The Hindu Lit Fest 2024 | Insights into Jainism by Devdutt Pattanaik

But before inviting the audience into the world of Jain myth, Pattanaik defined mythology itself

Updated - January 26, 2024 08:17 pm IST

Published - January 26, 2024 07:01 pm IST

Author and Mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik speaks at the Hindu Lit Fest 2024.

Author and Mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik speaks at the Hindu Lit Fest 2024.

Author and mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik began his talk at The Hindu Lit Fest 2024 with a reference to the title of his latest book – Bahubali: 63 Insights into Jainism (HarperCollins India). “The title,” he said, “was inspired by the movie. Everybody loved the movie.” He called it wonderful but also admitted to finding the violence in it strange. “Bahubali in the mythological world is the first hero of non-violence,” he added.

The fact that his name in the film industry is associated with a movie that celebrates violence, was both ironic and interesting to him, and Mr. Pattanaik said that he wanted, through his book, to remind the next generation of that hero – to “not just think about a very good but violent movie” when they heard the name Bahubali, but also a mythological hero who embraced non-violence over violence.

Bahubali, a saint revered by the Jains, was the son of Rishabadeva, the first of the 24 tirthankaras (supreme preachers) of Jainism.

Mr. Pattanaik also drew a connection between the complete subtitle of his book – 63 Insights into Jainism – and Tamil Nadu, underlining the significance of the number 63. He spoke about the 63 Nayanars, the Tamil poet-saints who composed songs for the Hindu god Shiva. “People have wondered why 63 was important. We will never know the real reason, but one hypothesis is that the 63 refers to 63 Mahapurushas of the Jain pantheon,” Mr. Pattanaik said.

Jainism, he said, had a very long and successful run in Tamil Nadu, from the third to eighth Century CE in Tamil Nadu, and some of the oldest Tamil literature “refers to Jain characters”. He also spoke about a visit to Samanar hills, outside of Madurai, with beautiful golden mountains whose rocks have been carved with images of the Jain tirthankaras, affluent princes who gave up everything in the pursuit of non-violence. “As a mythologist, I felt that we should know about this mythology. We are not exposed to it.”

But before inviting the audience into the world of Jain myth, Mr. Pattanaik defined the mythology itself. “When you talk about fact, it’s everybody’s truth, based on evidence and measurement. When you talk about fiction, it’s nobody’s truth, based on imagination.” Mythology, he said, is somebody’s truth. It’s not necessary for you to agree with it, but just to accept that it is okay for different people to have different truths. The study of mythology, Mr. Pattanaik said, “is the study of other people’s truth, communicated through stories, symbols and rituals.”

Later, Mr. Pattanaik spoke of the foundational idea of rebirth, which makes the stories from India different from the stories of the Middle East. In Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism, the idea of rebirth is foundational. Mr. Pattanaik went on to explore the metaphorical meaning behind rebirth, and the belief that our actions can have repercussions long after we are gone.

While the myth from the Middle East is one bookended by genesis and apocalypse, and the end of life comes with judgment, the rebirth myth does not have a beginning or end, or judgment. In fact, in Jainism, he said, there is no god. “The world has no beginning or end, you can’t control it, and there is no god to appeal to. All you can do is effort. You have to work on yourself.” He spoke about concepts within Jainism, of the doctrine of anekantavada (diversity), of the Mahaveeras in Jain myth who fight internal battles with their own weaknesses and egos, and the idea of Ahimsa, or non-violence.

Mr. Pattanaik’s talk, dotted with fascinating stories from Jain mythology – stories of Veeras and Mahaveera and Tirthankaras; stories from Jain Mahabharata and Ramayana, and the tale of Bahubali – also drew many parallels to our current realities, and ended with lessons on living life today. Speaking of the concept of non-violence and its practice, Mr. Pattanaik said that Ahimsa can only be practised by accepting diversity, and the fact that different people have different ways of thinking, and that is okay. “There are many roads, not many floors … you can never reach the top floor, you can just walk a different path. So practice anekantavada, practice ahimsa, try to conquer the elephant, be the Mahaveera, and be at peace.”

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