“For Many People, God Is A Fact. For Others, It Is Not”: In Conversation With Devdutt Pattanaik

Posted on November 20, 2014 in Culture-Vulture, Specials, Staff Picks, Stories by YKA

By Artika Raj:

“A friend of my mine told me that I have the gift of associative logic. That I can see patterns easily in mythology and map them to patterns found in other domains like business and politics. It was not learned. It is something intuitive to me. The point is to see the underlying patterns of human behaviour and human communication.”

devdutt book

He’s the quintessential storyteller. His stories are simple, the wisdom of the myths brought home. At a TED Talk in 2009 he told us of Ganesha and Kartikeya competing in a race to circle the world, only for Ganesha to emerge victorious as he quickly circles around his parents, Shiva and Parvati, thrice, while the warlord Kartikeya decides to go jet-setting around the continents and the mountains. Ganesha’s victory lies in a simple explanation. While Kartikeya decides to race around ‘The World’, for Ganesha it is ‘My World’, his parents, who are the right choice. The ‘root cause of the clash of civilizations’ succinctly explained. Our need to view the world in terms of ‘my’ world and ‘your’ world. The need that is there as ‘each culture customises its own version of mythology’, their own view of the world, to understand the ‘myth that we live in’, Devdutt Pattanaik’s oeuvre of work as a renowned mythologist, motivational speaker, illustrator, leadership consultant and novelist is one way to start on the journey.

With the latest in the popular 7 Secret Series, ‘7 Secrets of the Goddess’ out now, a book that looks and demystifies popular assumptions about the figure of the goddess, Youth Ki Awaaz gets the author that is on everyone’s must-read-on-Sunday list, Devdutt Pattanaik to share with us some of his ideas…

On the wisdom of the ancients:

We make mythology more exotic and mystical than it is. These are just stories, symbols and rituals that communicate a subjective truth of a people. They are transmitted by communities over generations to establish a worldview. Tribes do it. Corporations do it. Nation states do it. Some use supernatural elements. Others don’t. It is obvious to the eyes that can see the humanity beneath the ‘savage’ and the ‘scientist’. We are conditioned to deny this humanity to the ancients. We see ourselves as different, more/less evolved, and that division prevents people from finding contemporary meaning in the oldest of stories.

On mythology and what we understand as ‘fact’:

Ideas like heroes, villains, and victims are not facts. They are assumptions. We equate assumptions with fact. I call them mythology. The idea of what is fact and what is not varies with communities. For many people, God is a fact. For others, it is not. For many, science is the only truth. For others, that is a limiting truth. We assume physical data as fact as it is measurable but what about psychological data which cannot ever be measured. Is our feeling, our dreams, our emotions, our hopes, merely fiction because no instrument can measure it? We live in a world where obsession with things over thoughts blinds us to other ways of looking at the world. That is not wisdom. That is not education: that is indoctrination.

On why and how polarised perspectives are formed, and why we consume them easily:

A polarised perspective is formed because we are so spellbound by frameworks and paradigms of European and American universities, that we apply them blindly to Indian social reality and mythic traditions. The result is a warped understanding of Indian thought, designed to make Indians ashamed of themselves, and embrace ‘modern ideas’ which on closer observation turn out to be exclusionary, pompous and lacking wisdom.

About an interview where he said “…the violent struggle between the older and the younger generation in which the younger always wins. But in the process, the wisdom of the past is lost”:

This refers to the Western model where the child is seen as progress and the parent is seen as outdated, to be wiped out, kept away in senior citizen homes. The West imagines itself as a linear movement out of mythology through religion to rationality. In reality, it is a cyclical movement where old mistakes are repeated. Thus contemporary society with rising rational atheism refuses to see how it functions in the cynical Greco-Roman paradigm that existed before Christendom. We forget our past and so repeat it. Such is the nature of Western society.  In Indian society all things exist simultaneously like a layered cake, giving the illusion of chaos.

On women “becoming a prey” and the “fear of dharma that keeps men in check”, of which he talks about in his book ‘The Pregnant King’:

In the context of the book, dharma is seen as code of conduct. Code of conduct changes with space and time. For most people dharma is niti (law) and riti (tradition). But dharma is a concept – of realizing human potential. Animals prey on the weak. Humans can help the helpless. When humans succumb to our animal urges, it is adharma. When we rise above our animal urges, it is dharma. But this is a personal journey. It cannot be enforced on others. Only niti and riti can be enforced on others to create what we imagine to be a civilised society.

On the absence of Mythology as a subject of study in Indian universities:

No Indian university has a department of mythology. There in one PG Diploma Course in the Sanskrit Department of Mumbai University. The focus is more on comparative storytelling rather than analysis. In universities abroad, this is a subject associated with sociology, religion or psychoanalysis. No one has a holistic view of the subject as it was held in disdain by ‘science’ revealing the exclusionary nature of rational thought.

On why he thinks his stories are so popular among us, the youth of today:

Surprisingly the modern youth is more interested in my reading than traditional elders perhaps because I question and explore everything and want to understand the logic underlying belief.

On the rebel youth icon Shiva:

Shiva is indifferent to rules. That is not the same as opposing rules (rebel). The youth oppose rules; they think smoking pot makes them ‘Shiva’. Those who choose to be indifferent to rules cannot be part of society. They cannot take up responsibility for others. They end up living isolated lives atop inhospitable un-inhabitable mountain peaks. To be part of society, they have to submit to the rules, marry as Shiva does, which is a metaphor for social engagement and world affirmation.

 Interview conducted by Ananya Barua.