He was meant to examine patients but chose to look at myths, epics and fables instead. He isn’t the kind of doctor we are used to nor is he a storyteller. Writer, author, mythologist, illustrator and now Chief Belief Officer at the Future Group, Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik, balances many roles. Excerpts from an interview...
Why choose to write on Indian myths and fables?
I write on sacred stories, symbols and rituals of all cultures: European, American and Chinese, but my audiences, typically, like me to focus on India. My interest developed around 12 years ago, shortly after I had finished my medical studies. I was not interested in clinical practice and was more inclined towards medical and pharmaceutical communications (content for patients, doctors and sales representatives). This has been an organic process and one that I had to traverse alone since there is no university that actually teaches you mythology. There are courses that teach the stories like literature departments or learning about rituals in anthropology and sociology classes, symbols in art history, fine art and design classes. Freelance assignments writing on culture and religion later metamorphosed into detailed studies of myths and mythology.
You trained to be a doctor. Did your understanding of Indian mythology contribute to your studies in any way?
It’s the other way round, actually. Medical training taught me the art of breaking down the complex maze of stories, symbols and rituals into clear systems. You could say that it helped me figure out the anatomy and physiology of mythology and its relevance in a society more incisively. How is it that no society can, or does, exist without them? How we delude ourselves that we are not influenced by myth? A methodical approach that has resulted in the creation of flow charts and tables in my book Myth=Mithya is a result of my training in the medical sciences.
What does Chief Belief Officer mean?
It includes solving corporate issues by trying to bridge the gap between company values and personal values. Let me illustrate. We walked into a department in one of our offices and found everyone unhappy, hence unproductive. Kishore Biyani (MD, Pantaloon Retail (India) Limited) tells us that whenever there is a problem go to the Gangotri (the source). We realised if everyone in the department is unhappy, the head of the department had to be the source.
Now, in mythology, Lakshmi (wealth) always follows Vishnu (the leader). This meant this unproductive department (less Lakshmi) had a leader who was less Vishnu. Vishnu holds the shanka (conch symbolising communication), chakra (the wheel signifying review), gada (mace meaning discipline), and padma (lotus representing appreciation). This departmental head was using more reviews ( chakra) and discipline ( gada) and less communication ( shankha) and appreciation ( padma). This awareness, through a simple visual image of Vishnu and Lakshmi, helped the department head rectify the situation. I believe business emerges from behaviour while behaviour emerges from beliefs. Beliefs emerge when values are internalised.
How do the myths influence you?
Mythology is a vast body of knowledge that has not been tapped. For example, look at how the idea of happiness is presented. What do we seek from the world around us? The ancients answer by showing us three goddesses — Lakshmi, Saraswati and Durga: the goddess of wealth, t of knowledge and power. Durga is Shakti who makes us feel secure. Is that not what we seek from the outside world? Wealth, knowledge and emotional security? Lakshmi, Saraswati and Durga? In short, LSD! I have found answers to my personal issues in mythology.
You are an artist as well. How did art happen?
I have been doodling since childhood. I have a passion for illustrating but cannot paint or colour for that matter. I illustrate what I am trying to communicate through my writing. My images are like drawings in a science text book. Typically I like my illustration to be completed in less than 10 minutes. So what the viewer sees is a quick visual interpretation of the written word. Illustrating for me is an extension of my writing; a tool to communicate.
Most readers today are fettered by limited visual vocabulary. Most readers aren’t visually educated to see the same mythological stories in a different light. Traditional art forms have, unfortunately, remained restricted to museums and art books. I hope my illustrations help readers look at our gods and epics in a new light.
Will the coming years see more of you as an artist, a writer or a corporate person?
All three, I hope. I see little differences between the three roles. I communicate the beliefs of our forefathers through word, art and lecture. Some I do through books, some through corporate workshops, organisational development and personal interactions. These are all manifestations of a single thought, an intense desire to share this fabulous inheritance full of profound wisdom that our ancestors shared with us through stories, symbols and rituals. Blinded by science and logic, we have not been able to appreciate the depth of ancient wisdom. We have stripped ourselves of the technology of mythology that has made our culture in particular, and all cultures in general, what they are.
Making myths more accessible
He sees meaning in calendars that hang on one string in shops that are an anachronism in today’s air conditioned malls. And actually writes a book on it. Pattanaik’s latest work is 7 Secrets from Hindu Calendar Art. Pattanaik’s forte is explaining the world of our great epics in a way that we normally wouldn’t have done. Lucid, well explained with examples, Pattanaik’s work serves to make the world of myths and fables more accessible.
His web page http://devdutt.com/ is updated regularly. From articles to reviews , interviews and, of course, reader comments, it’s an insight into his prodigious writing.