The problem with Devdutt Pattanaik's approach to mythology, with self-improvement as the agenda
Hindu belief is a particularly contentious topic today, but Devdutt Pattanaik has navigated his way skilfully through this minefield, annoying neither the liberal Left, nor the hot-headed Right | #FirstCulture
Devdutt Pattanaik describes himself as a ‘mythologist’, writing and speaking extensively on Hindu mythology and trying to relate it to contemporary life. He may be largely regarded as having the same cultural agenda as Amish Tripathi – helping glorify India’s past in the eyes of Hindus – although he tackles the issue at a much higher intellectual level and is truly well-informed on the most esoteric aspects of myth. While Tripathi appeals to younger people at junctures when they have to wait for a flight or between appointments, Pattanaik is consulted by the likes of Shashi Tharoor when they need to make a case for Hinduism. Hindu belief is a particularly contentious topic today, but Pattanaik has navigated his way skilfully through this minefield, annoying neither the liberal Left, nor the hot-headed Right wing. His method is to not stick to the essay as a form but to also employ tables, diagrams and comic-book style illustrations; his writing is akin to a PowerPoint presentation, which is reader-friendly.
A PowerPoint presentation has evident advantages when it comes to communication, but does not allow for rigour. This strategy is not quite suitable for the pursuit of an argument in the manner of the essay. Rather than inquiry, therefore, Pattanaik’s books have the appearance of self-assured pronouncements on issues already ruminated upon. The absence of footnotes means that one has to take the writer’s assertions on trust, but Pattanaik’s erudition is generally convincing. Hinduism is a religion that favours the inward gaze rather than the outward one, and the fact that its goal is self-improvement makes Pattanaik’s managerial approach useful: Management is also directed towards improving efficiency in all kinds of activity and applying its strategies to one's own life seems like the next logical step. What better way to show Hinduism's pertinence than to relate its teachings to managerial experience and know-how? The limitations of this method become conspicuous only when one looks at his writing through the prism of societal change.
Devdutt Pattanaik has been exceptionally prolific and it would be impossible to do complete justice to his books in an essay of this length. I have therefore considered only three works: Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata (Penguin, 2010), My Gita (Rupa, 2015) and The Leadership Sutra: An Indian Approach to Power (Aleph, 2016), looking only at the ideas in them and their pertinence to Indian society. Religion as self-improvement is acceptable, but what it means to society has evidently gained more importance in today’s context and it is increasingly difficult to elude the ‘outward gaze’. A few key ideas recur in all three books and my attention will be entirely directed towards them.
The first idea of importance has to do with right and wrong actions: “Actions that yield positive results are punya; in narratives they take the shape of boons. Actions that yield negative results are paap; they take the form of curses. Punya is spiritual merit that generates fortune and paap is spiritual demerit that generates misfortune. The concept of paap and punya is meant to explain why bad and good things happen in the world.” I find it significant that the word ‘dharma’ is not in copious evidence in Pattanaik’s writing, because the notion would imply a social ethic which goes beyond self-improvement.
What Pattanaik is doing in the above passage – and repeating time and again – is to reduce social ethics to the personal benefits to be gained from them rather than see them as something that binds society together as a whole. We are also stuck in a quandary: if good actions are simply those which help accumulate ‘punya’ we need to know why they are ‘good’, that is, the purposes they serve in society need to be defined. Acts can be labelled right and wrong acts only in social contexts. This being the case, how are we to decide upon our conduct in specific circumstances?
Pattanaik casually describes cruelty as ‘paap’ but does not pay enough attention to dharma as an ethical notion. He notes that on the subject of the Mahabharata, 20th century scholars tried to make rational sense of its ‘moral ambiguity’, but he does not question whether the ‘moral ambiguity’ could have arisen because of the complexity of dharma as a social ethic, since it is contextual. Conduct which is correct for a person of one station may not be right for another of a different station; what is right for a butcher would not be right for a Brahmin. Other writers (like Gurcharan Das) have based their exploration of the Mahabharata on the notion of dharma, but Pattanaik with self-improvement as his only objective, declines to address the issue. He sticks doggedly to the benefits to be derived by individuals from the right kind of conduct.
The second idea of importance in Pattanaik’s books pertains to the notion of karma that is intimately tied to the belief in rebirth. “At a metaphysical level, rebirth helps us explain the inexplicable, and replace conflict with acceptance and peace. Why are some people born into rich families and some into poor families, some to loving parents and some to cruel parents, some with talent and some without? Who is to be blamed?” Here again it is the psychological benefit of the notion that engages Pattanaik. As may be expected, the notion eventually gets on to sticky ground when the caste system becomes implicated: “But when one delves deeper (into caste), one notices something very significant. The sages who discussed the caste system were also firm believers in rebirth. Studying caste in isolation, without considering rebirth, creates a myopic understanding of the subject… A newborn then is an old soul wrapped in a new flesh, its caste being determined by karmic baggage. In the absence of the rebirth lens, the caste system gives unfair advantages to one set of children over another. For believers of the one-life paradigm, all children are born equal, either in sin (if one believes in the fall from Eden) or with genetic differences (if one believes in science). Appreciating this difference is critical.” The basic building block on which Pattanaik’s argument is constructed is belief in the all-knowing sages of old and the acceptance of their wisdom as superior to the wisdom of the founders of other religions. If one inverts the argument and proposes that rebirth as a notion was invented to perpetuate hierarchy, Pattanaik gets into serious trouble, and I believe there are other assertions made by him which conflict with it, pointing to rebirth being an untenable proposition.
