Thursday February 15, 2018   |   Devdutt Pattanaik

‘Mythology is how a culture sees the world. This worldview changes over time and space, with the challenges we encounter. And so all stories and symbols and rituals must be seen as transforming over history and geography’ –Devdutt

Bookaholicanonymous feels extremely proud and privileged to present this exclusive conversation with Devdutt Pattanaik, a myth teller extraordinaire. His major achievement has been that he is able to bring about a contemporaneity to myths and scriptures. Read on to know more...

About Devdutt Pattanaik: Who doesn’t know Devdutt Pattanaik, the renowned Indian mythologist. He is a writer known for his work on ancient Indian scriptures; most importantly he has incorporated myth into human resource management which has made him a household name worldwide. Devdutt opines that “no society can exist without myth as it creates notions of right and wrong, good and bad, heaven and hell, rights and duties”. To him, mythology “tells a people how they should see the world... Different people will have their own mythology, reframing old ones or creating new ones.”

Devdutt believes that leadership is about paying attention to the other, and enabling people not to mimic or pretend, but to be genuine/authentic about their fears. If a leader cannot sense fear in people around him, if a leader feels good when people around him are frightened into pretending, there is a problem. Power flows towards the leader or, rather, boss rather than towards the organization.

The interview:

You have such a vast knowledge about not only Indian mythology but also Greek and Egyptian mythologies, and you have based your analysis more in context of politico-socio changes from time in memoriam. Like in your book ‘Jaya’ a retelling of the Mahabharata the analysis very clearly shows the advancement of Aryans into the hinterland of India and the gradual transformation of a nomadic-nature worshiping people into settled pastoral communities. Thus you have given the epic a scientific tenor and contemporaneity. What has been your basis for such an analysis? Particularly in the light of your nuanced juxtaposition of anthropological and sociological evolvement of the Indic civilization.

Mythology is how a culture sees the world. This worldview changes over time and space, with the challenges we encounter. And so all stories and symbols and rituals must be seen as transforming over history and geography. As a student of mythology – and not just a storyteller – it is important to understand the evolution of ideas and symbols so that you can locate them in contemporary contexts. You also have to understand a bit of psychology, especially evolutionary psychology – what makes us see the world in a particular way. Its part of rigour that makes for good mythological analysis.

In one of your interviews you have said ‘myth means the subjective truth of a community shaped by inherited stories, symbols and rituals’ with this take you have shed light on political Hindutava versus spiritual Hinduism. How do you see the future of a syncretic and tolerant Hinduism in the growing environment of aggressive and violent ‘Hindutava’ forces?

Hindutva is based on Abrahamic myth of ‘wound’. They are continuously complaining of a past injustice and yearning for social justice. This is myth is found in China too amongst nationalists who speak of ‘century of humiliation’. Hindutva speaks of ‘thousand years of slavery’. It is also popular amongst Islamic radicals who speak gloriously of an imagined ‘Caliphate’ or the American Alt Right which is unhappy and wants to ‘Make America Great Again’ or Dalit movements that energize themselves about past injustices and yearning for an imagined world without any inequality. This is a subjective truth, indifferent to rationality and data, and it mobilizes the masses as it shapes enemies and transforms us into saviours and martyrs. Once, we recognize this, we are able to distance ourselves from its aggression and see it for what it is. Hindutva thrives on clinging to the past and moping about it constantly rather than moving forward. Hinduism is based on ‘letting go’ as it celebrates a world where nothing is permanent and attachment is the cause of sorrow.

You have read so many epics and mythologies. Didn’t you ever want to write a fiction by putting together the many interesting characters?

I have written a novel called ‘The Pregnant King’ about a man who accidentally drinks a magic potion meant for his wives and ends up bearing child, and a short story called ‘Is he fresh?’ which deals with human sacrifice in Mumbai slums.

Regarding your book on Shiva don’t you think that the relevance and presence of Shiva symbolizing a figure of all encompassing political ideologies like socialism,  Plato’s concept of a ‘philosopher king’, a democratic messiah gains credence in today’s chaotic times.

Shiva is not interested in the material world. So we cannot put him in places like socialism and philosopher king or even messiah, which is a Christian concept. He is the hermit who outgrows hunger and whose engagement with the world happens because of the Goddess. He personally functions at a transcendental not mundane level and so is often called Bholenath, or innocent one, who is unable to negotiate with mundane human needs like family and children and property and success. Hence he sits in serene isolation atop a mountain and his wisdom comes in form of dance and stories when he is engaged by Shakti. Without shakti, he is shava (corpse).

I have always wondered on the similarities of myths cutting across civilizations, doesn’t it in one way justify the superiority of Vedic aphorism of ‘Vasudevakutumbakam’ over other scriptures and mythologies?

The phrase ‘Vasudevakutumbakam’ happens when we achieve a level of spiritual awareness where we outgrow boundaries and do not distinguish between family and strangers. This means that you have no problems if strangers walk into your house and claim your spouse and property as their own – which happens in many folk tales involving Shiva. In Chanakya Niti, it is a comment made by fools and idealists who often get tricked into losing their property. Over time people, including Government, have romanticised this concept without actually appreciating the meaning or the context. Family inherits property. If the whole world is your family you should have no problem handing over your property to your neighbour. A hermit like Shiva may do that but his wife, Shakti, will stop him, as it is not pragmatic. 

You have been advisor to big corporate houses on human resource management incorporating myth and scriptural knowledge. Once again, does this imply in any way the superiority of our civilization in understanding of a human mind?

Seeking superiority of one’s culture is indicator of low self esteem and chauvinism. Every culture has its strengths and weaknesses, positives and negatives. We are just a different civilisation with a unique worldview that rest of the world has not encountered well. We see the world in terms of diversity, not equality. We reject homogeneity, but need to be aware that in ego, diversity becomes hierarchy.

You have written books on mythologies for children. How important do you think it is to groom young minds to correctly interpret and apply our scriptural wisdom in their day to day struggle for a place in today’s world?

There is nothing correct or incorrect. Children come with their own karmas (nature). Including our stories (nurture) in the world of stories they encounter will equip them better to face challenges of life. For it provides a different way of thinking: divinity is not out there somewhere; it is in you and in every person you meet, if you let it flower.

Bookaholicanonymous wishes that Devdutt Pattanaik continues to do what he does best, i.e. make our scriptures and myths come to life! Best Wishes to him!

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