Of food and faith

By Anuj Kumar 

Published on 26th July, 2017, in The Hindu

In the post truth world, does mythology matter? Always keen to explain myths, Devdutt Pattanaik is eager to take that. “Mythology was there before truth existed. In fact, truth is a western religious concept coming from Judeo-Christian tradition. It seems static while knowledge is expanding all the time. The binary way of thinking is a western model. We are a land of metaphors,” counters the prolific author, adding that he never justifies mythology. “Justifying is like selling and that is the space of evangelism.” The danger is, he continues, that now we are becoming binary. In shastarth, he reminds, one doesn’t have to win the argument because such a thought feeds ego. “For example, why do you disagree when I say it is sweet,” he points towards his glass of fresh lime soda. “Has your tongue been designed differently? That’s interesting, because new knowledge will come out of it,” Pattanaik casually brings his love for symbolism to the table at Varq, the popular restaurant of the Taj Mahal Hotel.

Known for its innovative Indian dishes, we have a trio of fish, chicken and lamb galouti to start with. “We are trying to make Hinduism singular,” he underlines. It seems some are in competition with monotheistic traditions. “Yes, when you have inferiority complex, you compete. When you have atma gyan, you don’t contend,” avers Pattanaik, who has just come out with My Hanuman Chalisa (Rupa), where he explores the popular religious work.

“I was thinking of writing about Hanuman and was looking for an anchor.” Of late, he has been interested in the idea of darshan. “Darshan usually means only images but what if I do darshan of a piece of literature.” The idea spurred at the British Museum, where they have a section called the history of world in hundred objects —the idea of taking a tangible thing to understand the intangible. “People are familiar with Hanuman Chalisa but still many are unfamiliar because we don’t do darshan of what we chant or recite.” Darshan, he explains, is about moving from sight to insight. “At one level Tulsidas’s choice of Awadhi words excites me, at another it tells us about our culture and civilisation,” says Pattanaik, adding wisdom doesn’t necessarily come from Sanskrit texts.

“Tulsidas popularised the idea of Hanuman. This is how knowledge spreads in India. There is no idea of church. It just happens organically. Somebody who feels like shares it with people.” Like he has done it now…. “This is a leap from words to a larger idea. The doha begins with char phal. Does it literally means four fruits? Of course not! The char phal are four goals of human existence: dharma, artha, kama, moksha. Or why does Ram is called tapasvi raja. How can a raja be ascetic? It is not a random collection of words, it has a beautiful melodic arc that takes you to the idea of moksha.”

Pattanaik is fascinated by the simplicity of the Hanuman story and the plurality that he symbolises. “The whole idea that a servant — Ram dasa — can become god is something. It reflects that god is in everybody. There are temples where he is a dasa and then there are temples where he stands alone. Pehle hanuman phir bhagwan, it is almost like that.”

Pattanaik says Hanuman’s appeal lies in the fact that there is nothing complex about him. “He is popular among Shaivities, Vasihnavites and he is followed in Vedic as well as Tantric tradition. He provides an easy way to explore the mythological space.” We tend to forget that Hanuman is janeu wearing warrior, a poet and a musician as well. “His father is not a Brahmin. It makes us contemplate on the value of effort and aptitude. The monkey creature of forest has Vedic gyan. When Ram meets him for the first time, he speaks Sanskrit. Later when the situation demands he speaks to Sita in Prakrit. So he is adaptable — both in form and thought.”

Teaching metaphors

The biggest problem in life, says Pattanaik, is to teach people metaphors. “We live in the world of engineering while our scriptures are about symbols. We talk through gestures. Even gods play dumb charades.” Isn’t it getting too imaginative? “No, there is a very famous Hanuman image called tamacha Hanuman where the hand of the deity is not in the form of blessing but more like a slap. “It is popular in Karnataka. We don’t know whether it is deliberate or an artist’s mistake but it provokes conversation.”

Like how over the years mythology has become an archaic thought…. Pattanaik smiles at the provocation. “The British used the word religion for monotheistic traditions and they used mythology for mocking at polytheist traditions. They didn’t realise there is mythology of one god and there is mythology of no god as well. What is the world without a god — it is a world where Buddha becomes an icon for a spa. Now we have a Buddha bar. This is what the world of no god does to Buddha. And we are not supposed to get offended or cry. Which one is better — mythology of more gods is at least plural,” he muses.

As the main course — murg sirka pyaz, paneer anardana — arrives, the discussion shifts to how food is an important part of faith. “When Shiva says he doesn’t want food, the Goddess disappears. Food doesn’t differentiate between Brahmin and Shudra; humans do. Philosophy of food is big in India,” says Pattanaik, who writes about food in metaphorical terms. Every god is offered some specific items. Pattanaik says he doesn’t know the reason but there is a pattern to it. “Hanuman is offered til oil, urad dal — high protein diet. He is also offered leaves of arka plant which are poisonous. Shiva is offered bel fruit and dhatura.

Many of these fruits grow in the wild which match their personality. Shiva is a mendicant, Hanuman is monkey god so he is found in the forest of bananas, which is metaphorically the land of women where only a brahamachari (celibate) like Hanuman could enter.”

Pattanaik has written extensively about bhog, the offering to gods. “All gods are foodies. Ganesha likes sugarcane, Krishna has ghee, butter and other processed food and Goddess wants blood. In Delhi, at Kal Bhairav Mandir, you have to offer liquor.” As one pokes him that some find this ritual atavistic, Pattanaik says that they are missing the symbolism behind it. “Indians are not foolish people. They know stones can’t eat. These are ritualistic performances which are meant to give you atma gyan. In a birthday cake you blow out a candle and spit on it. Is it logical? But we do it because we feel loved and happy. Rituals are like that. They are not designed to be logical. I can eat without this cutlery as well but this performance enhances the experience of the palate.”