In new book Eden, Devdutt Pattanaik explores Judaism, Christianity, Islam: 'My work is helping people access other people's stories'

In his latest book Eden, Devdutt Pattanaik looks at Judaism, Christianity, and Islam through his unique Indian perspective.

Sneha Bengani January 28, 2022 08:01:59 IST
In new book Eden, Devdutt Pattanaik explores Judaism, Christianity, Islam: 'My work is helping people access other people's stories'

Devdutt Pattnaik and his new book Eden

In the last 25 years, Devdutt Pattanaik has written exhaustively — over 50 books and 1,000 columns. Among the foremost authorities on Indian mythology today, he has been using his deep fascination and understanding of the mythological lore to unravel its secrets, and share how the lessons hidden in these obscure stories can be an antidote to everyday modern problems.

After writing extensively on Hindu mythology — gods, goddesses, queer tales, symbols, rituals, calendar art, illustrated retellings of popular scriptures — Pattanaik has turned his lens to other areas. In his latest book Eden, he looks at Judaism, Christianity, and Islam through his unique Indian perspective.

Here, the 51-year-old discusses his need to explore beyond Hinduism, how he became an author after having trained in medicine and worked in the pharma industry for 15 years, why he illustrates his own books, his writing routine, his take on fictitious mythological retellings, and more.

Why was it important to look at Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, through an Indian prism?

Since I'm an Indian, I guess the only prism I can look at anything is through an Indian prism. That prism also applies to Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. What is unique about these three faiths is that they originate in the Middle East. Jainism, Buddhism, and Hinduism originate in South Asia, specifically India. About 20 percent of India is influenced by Islam and Christianity, yet we know very little about the stories in these traditions. I felt we must get access to these stories. Because stories are the way through which we can expand our minds, and develop empathy for others.

Any interesting fact or story that you stumbled upon while writing Eden?

The most interesting fact is to realise how the same story changes across three faiths. The Christians look at Jewish stories as the Old Testament, and insist that the Gospels are the New Testament. The Muslims look at Christianity as an outdated revelation, and feel the need to update it with the one given to the Prophet Muhammad. This is something that keeps coming up again and again.

For example, the idea of Original Sin, which we are all familiar with, is a Christian idea, not an Islamic one. In Islam, God forgives humanity for any original sin. But Adam and Eve have to leave paradise, Eden. They have eaten the forbidden fruit. Their body now produces gases and excrement so they cannot be a part of paradise. I found that very interesting. It's a story that we don't hear often. I'm sure children would love to learn these stories.

What is the one myth about Islam that you find the most bizarre?

In a world where there is widespread prejudice, we must be careful about talking about any religion and pointing out what one finds bizarre. So I will refrain from answering. However, what I find interesting, not bizarre, about Islam is what it considers the forbidden fruit. In Christian traditions, it is apple. In Jewish traditions, it's pomegranate. What is the forbidden fruit in Islamic traditions? To find out, you’ll have to read the book.

In new book Eden Devdutt Pattanaik explores Judaism Christianity Islam My work is helping people access other peoples stories

Devdutt Pattnaik

You trained in medicine. How did this shift to exploring and writing about mythological stories for a contemporary audience come about? 

I trained in medicine, and I worked in the pharma industry for 15 years. Mythology was something that I studied in my spare time as a personal hobby. Over time, it became my passion, and gradually my vocation. I realised there was a hunger for mythological stories in the Indian community. More importantly, how does one apply the knowledge locked in these stories in the practical realm? I've been doing that fairly successfully. What was once a hobby has become a mainstream vocation. My training in science sort of helps me navigate this complex world. I approach the subject very differently from perhaps a student not trained in science.

 Your illustrations have an inherent folksy vibe, and yet they feel modern. How did drawing illustrations for your own books begin? 

As a science student, you do diagrams for explaining concepts. In medical science, you have to know art. You need to draw to explain things via diagrams. I found that people need to understand ideas not just through words, but also through visual forms. Hence, my art is integral to my work. I rarely create art independent of my writings; they complement each other.

The style is shaped by Jamini Roy, Mario Miranda, and Aubrey Beardsley. It’s an art that is easy to draw. It is quick, like science diagrams. So it's great fun. I have been illustrating all my books since my first, which came out 25 years ago.

Are you finding it riskier to write on mythology, considering the rise in religious volatility and polarisation?

I have been writing on mythology before this polarisation, and I will write on it after this polarisation.

Polarisation happens because we do not listen to other people's stories. My work is about helping people access other people's stories.

So in fact, this is the antidote to the viciousness of ignorance. We should never ever fear Saraswati, the goddess of learning and knowledge.

What is your take on fictitious retellings of mythological lore? 

Mythological fiction is a genre that is popular around the world. For example, Nikos Kazantzakis wrote The Last Temptation of Christ, Iravati Karve wrote Yuganta, Shivaji Sawant wrote Mrityunjay. These are literary activities that need to be appreciated. Here, we are not seeing what the scriptures are telling us but what the author is trying to see in the scriptures. The problem comes when we start believing mythological fiction is history.

In the last 25 years, you have written prolifically. Do you have a routine?

Yes, I do. Every morning, I spend four to five hours writing columns. These columns become books. I illustrate in the afternoons. It happens every day without fail. I feel very restless if I don't write or illustrate every day. It is the curse of capitalism that we need to make ourselves productive. Perhaps I need to take a break, but I don't know when that will be.

What can we do to make mythological stories a larger part of Indian lives and conversations?

Parents can buy these books, and read them to children. It can help them look at mythology as somebody's truth. A truth that is different from facts, which is everybody's truth, and fiction, which is nobody's truth. I think this is the key. That's the role of parents in educating their children. They can expand their own minds as well as their children's.

 When not reading books or watching films, Sneha Bengani writes about them. She tweets at @benganiwrites.

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