On the Streets of India, Mythology Is Real Life
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this is a whole other way to talk about religion.
By Sanjena Sathian
The entrance to the Waterstones Club in Mumbai is ritzy — you must turn off of a road lined with the city’s best hotels, pass through a gated entrance and enter through a very Western, almost colonial-seeming path to the clubhouse, where suited waiters and a swimming pool, among other amenities, await.
The only real sign you’re in India is the muted sound of honking horns behind you, and the gods peopling your way: a squat statue of the elephant deity Ganesha just outside the entrance, a few bobblehead figurines sitting on the dashboards of air-conditioned cars in the parking lot. For me, it’s also the man I’m here to meet: Devdutt Pattanaik, a former doctor whose profession today is even more Indian than medicine — he’s the country’s most famous mythologist.
When we say “myth” today in India, we mean anything but some Barthesian theory — ancient myths of the many Hindu gods here are alive, well and quotidian. Pattanaik is a case study; his nearly 30 published books top best-seller lists and he’s not some esoteric folklore commentator. He has hosted his own CNBC show and delivered a TED Talk and is frequently called upon to enlighten the masses about their spiritual history. And, somehow, his expertise in mythology has also had him once holding the title of “Chief Belief Officer” of Future Group, a retail company, and doing some management consulting for good measure — because, as he tells me, “mythology is a map to the human mind.”
You don’t pray, you petition, you have a personal conversation with God.
Pattanaik, 45, is not alone as a mythologist working in the extreme mainstream. Many Indian children have grown up on Amar Chitra Katha comic books, which tell stylized, colorful versions of epics like the Ramayana and Mahabharata. TV airwaves are full of serialized, sometimes melodramatic versions in every conceivable language and beamed (often through YouTube) to the Indian diaspora. There are even video games. And the airline-quality paperback novels of the year — the Immortals of Meluha series — are a trilogy all about the life and somewhat Game of Thrones–like adventures of the god Shiva. Pattanaik, says Philip Lutgendorf, a professor of Hindi and modern Indian studies at the University of Iowa, is “following a long tradition of people retelling ancient tales in the present.” The pop cultural omnipresence of myth has shown watchers like Lutgendorf a lot about the “creativity” of the retellers, who manage to keep making the myths relevant. But it’s also caused some critics, he says, to worry that the tales are watered down, stripped of nuance.
In person, Pattanaik, slightly squat with a wide smile, doesn’t come across as a storyteller. For one, he oscillates between being a bit clammed up and delivering long, occasionally polemical speeches. For another, he wears doctor-esque glasses and frequently cites his medical training — “You have to be specific in medicine,” he says, launching into a minor diatribe against those who study myth without the guiding hand of evidence or data. A mere breath afterward, though, he dives into another speech, on the limitations of Western rationality, its assumptions of objectivity, its obsession with order and its inability to comprehend India’s disordered order. Hm? “Everybody’s seeking the Truth,’ ” he tells me. What’s the other option, I ask? “Subjectivity.” Pause. Well, he hedges, “India hasn’t really created its own framework yet.”‘
After shaking hands in the chichi club lobby, Pattanaik and I make our way into the dining room. The heat outside is forgettable thanks to the air conditioning. The menu is all strawberry ice cream and “organic detox salad.” Pattanaik is fresh off a plane from London, where he was speaking, and has brought with him three of his books: 7 Secrets of Vishnu, 7 Secrets of Shiva and 7 Secrets of the Goddess. They are colorful and full of diagrams and charts; much like his other books, each one is carefully illustrated, by Pattanaik himself, and accessibly written.
Pattanaik does have some interesting examples for me about where Western logic fails: Forgiveness, he believes, is far easier in Indian society because right and wrong are more fluid. “You just say maaf kardo [forgive me],” he says. He points out the importance of the feminine in Hinduism, something he thinks has been forgotten by the many celibate male priests today. (“People who don’t have sex — I find it creepy.”) The very notion of prayer in Hinduism also feels wrong to him — “You don’t pray, you petition, you have a personal conversation with God,” he says. In Hinduism, he adds, “It’s not feudal: God is child, lover, brother, friend.” With such a close, powerful being in step with you all the time, life feels different, he says. “That’s called therapy in America.”
