Mythologist | Author | Speaker | Illustrator

August 18, 2005

First published July 12, 1998

When we denounce our myths, we denounce our ancestors

Sunday Times – Mumbai Edition, Times of India[12th July 1998]

Mumbai’s architectural heritage can turn into an occupational hazard if you happen to be walking down a street with Devdutt Pattanaik. Mr Pattanaik, a man of medicine to all outward appearances, leads a secret life as a mythologist. And, come hell or a mob of irate pedestrians he will not allow a mythic figure to pass unidentified.

He thinks nothing of stopping in the middle of a crowded footpath to point out the Neptune enthroned atop Victoria Terminus station. Nor does he worry about the snarling traffic when he pauses to catch a glimpse of the Lakshmi who presides graciously over the fortunes of pherozeshah Mehta Road. ”

Mumbai shouldn’t forget its many patron deities” observes Mr Pattanaik, probing into the city’s many-layered collective unconscious. “If there is the widely venerated Siddhi Vinayak at one end, there are the little noticed Tritons of Byculla Station at the other.”

Today, Mr Pattanaik addresses both lay and scholarly audiences on mythological themes. His study of Shiva in myth and iconography was published last year, to be followed this year by a similar survey of the mythology of Vishnu. The third volume in this trilogy, an overview of the Devi and her worship, will appear next year. But Mr. Pattanaik’s pilgrimage to the ancient sites of devotion and sacrifice has involved a considerable struggle “with social expectations and the temptations of the fast track career graph.”

Like many medical students who hitch the wagons of their imagination of other stars Mr Pattanaik realized, midway through his graduate course, that he had no desire to persist with medicine as a career. He was far happier when he was making connections among the world’s treasuries of legend and folklore. Tracing cultural patterns, speculating on the diffusion of icons and rituals. “like everybody else, I read the Amar Chitra kathas, then moved on to the fascinating realms of Greek. Egyptian and Assyrio-Babylonian antiquity,” he says “Long before I had heard of mythology as a serious scholastic activity, I had begun to collect stories, to re-tell them, to notice their recurrent motifs.”

To his more pragmatic conferers alas this seemed a complete use less pursuit. “And then the worst thing happened,” he smiles “I did well in my final examinations in 1993.” At which point Mr Pattanaik made what Indian society (with its coaching-class fixation for vocational respectability) would regard as a disastrous decision. he dropped out of clinical medicine. “I knew I was going to throw away my professional training.” He recalls, listing the strange and various free-lance writing assignments he took up in that period. “But it was important for me to cast off the heavy garland of expectations placed around my neck.”

Characteristically, the image he invokes is a mythological one- that of the sacrificial bull “my friends tease me about being the ‘Ramayana-“Mahabharata type because my mind reaches for a traditional analogy to any present-day situation.” He laughs. “But it was the poet Randhir Khare and a friend of mine, a behavioral scientist called Dr Girishankar, who showed me how I could turn my obsession into a discipline.”

The reconciliation of opposites an important theme in mythology, has found resonance in Mr Pattanaik’s life as well. “Today, my bread and butter comes from my jobs as medical communicator for a clinical research foundation.” Says Mr. Pattanaik. But the jam comes from his mission, that of changing the popular attitude of condescension towards myths, the view that they are merely stories for kids. Students of abstract philosophy tend to dismiss mythology as superstition, a product a humankind’s infancy,” complains Mr Pattanaik. “Why we put up a toran or paint a rangoli is as important to me as the meaning of the Brahma-sutras.” The trouble with scholars who study myths, Mr Pattanaik explains is that they often “lose the poetry the sacred mystery” in their rationalist haste. His aim is to provide contemporary audiences with access to inherited myths without translating them into simplistic terms. He offers the striking examples of the love games of Shiva and Paravati. The festivals, poems and ritual practices based on this theme are shown to be intimately connected to the Shaiva vision of the world as the play between purusha the principle of consciousness, and prakriti, the spirit of nature. Another strategy that Mr Pattanaik adopts is to show his audience the “thread of persistence that leads from the shamans to the scientists”. He reminds us of the power struggle between the Vanara princes, Vali and Sugriva, in the Ramayana. “Zoologists will tell you that this is classic alpha male behaviour among the great apes including man-the animal instincts, the tribal totems still remain active in our consciousness.” This is the mythologist’s cardinal insight, a sobering and deeply humanisting insight that permits us, as Mr Pattanaik observes, “to see that demons can be heroic, gods can be imperfect, and each of us has a dark side that is rarely acknowledge.”

Mr Pattanaik is disturbed by the recent spate of controversies over the interpretation of traditional icons. “If we Indians were to actually read our sacred texts.” He observes, “we would be deeply embarrassed or even shocked in mythology, even though everything is.” Mr Pattanaik explains this gnomic utterance. “In the traditional culture, there was no divorce between the sacred and profane – the richness of experience embraced the carnal at one pole and the spiritual at the other.” Our problem as a civilization, he suggests, stems from our post-Victorian tendency to repress desire without modulating it. “We have allowed the philosopher’s other-wordly vision to destroy the world-affirming powers that can regenerate us,” he asserts “We can’t Bowdlerise these tables to serve our demand for a neat morality, “Mr Pattanaik’s efforts are driven by the realization that a society which insults its story-tellers is a society which has lost its sense of direction. He hopes, someday to write a comprehensive textbook of mythology. “Myths are the concentrated fruit of the fears, despairs, hopes of our ancestors,” he says, “When we denounce our myths we denounce our ancestors.”

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