Interview for The Asian Age

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Published on 4th November, 2014

By Rohini Nair
‘No one can escape mythology’ says Devdutt Pattanaik, who speaks of his latest title 7 Secrets of the Goddess and how the entire 7 Secrets series provides a good overview of Hindu art

Devdutt Pattanaik is the leading mythologist in India, perhaps the only one to have “leveraged the power of myths in business, management and (modern) life”. He’s also the author of several bestsellers, and his latest book 7 Secrets of the Goddess unravels the secrets around her stories, symbols and rituals.

Excerpts from an interview:

Please tell us a little about your new book in the 7 Secrets series: Was the imagery/stories pertaining to goddesses something that always interested you?

The purpose of this series was to familiarise people with the many images of gods and goddesses that we see in India. I found many academic books on the subject but none that speak to the common man. My attempt is to help the general reader appreciate these artworks and understand the deep symbolic meaning they communicate. I wrote one on Hindu calendar art, then one on Shiva, Vishnu and now, finally, the Goddess. Thus the books give a very good overview of Hindu art.

Could you throw some light on the contemporary relevance of the insights pertaining to the goddesses, as set down in the book how the mythology pertaining to these devis has shaped our thoughts/attitudes/expectations of womanhood even in modern times?

The Goddess has less to do with “womanhood” and more to do with “nature”. We often make the mistake of taking a symbol literally (if it is a goddess, then it must be about women). But symbols communicate ideas that have little to do with gender per se. Images of Gods have less to do with “masculinity” and more to do with the “mind”. Thus God and Goddess communicate ancient ideas about mind and nature. Just as nature can be wild like the forest and domesticated/cultivated like the field, the Goddess is wild like Kali and domesticated and controlled like Gauri. Just as nature gives us food and wealth, the Goddess is Lakshmi. We can relate to nature as Brahma trying to control nature, or as Vishnu enjoying nature without trying to control her, or as Shiva withdrawing from nature as an ascetic.

Why did you choose to discuss these specific goddesses in this book? Gaia, for instance, is the “odd goddess out” in a sense as she is not from the Hindu pantheon…

The first chapter of the book helps people appreciate Goddess mythology around the world, how Goddess worship once prevalent around the world has been completely wiped out, except in India. Gaia is the Greek name for the earth-goddess. No one in Europe worships her anymore. In fact, Europe rejected her in favour of a single male God. And today has rejected all gods and goddesses. Nothing is sacred in Europe anymore. But in India, Goddess worship thrives for it evolved very uniquely in India, with deeper meaning, enabling diversity and tolerance to more valued than monotheistic ideas that exclude all other ideas.

This is a subject you’ve researched so deeply for so many years now. But were there any surprising new insights or information you discovered while putting this book together?

My greatest realisation was that Hindu mythology never spoke of “true” gods and “false” gods. In other words, no god was excluded. All were accommodated. Each god became God (with capitals) when needed and the other gods supported that temporary God. Thus ideas were fluid and rather liberating.

You were also working on a children’s book… Is explaining mythology for children a different task from how you approach it for adult readers?

It’s Pashu, animal tales from Hindu mythology, to be launched in December by Puffin. I feel mythology is suitable for all ages. So I write books for different audiences: Children, young adults, mature readers. No one can escape mythology, even if they tried. For it is how we imagine the world. Our ideas of good/bad, heaven/hell, God/Devil, fate, free will, all are rooted in myths, which we communicate through our stories and our art.