An Indian Retelling of Greek Myths
• Olympus is the home of the Greek gods, much like Amravati of the Hindu devas.
• Zeus, leader of Olympians, wields a thunderbolt like Indra and rides an eagle like Vishnu.
• The feats of the Greek hero Heracles, known to Romans as Hercules, reminded many of Krishna, as did his name, ‘Hari-kula-esha’ or lord of the Hari clan.
• The Greek epic of a husband sailing across the sea with a thousand ships to bring his wife, Helen, back from Troy seems strikingly similar to the story of Ram rescuing Sita from Lanka.
Is there a connection between Greek and Hindu mythology then? Does it have something to do with a common Indo-European root? Or maybe an exchange of ideas in the centuries that followed the arrival of Alexander the Great, when Greek emissaries travelled to the kingdoms of Mathura and Magadha?
In this book, mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik turns his attention to ancient Greek tales and explores a new world of stories. Long have Europeans and Americans retold Indic mythologies. It is time for Indians to reverse the gaze.
Urmi Chanda-Vaz on www.scroll.in wrote:
The elegant front cover features an illustration of the Trojan Horse. There is another interesting image on the back cover ― this one of Atlas bearing the world on his shoulders. The blurb ends with the tantalizing words: ‘Long have Europeans and Americans retold Indic mythologies. It is time for Indians to reverse the gaze.’ These glimpses of what lies inside induce the reader to pick up ‘Olympus – An Indian Retelling of the Greek Myths’ by Devdutt Pattanaik, published by Penguin. And the book lives up to its promise, revealing itself to be a veritable treasure house of intriguing tales and incisive analysis of Greek myths. Pattanaik also juxtaposes Greek tales with parallels from Roman and Indian tales, highlighting the similarities and differences that make the stories more relevant to us.
Some of the characters he writes about are familiar ― Zeus, Hera, Artemis, Apollo, Oedipus, Poseidon, Hermes, Circe and Helen. Zeus, the king of the gods rules in Olympus and wields the thunderbolt, much like our Indra. But he rides the eagle and is the protector of the universe like Vishnu. Zeus and his brothers divide the cosmos between themselves. Zeus rules the sky, Poseidon the seas and Hades the underworld. We remember that our Puranas talk about the three realms too: Bhu-loka, Swarga-loka and Patala-loka.
But there are a host of other characters we have not heard of as well. To give an example: The beautiful Leto captures the interest of Zeus and becomes pregnant. Jealous Hera, Zeus’ wife, invokes a monster, the Python, to devour her. Leto finds shelter with her sister and gives birth to the twins Apollo and Artemis. The newborns raise their bows and shoot arrows that kill Python. Much like our own Karthikeya, says Pattanaik, for Shiva’s son kills Tarakasura within days of his birth. Again, their gods, like ours, fall prey to lust and envy, ambition and greed. But what seems to be lacking in them is a desire to reform or to draw lessons from their travails.
Just as there are similarities, there are differences too between Western and Hindu lore. Pattanaik highlights their belief that ‘the world is in need of changing, either by Greek heroes, or by Abrahamic prophets and kings, or by scientists, activists and capitalists. Indic mythology presents the idea that the world is constantly changing, human intervention notwithstanding.’ He also emphasizes that Indic mythologies do not follow the linear structure of Western philosophers but a cyclical one.
Maybe Pattanaik will delve deeper into a few selected stories and characters in a later book and bring out the Greek world view and philosophy. That would be an interesting read!
While we dip into Pattanaik’s book, we cannot help but ponder on how people everywhere are the same. And yet so different.
Olympus is a must read for all those who are interested in mythology. Exuberant tales peppered with beautiful illustrations. This one is for your library!
What Greek myths have in common with Indian mythology (and why it matters)
Devdutt Pattanaik’s new book unveils convergences and spots connections.
If you are even remotely active on social media, chances are you have come across a viral video titled Momondo – The DNA Journey. It features a bunch of strangers of different nationalities participating in a DNA investigation programme. The project was created by a travel search engine called Momondo, in association with a company named Ancestry, in which 67 participants were made to take a DNA test that would reveal their ancestral journey far, far beyond their immediate predecessors.
