Devdutt Pattanaik introduced by Amita Tripathi
By Rushati Mukherjee, Official ZEE Jaipur Literature Festival Blogger
Like a master storyteller, Devdutt Pattanaik illustrates his arguments with ornamental stories but explains them with pin-point precision. His mischievous references to contemporary issues make the crowd laugh, and his laughter makes them laugh harder. At a jam-packed session, he answered questions about his upcoming book, Olympus: An Indian Retelling of the Greek Myths, such as, are there similarities between the stories of Krishna and Hercules? How does the story of the Trojan horse make an appearance in Jain tradition? Most importantly, how do the Greek myths and the Hindu myths differ from each other?
Many of the Greek myths share ‘superficial similarities’ with Hindu myths, observed Pattanaik. The Trojan War in Homer’s Iliad was fought by a king to bring back his queen, as was the war in Ramayana. Hercules fought a lion and defeated a many-headed snake, as did Krishna. The story of Achilles’s flawed immortality, transferred to him by his mother, cannot help but remind us of Gandhari’s attempt to protect Duryodhana in the Mahabharata. But on closer inspection, the disparities are more profound.
The most significant mistake made by people comparing these myths, explained Pattanaik, is to ignore the enormous differences in the fundamental narrative structures of stories in Ancient India and Ancient Greece. Greek stories have a strict, definite arc; there is always a beginning, middle, and an end. Contrastingly, Hindu mythology is much more fluid. Every Hindu myth is a continuation of a larger story that spans far beyond its protagonists. This difference is due to the very different ways in which these cultures engaged with the concept of destiny.
The Greek way of life was to try and impose control over what seemed to be uncontrollable, explained Pattanaik. On the other hand, every Hindu story ultimately leads back to the concept of the sanatan (‘that which continues forever’). The Greek world is fixed and limited. The Hindu world, on the other hand, has no beginning and no end. ‘What we think is chaos is just order beyond our understanding,’ said Pattanaik.
The purpose of life, as conceptualised by each culture, is thus divergent. In the Greek way of thought, the idea of becoming extraordinary is emphasised. One is constantly being evaluated, even after death. ‘The whole of modern life is based on Greek mythology,’ said Pattanaik. ‘We are being continuously measured and judged.’
On the other hand, the Hindu God is not a judge. Instead, he is more of an accountant. The idea of karma involves the idea of debt: for all your achievements, you owe a debt that will eventually have to be repaid. The purpose of life in Hindu thought is therefore to become debt-free.
There was nearly 200 years of close contact between Ancient Indian and Ancient Greek culture. Constant cultural exchange is thus entirely possible. However, it is not advisable to compare their literature by parameters established by only one of them. ‘These myths exist in completely different ways of imagination,’ explained Pattanaik. In the present-day ‘global village’, a one-way conversation is taking place in which the Hindu myths are being subsumed into a mode of storytelling completely antithetical to their purpose.
The solution to this state of misunderstanding lies in more engaged discourse, said Pattanaik. It is only through debate that the two cultures will understand each other. To sum up his point, he provided a nifty example. ‘When the denominator of your life is infinity, the value of your achievement is zero,’ he said. ‘One day, your body will let you go and you will watch the world carry on without you. This realisation, in Greek culture, forms the epiphany of tragedy. In Hindu thought, it is considered the moment of wisdom.’
Photo Credit: Chetan Singh Gill