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Interview: Devdutt Pattanaik

Photo of Devdutt Pattanaik, with Shikhandi on Krishna's chariot in the background.

Devdutt Pattanaik writes on relevance of mythology in modern times, especially in areas of management, governance and leadership. Trained in medicine, he worked for 15 years in the healthcare and pharma industries before he focussed on his passion full time. He is author of 30 books and 600 columns, with bestsellers such as My Gita, Jaya, Sita, Business Sutra and the 7 Secret Series.

Shaifali Agrawal: You have been writing and talking about mythology for more than twenty years now. Do you think it is important for us to know our myths? How do they shape our thinking? Do you think, as Carl Jung said, that myths are part of the collective unconscious? 

Devdutt Pattanaik: We live in our myths all the time. All of us. We are just not aware of it. It informs us about the world we live in and gives meaning to our lives. Whether we know it or not, it shapes our existence, as it gives our mind a framework to make sense of the world. Knowing it helps us appreciate the diversity of humanity. Carl Jung, like most Western scholars, tends to universalise ideas and does not factor in diversity of thought, to the extent of universalising the unknown unconscious. So these ideas, though useful, must be understood in the context of Carl Jung’s own Christian upbringing, his relationship with Freud, his European roots, the time he lived in, and his great discomfort with Indian reality when he confronted it on a visit to India, and preferred the conceptual archetypal sage over meeting the actual Ramana Maharshi.

SA: Do you see any ‘replays’ of ancient myths in today’s times? Does ancient mythology in itself hold influence today, with regards to ideas and acceptance of gender fluidity and sexuality? 

DP: The Roman Empire was brought down by the concept of One God of Christianity. Christendom then was challenged by the Enlightenment, which rejects the notion of one God, and values science. This rejection of the past, rather than improving on the past, is classical Abrahamic mythology. Today Trump rejects all things scientific with the same logic! In a world of ‘one God’ and ‘one Truth’ there is no room for alternate ideas; all alternate ideas are fiction, or alt-facts, or fantasy, which is seen as synonym for myth. This is essentially a rejection of diversity. Likewise, contemporary conversations of diversity tend to be absolute and hegemonic and combative, with no room for earlier ways of seeing things, in terms of binaries. This is Western linear mythology, with Abrahamic religions being its most popular manifestation.

SA: You have spoken several times in the past about myths being “somebody’s truth” and not “The Truth”. If that is so, then why is it important or liberating to know that in the past, the Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist mythologies spoke of more than two genders and different expressions of sexuality? 

DP: Hindu, Jain and Buddhist mythologies are based on karma – present is a reaction to the past and future will be a reaction of the present. The focus is to understand the world, not control it. The sages of these ‘karmic’ traditions recognised that there is male gender, female gender and queer gender (kinnara, kliba, napunsaka, pandaka, pedi) a catchall phrase for LGBTQI people. This is very unlike Judeo-Christian-Islamic mythologies where God is singular and his chosen gender, when attributed, is masculine. There is no room for the divine to be feminine, or queer. Thus mythologies reveal diversity of different cultures.

SA: In your book ‘Shikhandi: And Other Tales They Don’t Tell You’ you bring us tales of queerness from our old oral and written traditions. Many of these stories have been overlooked or forgotten. Was this ‘forgetting’ a way of suppressing these stories? And why did you want to tell these particular stories? 

DP: Lets leave conspiracy theories to religious fanatics and activists, please. Many people use these individual stories in their independent contexts. Many academicians are aware of them but they focus on mainstream heterosexist issues and these queer narratives are sidelined. Most religious leaders are clueless about them as the dominant trope of religion nowadays is celibacy rather than sexuality. I just compiled them to make it easily accessible without using the intimidating academic jargon of queer politics.

SA: What makes you want to tell any stories at all, leave alone the stories that you tell in ‘Shikhandi’? What got you interested in mythology in the first place?   

DP: I think stories reveal our view of the world. Stories about ‘happily ever after’ are classical in Europe and North America as they believe, owing to Christian influence, one day the world will be ‘saved’. Western stories focus far more on plot and drama as compared to Indian stories that focus on mood and emotions. Stories are a simple way to appreciate diversity of the human condition. They reveal how concepts like ‘justice’ and ‘equality’ emerge from Greek and Christian mythologies and are not universal as many politicians and activists who want to ‘save’ the world, assume them to be.

SA: If as you say, myths are only symbols, they are a way of communicating ideas. But they are very often interpreted literally. Do you think that people might interpret the stories you tell in quite the same way? 

DP: There is a vast difference between an engineer’s mind and an artist’s mind. The former prefers mathematics and rejects metaphors. Likewise, some humans prefer signs (single a-contextual meaning) over symbols (multiple contextual meanings). Western academicians prefer to reduce all Indian narratives to a single template. Hence the Shiva-linga is just the ‘phallus’ nothing else. Any attempt to challenge this view is gagged with clever jargon like Brahminical apology and middle class prudery.

SA: Like any successful author and speaker, you have many admirers but you also have many critics who are particularly vociferous in wanting to protect their version of Hinduism. Is your retelling of ancient myths your way of upsetting the apple cart, so to speak? 

DP: The world of argument and debate, of seeking ‘the’ truth, is a Western construct, based on Greek and Christian ways of thinking. So those protecting their version of Hinduism are either colonised by the Western way or just victims of their ‘aham’ that cannot handle diversity of ideas. One must let them be. For they are limited by their own capacity or their own rage.

SA: You have drawn on mythology to explain, in simple terms, many concepts like choice, responsibility, independence and so on. In a talk at the 2017 Jaipur Literature Festival in response to a question you said, “The ones who don’t understand are the ones who use shlokas”. Do you think activists unnecessarily complicate many notions in the way jargon is used to talk about sexuality and gender? 

DP: Anyone who doubts his own ideas uses ‘Sanskrit’ or ‘jargon’ as his or her crutches. Ideas are not ‘true’ because they were stated by the Vedas or Socrates or Foucault. One has to have one’s own conviction while stating a thesis or hypothesis. That is critical. Hopefully, this conviction is born of rigour.

We see how there are self-indulgent lobbies trying to divide the world along gender lines. And extending this to divide all things ‘queer’ by creating hierarchies between cis and trans people, between mono-sexuals, bi-sexuals, poly-sexuals and a-sexuals, between transgender people and homosexuals. This desire to put things in boxes comes from the desire for taxonomy. By defining we control and restrict.

Ideas have no language; language has to enable transmission of ideas, not control it. Many postmodern queer activists are indulging in self-cannibalisation and rendering their ideas irrelevant through jargon acrobatics.

SA: Is mythmaking an activity exclusive to times gone by? Or do we have modern mythmaking too? If yes, do you see it as being expansive or restrictive? Or is this question framing a false dichotomy?

DP: Humans are constantly mythmaking. Every politician or activist who sees himself as a saviour or martyr is in the Western myth. Every politician or activist who accepts change and celebrates diversity is in the Indic myth. Every politician or activist who recognizes the role of hierarchy for harmony is in Chinese myth. Myths are limitless and timeless. But in our myopic vision of things (we are rational/religious/civilised), we assume they belong to another history or geography.

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