Devdutt Pattanaik is a mythology scientist who connects life, especially in areas of management, governance and leadership, with mythology. He is the author of many books and columns, his written words being publisher’s favourite and reader’s delight. He is also a public speaker. His TV shows include Business Sutra on CNBC-TV18 and Devlok on Epic TV. He consults organisations on culture, diversity and leadership and also various television channels and filmmakers on storytelling.
Pattanaik spoke to #TellMeYourStory to demystify some misconceptions when it comes to mythology, his pursuits as a mythology expert and addresses some modern day dilemmas with mythological stories!
My mother told me folk stories from Odisha and my father told me stories from his work and travels. Both were wonderful. We also had a driver, Shastriji, who was an amazing storyteller.
In school and college, I read regular books on mythology available to all children: Chandamama, Amar Chitra Katha, Bhavan’s Journals. But later, I started reading academic books on mythology and various scriptures published by Motilal Banarsidass and in libraries around Mumbai University. This was purely for pleasure. I did not see it as research. Before long, I had a whole repository of stories and frameworks in my head. Nowadays research is easier as so much information is on the internet, with easy open access. And also you can buy and download books on Kindle. Key is to know what to look for.
Myth = subjective understanding of the world.
Mythology = myth expressed as stories, symbols and rituals.
Spirituality = personal myths.
Religion = rule-based system based on a social myth.
Hinduism = a social myth based on Vedic concepts (rebirth, soul, God, caste)
Indian mythology = stories, symbols and rituals that communicate myths that originated in India: Hindu, Buddhist and Jain.
Draupadi’s polygamy is hardly progressive. And her quest for blood-thirsty revenge is hardly sane rational justice. In the end, she loses all her children to battle. Is that wise? Or collateral damage?
All ancient scriptures are regressive if one uses modern benchmark based on gender equality. Bible is regressive (God makes woman bear son, but not have sexual pleasure). Quran is regressive (God is male and has male prophets). Buddhism is regressive (man leaves wife and we adore him). Jainism is regressive (women are seen as inferior to men). Fairy tales are regressive (Snow White and Cinderalla all need men to survive). Greek myths are regressive (Zeus rapes women constantly). Japanese myths are regressive (monsters produced when women lead). Chinese myths are regressive (women must obey men). Why only single out Indian scriptures?
Different stories have different value systems. In Ramayana, Tadaka is a warrior princess, but we call her a demoness. Kali and Matrikas and Durga fight asuras in Devi Purana. So I guess some stories see women as warriors, others don’t.
It’s called tuition fee. Is it fair to ask for tuition fee? How are teachers supposed to eat if they don’t ask a fee? Or do you think it is unfair to pay teachers? Bad enough we did not pay fair wages to sanitary workers in India, and reduced them to near slavery. Now you want even teachers to do work free? Teachers are human and they have prejudices like all humans. Unless you want teachers to be superhuman?
You should, I feel, never try to impose your values on children. You refine your thought till it is a level that children can understand. You just tell the story as it is – including sex and violence. Children will filter things their own way. Children see what you do more than what you say. We have to be honest and tell the story as it is. That is life. In all its complex diversity.
These days parents are conscious about the inputs they are giving to their children. Often they find themselves at a loss while telling stories from the epics. For example, it’s very difficult to explain Lakshmana's raising arms against Surpanakha. No parent would want their child to absorb that its fine if a man is physically harming a woman, neither can a child be explained that taking advantage of one's gender is no less a criminal offense. How would you explain this?
I think parents should not try to manipulate and indoctrinate children. In the world, there is sex and violence. It is best they are exposed to it safely via stories and make up their own mind on how to cope with it. You always have the option of not telling a story. But if you want to tell a story, tell it as it is. And if you feel Ramayana is a woman-hating story, and Hindus were fools to worship Ram then don’t teach the Ramayana to your children. But there are many who would not agree with you, and feel you are manipulating the story to suit your politics. It is up to you how you judge a story. Your judgement percolates into your stories. You children may not always accept your judgement and make judgments of their own. What is right according to you may not be what they think is right. Think of all those gay children whose parents continuously told them hetero-normative fairy tales. Is it fair? Will you tell Ramayana and Mahabharata is gender neutral way? You will end up confusing the child. Those who bring political correctness into traditional lore are indulging their own vanity and are no different from political propagandists who want to judge, manipulate and control social discourse.