Even while upholding karma as the principle governing human existence and individual destinies, Pattanaik tries to accommodate social change as a constituent element: “Amba’s tale draws attention to the gradual deterioration in the status of women in Vedic society. Unlike Urvashi, Ganga and Satyavati who could make demands of the men who sought to marry them, Amba and her sisters were chattels—to be claimed as trophies in tournaments. Iravati Karve’s collection of essays, Yuganta, elaborates on the changing times reflected in the epic.” Social explanations sit uncomfortably in Pattanaik’s books. If the life of every individual is determined entirely by his/her action in his/her past life, what are social factors which bring about change in attitudes and how would they be accommodated? Elsewhere Pattanaik talks about Ekalavya’s story being indicative of social ‘prejudice’ but would not the experience of such prejudice (as well as its exhibition) be the consequence of a past life? Another instance is Karna being described in terms of his ‘merit’ and ‘effort’, notions which cannot have value if one believes that what one is owes to one’s past life. Torn between laissez-faire convictions and a belief in karma, Pattanaik is apparently explaining the caste system away as a meritocracy! Only the merit accumulated over several lives takes one to its summit.
Pattanaik works as ‘Chief Belief Officer’ and his ideas are evidently grounded in belief: What the world is depends on the beliefs of its numerous inhabitants taken collectively, is the apparent approach his writing takes. Since mythology is the backbone of individual belief, studying it helps understand the world. But the issue here is whether beliefs themselves are not constructed socially since different societies foster different beliefs, and if the anthropological approach to myth – of which Pattanaik seems oblivious – would not be more appropriate to social engineering. Mythology does not pertain only to the ancient past. Myths have been constructed even after the Independence era around the freedom struggle, figures like Gandhi and Ambedkar, which are contrary to known fact. As Roland Barthes puts it, myth gives eternal justification to the exigencies of the historical moment, and these myths around history helped the young nation-state define itself as a liberal democracy. Returning to Hindu belief, if it was necessary to preserve the social hierarchy and give it stability, configuring it as a timeless truth – the karmic doctrine –would reduce resistance to hierarchical society, making it palatable.
Grounding everything in belief is a problematic approach, because while beliefs are culturally learnt, there are aspects of humankind which are not culture-driven: “The psychoanalyst Freud proposed the theory of the Oedipus complex based on Greek myths to explain the human need to compete with the father for the mother’s affections. The son always triumphs over the father and is consequently consumed by guilt. Indian psychoanalysts believe that this concept is inadequate in the Indian context, where the tendency is for the son to submit to the father and be revered for it. They have proposed the theory of the Yayati complex instead where the father demands and secures a sacrifice from the son.” The Oedipus complex uses Greek mythology only as a metaphor and Freud tried to show that it was universal. It refers to a child's unconscious desire for the opposite-sex parent, thought of as a necessary stage of psychosexual development. I am not sure about the ‘Yayati complex’ or ‘Indian psychoanalytical theory’, since Pattanaik does not provide references but competing for the mother’s affection is not identical to desiring her sexually, which is what the Oedipus complex is about.
Pattanaik’s HRD-driven approach with self-improvement as the agenda consistently sidesteps what seems to me to be the most interesting aspects of mythology, which would be better presented by someone with a background in anthropology. Take for example how the presents the institution of marriage: “In Vedic times, men were allowed to marry women who belonged to their station in life or to those who belonged to lower stations. Yayati’s marriage to Devayani is a departure; she is the daughter of a priest, and hence, of higher station. This was a pratiloma marriage—inappropriate according to the scriptures.” Although the debate is far from settled, recently accessed DNA data suggests migration into India during the Bronze Age (circa 3000 - 1500BCE) with the infusion of genes into the male lineage, lending support to the Aryan influx theory. If the migrants were predominantly male (as is suggested), and the Aryans were regarded as superior, the rule prohibiting men from marrying women of higher station might be explained.
Devdutt Pattanaik, unlike many other popular writers, has an enormous readership among the well-educated, but this could be worrisome. If one were to name the single predominant blemish in his approach, it is its indifference to sociological speculation because of its emphasis on self-improvement. All his arguments are directed towards where mythology and belief take us in our lives, and he hardly speculates on how Indian society as a whole developed. To regard society as a mere collection of atomised individuals with individual desires/beliefs is untenable; that there are independent social forces at work (like class interest) is a truism. The popularity of his approach suggests a grave self-absorption among the intelligentsia: less interest in social engineering than in personal advantage. Knowing mythology, it would seem, only helps one navigate one’s way to success.
MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016)
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