EARLY IN HIS new book My Hanuman Chalisa (Rupa; Rs 295; 170 pages)—a verse-by-verse discussion of one of Hinduism’s most popular devotional hymns—mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik offers an insight about the ‘north’ and the ‘south’ in the Ramayana. These are not literal references to north and south India, he says, but metaphors for states of mind: the north is an empathetic, caring world while the south stands for insecurity and covetousness. And in between them ‘is the land of the monkeys, our animal core, that can move either way, towards Rama or towards Ravana’.
Speaking to Pattanaik on the phone, I tell him that on reading this sort of analysis—and there is plenty else like it in his books— he comes across like a literary or film critic who offers subtextual interpretations and opens new ways of looking for a reader. He chuckles softly, doesn’t say what he thinks of the comparison, but affirms the importance of subjectivity and open-mindedness. The ‘my’ in the title of the new book is essential, as it was in his earlier My Gita. “When you deny the possessive pronoun, you are propagating the idea that your view is the single, objective one. But in the same way that we might read the same poetry—or a Shakespeare play—and see different things in it, we can respond differently to myths too. There are so many ways of looking at the same things.”
He wanted to analyse and decode these hymns—composed by Tulsidas more than four centuries ago —because ‘we have all read and heard them, they are ubiquitous, but I wondered: do we actually listen to the words and pay attention to their meaning? I wanted to make it accessible to a younger generation.’
“The worldview it expresses is very Indian, and can be hard to explain to a Western reader or someone who has been trained to look at things through a Western lens. It’s difficult to explain, for instance, why Hanuman is even there—and treated as a god in his own right— when Rama is already the centre of the epic. Many people don’t understand this tradition of multiple gods or demi- gods, and Indians tend to go on the defensive too: if a friend asks ‘Why do you worship a monkey?’ we don’t know what to say.”
These are running themes of his prolific career as a writer and lecturer: that Indian myths are so fluid, wide-ranging and ambiguous that they can daunt even devout readers, who don’t always know how to make sense of them; that Hinduism, not having a single canonical or prescriptive text, is often decried by those who hanker after certainties. This is where Pattanaik sees himself coming in, to ‘join the dots’—to synthesise myths for modern readers.
Over the last 20 years, he has done this by publishing around 30 books and hundreds of articles. His work includes lucid retellings of the epics (Jaya and Sita, about the Mahabharata and Ramayana, respectively), examinations of legends surrounding a specific deity (99 Thoughts on Ganesha), books for children (Pashu: Animal Tales from Indian Mythology) and guides for management students and entrepreneurs (Business Sutra). He has also written about non-Indian mythology, as in last year’s Olympus: An Indian Retelling of the Greek Myths. “I wanted to reverse the gaze. When Roberto Calasso and Wendy Doniger write about Indian myths, their work is seen as more valid somehow. Which would probably not have been the case if Doniger had been African- American or Calasso was from Beijing University. We have to study other cultures too, to understand what is special about ours—my intention was to bring my perspective to these non- Indian myths and begin a conversation.”
Through all these books, one constant is Pattanaik’s delightful illustrations, which are minimalist yet detailed, affectionate and droll at the same time. “I have been drawing from a very early age,” he says, “and I often find that I can’t properly explain something unless I draw it, it helps me achieve clarity.”
When you deny the possessive pronoun, you are propagating the idea that your view is the single, objective one. But there are so many ways of looking at the same things
One of my favourites among those hundreds of drawings is a seated Ravana as a ‘strategic’ figure, a CEO of his era, with the 10 heads depicted as blank squares, spread out in a pyramidal pattern that evokes flowchart boxes from the computer-science classes of the 1990s; this image is in the recently-published Leader: 50 Insights from Mythology. I was looking at it when a friend commented, “Pattanaik has 10 heads himself.”
This was an admiring reference to the many sides of the mythologist’s personality: the well-travelled motivational speaker, the management guru to high-profile businessmen, the disciplined author who maintains a solitary writing schedule each morning and subtly tailors his work to the demands of many readerships. One of his finest books, Shikhandi: And Other ‘Queer’ Tales They Don’t Tell You—an exploration of gender roles and alternate sexuality in myths—was published by Zubaan. Another, The Girl Who Chose: A New Way of Narrating the Ramayana, is with the children’s publisher Puffin.
Apart from being an author, Pattanaik’s avatars show up in television shows, interviews, and of course, on social media, where he often comes up against people who disagree with or attack him. Including the ‘trolls’ to whom he has dedicated My Hanuman Chalisa.
