by Vikram Doctor – Brand Equity, Economic Times[10-16 March 2000]

We know about management gurus and management mantras. But management and mythology? It’s easy to dismiss as yet another of those fads that management folks keep coming out with from time to time. But listen carefully to Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik – and managers from companies as diverse as Euro RSCG and TCS are – and myths can offer ways of looking at the world which people can use to understand their lives, both at a personal level and as part of companies. “People think of myths just as stories of gods and goddesses. What they don’t understand is that myths are systems which offer us paradigms for our lives,” he says.

Pattanaik – a medical doctor, he emphasizes – describes himself as ‘Health Communicator and Mythologist.’ It’s the former that provides his bread and butter; currently, he’s creating a health website for Net start-up Ideasnyou.com. Mythology is a private passion. It began with him writing popular books on Shiva, Vishnu, Devi and, soon to be released, Hanuman. ‘I have always been interested in myths, both Indian and of other cultures, but I didn’t realize how much I had learned until a friend suggested I write articles on them.”

Articles led to lectures, with encouragement from Parag Trivedi, a Mumbai-based music aficionado, who also pioneered the idea of turning his private interest into music courses for public and corporate workshops. Trivedi helped Pattanaik set up lecture sessions and workshops focused on the uses of mythology. Pattanaik has now done workshops for companies as varied as ad agencies FCB Ulka and Euro RSCG, telecom company Sprint RPG and infotech company Tata Consultancy Services.

Pattanaik finds it easier to describe what these corporate mythology lectures don’t do. “I do not draw allegories like saying Ram was the perfect employee! Nor do I look at myths in a historical sense, like actual events distorted over time. Instead, I look at myths for the purpose they serve, as ways of seeing the world.” Back to top Pattanaik uses the fact that myths are deeply ingrained in our culture (or any culture since one of his points is that all cultures need and have myths), and by explaining the significance behind these ideas tries to give new perspectives.

For instance, he often starts by asking people to translate the word ‘Satan’ into an Indian language. “And they can’t – ‘shaithan’ is a Perisan word. The exact concept of the evil that Satan represents does not exist in the Indian tradition.” From such examples of how myths can be used to understand Indian culture, Pattanaik turns to how myths can be used to understand personal direction. A favorite contrast he likes to draw is between Shiva and Vishnu. “Shiva is the ascetic, ash smeared and alone, and when he dances it’s for the sake of the dance alone. Vishnu is decked with jewels, always among people, and when he dances it’s a party. Both of them are ways in which people can work.”

Pattanaik stresses that these are not parable with morals to be drawn from them, but simply ways in which people can see themselves, and their roles in their organizations. In some cases, the courses may also have practical benefits – ad agencies, for example, can use them to understand consumer behavior. “I found the workshop really interesting,” says Vijay Vasudevan, an account planner at Euro RSCG. “In our business we have to deal with many different kinds of people and understand their needs. And understanding the myths they use can help us in this.”

Nonetheless, from Pattaniak’s viewpoint, the main benefit he seeks to provide is less tangible. “I just want of thinking, startle them out of their inertia and myths are the tools I use,” he says.