The video features the shocked, surprised and even emotional responses of these participants as they realise that some part of their DNA comes from nations and people they are rather prejudiced against. The message is simple yet profound: You have more in common with the world than you think.
At a time when partisan politics, boundary walls, and force-fed nationalism dominate our front pages and news feeds, messages like these are important. And renowned Indian mythologist, Devdutt Pattanaik seems to want to drive home a similar message with his new book, Olympus: An Indian Retelling of Greek Myths. By talking about the “other”, Pattnaik also holds up a mirror to the self.
Olympus is a paradigm shift for Pattanaik, whose domain so far has been Indian mythology. Even those who do not particularly care for mythology will have certainly heard about and/or read this prolific writer, columnist, illustrator and speaker. Whether on political issues or gay rights, social concerns or management models, Pattanaik’s thinkpieces are ubiquitous. But he writes about them all through the lenses of ancient Indian stories. Now, for the first time, in his own words, he “reverses the gaze”.
While numerous Western scholars and writers have been writing about India and her tales, Pattanaik now tells us the tales of the “West”. But yes, he merely tells them; it is not a “retelling” as the title claims. What he does add are trivia boxes at the end of each sub-chapter, highlighting instances from Indian (and other) mythology that resemble the story he has just told. These are valuable indeed, and I shall come back to them a little later.
Pattanaik starts the book with the Greek creation myths, moving on to the story of the Titans, the Olympians, through the semi divine human heroes, going right up to the brink of ancient Greek history. The book is divided into 10 sections, starting with a Prologue, followed by eight chapters named after eight prominent Greek gods/heroes, and ending with an Epilogue playfully titled “The Indian Headshake”.
He makes an interesting choice of a sutradhar who holds the narrative together. The author imagines a conversation between the Greek warrior-king, Alexander the Great, and a gymnosophist during his Indian expedition. As a historical human hero who believed he was a son of god and destined for Olympus, Alexander is the perfect narrator. He straddles the worlds of history and mythology, often blurring the lines.
While all ancient cultures come with their respective myths, Greek mythology evokes a special interest because Greece is often considered the cradle of western civilisation. It is only when one reads this book that one realises just how far reaching its influence is on public consciousness. It is something of a crash course in etymology with plenty of “Oh!” moments, even as one realises the Greek roots of so many words in common parlance.
Take the following terms drawn directly from Greek mythological characters: “Psychology” from Psyche, “Europe” from Europa, and “nemesis” from…well, Nemesis. Pattanaik also notes the many names that are used in the fields of astrology, geography, sports, popular culture and even technology. This book will help answer questions such as why the Trojan virus gets that name, what the name of the movie Ship of Theseus really implies, and why a Cadmean victory is not worth it.
I, for one, was truly taken aback when I realised that “Nemo” means “nothing”, which means Finding Nemo really amounts to finding nothing! The author’s cross-disciplinary approach is truly laudable.
Coming back to the trivia boxes with notes on comparative mythology, it is by comparing and contrasting Greek and Indian myths that the purpose of the book is truly fulfilled. In pointing out conceptual equivalents such Hermaphroditus and Ardhanarishvara, Eros and Kama, Zeus and Indra, Dionysus and Shiva, or Heracles and Krishna, the author successfully demonstrates how similar we all are despite our differences. And he does not stop at Hindu mythology. He brings in elements of folk religion, Jainism, Buddhism, Christianity and even ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian myths where applicable.
But what shines most brightly are the insights on history. My absolute favourite part of the book is the Author’s Note in the beginning. In just seven odd pages, littered with his attractive illustrations, Pattanaik writes a most succinct cultural history of the world. In very simple words, he presents a case for cross-cultural exchange that has gone on from the ancient times.
Throughout the book we see how Alexander’s numerous conquests opened the floodgates to these exchanges. This became evident in the swapping of storytelling templates. Greek models in the Hindu Puranas, Puranic stories in Iran, or Egyptian tales back in Greece – the mashup was ubiquitous and complete.
Beyond our political boundaries live our genetic cousins we care not to think about. This book is a great reminder that we ought to.