As chief belief officer for the Future Group of companies, Devdutt Pattanaik has to ensure the management knows how to offer its employees what he calls “LSD”—monetary incentives (Lakshmi), intellectual and creative growth (Saraswati) and protection (Durga). This is how he explains, over chai and orange juice, his role in the company.
Pattanaik has a way with words. For many years now, he has articulated complex ideas from Indian, mostly Hindu, mythology with ease and much drama. He writes a column for the tabloid Mid Day, and has written a few books which include Myth = Mithya: A Handbook of Hindu Mythology, a novel, The Pregnant King, and his latest, Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata.
In the new book, written in short chapters with illustrations, he makes the ideas inherent in all the episodes of the epic lucid, without making them simplistic. Each chapter describes events as they happen, and a box below has bullet points on the meaning and context of characters and events. In the chapter called Eklavya, for example, about the forest dweller who was forced to cut his thumb by Drona, the teacher of the Pandavs, Pattanaik explains: “Vyasa portrays Arjuna as a highly insecure and competitive youth. Eklavya’s cut thumb mocks his position as the greatest archer in the world. Through the tale Vyasa demonstrates how greatness need not be achieved by being better than others; it can also be achieved by pulling down others who are better.” He devotes many chapters on what follows the coronation of Yudhisthir after the war of Kurukshetra—is he, and in turn, the virtuous, truly victorious after defeating the Kauravs? Apparently not.
Epic touch: Devdutt Pattanaik. Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Pattanaik speaks with urgency and passion—about jaya as opposed to vijaya; how the West is limited by finiteness and Hindu thought stresses the infinite; why Krishna is not just a fascinating “human being”, as some would like you to believe. Think of Pattanaik as a mythologist who performs his knowledge. About a year ago, I saw Pattanaik speak at a seminar on mythology in Indian cinema at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune. He was part of a panel that also had a couple of directors who have made mythological films, and actor Kamal Hassan. You can’t not listen to this pop mythologist.
An illustration from Jaya
Pattanaik gesticulated a lot, went shrill as well as baritone, and finally convinced the audience that the success of Jai Santoshi Maa speaks more about Indians than any other Indian film can. At the end of his talk, Hassan said, “I am not a tippler by day, but after hearing you speak, I could do with a stiff one.” Pattanaik says there is an element of performance to what he does. “I have read so much and found so much that I have this almost desperate desire to share these stories and ideas. And I use all the tools I have to express them,” Pattanaik says.
Two years ago, Kishore Biyani of the Future Group hired him as part of his think tank with the intriguing designation in order to inculcate ideas from scriptures in the corporate ethic of the group. “I had a tough session with some of the employees, sorting out some issues they have. They are like my children,” Pattanaik says.
More than a corporate guru, he sounds like a shrink when he talks about his day job.
Pattanaik, 39, spent his childhood and student days in Chembur, Mumbai. “My father is an MBA but MBA was never a choice for me. Either a doctor or an engineer. I was a nerd kind of a child, I think, always had an interest in mythological stories and knew how to tell stories,” Pattanaik says. He chose medicine and became a doctor, all the while pursuing his reading on epics, scriptures and mythological stories. “There was a point when I realized I could identify patterns in mythological ideas, be it Christian, Hindu or Islamic. Mythology is nothing but fantasy or representation.” He began writing about stories in his language, and this eventually led to the books.
Jaya: Penguin, 349 pages, Rs 499.
His forte, Hindu mythology, is a subject he has been studying for about a decade now. Over the years, Pattanaik’s writing has evolved. Initially, his approach to the Puranas, the epics and the Vedas was starry-eyed. Now, he says, he can see their layered complexity for what it is. Some artists and writers such as playwright Girish Karnad, while dramatizing many episodes of the epic, have humanized Hindu gods—diluting, to some extent, their religious and philosophical meanings. Pattanaik does not attempt to do so, but urges you not to worship those texts and gods blindly, or be fearful of them: “Look at the idol, watch its eyes and limbs and understand what it stands for, instead of bowing down with your eyes closed. It’s ironic that one of the most common words Hindus use to describe a temple visit is darshan!”
Pattanaik believes Krishna is not a “Machiavellian figure or superhero” but a god who could control the outcome of a world dictated by various shades of evil: a world where “a daughter is a prize in an archery contest” and “a husband lets another man make his wife pregnant”. The Leftist interpretations of Krishna have made him, Pattanaik says, “a scheming little playboy”. He rues about Leftist interpretations of the Mahabharat, at the same time reasoning that saffron parties could probably not understand a storyteller’s point of view.
The audience Pattanaik wants now is children. He is working on his first book for children called Dumb Charade with Shiva.