Thursday, May 06, 2010

Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik

I have a fascination for liminal beings - creatures who stand on the threshold. Like Ganesha (half elephant - half human). Or Narasimha (the man-lion incarnation of Vishnu). Or Janus (two heads facing two directions). Or the shape-shifting Budh/Mercury. ” says Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik.

Dr. Pattanaik himself stands at the cusp of many simultaneous existences. He is a medical doctor by qualification, a mythologist by choice and Chief Belief Officer by designation, aligning beliefs within Future Group. That is, when he isn't writing one more book, speaking at one more convention or rendering one more illustration.

I had a general understanding of mythology like anybody else but this emerged organically over time, post my medicine. I wasn't sure I wanted to practise medicine. I was getting into a day-job in the pharma industry that I didn't quite enjoy. Mythology became my comfort zone and it led to this wonderful world that I entered.”says Dr. Pattanaik.

Dr. Pattanaik is the author of over ten books on Hindu mythology with subjects ranging from Shiva to Hanuman to Vishnu to Devi. He has created a handbook of Hindu mythology called 'Myth=Mithya' and more recently, 'Seven Secrets from Hindu Calendar Art' and 'The Book of Ram'. His book, 'The Pregnant King' is fiction written in the style of mythology. The books usually also contain his illustrations – graceful pen and ink renderings that capture the essence of accompanying myths.

Surprisingly there is no book as yet on Krishna, by far one of the most adored of Hindu gods. Dr. Pattanaik says, “Krishna is a major part of all my books, particularly on Vishnu. But a book purely on Krishna is one I want to write desperately. It was to be published but somehow did not happen. It has always run into trouble. I am very superstitious – maybe I have not understood it correctly. At the right time, it will happen.”

Dr. Pattanaik believes that Krishna Charitra (The Krishna Ethos) requires a certain level of maturity. “People like the little baby Krishna but Krishna Charitra is right from Krishna's birth to death. It is difficult also because there are different pockets of knowledge. For example, North India is not aware that in South India, Radha is not worshipped. Until you point it out, South Indian devotees actually don't realise that there's no sign of Radha in their temple.”

Speaking about mythology as the subjective truth of a people, Dr. Pattanaik says, “Mythology is what you think about yourself and your understanding of life. This subjective truth is communicated from generation to generation through stories, symbols and rituals. So when I read the Ramayan and Mahabharat, I get access to the soul of India, to the subjective truth of our ancestors. If I want to study American culture, I have to study the mythology of America - American stories, symbols and rituals - that contain the subjective truth of America. Like 'All humans are born equal', 'If you work hard, you will be successful', 'The American Dream' and the Statue of Liberty.”

As an example of ritual, Dr. Pattanaik talks about the worship of Ganesha. “Imagine every year you bring a clay idol to your house and worship it. After 10 days, you dissolve it in water. Imagine doing this every year, year after year, generation after generation. Why don't you buy a plastic idol or a permanent statue? Why the ritual involving 'avahan' (getting the idol home) and 'visarjan' (getting rid of it)?What are you telling the child? That nothing is permanent. But it is subliminally communicated from ancestors to the next generation. It seeps into your subconscious and you don't even realize it.”

Dr. Pattanaik laments that over time, people have given so much importance to stories that the thought behind the stories are forgotten. “We also get edited versions of stories and authors put in their own thoughts and feelings. So you don't realise the subjective truth that is being communicated.” he says.

On the subject of similarities and differences between mythologies, Dr. Pattanaik says that similarities reveal that we're human ultimately, but dissimilarities will show what is culturally different. “So, the commonalities try to explain life and make sense of life and the differences are about how they approach it. For example, Western stories are obsessed with the Hero Myth. Greek mythology has stories of people who do some extraordinary action even when opposed by the gods. Biblical mythology constantly shows stories of people who surrender to the will of God. Whereas the dominant theme in Indian mythology, particularly Hindu mythology is the futility of trying to control your life, to step back and reflect on it. Each mythology is trying to explain life.”

Dr. Pattanaik explains about the common themes that run across cultures. “There are stories of death and resurrection (resurrection as different from rebirth) that are a recurring phenomenon in most parts of the world, like the stories of Adonis, Kamadeva, Ishtar and Dumuzi. The story of a great apocalyptic climax is common. But in India, after the climax, life starts again, which is not there in the western traditions. The great saviour who will save you from problems is always there. There is the mother goddess - fertile, loving and charming - all over the world. Across the world, the feminine form is seen in a more emotional way while the masculine form is seen in a more aggressive way. Everybody has gods and demons, everybody has heroes and villains.”

Among the myths he has studied and written about, and the liminal beings he is fascinated by, Dr. Pattanaik is particularly drawn to the centaur. “I like the idea of the teacher who is alone, students come to him and he teaches them. Then they move on and discover themselves. But the centaur stands atop a hill, a threshold god. He is animal as well as human. He is wise as well as wild. He is a loner but at the same time, he teaches people to be developers of society.”

(An edited version appeared in Culturama's April 2010 Issue. Pic courtesy Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik)

Also read a review of Devdutt Pattanaik's Jaya - An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharat here.

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