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Devdutt Pattanaik on his new book Faith: 'Myths are a necessary part of the human condition, not just ancient times'

'Can I be a Hindu and still be an atheist?'

'Is Hinduism feminist or patriarchal?'

'What do the scriptures have to say about homosexuality?'

'Is Hinduism’s Narasimha like Hollywood’s Wolverine?'

These are some of the questions answered by mythologist and author Devdutt Pattanaik in his latest book Faith: 40 Insights into Hinduism. Released on 10 April, Faith attempts to meticulously explain the various aspects of Hinduism that might baffle the modern practitioner, even the most seemingly irrelevant ones.

In this book, Pattanaik takes a step away from making mythological references, instead taking a stab at making his point objectively. He often points to various Hindu scriptures such as the Manusmrithi and the Puranas, as reference. He also incorporates the views of monotheistic religions such as Christianity, Islam, and Judaism as baselines to differentiate the practices of Hinduism.

In this conversation with Firstpost, Devdutt Pattanaik shares his views on the misinterpretation of Hinduism, the link between mythology and modern practices, and the possible negative repercussions of the best intentions.

Why did you choose beliefs, customs, scriptures and history as the main themes in Faith?

I have always been interested in the way cultures function and I realised that culture is not a function of history, but a function of mythology and mythology is the stories, symbols, and rituals that are transmitted over generations by a tribe or a community. Previously, you thought of them as belonging only to some ancient times, but now I realise that they are a necessary part of human conditions. Animals don't have myth, they don't have stories, nor do they have imaginations. Myths are what make us human. Our belief that we can transform the world, change the world, and make the world a better place, come from imaginary stories that we heard as children. It is through these stories that we give ourselves meaning, and I guess that is the aspect of mythology that drew me to this subject.

 Devdutt Pattanaik on his new book Faith: Myths are a necessary part of the human condition, not just ancient times

Devdutt Pattanaik. Facebook/devduttmyth

What are some of the aspects of Hinduism you think have been misinterpreted and misused in modern society?

I think the biggest mistake we have made about understanding Hinduism is our understanding of the word Dharma. In comics like Amar Chitra Katha, Dharma is used to mean righteousness when it actually means the rejection of jungle law. In the jungle, ‘might is right’ but when humans follow this principle of ‘might is right’ then we are following Adharma. In a human, civilised society, the mighty have to take care of the weak. This is the very simple definition of Dharma that is the foundation of the Ramayana and Mahabharata which we have not been through and we confuse Dharma with the idea of righteousness or justice which are really concepts from Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.

What are the challenges of persuading your readers to abandon the conventional perception of Hindu mythology?

The biggest challenge is the assumptions of people because for the last two hundred years we have been fed the colonial version of Hindu mythology. This has been further modified by Indians who have been embarrassed by Indian thought and are trying very hard to make it scientific and end up making it pseudo-scientific. Also, puritanism and Gandhism prevents us from understanding the erotic culture of India. For example, in order to explain these concepts through the concept of rebirth is a huge challenge. We don't realise the metaphysical implications of rebirth in every aspect of Hindu mythology and that takes a lot of time and continuously demands reiteration.

Positive discrimination (like reservation) for certain castes is supposed to help integrate them into society by giving them an equal platform to compete on. With reference to the chapter Were Hindus Always Casteist?, why do you think it will drive a larger wedge in society?

Every action has consequences, while the reservation is noble in intent, it has its own price. Because it does upset a large section of the Indian society. People from other communities feel they have been denied admissions despite being far more meritorious. So, while the intention is noble the repercussions can be negative. Let us not forget the famous line that 'The road to hell is paved with good intentions', and I feel that in many ways, positive discrimination in all its nobility has not taken into consideration the anger and backlash it can generate. If we had the foresight to recognise it we would have made arrangements in the various educational and entrepreneurial sectors to handle it, but we did not and I think that is a very dangerous thing because everything is Karma and Karma is impersonal and is neither about being right or wrong, it is just action leads to reaction.

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How did you establish a link between mythology, belief, and modern-day practices?

Mythology is a cultural truth, belief is established through mythology. Belief in God, for example, is established in the Christian world through the Bible, and in the Islamic world through the Quran. In the Hindu world, the concept of God is established through its temples. Modern-day practices are established through modern mythic structures, for example, the idea of Republic Day and Independence Day are modern practices. The idea of the national flag is a modern practice, the ritual of standing up during the national anthem is a modern practice. All this creates a belief in the nation state that is the Republic of India, which does not exist in nature but is a construction of a community that makes the truth of India a cultural truth. So the truth of all nation-states are really cultural constructions and therefore stories about the value systems of each nation-state constitute those nationalist mythologies

There are certain liberties and freedoms spoken about in Hindu texts, for example, the ability to divorce someone. Why do you think society has taken away such liberties?

Society keeps changing over time, sometimes it becomes conservative, and sometimes it becomes liberal. Also, remember that Indian society is not homogenous. There are different groups of people who follow different practices. There were some societies, for example, where single women were allowed to have many lovers and live in society. In later times, they were called prostitutes and rejected from society. Even today a single woman who has many lovers is frowned upon by modern society. The law has found it very difficult to accept homosexual practices or to decriminalise adultery. So these are ideas which shift with time, based on how aware we are. In ancient times people believed in the idea of untouchability based on the idea of purity, as certain things are pure and impure. Today we reject this idea on the basis of equality. Therefore, we should remember that every text, every book, every body of knowledge has to change with time, with its generations. Today we talk about equality, but equality has its own problem of creating a homogenous society where heterogeneity or diversity is not respected. At the same time, a diverse society is one where differences are respected, which often gives rise to inequality and hierarchy. This shift in thinking is a natural process of life. No society will remain static, and change does not mean we will always change for the better.

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Updated Date: Apr 25, 2019 10:20:30 IST