An erudite and delightful conversation with Devdutt Pattanaik on mythology and its connections and where else but in Mumbai
After spending a few magical hours at the Crosswords bookstore from where I buy Sita An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana by Devdutt Pattanaik, I head toward the Taj Lands End Hotel. It is located in the suburbs of Bandra, a vibrant area in Mumbai with lots of cafes, bars and clubs.
In the lobby, Pattanaik humbly greets me as I walk toward him. Before the interview begins, we engage in a casual conversation over a cup of masala tea. I get Sita signed from him. He generously offers another signed book Seven Secrets from Hindu Calender Art.
"Mythology was basically my hobby. I used to read a lot in my free time as a child. Over time, I realised I was becoming more interested in the theoretical aspects of mythology and started reading academic books. Most of the writings were by foreign writers who had interpreted Indian philosophy by extensively relating it to the supernatural. I couldn’t understand the connection with the supernatural so I started writing to explain the Hindu mythology in a simple way to my readers."
Wearing a purple-coloured shirt with black trousers, he speaks taking several long pauses, separating one word from another. Perhaps he is cautious about thoroughly elucidating his words, that focus largely on mythology, to a layperson.
To listen to him is a joy; the unwelcome distraction of taking notes seems like a punishment.
Myths hold several different meanings to different people, I ask him to explain what myth is and how it functions in human life. "Myth is subjective truth -- your truth and mine. Every culture has its own understanding of what truth is. You enter the world of myths through the stories that people share and through those stories you take a peek into the minds of others. Stories are told everywhere in the world. Through these stories you find a truth and that is mythology. It is subjective truth as long as their subjectivity is relevant."
I want to know how mythology is still relevant in the present world. "It has nothing to do with the past; that is a colonial definition of mythology. Scholars don’t use that definition anymore. The concept of truth is not the same for every person. A religious person’s truth would be different from the ideas of someone who relies solely on science. The moment the topic of mythology is introduced, it deals with the subjective truth of a person which might not mean the same to others."
Pattanaik’s work focuses on deriving management insights from mythology to reveal an Indian approach to modern business. Having authored over 30 books, many of them best-sellers like Myth = Mithya, Business Sutra, The Pregnant King, and Jaya: An illustrated retelling of the Mahabharata, he continues to study and write on mythological stories and symbols by drawing rich connections and insights about its relation with the areas of business, leadership and modern life. His columns on management and culture appear regularly in The Economic Times, Mid-Day, Speaking Tree and the DailyO.
How does he link business management with mythology? "In Hinduism while numerous goddesses are worshipped, the three main goddesses are Laxmi (Goddess of Wealth), Durga (Goddess of Power) and Saraswati (Goddess of Knowledge). Wealth, power and knowledge are three things that humans exchange among each other. Money, property, food can be exchanged and measured. Power, on the other hand, being an intangible entity, can’t be measured but it can be given by ensuring a certain status in society or taking it away through human exploitation. Speaking about knowledge, it is something that can’t be measured whereas information can be measured. With knowledge one can become richer, powerful and wiser. All these three concepts are inter-linked and often used in management," he tells me, adding that he "links them with management by trying to explain how to maintain a balance between the three entities".
About the purpose of mythology, he says "human beings communicate through stories and that is the basic purpose of mythology: to give identity and connect people through relationships."
He graduated in medicine from Grant Medical College, Mumbai and subsequently did a course in Comparative Mythology from Mumbai University. I ask him how easy or difficult is it being a science student to believe in the supernatural power? He talks about the connection between mythology and psychology. He asserts that pure science is all about measurement; however, the mind which is complex in nature can’t be measured. "In the 19th century, everything that dealt with psychology was spiritual. The word psyche was introduced by Sigmund Freud in the 20th century but before that it was called the Matters of the Spirit. The Europeans linked the mind with the supernatural."
He argues that from a psychological point of view, everything that we consider supernatural is but a psychological state. So even the idea of god is a psychological idea and not scientific. The idea of God gives some people strength, hope and focus in life. For religious people, the mental models are real and, therefore, they have blind faith in concepts like hell and heaven.
"Hindu traditions are obsessed with the mind. The term Brahman can be split as brah-man where brah means expand and man refers to the mind. Brahman originally means a wise person who can expand his mind, someone who listens to what others say. Now in the present times, the meaning is totally opposite as it is linked to someone who is fundamentalist and very ritualistic. However, reading old scriptures, the meaning becomes clear," he says.
We discuss Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist who founded analytical psychology. His works also spread across various other disciplines including philosophy, anthropology, literature and religious studies. He visited India on an extensive tour in 1937 where he felt himself under the direct influence of a foreign culture. Though Hindu philosophy became an important aspect of his understanding of the role of symbolism and the unconscious mind, Devdutt Pattanaik thinks that his focus was mainly on Abrahamic traditions and he had a poor understanding of Hinduism. "Jung became seriously ill on his Indian trip and spent some weeks in the hospital in Calcutta. Also, he refused meeting Ramana Maharshi who was only 50 kilometres away from the place he was staying. Jung accepted he couldn’t understand Ramana’s idea of ‘the self’."
