Published on 18th January, 2015, for the Deccan Herald.
Author Devdutt Pattanaik, physician-turned-author of best-sellers on mythology, recently released Pashu, his book of short stories for children, which he has also illustrated, in New Delhi. Here are excerpts from an interview:
Why have you taken to writing about mythology?
Reading about mythology was a hobby. I started writing about it because I realised I knew much more than others. Besides, academicians don’t write for the public and books for the public don’t do research. I try and bridge the gap. I enjoy the process, particularly because I realised that people are ignorant about those stories. So far, I have published 35 books on the subject.
Why is mythology so important in India?
It’s not just India. No culture exists without mythology. However, it is a highly political term today. The West assumes it has moved out of mythology to religion and from religion to secularism and rationality. But if you study it, you will see that it has just moved from one mythology of many gods, to another mythology of one god, to a new mythology of no god. In a few years, they will move on to the fourth mythology. In India we never moved from one to another. We just embraced everything. So, depending on who you are, you may believe in many gods, one god, or even be an atheist… and each belief brings with it certain strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
When did you start writing books?
I started writing 20 years ago. I used to write for a magazine and then my editor introduced me to my first publisher. That’s how my first book, Shiva: An Introduction, got written. I just narrated stories about the symbols and rituals associated with Shiva. It was a simple compilation of data which was not available anywhere else. People enjoyed that.
Then came my second book on Vishnu, the third on Devi, and later a book on Hanuman followed. They were a part of my introduction series. Initially my books were on data, subsequently they dealt with analysis, and today they’re about applications.
How do you view mythology?
Every human being has an assumption. Another word for assumption is myth. And that assumption manifests itself in stories, symbols and rituals. Some stories die with us, some extend for generations, because they are sustaining ideas that matter. If I don’t value the stories of my parents, I destroy them. It’s a common practice in the West that the older generation’s stories become invalid. But in India we have allowed every story to exist and survive. We don’t distinguish between history and mythology, or personal histories and imagined history. We allow stories to flourish.
That’s why we have so much diversity. Whereas if you go to Europe and America, there isn’t much diversity. So through the stories you recognise the thought process of a people; what their ancestors were thinking, and what they are thinking now.
You just mentioned that some societies destroy stories. The 20th century is replete with examples of authoritarian governments that have tried to wipe out culture and mythology of thousands of years…
You can’t destroy mythology. You just move on to other stories. When people talk about mythology, they have a particular assumption that mythology is a bad word and that they have jettisoned it. For all its technological advancement and officially sanctioned beliefs, Europe still behaves the way it did 2,000 years ago. There is a combination of an underlying assumption, overlaid by historical and personal realities. Every society/nation has an immediate reality, a historical reality and a mythic reality. The last is the least understood, but is a potent force that is shaping our stories even today.
Does economics dominate the type of mythology prevalent?
The rich man’s stories are readily accepted. But if you dig deeper, you will find that the poor man merely indulges them, for his own selfish reasons. If you have to get admission into a western university, or you are looking for funding from them, you have to pretend to align to their beliefs.
Your new book, ‘Pashu’, is for children. Which of your books sell better – your kids’ books or those on mythology?
Difficult to say, as they are all bestsellers. That’s also because nobody writes on the subject. My success comes from the view that I am not embarrassed by India, or religion. And I don’t care about being politically incorrect. My next book is on the Gita, and it will be my first philosophical work. There’s a market for it and I am going to attempt it.
In your view, what’s the difference between writer Amish Tripathi and you? Both write on mythology…
He writes on mythology as fiction. So he’s telling you a fictional story. He is not relating the Puranas… he is interested in his interpretation of the Puranas. He is presenting Shiva as a historical figure. He is not interested in decoding mythology.
Tell us about your book ‘Devi: The Mother-Goddess’. Does it explore the condition of women in India today?
No, it’s the mythology of the goddess. It’s about decoding the meaning of images and rituals associated with her. It’s an attempt to see what they are trying to communicate and not an attempt to impose the reality of society on that. The stories are co-related to the historical trends. The assumptions about the goddess in India are different from those in other parts of the world. The question is, do they have anything to do with women at all?
If the goddess is worshipped in India, why are women raped?
Societal behaviour and assumptions are not interlinked. Women are respected in America, but rapes still occur there. The fact is that it’s a patriarchal world. The mother of god has to be virgin… most prophets are men… god had a son and not a daughter, and a man was crucified and not a woman. Yes, there are women saints, but the moment a woman became a saint, she was de-sexed. The only way to get social sanction was to deny the fact that you were a woman.
What do you think is the reason for this?
I feel it is the discomfort with the body. We have valorised celibacy and rejected Nature. This view comes across in my goddess stories, which reveal unease with Nature. We have a monastic order that rejects anything which is natural. It doesn’t like diversity, it doesn’t like sexuality, it doesn’t like any form of sahajta, or spontaneity. Animals are spontaneous. They don’t know any other way. But we try and control them. Trees just grow. But we trim them. Nature too is unpredictable. It scares us. Spontaneity is fluid and unpredictable, so we don’t like it.