Mythological stories such as the Ramayana and Mahabharata form an integral part of many Indians’ childhood. Devdutt Pattanaik’s latest book, The Girl Who Chose, presents one of these classics, the Ramayana, from a different perspective. The epic has been retold in several ways, but Pattanaik’s book explores how Sita’s decision shaped the story.
You are known as somebody who simplifies religious texts. But religion is a sensitive topic in India. How do you manage to simplify things and still toe the line?
Religion is not a sensitive topic. Some people, a small proportion, are either ill-informed or oversensitive, or lack a sense of humour to let others develop an alternate point of view. So, you try and ensure these people are not mocked. In most cases, it works. But occasionally, you come across a sociopath. Nothing can be done then.
How would you describe your journey — from studying medicine to taking up an advisory role in the corporate world, to becoming a mythologist, illustrator and speaker?
Initially, I had two parallel tracks — one in the pharma and healthcare industry, which was the corporate world, and it paid my bills, and one was in mythology, which was my passion. Later, in 2008, the two tracks became one. Currently, I am writing, lecturing and consulting on mythology full-time. My education in science enabled me to think logically and systematically, and to differentiate between science and faith. My corporate experience enabled me to map mythology for management [lessons]. It’s a journey of 20 years.
For your latest book, were there any aspects of the Ramayana that you had to reinterpret to make them relevant in the modern context?
Not really. I just reframed the original story. I focused on the idea of making choices, and I found that Sita makes five choices. These are all Valmiki’s ideas. I have just made them explicit and used a modern idiom. In fact, the book aligns itself with the Hindu belief in karma and with the ideas of dharma, niti and nyaya. So, this is not a reinterpretation, or a retelling. It is simply a reframing; a shift in the spotlight to see what we all know, but never paid attention to. I found this way of telling the story far more empowering. As I say in the book, Valmiki was wondering if he should call his book Ramayana or Pulatsya vadham (killing of Ravana) or Sita Charitam (the biography of Sita). Why would he do that if he did not consider Sita a key character?
What is the significance of the other female characters in the Ramayana?
In the epic, the choices of women are presented as the causes of problems that men then have to deal with. We find this in the story of Ahalya, Kaikeyi, Surpanakha and, finally, Sita. We also find women suffering and solving problems, emerging from the choices that men make, such as the story of Dasharatha, Lakshmana, Sugriva and Ravana. Thus, we discover men and women playing the same role — of making choices and facing the consequences; some with dignity, others without dignity.
An illustration of Sita from Pattanaik’s new book.
A lot of people feel Sita was a passive victim of patriarchy. What is your opinion on this?
That’s a convenient understanding that props up an argument. We live in a world where the Left fetishes victimhood, and the Right transforms women into ‘venerable totems’. So, in one view, Sita is a ‘victim of patriarchy’, and in another view, she is a ‘mother’ and a ‘goddess’. I prefer to see her as a girl who made a choice.
You’ve previously retold the Mahabharata. If the central idea of the epic was karma, what key idea does the Ramayana revolve around?
Karma. It’s the same idea in two different contexts. In the Ramayana, the hero is the eldest son of a royal family. In the other, the heroes are born of ‘niyoga’, which means they are not born out of a marital relationship. In each case, the story is about a property dispute, and claims over Ayodhya and Hastinapur in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, respectively. Heroes in each case take decisions that evoke conversations around ethics, morality and righteousness in a world that is indifferent to human concepts of fairness and equality.
Which one has been harder to retell — the Mahabharata or the Ramayana?
The Ramayana is the most difficult one to tell as audiences have made up their minds — with little research — and are convinced that they know the layers of the narrative.
Some people believe Lord Hanuman is still alive. What are your views on this?
Some people believe the son of God died for humanity. Some people believe God sends us messengers. Some people believe Hanuman is alive. And some people believe that there is justice in the world. Everyone is entitled to their own truths.
An illustration of Ravan from Pattanaik’s new book.
Indian authors are churning out a large number of books inspired by these texts. What makes Indian mythology dominate contemporary fiction In India?
I think most of these books are the author’s take on what has happened in India in the past. They connect people to their heritage and roots, which is a good thing.
With several mythological tales getting modern makeovers, are classical stories getting diluted?
If you look carefully, despite the many makeovers, the stories are still about heroes, villains, victims, damsels in distress, upright knights in shining armours, and unredeemable demons. So, essentially, it’s the same story. I wonder if the stories are expanding though. Here lies the opportunity that is often missed.