Science and mythology are apples and oranges: Devdutt Pattanaik

Author Devdutt Pattanaik   | Photo Credit: Sudhakara Jain

It is perhaps easier to find a needle in a haystack than ask Devdutt Pattanaik a question on Indian mythology that he has not answered before. For through 40-plus books, 1,000-plus columns and several talk shows, Devdutt, 48, has explored a multitude of mythological topics.

Devdutt was in Bengaluru on Wednesday and like many visitors, he too disfavours the city’s infamous traffic. He was here by invitation of The Raja Ravi Varma Heritage Foundation to offer an insight into the setting and thought behind Ravi Varma’s paintings. Devdutt discusses the master artist and more with MetroPlus.


What fascinates you about Ravi Varma’s art?

It is popular. I am interested in how old ideas are expressed in modern language. In the 19th and early 20th Century, gods became more human.

There was a shift in their appearance. After Ravi Varma, they looked like you and me. Before that, they did not.

They had bigger eyes and things like that... it wasn’t realism.

Did Ravi Varma change the way we looked at gods?

Yes. Because that was the time new art schools emerged. The whole idea of art changed in India.

The British brought new forms of thinking. New ways of drawing emerged. There were new ways of looking at the body.

Indian art was always impressionist, Ravi Varma made it natural.

Historical and mythical truths are often read as the same. What are its ramifications?

Knowledge is a more apt word than truth here. Knowledge based on everybody’s facts is history. Knowledge based on somebody’s facts is myth. Myth is indifferent to data. It is a subjective truth. God, devil, heaven, hell cannot be mathematically proved. None of them have evidence. Mythology is conceptual. History as we know it is only 150 years old. Evidence can only tell you so much. It helps you understand things in a different way. And, mythology is based on memory. And, does memory matter? If it does not, then how will tribal cultures survive? Because they don’t have written texts. If you ask a Baiga tribal person, ‘What is the origin of the world?’ and if their answers do not match the Big Bang theory, will you dismiss them as fools?

In the Mahabharata, at least in the popular versions of it, we have a mother of a hundred sons and catastrophic weapons. Several political leaders have linked these fantastical elements to modern scientific inventions like in vitro fertilization and nuclear weapons, claiming that they existed in ancient India. How do you look at these interpretations? Every culture has such stories. It cannot be called scientific. People confuse science with belief. Science is based on doubt, and religion on faith. Faith and doubt are opposites of each other.

They are apples and oranges; you can not put them in the same basket. People who link these stories to modern science do it just to feel good about their ancestors — it is just to massage their egos.

What interests you about mythology?

Mythology is a map of the human mind. It helps you understand the world, life and culture. Studying mythology was a hobby for a long time. Twenty years ago, it became serious.

What was your introduction to mythology?

The usual… Amar Chitra Katha and other comics. It is just that I went into a deeper, academic study of it.

Do Amar Chitra Katha and TV shows portray a simplistic version of Indian mythology?

They are just telling you the stories. The magic happens when you discuss these stories and explain them, which a comic book can not do. Comics are just the first layer of the story. What we don’t have in them are the layering, the interconnectivity.

People don’t realise how it is narrated traditionally. When a mother is telling a story to her child, she is also adding her own emotions, dialogues and connecting it to day-to-day life, which is missing in a comic.

What do you think is the best view of mythology?

It is a psychological phenomenon. It is not objective. It is like a metaphor. One plus one equals two in mathematics; but in poetry, it can be 11. One of the main arguments against religion is that it has, throughout history, led to bloodshed. Can an atheistic society be the significantly more non-violent? Was Vietnam war based on religion? Was World War I and II based on religion? Who gave us the idea that religion causes war? There are many examples of wars being fought without religion. Somebody has taught us wrong. Why do we think academicians don’t lie?

Our epics were, for a long time, passed orally until it was formalised through texts. What were its consequences?

There are 100 texts that claim to be the same Valmiki Ramayana. There is nothing fixed. It is only in religions like Islam and Judaism there was a conscious attempt to remove all variations. In Hinduism, there wasn’t such attempts. It is only now that Hindus who live abroad are trying to do that.

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Printable version | Jan 15, 2022 8:12:30 PM |

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