Devdutt Pattanaik is a man on a mission. With his prolific writings on mythology—whether from the point of view of management, children’s books, everyday wisdom, or queerness—he hopes to influence the way society perceives myth, and in turn, itself.
His three recent book releases have bumped up his bibliographical count to over 40 and we aren’t even counting the many articles he writes or the lectures he gives. While other authors go around promoting themselves one book in hand, this man writes like one possessed. Like the rishis (sages) in the myths he so often writes about, he seems unperturbed by the brickbats. He also seems unmindful of the upturned noses of the academia, for he has his sales figures to back him. The lay mythology enthusiast loves him; the LGBTQ community loves him; and most importantly, he loves himself.
In an interview with Scroll.in, Devdutt Pattanaik ranges over politics, “touchiness,” being gay, sex and sadhus, and his own addiction to writing.
We’ve seen three new releases from you recently, and the count of your published books has now touched 40! These are in addition to the several hundred articles you’ve written and continue to write. What drives such prodigious writing?
Yes, three books—Leader: 50 Insights From Indian Mythology, Culture: 50 Insights From Mythology, and My Hanuman Chalisa. The first two are a collection of essays written over the past 10 years. So I did not have much to do. The third is fresh and new writing. Hindu mythology is vast and voluminous. There is so much we don’t know or that has not been presented in a simplified way, making sense to contemporary times. So there is so much to write. And I am addicted to writing—it clears my thoughts, refines my ideas, makes me calm and focused. All this enables the voluminous writing.
What view of their mythology do you want Indians to have? How has the response been to your efforts in that direction?
Not just Indians, every human. I want people to understand that a myth is “somebody’s truth” and so needs respect. We still have the colonial hangover and believe that my truth is the truth, and we have the scientific arrogance that objectivity is truth, or rationality is truth, and dismiss subjectivity. We are trained to divide the world into fact (everybody’s truth) and fiction (nobody’s truth). Even journalists and historians fall into this trap. This is the primary source of all conflicts.
If only we allowed people to revel in their myth and taught ourselves to live with other people’s myth, the world would be better. Different people imagine the world differently, and so have different notions of god and life and purpose and death.
The response has been good. But my view on mythology shakes things up. Naturally those who believe in one god/truth, don’t like my thoughts. Singularity gives us power. Plurality demands love. And we prefer the former over the latter.
As prolific as your writings on mythology are, you’ve steered mostly clear of the realm of mythological fiction. Why is that?
I have written The Pregnant King, a novel, which is mythological fiction, based on queer stories from the Mahabharata: a king who gets pregnant and the conflict that emerges because of that in the world driven by patriarchal values. And I have written a short story, Is he Fresh? for Tehelka, which is fiction, of course, on human sacrifice. I’m planning another work of fiction, maybe in 2018. But let’s see. Fiction is liberating, but is a different craft that I am not particularly good at.
You write repeatedly about gender and sexuality in a manner that goes against the conventional grain. Have your writings brought about any change in LGBTQ as well as heteronormative communities?
The right-wing manipulates Hindu mythology to show that Indian culture had no room for anything queer. In this, they mimic the Muslim and Christian fundamentalists. The left-wing manipulates Hindu mythology to show how Ramayana is patriarchal and Hindu gods are misogynists. This is very disturbing since both cloak their language as if presenting objective facts. So this had to be done.
As a gay person, this is my personal politics. No historian writes about LGBTQ history in India. Why? Did Gandhi and Ambedkar and Nehru and Savarkar support gay people they encountered or were they silenced or rendered invisible? Western writers make Indian queer people exotic by focussing only on highly feudal, marginalised, and exploitative groups. We don’t want to admit the homophobia embedded in the “Idea of India” or the constitution.
By contrast, Buddhist, Hindu, and Jain mythologies admitted that nature always has third genders and sexualities. You will never have god in Islam, Judaism or Christianity embracing the female gender, or queer sexuality. But Hindus have Shiva who becomes Gopeshwara (a gopi for Krishna) and Vishnu who becomes Mohini for Shiva. That’s so wonderful and liberating. But no celibate saffron-clad monk will write about this. Nor will khadi-wearing “youth” politicians.
Let’s talk about one of your latest releases. My Hanuman Chalisa sounds a little like your earlier endeavour, My Gita, at least going by the title. How similar or different is it?
I am very fond of possessive pronouns, in this age of copyright and intellectual patents (which I feel are going overboard and being violently commercial). It draws attention to the value of subjectivity in conversations. And does not give the false sense of objectivity that gurus and babas tend to market in their discourses. This is part of the series where I do a “darshan” of scriptures, not just gods. I help people navigate through scriptures that seem forbidding (Bhagavad Gita) and simple ones whose sophistication is often overlooked (Hanuman Chalisa).
My Gita was a very brave book, given how much it means to Hindus. While some liked it, some others panned it citing inaccuracies in translation and thereby, interpretation. What are your expectations with My Hanuman Chalisa, another text Hindus are very touchy about?
It is significant to note that despite clarifying that it is “my” understanding of the Gita, and that I don’t seek to be accurate or objective you have people pointing to “inaccuracies”. If there was an “accurate” understanding of Gita, why would so many scholars translate the work so many times and write so many commentaries (over 1,000 at last count)?
