Published in Devlok,  Sunday Midday, June 06, 2010

The editor of a magazine wanted me to be photographed wearing orange robes, a bell in one hand and a lamp in another, surrounded by images of gods and goddesses. This is what they believed a mythologist should look like. I refused and insisted they photograph me as I am! When the article was finally published, it stated: “Devdutt is very particular about the image he wishes to project. His smile is unsettlingly constant.” It suggested I was some sinister media manipulator, I felt. If I had submitted to wearing the orange robe, and allowed them to create an ‘image’ for me, would such a comment have been made, I wonder.

The event caused me to wonder: who constructs the images we see in the media. Is it what happened? Is it what journalists or media houses want to tell us? Or is it what we want to hear? What is the truth?

Ancient Indian wisdom, the Veda, is called Shruti, that which needs to be heard. What is heard is often colored by prejudices, hence we never quite hear the truth as told. That is why ancient Rishis spent their lifetimes purifying their minds and bodies so that they could hear the truth as it was. But still no one was sure if everyone saw the truth as it was.

Upanishads refer to a great conference organized by Raja Janak of Mithila. He invited all Rishis to discuss the nature of reality. Everybody came with a different view, though each one had heard the same thing. Upanishads means ‘come sit close to me’. In other words, it refers to close intimate conversations between two people, a seeker and a guru, a student and a teacher, a person who hears the story and a person who tells the story. Truth is that which is churned between what is said and what is heard.

Since ancient times, Indians have been advised to tell stories. Stories are called Ka-tha, which means ‘what happened?’ Stories were also called iti-hasa, which is now taken to mean history. In other words, stories were seen as the truth. The ancient Rishis accepted the fact that he who tells the story has his bias and so does he who hears the story. So why bother trying to separate fact from fiction.

Everyone wants to tell a sensational ‘breaking news’ story. Each one wants to bring a new angle. Naturally nothing is fair or balanced. Everything has a prejudice. What we hear is not the truth but a story – the Left wing story, the Right wing story, the story as NDTV sees it, or the story as Tehelka sees it.

Stories play a key role in shaping our lives. Stories told by Hitler led to the Holocaust. Stories told by the British led to the Partition. Stories told by George Bush led to the attack on Afghanistan and Iraq. Stories are shaping our attitudes towards Pakistan and Pakistan’s attitude towards India. Chinese people are told only those stories that their government wants them to hear. Where is the truth, I wonder?