It isn’t easy being a moderate—and a very high-profile one—in a field where emotions are easily inflamed, and at a time when the growth of a virulent, chauvinistic Hindutva can lead the softer, more reflective aspects of the religion to become tainted by association. In such a climate, someone like Pattanaik draws fire from both religious literalists—who take offence to the mildest observation that doesn’t chime with their rigid beliefs—and from those secular-liberals who find any close engagement with the ancient texts problematic. To the irreligious mind, some of his writings can sound like sophistry or mumbo-jumbo; to a religious Hindu, the same can be inappropriate or upsetting. And so, it isn’t uncommon for him to be assailed, at the same time, as a Hindutva apologist and as a betrayer of sacrosanct texts. ‘The Ramayana is the Ramayana—it doesn’t change,’ someone scolds him on Twitter when he mentions the many versions of the epic apart from the mainstream one favoured by the Hindi-speaking belt.
“Everyone who has an agenda will hate you when you write something that discomfits them, and love you when you affirm their view,” he tells me. “I have no agenda. I don’t want to save the world, only understand it.” It does seem, though—and this could be my bias—that Pattanaik finds it easier to sympathise and engage with the religious mind than the non-religious one; that he is more willing to hit out at ‘secularists’ or ‘atheist fundamentalists’ as he sees them.
At one point, instead of answering my question about his views on militant Hindutva— including the triumphal narrative about building a Hindu rashtra by harking back to the supposed glories of the past—he chooses to lash out, again, at atheists—as if villains like Richard Dawkins were running around killing people in the name of their un-beliefs. The ISIS and RSS, he says, perplexingly, “are engendered by atheists and secularists who deny the role of the sacred and the transcendental in the world. They create the monsters we fear and claim innocence.”
It isn't easy being a moderate in a field where emotions are easily inflamed. In such a climate, someone like Pattnaik draws fire from both religious literalists and secular-liberals
But if liberals may be described as fundamentalist, it is just as possible for a mythologist—even a moderate one—to become inflexible. Beneath the genial man who values discussion —and prefaces much of what he writes with a humble-sounding epigraph about how the gods may have a thousand eyes, but that ‘you and I, only two’—there may be another, more complex Pattanaik: someone who is acutely conscious of his reputation as a guru, and can get riled when questioned.
This comes across during a second phone conversation, after I mention that, as someone Mahabharata-obsessed, I see the epic primarily as a great work of literature, and ask if Pattanaik can clarify the distinction—as he sees it—between myths and fiction. He snaps, “Would you compare Harry Potter to the Bible?”
‘Myth = somebody’s truth,’ he tweets. ‘Fiction = nobody’s truth.’ But isn’t this a limited view of what good fiction, or literature, can be? Any good writing—regardless of genre or labels—can contain deep poetic truths and can teach us a great deal about people and how they negotiate the world.
The conversation takes a southward turn as Pattanaik accuses me of disrespecting the dearly held beliefs of others by calling them ‘just fiction’, and wonders if I would tell my grandmother that her Krishna murtis were like Barbie dolls. Notably, he frames the concept of disrespect in a way that is common among those who believe religious sentiments are automatically more respect-worthy than any other sort. But Pattanaik may be doing religious people a disservice by infantilising them, deeming them incapable of complicated conversations about faith or the lack of it.
He apologises subsequently for having lost his cool, returns to being his usual gracious, soft-spoken self. But just for a few minutes, it was as if a mask had slipped—or as if a Ravana had temporarily lost a head.
As a writer, Pattanaik has a sense of humour, the ability to make connections between ancient and modern life, and can be frank and inclusive when it comes to topics like sexuality—or when providing information about the regional interpolations of the epics, as he does in Jaya’s chapter endnotes. But there are blind-spots, such as a deep suspicion of retellings that stress certain positions. “Nowadays,” he says, “there are bizarre writings that look at myths purely through the lens of Dalit oppression, or present them as misogynistic from the feminist point of view, or try to further the RSS agenda.”
Since you champion subjectivity, I ask him, why are those readings any less valid than the benevolent ones? Why would the perspective of a marginalised, underprivileged character not be just as important? “But how many of these writers stay open- minded about alternate interpretations?” Pattanaik responds. “They market their version as the only possible one. Words like ‘privilege’ are political words, and these writers don’t recognise their own agendas. Literature is politicised, academia is confused with activism. I have never heard a proponent of the feminist or Dalit view say ‘here is one point of view’. It is always more rigid than that.”
There may be something to this. The use of a purely political or ideological lens to look at creative works — at the cost of closely engaging with the human complexities in those works — is a familiar one, and it often tars cultural criticism too. However, it is problematic to say that privilege and underprivilege are just political terms—they are real things which can take many forms, including much more complex, intersecting, context- dependent ones than caste or gender inequality. And there is something either disingenuous or deluded about a position that goes: ‘Other people have agendas, I don’t.’
To some degree or another, everyone has biases, born of life experiences. The impulse to be seen as an authority figure and a conduit who provides wisdom can be an agenda, too—a non- malicious one, but one that might grow over time as you become a bestselling author and protective of your many heads.