Meet Devdutt Pattanaik: the logical mythologist
“Writing clears my mind…It is my meditation,” says Devdutt Pattanaik in conversation with Smita Dwivedi.
We all know Devdutt Pattanaik as one of the most learned mythologists of all times, but little does everyone know that he is a qualified medical doctor by education. On record, he has authored over 1000 columns and 41 books including bestsellers like My Gita, Jaya, Sita, Business Sutra and the 7 Secret Series and many more. He is a leadership consultant, who consults organisations on culture, diversity and leadership. Here’s Smita Dwivedi in conversation with the legend himself –Devdutt Pattanaik.
When did you realize that there’s an author trapped inside, who just wanted to break free? Was it an instant realization or a long yearning?
Devdutt: Like all children of the time in which I grew up, I too, read Amar Chitra Katha comics and Chandamama. It was through these comics,I accessed mythology and then moved on to the fascinating realms of Greek, Egyptian and Assyrio-Babylonian stories. I thought Amar Chitra Katha and Chandamama had exhausted the list of stories,but then I realised that there are a vast number of stories that are not told yet…some which are meant for older consumption. I started writing stories as and when I came across ancient texts that spoke of them and compiled them in books. After a while, I saw patterns emerging in the various stories. Long before I had heard of mythology as a serious scholastic activity, I had begun to collect stories, to re-tell them, to notice their recurrent motifs. Now, I like exploring the relevance of the mythological stories in the modern age.
How did your hobby to explore mythology turned into this deep-rooted passion?
Devdutt: Mythology has always fascinated me. Hindu mythology is vast and voluminous. There is so much we don’t know or has not been presented in a simplified way, making sense to contemporary times. So, there is so much to write…and I am addicted to writing as it clears my thought, refines my ideas, makes me calm and focused. All this enables the voluminous writing. I have always been interested in ancient stories, whether they are from Indian, Greek or Egyptian mythology. I was intrigued by how different myths explain the different ways in which different cultures think…both ancient and modern. Most people have not realised how much these traditional stories reveal human behaviour. We tend to relegate mythology to the past – when actually it is relevant through time.
How did you establish the link between mythology, belief, and modern-day practices?
Devdutt: Mythology is a cultural truth, and belief is established through mythology. Therefore, belief in God, for example, is established in the Christian world through the Bible, in the Islamic world through the Quran. In the Hindu world, the concept of God is established through its temples. Modern day practices are established through modern mythic structures, for example, the state creates the idea of Republic Day and Independence Day, in the course of time, these become modern practices. The idea of the National Flag is a modern practice; the ritual of standing up during the National Anthem is a modern practice. All this creates a belief in the Nation State, the Republic of India, which does not exist in nature, but is a construction of a community, which makes the truth of India a cultural truth. All nation states are really cultural constructions, and therefore stories about the value systems of each nation state constitute those nationalist mythologies.
You are known for fictional work and interpretations of ancient Indian scriptures. Do you face any challenge while writing a book on mythology?
Devdutt: The biggest challenge is the assumption of people. For the last 200 years, we have been fed the colonial version of Hindu mythology. This in turn, has been further modified by Indians who have been embarrassed by Indian thought, so they try very hard to make it seem scientific and end up making it Pseudo scientific. Also, Puritanism and Gandhi-ism prevent us from understanding the erotic culture of India. Explaining the concept of rebirth is a huge challenge. We don’t understand the metaphysical implications of rebirth in every aspect of Hindu mythology and this continuously demands reiteration.
Myth and Mythology – your comments…
Devdutt: Facts are everybody’s truth. Fiction is nobody’s truth. Myths are somebody’s truth. No society can exist without myth as it creates notions of right and wrong, good and bad, heaven and hell, rights and duties. Mythology tells people how they should see the world… Different people will have their own mythology, reframing old ones or creating new ones.
I just refuse to accept information based on bias and without checking all the data. Most people approach mythology in general and Hindu mythology in particular with a bias that distorts all understanding of scriptures. For example, many who read Ramayana assume that Sita is victim. Yet, when we approach Ramayana by seeing Sita as Goddess, we discover she makes five choices in the epic, and Ram none. Who is more empowered?
What books have influenced your life most?
Devdutt: The books that have inspired me are not from the literary genre. I come from a medical background, and so medical textbooks inspire me greatly. These books were written in a simple way. My favourite textbooks were the Chaurasia Textbook of Anatomy and in the PSM Preventive and Social Medicine, there was a Park’s Textbook. Both these books were written very analytically to make a complex object understandable. The methodology used made the subject so accessible that I always admired it.
When I began delving into mythology, I felt that mythology should be written the way those textbooks were written – in a simple way, so that people can understand better. Poetic expression is bit of an irritant to me; because many students of sciences do not read literature and literary books are designed in a very different way. For me, scientific study has been a very important influence. In fact, I know many other books from the medical world that I have always enjoyed. In most of my books, the use of diagrams, the use of boxes, the use of bullet points, the use of tables all come from the influence of those science text books.
Nowadays, everyone has an opinion to post on social media platforms. How you deal with the pros and cons of recreating new viewpoints for existing beliefs?
Devdutt: I don’t think there are ever any new points created. It is just that most people go with contrarian views, where they reject a work or they appreciate it. So whenever there is an idea presented, some people go for it, some are against it and some come up with various arguments for or against it, it is part of the argumentative Indian.
Do you have anything specific that you want to say to our readers?
Devdutt: ‘Write’ because you enjoy writing not because you want to be published and be appreciated by a reader. That is the worst reason to write a story. You should write a story because you have something to say and you want to share it, but if nobody is obliged to listen to you, that is perfectly fine. If people reject your book and don’t want to read it, you still must continue to believe in your work. If people don’t want to read it, that is perfectly fine. That’s an attitude one must have, if one genuinely wants to be a writer, otherwise you are something else, disguised as a