Mythology is about meanings, not solutions: Devdutt Pattanaik

The author and illustrator on death rituals, karma and ‘Disney mythology’

Updated - October 25, 2022 04:57 pm IST

Published - October 20, 2022 01:39 pm IST

Devdutt Pattanaik

Devdutt Pattanaik | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The man has made mythology ‘cool’. By relating it to management and governance, and to contemporary times. In his new work, Garuda Purana and other Hindu Ideas on Death, Rebirth and Immortality, Devdutt Pattanaik discusses one of the 18 mahapuranas, where Vishnu instructs the divine kite Garuda on subjects ranging from cosmology and gemology to yoga and architecture. However, the text is best known for its descriptions of antyeshti, or death rituals in Hinduism, performed to save departed souls from the torments of hell. Pattanaik traces these rituals back to Harappan times, to explore perceptions of death, afterlife and rebirth in the subcontinent.

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Question: The Garuda Purana is not a mainstream text. What drew you to it?

Answer: Many friends who lost their loved ones during the pandemic spoke to me about how the funerary narration of the Garuda Purana filled them with horror and disgust. Even the priests could not explain its disturbing contents. One of my editors too felt the time was right for this book.

Q: What personal insights did you gain by looking at Hindu culture through death rituals?

A: My personal insight has been about how humans use punishment and suffering as tools to create morality and ethics. The Garuda Purana has macabre descriptions of hell, the afterlife and the suffering of the dead. This obsession with punishment and suffering made me realise that even today, we use negative reinforcement to discipline people.

Q: Indian thought admits no final ‘Judgement Day’ in its cyclical rebirth system. Has this shifted all responsibilities to karma?

A: Christian missionaries misread karma as fate. Karma is a complex word, which means both fate and responsibility. You cannot control circumstances. Your choice is confined to your reactions to them, where your present karma will define your future. Monotheistic faiths attribute everything to the will of god — Inshallah — your fortune, caste, circumstances, success, failure. You are good because god is going to judge you. This colonial idea of ‘Judgement Day’ shaping morality and ethics misreads alternate cultures by calling them fatalistic.

The idea of god saving the devotee (as in Christian mythology) did emerge in the Bhakti movement. But the Vedic system held you responsible for your life. Indian thought is based on the idea that you can choose your response to circumstances, and therefore, choose your future. This means that morality is an individual responsibility and not borne out of the fear of god.

Q: “Rituals increase the probability of insight into wisdom.” How do we reconcile these words of Vishnu to Garuda against the historical fact that, in course of time, death rituals generated notions of purity and impurity? The Chandala became the untouchable, the widow became impure, the sati became a goddess.

A: In no society are ideas static. Caste did not exist 2,000 years ago. But today, we are conditioned to believe that the entire Indian ethos is based on inequality. Many turned away from ritual practices because blind ritualism in Hinduism created an unequal society. Do we blame Confucius, Christianity, secularism, capitalism, neoliberalism, Marx and communism for the inequalities we find in China, Russia, Europe, U.S.? And the horrors of North Korea?

In any society, Hindu, Christian or secular, when rituals are performed without understanding, they bring neither insight nor wisdom. The worst elements take over and create unequal societies.

Literature, the arts and rituals are supposed to bring insights. When rituals become mechanical exercises, our basest instincts take over. Art becomes mimicry.

Q: At a time when the entire world seems to be veering towards intolerance, segregation and division, how can mythology help the human race achieve a better state of empathy and balance among the living?

A: Your question betrays linear thinking and a colonial mindset. The West harbours the notion of things reaching a climax after which all problems are resolved; you find true love and live happily ever after. That’s Disney mythology!

In the Hindu-Jain-Buddhist world things don’t get better or worse over time, they keep changing. A 1,000-year-old image of Vishnu as a baby sleeping on a banyan leaf in the middle of a stormy river could have been painted in a world just as chaotic, turbulent and horrifying as it is today. The only difference is that some old problems have been solved, but new problems have surfaced.

The purpose of mythology is to give you meanings, not solutions.

Q: Your illustrations are fascinating. What do you enjoy more: writing or sketching?

A: I cannot sketch without writing or write without sketching. They are two ways of expressing the same idea, not always easy, especially when you’re dealing with complex subjects like Hindu mythology. Illustrations help me relax. Perhaps make you see what the text may not always communicate.

The writer is a journalist by profession, musician by circumstance and playwright by obsession.

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