Devdutt Pattanaik’s new book Olympus attempts to bridge the chasm between Indian and Greek mythologies. But behind the superficial similarities – the appearing of the Trojan horse myth in Greek and Jain tales – is there a conceptual dissonance in how the orient and the occident view life? In a chat with HT, the 46-year-old writer talks about epics, gender, caste, sexuality and his “past life” in medicine.
Tell us about the connection and difference between Indian and Greek mythical stories?
Greek stories have a linear structure – beginning and end – while Indian stories have a cyclical structure, no beginning or end. When a person dies in Greek mythology, he crosses the river Styx, beyond which he is judged by three gods and sent to heaven or hell. There is no concept of judgment in Indian mythology, there is accounting. And based on that, you will be reborn until you pay that debt. The concept of Chitragupta is very unique to India.
Is there a problem if we try and find similarities and differences between the two?
We must appreciate all similarities and differences, which are bound to be there. What happened in the 19th century, the British tried very hard to say Hindu traditions are similar to Greek myths because both are polytheistic – and in the colonial times, we desperately tried to show we are similar. But today, we don’t have that burden.
What are these similarities and differences?
We have to appreciate what unites us – both Indian and Greek myths are stories of human fears and inadequacies. But what is different is how we see the world. Greeks focus on adventures and heroes killing monsters while India is about understanding life in all its complexities. Unfortunately, western thought has taken over and is now running our lives – this sort of report card system is a result of the Greek myth.
Tell us a little bit about your past life?
I am trained in medicine and was a medical professional for many years. I did and read myths on the side but didn’t take up it as a profession. But my training in science helped me in a way that humanities couldn’t have.
Your retelling of the epics – especially in Shikhandi and Sita – have also been hailed as a shake-up of the mores of gender and sexuality.
I didn’t tell anything new. It is all there in the stories. I merely shifted the spotlight, to Sita for example. Let me tell you a story from the Ramayana – it is mostly told as a folk lore. When Ramchandra returned from vanvas, he was greeted by a group of hijras outside Ayodhya. He asked them what they were doing there. They said when Ram was leaving Ayodhya 14 years ago, he asked the men and women to return to the city but not to the transgender people. Ram was remorseful and asked them to go home. So, Hindu tradition has always acknowledged the third gender. Whether they have been accepted is another matter.
Watch: Mythologist DevDutt Pattanaik on Indian epics and similarities with greek myths
What is your view on caste and mores?
Oppression in the name of jati and varna system comes from a feeling of aham and himsa. Without that, no one would think or believe in caste. But the caste system was made more rigid by the British by their enumeration process as they forced people to identify by one caste or the other. Look at other places, in the Carribean, Hindus have no caste.
Have you faced protests from the Hindu right wing?
Yes I have, many people have disagreed with what I have wanted to do. But I listen to them and move forward. About the right wing, every religion has a hardline side – Hinduism has it, Islam has it. In fact, to expect a left wing without a right wing seems fundamentalist, no?
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