Rationality is one of a few things Pattanaik criticizes about the West, along with its Judeo-Christian assumptions about good and evil. Chief among his objections are Western scholars of Hinduism, who, he says, he’s got nothing against, but are limited, unable to live and breathe the essential experience of India. “This is my life,” he tells me. “My existence.”
For someone whose life is religion oriented, Pattanaik doesn’t, on the surface, seem like a man of god(s). He doesn’t much go to the temple — friends, he says, won’t go with him, as he spends his time policing the building’s accuracy. “Writing,” he says, “is my meditation.” Born and raised in Mumbai (which is still Bombay to Pattanaik), he is the son of a housewife and a marketing consultant who studied at Columbia University — a fact that he tells me with some pride. Mythology was an “organic hobby” from an early age; Pattanaik binged on Amar Chitra Katha comics and knew the stories inside out. Even at Catholic school, he studied the Ramayana. And religion was omnipresent — in the 1980s, on Saturday night, he recalls, everyone would go to temples. “It’s where you met girls — that was the night out. People didn’t think it was divine or anything.”
While a medical student and as he built his career — not as a practicing doctor but in the pharmaceutical industry — Pattanaik took on a mishmash of freelance writing gigs, penning bits and pieces commenting on this land of gods among men. “Every free day,” he spent examining old texts and commentaries on myth, “exactly as you’d look at an organ.” All this time, his parents were bringing him various bridal portfolios, which he wasn’t interested in — Pattanaik is gay and told his parents while in his teens that he liked men. They “must have thought I was joking,” he says. He had to say it again, a couple of times. Today, he’s not one for long-term love. In a rare moment free of opinionatedness, Pattanaik doesn’t dwell on this element of his identity.
Instead, he veers back to his career, which he seems insistent on painting as somehow normal, as though it’s obvious that a religious commentator would have hosted a show called Business Sutra, in which he applied the principles of mythology to business. (It’s no longer on TV but remains popular on YouTube.) “Business is also belief,” he tells me — or as he said in a TED Talk, “What is business but the result of how the market behaves and how the organization behaves?” (A lot more, a CEO might answer.) Business Sutra had Pattanaik unpacking questions from his interviewer and viewers about boardrooms and diversity in the workplace and other management topics. Take the episode on corporate governance, which starts from the assumption that the rules governing boards, CEOs, etc., are pretty much Western by nature: “This narrative is very strong in the Bible: You cannot be an individual,” Pattanaik tells the interviewer. From the narrative of a punitive God with individuals subservient to him comes law: “These are the sources from which the idea of governance has come into India. It’s relatively alien.”
Pattanaik did work in industry for some years, but the stuff he’s talking about on Sutra and that he designed while running Belief Operations for the Future Group (which didn’t reply to requests for comment) seems far from both that and his writing — H.R.-type stuff, like initiation rituals he designed for new business owners in which they’re blindfolded, handed the store keys and then unblindfolded to see family, customers and co-workers gathered to celebrate the end of the training. No, it’s not quite obvious how that matches up with the study of religion, but it fits into Pattanaik’s somewhat basic message: Things are subjective. Learn the paradigm in which you’re working, cast away assumptions, then do your work. A neat map for how to live your life.
The idea of applying the Bhagavad Gita — the Hindu scripture that’s part of the epic Mahabharata — to management practice is nothing new, says Robert Goldman, professor of Sanskrit at the University of California, Berkeley. These texts have a lot to say about how to behave in the world, Goldman notes, and there’s no reason why they can’t be read that way. After all, it’s much like reading the writings of Stoic philosopher and Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius as a reminder to be detached and run a kick-ass empire at the same time.
Like so many in this powerful country that has yet to fully shake off its colonial legacy, Pattanaik is laboring to rid the culture of its years of subjugation to the West. There is something powerful and dramatic about that, a kind of struggle for the freeing of the Indian mind itself. And there is also something I’m missing. I don’t know what India is by the end of my time with Pattanaik. “Hinduism is India,” he tells me — a version of the religion that excludes the scholars who write about it at the University of Chicago and Harvard, that excludes Westerners who found it and studied it in the ’70s and ’80s, that even excludes my parents, who immigrated. (Hindus in the diaspora, Pattanaik tells me, engage with a fantasy version of the religion.) I ask him if there’s any way one could be a Hindu living outside of India. “No,” he says. “I don’t think so.”