Demystifying mythology


INTERESTING INTERPRETAtIONS: Devdutt Pattanaik.   | Photo Credit: Photo: S.S. Kumar


A conversation with Devdutt Pattanaik, author of a book on calendar art.

Devdutt Pattanaik is a medical doctor, but he doesn’t practise. He worked as a consultant in Ernst and Young, but he doesn’t have a management degree. He is an illustrator, but he isn’t formally trained in fine arts. He is a fund of information, when it comes to Hindu mythology, but he isn’t a religious guru. And no, he isn’t a mythological character himself, although he’d probably say that a myth can be built about anyone, or anything, once the framework required is in place.

Pattnaik has written many books on Hindu mythology, and he was in Chennai to participate in an event organised by the Madras Book Club, where Chitra Madhavan, historian, asked him questions about his latest book, “7 Secrets from Hindu Calendar Art.” Kandoba, the deity worshipped in Maharashtra, is rather like the South Indian Ayyanar — a rural deity that offers protection, Dev says.

Understanding the deities

If you look at patterns, you understand deities better, Pattanaik tells the writer as she catches up with him. Take Siva and Vishnu. Siva is smeared with ash, devotees offer him milk, he wears animal skin, and rudraksha beads. Everything about him suggests the unprocessed and also that he is a lonely God.

Vishnu, on the other hand is offered butter, wears fabric, jewellery, all of these suggesting a community of miners, goldsmiths, weavers around this God. Saivite literature is about vairagya and renunciation; in Vaishnavism, the soul matters, but matter matters too, he explains.

Why and how did Pattanaik gravitate from medicine to mythology? “When I finished my medical degree, I knew that I didn’t want to practise. So I took up a job in the pharma industry. Later I became a management consultant, and now I work as Chief Belief Officer in Future Group, the people who own Big Bazaar, Pantaloon etc.” Mythology has always been his passion.

But what’s the connection between mythology and the corporate sector? “Every corporate house has its own rituals, and its own philosophy. My job is to make the employees aware of what the philosophy is, of the particular corporate they work for.”

Obviously, given his involvement in Hindu mythology, he must be a believer in religion, I observe.

“Everyone is a believer. There are no non-believers. The atheist believes in atheism. Doesn’t he?” he says.

About his latest book, “7 Secrets from Hindu Calendar Art” what’s so great about calendar art anyway? After all art critics call it kitschy. “Granted. Calendar art is bright and gaudy, but it brought mythology to your doorstep, into your house, as nothing else did. All the symbols that calendar art shows are there in temples, but you don’t notice them, because you don’t take the trouble to observe.”

Pattanaik says it is hard to say whether some ideas came from folk religion and were later appropriated by those who wanted to make it more sophisticated, or whether folk religion borrowed concepts from what we think of as a higher order of religion, and simplified those beliefs.

One of the most interesting of Dev’s explanations is about the origin of rituals like fire walking in South India. He says it must be the villagers’ way of atoning for their destroying nature. Nothing can be created without destroying something that nature has given us They saw Nature as mother, and all these rituals that involve self-inflicted torture must have been their way of atoning for their plunder of nature.

Not mere pictures

The cover is colourful with a resplendent Mahavishnu resting on his serpentine couch surrounded by all the important deities of the Hindu pantheon. But the rest of the richly illustrated “7 Secrets from Hindu Calendar Art” is black and white.

Colours will distract the attention of the reader from the details, the author says in his note. The pictures found on calendars, so much a part of the Hindu house hold, find a new meaning here.

The book is divided into seven broad sections — Ganesa, Narayana, Ardanarisvara, Siva, Devi, Vishnu and Brahma — each dealing with associated forms. The visuals, labelled for the uninitiated, are accompanied by narrations culled out from legends and lore. Published by Westland Books, the informative volume is priced at Rs. 295 and is available at all leading book stores. For details call 4208 0417/18 or 3058 0416.

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