The great eighth century scholar Shankaracharya’s commentaries were rejected by Ramanuja and Madhava in the 12th century. Dyaneshwara’s Marathi work and Achyatananda Dasa’s Odia work were rejected by Brahmins. Western scholars reject Arya Samaj leader Dayananda Saraswati’s creative translation of the Vedas, or the creative translation of the Vedas by Aurobindo, who turned everything into the mystical.
But more recently, a virulent strain of “Hindu saviours” have emerged amongst Indians who have given up Indian passport or residence, who live in New Jersey and Singapore, and are Sanskrit hobbyists. They hate people who do not believe in the “Out of India Theory” that all civilisation came from India. So their criticism is venomous. They compensate for their passport shame with hypernationalism and aggressive Hindutva politics. If you do your research, you will note that the criticism of My Gita comes from that lobby. They keep claiming I am a student of Wendy Doniger and Sheldon Pollock, not realising that my “Dr” title comes from Medicine (Mumbai University). No point arguing with trolls. In fact they inspired me to write My Hanuman Chalisa.
My friends who are professors in Sanskrit love my work, fully aware of the liberties and leaps of faith I take with decoding, and see it as inspiring people to go deeper towards scriptures. If we worry about “touchy” people all the time, then White people will dominate the world, Dalits will have to stay oppressed, women will never be educated, gay people will forever be invisible, and celibate saffron-robed old men will tell women what good sex is.
Speaking of touchiness, that seems to have become the hallmark sentiment of Indians. You receive your fair share of trolls on social media. How do you deal with it?
It’s a global phenomena. It’s the result of the internet, which has expanded everyone’s desires, with no channel to satisfy these desires but a lot of channels to direct their rage and frustration. We have to pay the price of modernity. That which gives us the smartphone also gives us the dumb troll. Like pigeons who shit on us, we can do nothing about them. Hating them simply mirrors their stupidity. So I use the negative energy and turn it into positive energy by writing a book. The more they attack me, the more books I will write, and so while they sink into darkness, I will have a good time, and even more success, I hope.
From wanting to shift perceptions about mythology, you seem to want to take on perceptions about culture with your next book, Culture: 50 Insights from Mythology. Is there a big idea behind it?
Culture is essentially domesticated and transformed nature. These are essays written over ten years that explain various facets of Indian society from rebirth to Gita to Puranas to Rama to Nautanki to plants to planets to temples to crows to sages. As you read the essays, an underlying unity emerges. That is the big idea.
What’s your view of the culture of plurality that India has always taken so much pride in, but which is under threat now?
Plurality and diversity are inefficient. This bothers politicians and businessmen, who will therefore always be anti-plurality. Gandhi and Nehru were also anti-plurality, but in a different way. In a plural society you do not censor or ban. Nehruvian India did censor and ban RSS writings and even The Satanic Verses. They created the tools that the BJP is now using in a horrible way. Same-same but different.
The breaking up of India’s plurality began with the “Idea of India,” where caste was seen as a static oppressive ideology rather than an expression of India’s plurality (with disturbing exploitative elements). Indian customs, beliefs, costumes and cuisines can be mapped along caste lines. But we don’t do this because it is politically incorrect. Thus diversity gagging began much before the saffron brigade. They are just taking it forward by using a very old model—creating a new deity called “Bharat Mata” who overshadows all other gods and goddesses.
RSS functions like a Hindu sampradaya (tradition or system) dominated by male Brahmins (mostly from Maharashtra), and is currently very dominant. It is, however, one of the many Hindu sampradayas. The rest patiently wait for it to eventually ebb. For we know in Hinduism that time changes everything. What comes today will be gone tomorrow.
When you deal with culture, you’re perilously close to the subject of religion—the veritable tipping point for all discourses in India right now. How do you hope to tackle that?
What is the first indicator of humanity? The hearth. What is the first indicator of culture? Burial sites. Burial started because of belief in life after death. This began the world of mythology. So myth is intimately connected with culture. No myth, no culture. “Make America great again” is rooted in the American mythology of the American Dream. The notion of “acche din” (“good days,” part of prime minister Narendra Modi’s election campaign slogan in 2014) is rooted in the myth of “promised land” and “happily ever after.” China’s Communist Party functions no differently from Chinese Emperors, who believed in central control, the Middle Kindgom and the “mandate of heaven.” There is no escaping myth in culture.
The mythology of one god is what we call religion. In colonial times, the term mythology was restricted to polytheism. But now thanks to the rise of science and atheism, even monotheism is seen as mythology. But when you stretch it further, atheism is just the mythology of no god. Mythology of one god gives rise to intolerance. Mythology of no god creates nihilism. Mythology of many gods creates pluralism. Atheists and nationalists may reject gods, but replace them with ideas.
After books, columns, TV shows, and public lectures, what’s next for you?
A cobra goes after its prey. A python waits for the prey to enter its open mouth. I prefer the python’s approach. I will wait for new avenues and opportunities to emerge and arrive.
What’s your idea of utopia?
People chatting, laughing, drinking, eating, dancing, thinking, exploring, and feeling safe even when they are at their most vulnerable. A world where we focus on other people’s hunger as much as we focus on our own, and create opportunities for everyone to find food.