Q&A: Devdutt Pattanaik on the dangers of a world that does not value imagination
Devdutt Pattanaik says what we miss in the rush to prove the historicity of myths or debunk them is the enduring power of human imagination. The obsession becomes about proving something scientifically in order to prove its superiority.
Are myths fiction or are they real? And should it matter either way? These days fact and fiction have been colliding uneasily as public figures reach back into India’s past to prove we had airplanes and televisions and plastic surgery. But mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik says what we miss in the rush to prove the historicity of myths or debunk them is the enduring power of human imagination. The obsession becomes about proving something scientifically in order to prove its superiority. “Science is the new brahmin,” he quipped at a session about the power of myth at the Jaipur Literature Festival. Firstpost asked him to expand on his ideas.
What do you make of the recent spate of statements about how ancient Hindu myths prove India has all kinds of technology from airplanes to plastic surgery?
When you read mythology there is a lot of reference to people traveling in air, people traveling under the ground. One can say that these are imagination but in today’s world imagination is a bad word. You are not allowed to imagine. Everything has to be real, whatever that means. And real is that which is measurable.
Therefore there is a lot of low self-esteem in people who want to prove that their sacred books are not imagined. So for example, there's a whole Christian movement for a search for Noah’s Ark and they want to find the ship and they want to do mathematics about the ship. In the same way we are mimicking this cult of historicity and we want to say our stories are real. That is fine. Give the data, provide the evidence, stand to scientific rigour. Then it will be science. Until then it’s a hypothesis. We have to decide whether we want Ram in the past or Ram as sanatan or timeless not bound by history or geography.
But are we not doing a disservice to the ones who wrote the myth by in effect denigrating their imagination?
Let’s look at a book by DD Kosambi where he writes about myth and reality. He locates reality in opposition to myth. We also locate imagination in opposition to reality. Our educational system locates science as real. And imagination, myth as unreal. All religious ideas exist in the mythic space.
Therefore this 20th century movement of rationalising or scientifying (is that a correct word?) the world means that everything that cannot be measured become unreal. God becomes unreal. Mythic ideas become unreal. That's an inferior position. In our society we say don’t imagine your problem. We mock it.The root of problem is objectivity. If you have evidence or data you can measure you are superior.
You see that in the writings of rational atheists — the disdain with which they talk about imagination, the disdain with which they talk about people with religious beliefs. We are uncomfortable with imagination and subjectivity. Let’s admit that. We genuinely believe if it’s measurable, it’s real. That’s where the problem is. And therefore we don’t want to locate mythic tradition. We valorise rational atheists without realising the damage they are doing. They destroy enchantment which is a very important part of human existence.
Imagination and subjectivity are slightly different. So subjective truth is very different from nobody’s truth. Fiction is nobody’s truth. Mythology is somebody’s truth. And when you plug the two together that somebody gets upset. Then that somebody tries to prove the historicity and mathematical nature of their subjective truth and they fail and that further makes them dig their heels and creates a vicious circle. So I think this cult of trying to reduce everything to measurement and science is a dangerous one.
Why is it dangerous?
It leads you to commoditisation where the world is seen through the wallet. Both capitalism and communism see the world through the wallet. And that’s a dark space. If everything about the wallet, what does a wallet buy? Products. So everything becomes a commodity. Everyone is seen only as a consumer.
Commodity is a thing that can be measured. Imagination is a thing that cannot be measured. In a world where you don’t value imagination, everything becomes a thing. Love is reduced to sex. The emotional is rejected. The intellectual is rejected. Only the physical is celebrated. Therefore I want physical evidence of God. I want my flights of imagination to be real.
The liberal response to this seems to a lot of sniggering and joking.
Human beings love to dominate psychologically. When someone makes an absurd statement others like to feel superior by making fun of them. The liberal is indulging his desire for domination through the chuckle. It makes him seem very mean and small rather than trying to see what’s going on. Most people who are making such claims are suffering from a colonial consciousness. I think Bal Gangadhar wrote about it in Heathen in his Darkness. These people are stuck, fighting this imagined enemy who dimisses their faith as absurd. They are fighting hard to say my faith is real, my faith is real, and real in measurable, so here it is. And why you are not seeing my measurement? It’s a cry for acknowledgment and attention and instead of that you are sniggering.
Mind you we are not really being scientific. Science does not comment on what it can’t measure. A good scientist will say I don’t know because I cannot measure. He never says it’s wrong, it’s absurd. A good scientist is highly compassionate.
This is an old fight. Why has this gotten so much currency now?
Please remember we do have a right wing fundamentalist government. In the global discourse a nationalist party is not seen in a positive light anywhere. So they are anyway not positioned in a good way in the global media.
This party has been funded by NRIs and every NRI lives his life in a country where they are on the back foot about their religion where people make fun of the fact that their Gods have elephant heads. When you are surrounded by people who mock you, where their religion is reality but your faith is imagination, you now get really aggressive and you want to make your voice heard. People are making their voice heard.
Just listen to them. Let it be heard. There is a rigour, method, the jury is out. But we are so eager to execute rather than saying jury is out there. I want to be queer, I don’t want to take sides. Hinduism is fluid. It’s not fixed. Liberals want to fix it. Left liberal want to fix it. Hinduism just observes this like pebbles to push away.
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