Devdutt Pattanaik wears many hats. A doctor by training, Pattanaik found his true calling in mythology. He is a leadership consultant, an illustrator, a TV show host, an inspirational speaker and an author with more than 50 books and around 1000 articles to his credit. His version of myth and mythology has made him India’s favourite mythologist.
Pattanaik has worked with majors like Apollo Health Street, Sanofi Aventis and E&Y but his interest lay in reading and writing mythological stories. He draws insights on business, leadership and management from age-old mythology. He has hosted television shows such as ‘Devlok with Devdutt Pattanaik’ on Epic Channel. In an interview with Prashant Mukherjee, Pattanaik speaks about his illustrations, books on children and love for Sita. Excerpts:
Q: What has been your biggest inspiration to write?
A: I feel mythology is a vast forest that has barely been explored. And those who explored it were mostly Westerners with a very limited worldview. As a result, our understanding of mythic structures is rather limited. In India, I see all around me, young boys and girls with such a limited understanding of their great inheritance. To make them aware is my biggest inspiration.
Q: Just about everyone seems to be writing a book these days. In this age of internet and multimedia, do you think there is space for so many books and authors?
A: Everybody who can write should write. Everybody who can read should read. If your writing ~ whether printed or published electronically ~ is read by others, it is always wonderful. It is even more wonderful if they appreciate it enough to recommend it to others.
Q: Let’s talk about your recent books on children. What inspired or provoked you to write for children?
A: My first children’s book, as part of ‘Fun in Devlok’ series, was published six years ago in 2011 by Puffin. That’s hardly recent. Most people assume I write for adults. I write for everyone: adults and children. In fact, I write for the child in the adult, and the adult in the child. My children’s books include Fun in Devlok, Pashu, The Girl who Chose: Ramayana for Children, and The Boys who Fought: Mahabharata for Children. The purpose is the same ~ to make accessible the vast body of wisdom locked in ancient mythologies of India.
Q: How easy or difficult is it to explain Vedic concepts to children?
A: It is easier to explain to children than to adults. Most adults have pre-conceived notions of what Vedas should be. There is no standard universal Vedic concept. Broadly, it revolves around the idea of karma, dharma, yagna, maya and moksha. These make no sense until we understand the divide between the forest and the field, the animal and the human. Ramayana and Mahabharata, where the characters keep moving to and out of the forest, was designed to bring Vedic concepts to the common man. I am simply continuing that old tradition.
Q: There is a pressing need to update and overhaul the education system in schools and colleges in our country. What according to you should be done to make a paradigm shift?
A: Our current system is less about thinking and figuring out and more about memorising and mimicking. At best it is about questioning and arguing (the Western model). We need to move out of this and help children develop greater curiosity to expand their mind by searching for answers, by solving puzzles, by provoking enquiry (mimansa, in Sanskrit). This can happen when the education system does two things: 1. Gets children to use their smart phones to search for answers rather than giving them answers 2. Children are asked to synthesise knowledge obtained from different and seemingly unrelated subjects like physics and politics. 3. Children are encouraged to answer rather than question. Teacher should ask the question as the Vetala asks the question to Vikramaditya.
Q: With so many so called Babas and Gurus preaching at various places, how do you think your writings and knowledge make civil society less prone to fall prey to these so-called ‘religious bhakts’?
A: I don’t seek to compete with any guru. That’s a different world. I am a mythologist, who makes people aware of the wisdom and power underlying cultural stories, symbols and rituals. There are two types of gurus in the world. Type 1 gurus who provoke insight and enable you to find your own answer, solution and energy, and so become ‘independent’ and Type 2 gurus who aim to be the source of answers, solutions and energy, and so make their followers ‘dependent’. Most people are too lazy and prefer Type 2 gurus. And it is a symbiotic relationship with all thinking outsourced to the guru. He becomes your moral compass. He tells you how to behave. He calms you down and makes you happy. Without him, or his image, you are lost. Both types of gurus have value in different ways. For those who are not interested in gurus, and want to discover culture on their own, my books are guidebooks.
