Devdutt Pattanaik on mythology, his new book My Gita and making Indian scholarship matter
Stars are natural. Constellations are made by joining the dots. I bring analysis to the table
D EVDUTT PATTANAIK is nearly always dependable. What helps is the fact that mythology is the flavour of the season – and has been for many years now. Jaya was a good introduction to the story of the Mahab
harat. Sita – A Retelling brought more nuances to the Daughter of the Earth Goddess than you may have previously encountered. And most recently, his book on Shikhandi was an insight into how ancient India viewed queer behaviour – without judgement.
The Pattanaik books I don’t like are of the self-help-meets-mythology variety like the Business
Sutra, for which he uses mythology to draw out lessons for successful entrepreneurs. For this reason, I approached My Gita with trepidation; it’s Pattanaik’s analysis of the Gita – it is, as the title suggests,
his Gita. In a review, Bibek Debroy, said of the book that, “There is a dividing line between telling the tales and interpreting and dissecting Hinduism, or any of its texts… And that’s precisely the reason why I am extremely uncomfortable with My Gita.”
But that is coming from someone who translates mythology and texts from Sanskrit. For those of us who haven’t read the Gita, who don’t have a clue what it contains, this is an interesting read. Excerpts from an interview:
This isn’t like your usual books. What makes it different?
I read translations, analogies, commentaries – and because I read in English, the big challenge was how to define a word. But reading is the raw material. It’s like stars and constellations. Stars are natural, they exist. Constellations are made by man by joining the dots. What I bring to the table is analysis.
It is important because suddenly, saffron-robed men have appeared out of nowhere, and you wonder who gave them power?
What do you mean?
Look at the Jagannath temple in Puri. It was a place where there were brahmins, the maharis (the dancing women) and outside the akhada, celibate men, the mahants. They have removed all the maharis, calling them prostitutes. It is controlled by brahmin men who are as corrupt as they come, and the mahants want power over the temple rituals. Look at how the temple is designed: Bhog Mandap, jahaan pe bhog milta hai; Natya mandap, where you dance. Wahaan pe yeh sanyaasi log kya kar rahein hain?
The rise of the RSS and the celebration of celibacy is so peculiar!
Was the Gita always the central Hindu text?
We became familiar with the Gita in the current format because of the British. It was printed and published and therefore easily accessible. It was not a pan-Indian document. The Gita is not a story, it’s highly intellectual. The average person would know Bhakti poetry. They knew Krishna gave the Gita to Arjun. The Bhagwad
Gita would be read if someone was dying. Hinduism has never been based on a book, but rituals.
The British liked the document because they were monotheist. When Warren Hastings was asking for funds for the translation, he thought it would make the British closer to the Indians.
What do you think about misogyny in our epics?
The Ramayan and the Mahabharat were written in the post-Buddhist period when everybody was becoming a monk. Imagine, Buddha leaves his wife and child, and nobody finds it problematic. Ram banishing his wife is the same thing. Women are being treated badly in both scenarios, you can’t argue which one is slightly better misogyny!
It is a tradition which is endorsed by an order that thinks flesh doesn’t matter. If flesh doesn’t matter, how does gender matter? Gender does matter. And that’s what I want to point out.
Two days ago, I heard that in many parts of India, the uterus is called sansaar. So the whole approach is “main sansaar ko tyaag raha hoon”.
But although feminists don’t agree – Valmiki’s Ramayan is about choice. Sita is always taking decisions! Ram tells her, don’t come to the forest. She says no, I will come to the forest; Lakshman tells her, don’t cross the line, she crosses the line; Ram tells her, don’t come back to Ayodhya with me, she says no I will come back with you; and later when she is banished and he wants her to come back, she says no I will not come back. Ram knows that Sita will always rationally argue out her case. For me these are interesting narratives about men and women.
It is upsetting though, the ignorance floating around.
We’re not contextualising our history. And you have people making fun of historians. I’m like how can you do it? Engineer ban gaya, tu paisa kamaata hai – what is going on? This is not healthy at all. When you start mocking scholarship, it’s a serious problem – especially in a land that is famous for its brahmanical culture. Its faults notwithstanding, we have always valued scholarship. And my endeavour is to make people aware of Indian scholarship.
You write several books a year, you give lectures, you’re on TV. How do you do so many things?
I don’t. I don’t write several books at the same time – I used to. But I write a chapter a day, string them together and they become a book. I give lectures in the afternoon. Have you seen my size? I don’t go to the gym!
So that’s the key? Not exercising?