With a total of 30 books on his portfolio and 600 columns published by major news outlets, Mr Devdutt Pattanaik shows no signs of stopping.
A former medical professional by trade, Mr Pattanaik considers studying and writing about mythology his true calling. Mr Pattanaik’s known worldwide for writing best sellers such as My Gita, Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana, Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata, and 7 Secrets of Shiva to name a few. He’s also written books on Management namely; Leader: Insights from Indian Mythology, The Success Sutra: An Indian Approach to Wealth, and The Talent Sutra: An Indian Approach to Learning to name a few.
Mr Pattanaik’s also hosted two shows on CNBC-TV18 & CNBC Awaaz called Business Sutra & Shastraarth respectively. He frequently works as a consultant for Star TV and hosts Devlok with Devdutt Pattanaik on Epic Channel.
In this interview, Mr Pattanaik discusses his childhood, his writing process, his recently launched book My Hauman Chalisa, and much more.
1. What was your childhood like, and was there any particular catalyst in those formative years that helped you generate this interest in mythology?
It was a regular suburban upper middle-class upbringing where the focus was on education and establishing a good career. I had a very regular, stable, unimpressive childhood with two sisters and parents who loved us and each other very much. Today, I realise how privileged I was. We were not particularly religious. And like all children of that time read Amar Chitra Katha and Chandamama comics through which we accessed mythology.
I guess I had a natural inclination for religion, folklore, fantasy and philosophy, and my parents never stopped me from buying books: everything from the Art of Boris Vallejo to the Bhagavatam by Kamala Subramaniam. It’s only after I completed Medicine that my interest in mythology became intense and serious, as an escape from the world of healthcare, which I did not find particularly exciting.
2. Can you describe your writing process? And, how do you overcome writer’s block, if you go through it that is?
I write every day in the morning till noon. It’s my daily routine. I write whatever comes to mind. A tweet. An article. A chapter of a book. An idea for a new book. I wish I exercised as regularly as I write. Then you would be healthier. Instead, I have to settle to be a prolific writer. I usually don’t suffer from writer’s block as I write on multiple topics and themes and so just go with whatever excites me at a time. Some days are great. Others terrible.
3. Your latest book My Hanuman Chalisa — wherein, you interpret the verses in contemporary language for the modern readers — released this month, So, my question is, why Hanuman Chalisa?
It is about paying attention to a prayer that is common amongst most Hindi speaking Hindus. It is chanted often but do we know what are we chanting? Who wrote these words? And what connection do these verses have to Puranas and eventually the Vedas? It helps us realise how Hindu thought reached the masses since Hinduism does not have a tradition of preachers and missionaries. Wisdom reached through story and song.
4. What according to you is more difficult; writing a mythology for children or writing one for adults?
I really do not see the difference. With children, you have to be more clear, more directive, more simple. And so it helps us unravel complex themes. With children, I use many more themes and weave them into a wider, more intense, fabric. I try not to make philosophy binary and simplistic for children as I feel children can handle complexity. For example, Sita makes choices. Not always. And not all choices work out. So what does that mean? Is choosing good or bad? Why do we say a choice is good or bad? Children need to reflect on these ideas so that they become responsible adults. We must not give them ridiculous wishful ideas like good actions result in good reactions.
5. Your current bibliography contains only one fiction novel i.e. The Pregnant King. Any plans for writing more fiction books in the future?
Yes, hopefully, next year. I have written a short story though which is fiction, ‘Is he Fresh?’ published by Tehelka. Some young people want to make it a short film.
6. You’ve written a total of thirty books on mythology. What character, in your mind, stands out from the rest?
Ram actually because everyone is so eager to vilify him without actually appreciating the complex structure of the epic. It reveals the vast gap between the Vedic transmitter and the modern receiver.
7. In today’s era filled with so many injustices, tragedies, and sorrows, whose ideologies would be better suited to solve these issues, Ram or Krishna?
Justice is a Greek concept. And they did not believe in equality. Justice was about keeping everyone ‘in their place’ – destroying hubris of man who seeks he can be god. In Greek mythology, some people are special as they are children of gods. Rest are mediocre. Equality as a concept comes from Christianity. We are now conditioned to see the world through the Greco-Christian lens that we assume is rational and real but is actually simply a Western discourse. The world is what it always has been: full of predators and prey, eaters and eaten, rich and poor, kind and cruel people. Our suffering comes from assumed benchmarks and technology that is designed to benefit one tribe at the cost of the other. And so industrialisation benefits the West and destroys the old feudal order, but replaces it with a new class of the economically and politically privileged. Nothing really changes. At least that is the traditional Indian lens. Ram and Krishna are not ‘superheroes’ who are seeking to make the world ‘a better place’. They are finite forms (avatar) of ‘infinity’ (ananta) showing us how to live in the world, at peace, no matter what the context and challenges.
8. What is the one consistent theme you’ve observed across all these mythologies?
Death and coping with death and so finding meaning is a consistent theme underlying all mythologies. In Greek mythology, meaning comes from achievement. In Abrahamic mythology, meaning comes from submission and alignment. In Indian mythology, from witnessing the world by empathizing with multiple points of view.
9. Can you tell us a bit about your upcoming projects?
I avoid talking about things that I am working on. Needless to say, they will all deal with mythology, and one will be a fiction.