Sunday, October 12, 2008.
It was a coincidence to meet mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik on Dussehra, a day that’s linked with at least two important mythological accounts.
“I first need to go down and do the car’s puja. In fact, why don’t you come along?” asked Pattanaik. Car garlanded, puja done, laddoos consumed — sure, we must have skipped half a dozen rules of the ceremony, but as Pattanaik puts it, the spirit matters more than the rules. “We are worshipping that which helps us live. If I didn’t have my computer and my car, my life would be a misery.”
Pattanaik has been a part of the corporate world for most of his working life, having worked with companies like Ernst & Young in the past. His current assignment at Future Group as Chief Belief Officer — where he is supposed to construct the culture of the organisation — perhaps is more in line with his main interest, mythology.
“I thought Amar Chitra Katha and Chandamama had exhausted the list of stories. Then I realised that there are a vast number of stories that are not told. Some of them quite embarrassing.”
Pattanaik started writing the stories he came across in ancient texts and compiling them in books. After a while, he saw patterns emerging in the various stories, about which he then wrote. Now, he likes exploring the relevance of the mythological stories in the modern age.
In the soon-to-be-released The Book of Rama, Pattanaik explores Rama in his various relationships — as Dasharatha’s son, Ravana’s enemy, Lakshmana’s brother. “As human beings, relationships matter to us the most. A traditional narrative would present a historical perspective, a geographical perspective — I find this impersonal and academic. It lacks rasa (juice).”
This approach allowed Pattanaik to look at the same tale with different perspectives. “I never realised, for example, that Ramayana is a story of three sets of brothers — Rama and his brothers, Sugreeva and his brother, and Ravana and his brothers. Rama and Bharata are fighting with each other to give each other the kingdom. Sugreeva is kicked out by his brother Vali. And Ravana kicks out Kuber for his kingdom. This tells us that
God is someone who gives, not someone who takes.”
But can Rama who is considered maryada purushottam (upholder of the rules of the society), the ideal man, be an icon to 21st century India?
“One needs to distinguish between rules and values,” said Pattanaik, “Values may remain the same: To give is noble, to take is innoble. Rama is a giver — he is giving up his personal desires and doing what his family tells him to do. He does not want to be King. He is made King. He is told to break the bow, so he breaks the bow; he is told to go to the forest, so he goes to the forest. He is constantly doing what he is supposed to do for social stability. And he is upholding the rules dispassionately.”
Quite unlike modern-day icons like Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King who set out to reform the society. This is where feminist groups point to while criticising Rama:
Why did he question Sita’s purity?
One counter argument, of course, is that this incident occurs in Uttar Kanda, a later addition to Valmiki’s Ramayana. But Pattanaik maintains that Rama does not decide what is right. The society has to decide that. “If the society felt that women’s education is important, Rama would have even fought for it.” Rama only questions adharma.
Today, Rama is also quite controversial mainly due to the unfortunate association with the fundamentalist Hindutva movement. Apart from that, the idea of Rama is also trapped between two lines of thought — the fervent worshippers who believe He actually existed and those who prefer Rama be treated as a literary character.
According to Pattanaik, there are some people who don’t like Rama. “But according to culture he is God. Can culture be given the benefit of the doubt, and can an attempt be made to understand why this is happening? The other approach is to say, ‘Culture is bad… it is made by horrible people. Let’s change and reject culture.’ It’s the latter view that creates problems. It leads to nothing, just conflict. I have read writings that revile Rama. How does this benefit anyone?”
So, is disrespect adharma? “It is more of a power dynamic. If I don’t disrespect, I won’t change. Women’s education happened because someone challenged the status quo. The question is where are you coming from. This is where the Ramayana is valid even now. It keeps talking about domination versus affection.”