‘All humans live in myth’ - Devdutt Pattnaik

Vinaya Patil
Tuesday, 4 July 2017

Says author and mythologist Devdutt Pattnaik as he talks about his new book and his idea of mythology and culture.

In a country of multiple religions and religious discourses, Devlok is a mythology series that sees author and mythologist Devdutt Pattnaik answering several questions on Hindu mythology, stories, symbols and rituals in simple illustrations and casual discussions. He recently published a book by the same name based on the first series of the show while the new season of the series goes on air on July 4, on Epic channel. 

We speak to the author about the book, the show and his work:
What made you turn the series (Devlok) into a book?
This was an initiative by the publisher Penguin Random House. Full credit goes to them for this idea, especially their sales team who saw the potential.
How did the idea of illustrations come up? You have done this with the retelling of Mahabharata too.
The illustrations on the show are done by Epic TV animation team. There are no illustrations in the Devlok book. Many of my books are illustrated though. I like illustrating my books where needed.
The Girl Who Chose — why did you choose to focus on Sita in this book? What triggered  it?
It is not Sita’s narration. It is just drawing attention to the fact that in Valmiki’s Ramayana, Sita makes five choices. Many scholars are too busy showing how regressive Ramayana is to point to this profound, even progressive, side and the complications of making choices and its relationship to karma.
Why did you think this retelling of mythology was necessary?
Because all humans live in myth. Our notions of right and wrong, good and bad, heaven and hell, fate and free will, are all based on some assumptions, communicated through cultural stories, symbols and rituals. These need to be reframed for every generation, using contemporary language and reference to contemporary contexts.
You speak of understanding the meanings of the epics and the context in modern times — isn’t mythology sort of subjective in terms of deriving meaning out of it? What, according to you, defines true or false, and how do you contextualise it in the modern times?
I always share ‘my truth’ and hope it will inform, and maybe expand ‘your truth’. This is the basis of my 30 books and 600 articles!
What does the new season of Devlok hold for us?
The new season deals with new ideas not only from Hindu mythology; we expand our mind when we go to new spaces.
How did the shift from medicine to mythology and writing happen? Or were you always interested in mythology? 
Mythology and medicine were parallel tracks for many years. The former was my hobby and the latter my education. When I worked in the pharma industry, I spent weekends reading and writing on mythology. These gradually caught attention of many magazine editors. Eventually it led to books and lectures and consultations. And in 2008, thanks to Kishore Biyani who hired me for his think tank, I could do mythology full time. Now I am on my own, with mythology paying the bills.
You say this: Myth = Belief = Subjective Truth = Cultural Assumptions.
Mythology = stories, symbols and rituals that communicate myth.
Kindly elaborate.

The West believes we live only one life and the world changes only when there are revolutions. This is an assumption that shapes our lives. It is communicated through stories in press and in cinema and television. This is Western myth. We, in India, have adopted it, and so have become Westernised. However, we are not entirely Western as we do believe we live many lives, and that the world is always changing, as Buddha and Jina and Vedas say. This is Indian myth. The idea came to us via cultural stories, like Ramayana and Mahabharata, rituals like visarjan where gods go away each year only to come back next year, and symbols like ‘rangoli’ that are created in the morning and wiped out by the end of the day.  
Indian retelling of Greek myths — why did you choose to do this?
If we have to understand Indian culture, we must understand Indian mythology and distinguish it from Western culture, hence mythology. Western mythology is shaped by two main myths — Greek and Biblical. And so, if one does not want to be kupamanduka (‘frog in well’, Sanskrit), we need to read about other cultures and myths, including Greek. Hence this book looks at Greek mythology from an Indian lens. The Indian lens reminds us that when Europeans or Americans write on Ramayana and Mahabharata, they present ‘their’ truth not ‘the’ truth, their lens, so we must not get hysterical as some political folks do if they don’t like their writing. 
What, according to you, is the position of the modern woman vis-a-vis women in our mythology?
In Hindu mythology, soul has no gender. Gender is part of the flesh. The wise focus on the soul. The insecure, and the hungry, focus on the flesh. 
What next, apart from your book Hanuman Chaalisa?
A journey towards infinity considering we have infinite gods in the world.


The new Devlok series goes on air from July 4, every Tuesday, at 8 pm on Epic channel

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