Interview with Devdutt Pattanaik

Zorba Books chats with the most popular author of books on Indian mythology. A trendsetter who breathed fresh air into Indian mythology – the telling and retelling of it. Helping us understand our gods and mythology better by explaining why gods do what they do and what they mean when they say what they say! 

 

  1. You initially worked in the medical field. How and when did you decide to start publishing books on mythology?

I worked in the pharma and healthcare industry and spent my weekends pursuing my hobby of reading and writing about mythology. Both happened at the same time over 20 years ago. Job on weekdays and hobby on weekends. Eventually hobby became a passion and overshadowed the professional side.

  1. How do you plan the research process for your books?

I keep reading on everything I can lay my eyes on which is remotely related to mythology – including related history, anthropology, sociology, philosophy, psychology. It’s a multidisciplinary field. I organize various ideas in tables to make them easily accessible. Sadly, in India, information about culture is not easily accessible. We do not know how to present and package systematically. Our work tends to be either childish or too scholarly. My books emerged out of all this research, like the various treasures that emerged from the churning of the ocean of milk by the devas and the asuras.

  1. Your first book, Shiva: An Introduction was published in 1997. Do you remember any challenges you faced in the writing and publishing process?

I came from a science background and so valued information more than quality of language. I valued bullet points and tables far more than lucidity of sentences. It was very tough to make the journey from science to literature. I did not realise that most people saw mythology as literature, not scholarship.

  1. In Jaya you talked about ‘mithya’ and ‘satya’ and how truth is measured by ‘finite’ and ‘infinite’. What can we learn from the concept of ‘mithya-satya’?

When someone tells you something, you have three choices, agree with them, disagree with them, or recognize their knowledge is limited from their point of view. Typically, we focus on the first two options. That makes us judgmental and argumentative. But if we use the third option, it gives us opportunity to be more considerate and compassionate, and even expand the scope of discussion and increase our knowledge base. This third option appears when we see all information in terms of finite and infinite truth rather than truth and falsehood. No truth is finite; all truths can be expanded. This is the view of Indic or Karmic religions.

  1. There’s a section in the chapter Song of God from Jaya where Krishna starts talking about the ego. What does this say about the relationship between psychology and mythology?

Psychology or the study of the mind using scientific principles began less than 200 years ago and major strides have been made only 100 years ago. But mythology helps us see how people saw the world hundreds and thousands of years ago. Indian mythology in particular is renowned for its obsession with the inner mental world, long before any other civilisation. Hence, we have more words for mind and memory and consciousness and other mental activities in Sanskrit and local Indian languages than anywhere else.

  1. In Olympus the gymnosophist says that “tragedy is discovering that all paths have existed before.” Could we refer this to the cyclical nature of Hindu mythology? Are all mythologies tragic?

All mythologies are not tragic. Greek mythology certainly is as it speaks a lot about tragedy, the trauma of humans discovering their vision is limited unlike the gods. This is why Oedipus cuts out his eyes. Comedy comes from mocking human arrogance. Greek plays dwelled on this theme a lot. Indian thought based on infinity does values a wise state where one sees everything with equanimity, neither good nor bad, neither triumph nor failure.

  1. You wrote that patriarchy is an invention as opposed to feminism which is a discovery. How does this difference represent the imbalance in gender roles in society?

I wrote this in my book ‘Shikhandi and other queer tales they don’t tell you.’ I don’t know if there is imbalance of gender roles. There is certainly disrespect for gender roles. We are increasingly devaluing kitchen and housework, and since it was traditionally the woman’s domain, we have effectively looked down on homemaking and see greater value in chasing careers and professional goals, over taking care of a family. Effectively we have privileged the outside masculine world over the internal feminine world. Increasingly we are de-sexing the world and saying words are neither feminine nor masculine. In nature, no one is actually privileged. Culture privileges one gender, one gender role, one sexuality, over the other. That needs to be acknowledged and addressed. We also need to value the queer – that which exists between spaces, between inside and outside, female and male.

  1. There are many readers who look up to you and the work you do. Do you have any role models of your own?

I don’t believe in role models. People should focus on my work rather than me. I may not be what they imagine me to me. But  my work can help them find answers and frameworks to live a better life.

  1. We aim for our interviews to be encouraging to aspiring writers. Is there anything that you wish you had learnt early on in your writing career?

Focus on how readers will receive what you write. A book is not about you, but about them. They ‘eat’ what you ‘cook’ in your mind and ‘serve’ in your pages.

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