Tehelka, Oct 28, 2006
Hitch-hikers, here’s your guide to the Hindu multiverse and all the thirty three million deities. Mythology demystified but not dumbed down. Delves for the sat behind the mithya, and isn’t heavy-handed or maudlin about it; there’s real affection in these retellings.
Hidden Truth: Making sense of the gods and goddesses of Hindu mythology By S. Kalidas Review in India Today, November 13, 2006
At last we have a brilliant pocket sized handbook on Hindu mythology written in Enlgish by an Indian. It comes from Devdutt Pattanaik who has over the past few years published quite a tantalizing opus including Shiva to Shankara: Decoding the Phallic Symbol and Man who was a Woman and other Queer tales from Hindu Lore. As the author states in a lucid and provocative introduction, “Ancient Hindu seers knew myth as mithya. They distinguished it from sat. Mithya was truth seen from a frame of reference. sat was truth independent of any frame of reference.” Moreover, mythology (the vehicle of conveying the idea of myth) rides on the wings of fantasy and hyperbole. It needs to be so in order to ensure “flawless transmission over generations” says Pattanaik, explaining that it would be arrogant to presume that the ancients acutally believed in “virgin births, flying horses, talking serpents, gods with six heads and demons with eight arms”. These are symbolic reprenstations of the ideas or concepts of truths that need to be communicated. And such is the power of the idea of mythical perfection that it “inspires art, estbalishes empries and sparks revolutions”. Above all, it keeps the wheels of civilization churning.
Divided – like the holy trinity – into three chapters (dedicated to Brahma-Saraswati, Vishnu-Lakshmi and Shiva-Shakti) the book delves into virtually every important myth and story associated with these gods/goddesses (and their progeny, associates and antagonists) in simple and engaging prose that draws from a host of original and secondary sources from the Vedas to the Puranas. Indeed, in Pattanaik Indian civilization has found an articulator of the calibre of Will Durant.
Review in First City, New Delhi, December, 2006
‘A Handbook of Hindu Mythology’, the cover reads. But this book is all that and much, much more. How many times have you caught yourself standing in the midst of a temple or Durga Puja pandal and wondering why the ordinary, strange-smelling marigold flowers are considered so auspicious (psst…because each petal has a seed that can give rise to a marigold plant), why we offer only raw milk to Shiva, why we hang nimbu-mirchi on the doorways (psst… food for Laksmi’s twin, Alakshmi, on her way out of the house), why rudraksha is so sacred (psst… the tears Shiva cried while carrying sati’s corpse on his shoulder), and were too ashamed to ask your mum (and have to suffer snubs like ‘that’s the way it is’ when even she doesn’t have the answers). Devdutt manages a single, seamless yet open narrative in a harmonious and engaging flow of stories as varied as those from the Rig Veda, Ramayana, the Skanda Purana, and folklore, hasn’t been written with such simplicity, economy of words, even humour (Monkey king Vali is described as alpha male!; ‘drives all his rivals out of the foraging grounds and refuses to share any female with them’).
Interspersed with relevant stories from varied sources, the narrative collates astrology (so who are Rahu and Ketu, and why is there only one idol to worship?), vastu shastra (so why are north-facing and south-facing such a big deal?), symbology (calendar art is not the same anymore), Tantrik mythology (without exoticising or slotting it) with the author’s reinterpretation of myths that often misunderstood and accused of patriarchal bias; the dualities of purush and prakriti, ‘active’ and ‘passive’, are interpreted as that of consciousness and its awareness of itself.
Among some of the stories we loved were that of Kirtimukha, the mocking face at the entrance of a temple who ‘reminds everyone that God can see beyond the piety being expressed’; the story of how Ganga was formed when Vishnu melted on hearing Shiva sing, and Brahma caught the melting Vishnu in a pot and poured it over the earth; how the harvest season often coincides with festivals that celebrate the killing of asuras, who are considered restorers of the earth’s fertility;and that of Dhruv (or dhruv tara, the Pole Star), the little boy who, when refused a perch on his father’s lap, decided to pray to his eternal father, Vishnu, and asked for a pride of place on his lap, always in the north, for his boon.
Apart from the interesting collection of stories here, there is much for the ‘serious’ reader/ researcher too; the author has very insightful observations on the ubiquitous comparisons between Ramayana and Mahabharata, the Bhagvata and Mahabharata, Krishna and Rama, and the Brahma-Vishnu-Shiva trinity. Although such inferences risk accusations of shrinking the expansive infiniteness of Hindu mythology into structured, even textbook-ish flowcharts and tables, and neat analogies (‘the handbook is a decoding of Hindu mythology’ the introduction reads), the fact is that rather than just create a pattern and shove mythological stories into it, Devdutt’s narrative actually channels the understanding of Hindu mythology in such a way that it opens up many latent possibilities of further interpretation.
Recommended to every kind of reader – uninitiated or expert – with an interest in mythology. Read it just for the relish of wonderfully told stories (and the sheer variety of sources), if you dislike analysing your myths too much.
Read it just for the relish of wonderfully told stories (and the sheer variety of sources), if you dislike analysing your myths too much.