs, he added, “For Indians, our symbol is a ’chakra’ which denotes that something that goes ’up’ has to come ’down’ tomorrow. So we believe everything is cyclical. These believes are underlined in all my writings.”

According to the author, there are three types of spirituality — the first being ’Monotheism’ or believing in one god. The second type believes in multiple gods, hence it creates mythology. The third type, he explained, is ’Athesism’ or the ones who believe that there is no god. 

Talking about his favourite epic, Pattanaik said, “Everyone thinks the Mahabharata to be a complex tale. But for me, though Ramayan seems easy it is much more refined. After a while, the Mahabharata becomes boring but Ramayan continues to engross you!”

Explaining this concept further, he said, “I’ll give you an example. Raja Janak was a wise and intelligent and a scholar king. He accepted a baby girl born off the tilled earth as his daughter and named her Sita. Sita was also called Janak putri. Why? Because the daughter of such a father cannot be ordinary, and she was indeed special. He knew he had inculcated in her with as much knowledge as he could and was confident that Sita could handle any challenge that life throws at her. There was no ’viraha’ (pain of separation) when she married and left. On the other hand, Raja Dashrath did a ’yagna’ for sons, because he was desperate to have sons. And see what happened — he had to send two of his sons to exile, and face the pain of ’viraha’. So, this magnificent epic does not tell you things on your face — it is for you to derive.” 

Pattanaik has been writing for 20 years now and has authored about 40 books — all this, after studying medicine! When asked how does manage all of these, the author said with a smile: “I have nothing else to do. I love what I do, I am an academic nerd!”

Talking about his writing methodology, he said, “Science forces one to be structured. If I have to write about Shiva, I will read up all books and stories about him, read about the symbols and rituals associated with him. Research is not just reading, it also means talking to scholars, visiting places and do some serious critical thinking.”

When asked about what he reads and who influences him, he said, “I love reading encyclopedias. While Mario Miranda influenced me with his black and white work, Jaimini Roy taught me framing and, of course, medical diagrams influenced my art form.”

When Saumya asked him about his illustrations, Pattanaik said it was his creation. He said his illustrations are two dimensional so as not to clutter the pages. On a lighter note he said, they are very close to line diagrams!

Talking about his Twitter handle, he said: “Till the time fools live, scholars will have a market value!”

The interesting session wrapped up with a Q&A with the audience. One young fan asked him how he could sleep with so much information in his head. "Whiskey!", he replied with a smile. Another girl asked him: “Why do honour killings take place? Is there such a parallel in mythology?” To this he said, “Where there will be ego (ahankara) there will be honour killing. Where there is no self-realisation there will be honour killing; parents need to learn: They don’t own the children!”

With is powerful message the session came to a brilliant end. And, what I took away from the session were:

·         Mythology makes us human.

·         Research methodology involves talking to scholars, visiting places and critical thinking.

·         When you ask questions you get answers.

·         Mythology transmits knowledge through stories.


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