Pattanaik states that Jung’s theory also didn’t take into consideration the Hindu, Buddhist and Jain ideas of impermanence. "Jung talked about universal unconsciousness. His obsession with that is of a classical European mind which tries to universalise everything but is not able to appreciate diversity."
He believes Jung was the father of Comparative Mythology as he looked at all things common but "mythology is all about identity and identity is diverse. You are not me and I am not you. We may have things in common as we both can feel hunger, have certain fears, we can breathe but we are two different people having distinct ideas. Therefore, my work focuses on difference and not on the common. Subjectivity is more important than objectivity."
I ask him what he does he think about the objective world? "Mythology is a subjective concept. Objectivity to me is related to the physical but as soon as we enter the dynamics of psychology, the idea of objectivity loses its value."
He talks about his book The Pregnant King. It follows the story of Yuvanashva, a childless king, who accidentally drinks the magic potion meant to make his wife pregnant. It is set in the backdrop of the Mahabharata and makes references to characters and incidents in the Kurukshetra as well as the Ramayana. "When the king becomes pregnant, should he still be considered a man? What should his children call him mother or father? And if he’s a mother, is he allowed to become a king? So, I created a magical situation to raise questions about gender, identity and sexuality."
He agrees the west has had an avid interest in Hindu Mythology but he thinks they see it through an objective lens which either follows the Greek or Abrahamic structure. "It creates problems because in Hinduism, god isn’t necessarily defined as good; in fact he does all kinds of crazy things. That’s where the conflict arises. In order to understand Hindu mythology, one needs to remove the lens of objectivity." The Sanskrit word Bhagwan doesn’t mean god, it means one who sees all the slices.
What does he think is his most important work? "In 2013, when the Supreme Court of India set aside a Delhi High Court ruling that legalised homosexuality and upheld the law criminalising homosexuality, it was a major blow to the LGBT rights in India.
"Everyone was shocked because whatever India may be with all its problems, we were confident about our judicial system, that at a principled level we agree with more sophisticated way of thinking. We got a shock as to how primitive and backward we still were."
At that time, Pattanaik wrote his book Shikhandi which consists of thirty queer tales in order to highlight that queerness isn’t only modern, Western or sexual but has vast written and oral traditions in Hinduism, some of them over two thousand years old. "Shikhandi is a character from Mahabharat who becomes a man to satisfy her wife. Similarly, there are many more stories about men turning into women, women turning into men, men loving men and women loving women."
In his book Shikhandi, Pattanaik has also challenged patriarchy which asserts that men are superior. He believes that feminism is the struggle to resist discrimination and sexist oppression against both men and women. "I also write that in Hinduism, feminism was discovered because they say that the soul has no gender and gender is of the flesh. And soul should be valued more than flesh which is a feminist thought." He feels sad that patriarchy is designed by men due to their insecurity and desire to control women.
"Queerness questions what constitutes male and female. The argument given in favour of the ruling suggested that queerness isn’t part of our culture," he says.
He explains that in the 16th century Europe, Jews were being massacred but on the streets of India people would be discussing high philosophy. "Medieval Europe was conservative while people in India were living in peaceful co-existence." He mentions Rasa lila, the traditional story of Krishna described in Hindu scriptures such as the Bhagavata Purana and literature such as the Gita Govinda. The term, rasa meaning "aesthetics" and lila meaning "play" or "dance" is a concept from Hinduism, which roughly translates to "play of aesthetics" or more broadly as "Dance of Divine Love".
"The story comes in 12th century AD and at that time Islam had entered India. The poetry is highly erotic, extremely bold, and clandestine. The whole Krishna literature was at its height when Delhi was being ruled by Muslim rulers/kings."
He believes that the moment the Queen of England came to India during the Victorian era, everything started getting controlled. With the Europeans came a discomfort with the body; otherwise sensuality in India already existed. During the Mughal era, there was an erotic, sensory culture of music, poetry and arts but all that became dirty and puritanical with the coming of British.
"The western thinking had been about divide and rule. They used it to the maximum, but it’s not right to say they brought it. In Sanskrit four terms are used in politics including Saam (negotiation), Daam (bribery), Dand (punishment) and Bhed (division). All politicians like bhed the most. They assert their power by using bhed which is division," he says pointing indirectly to the Partition of India in 1947. "Borders are man-made, they aren’t natural so it is a fact that men make mistakes."
He tells me that he would love to visit Pakistan but he hasn’t yet been invited "because Pakistan loves Shobha De more". (laughs) "I have many Pakistani friends. Whenever I meet them, we have a lot in common to share. Among Pakistani writers, my most favourite is Jugnu Mohsin."
As a message to the modern people, people of today, he says: "Listen to each other’s stories. If you are husband listen to your wife, if you are a wife listen to your husband, if you’re parent listen to your child’s story and you will be surprised [because] it will be different from yours. Concentrate more on understanding each other. Instead of solving problems learn to live with differences and the world will become a slightly nicer place."
A previous version of the interview incorrectly stated that according to Devdutt Pattanaik Freud talks about universal consciousness and was the father of Comparative Mythology. The error is regretted and has been rectified.