Q: Being an author of more than 50 books, is there any book of yours you want to go back and write differently or be introduced in a different manner?
A: No. Every book was written at a different time and for a different audience. I don’t believe there are perfect books. As my knowledge keeps expanding and refining, I write different books and my readers travel with me. So I have multiple books on Ramayana for example: Book of Ram, Sita and now, The Girl who Chose. You can get more information on Ramayana via Book of Vishnu and My Hanuman Chalisa. Likewise, for Mahabharata, you have to read various books of mine, each exploring different widths and depths, such as Jaya, My Gita and now, The Boys who Fought.
Q: Apart from writing, I want to talk about your illustrations. What structures do you prepare while doing the illustrations? Who are your influences when it comes to drawing?
A: I see my illustration as part of my writing. I explain using words and lines. I want people to see the mythic world differently, not the same stagnant repetitive world of Raja Ravi Verma and Amar Chitra Katha. Most people are sadly not exposed to other forms of art in India such as the mural paintings, Patta paintings and miniature paintings. My art is designed to rupture conventional views of epics. Ram, for example, in Sita book is clean shaven initially, then has a beard in the forest, and finally a moustache when he is crowned king. The chariots in the Jaya book are more like carts, which is what ratha meant in Vedic texts. In Boys who Fought, I use 100 emoji-like faces to depict the 100 Kauravas. I am a self-taught artist. But I am influenced by traditional art like Patta-chitra, Chitrakathi, Kalamkari, Tanjore art and modern artists like Mario Miranda, Aubrey Beardsley, Randy Glasbergen.
Q: Is there any special attention you gave to illustrations for books for children?
A: Yes, they are easier on the eye with fewer details. And all characters look cute ~ even Ravana with his ten heads, each with a different expression. And you tone down the violence of the Kurukshetra battlefield.
Q: Most of your writings leave the reader with choices. So, there is this constant battle of which one to pick, how does one make the ‘right choice’ and share it with children?
A: There is no right choice in the world. Every choice has consequences, good and bad. You can be like Krishna and establish dharma; in exchange get Gandhari’s curse. Insecure people choose power, hence love Ravana. Secure people choose to let go of power, hence love Ram. Those with faith cling to Ram, struggling with their doubts. I like presenting this complexity of Indian mythology to the world. The idea of right/wrong way comes from Abrahamic mythology.
Q: What prompted you to marry mythology and management principles?
A: Management is all about dealing with people, problem solving and creating value. Mythology helps us understand how people think and so enables us to handle crisis, enable negotiations and attract customers. The link is obvious to one familiar with underlying structures of the two. Modern management is aligned to Western mythology seeking a Promised Land. We need to expand management to include ideas from other cultures, such as India, hence my book Business Sutra, that says as is belief so is behaviour so is business.
Q: Most of your mythological stories beautifully bring out the relationship of a mother and a child. Who is that one mythological woman who has impressed you the most and why?
A: I guess Sita is the obvious choice, as she is a single parent, who raises Luv and Kush in the forest. But she makes sure they do not grow up hating their father Ram. She displays amazing maturity, understanding with Ram’s decisions, though not agreeing with it. We forget that good kings need not be good husbands. In fact, society respects good leaders who are not necessarily good family men, for whom society is greater than family. Sita embodies the stoic abandoned spouse of such men.
Q: Do you think an understanding of the world through mythology can help prepare children for experiences in their own life?
A: We do understand the world through myth. There is no other way. God, justice, equality, rebirth, soul are all mythic concepts, not material measurable ideas. But we delude ourselves into believing our myth is reality, while other people’s myth is falsehood. That is the tragedy of life, the source of all conflicts. By studying mythology we appreciate our myth and the ecosystem of other people’s myths we inhabit. If you don’t like the word myth, you can use words like subjective truth, assumptions, beliefs, faith, imaginary or whatever. A myth by any other name stays a myth.