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Business News/ Mint-lounge / Features/  Book Review | 7 Secrets Of The Goddess

Book Review | 7 Secrets Of The Goddess

With his new book on goddesses, Devdutt Pattanaik, the prolific mythologist, continues to provide smoothly reading guides to divinities

A Durga idol awaiting finishing touches at Kumartuli, West Bengal. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/MintPremium
A Durga idol awaiting finishing touches at Kumartuli, West Bengal. Photo: Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

When God is a she

After similarly numbered Secrets of Vishnu, Shiva and even Hindu calendar art, Devdutt Pattanaik now offers us his trademark rough-and-ready reckoner on the feminine divine—7 Secrets Of The Goddess, the series titles cleverly playing on all the commonly held ideas about the power of the number 7.

Pattanaik’s formal training is in medicine but he gave that up to become a mythologist. As a mythologist, Pattanaik is both prolific and popular. He is a captivating public speaker and a pretty good illustrator as well. He has the remarkable capacity to present complex ideas simply and pithily, often disregarding history or regional specificity. While that may bother a pedant like me, it makes no difference whatsoever to his legions of admirers. In all his works, Pattanaik presents us with confident and dynamic ideas and beliefs for a modern age, ideas loosely rooted in an ancient past, now packaged for 21st century seekers of spiritual wisdom.

Speaking of Pattanaik’s propensity to take on the most complex of configurations, surely the goddess, especially as she appears on the subcontinent, is the most complex idea of divinity that we have—mother, killer, wife, consort, virgin, giver, taker, serene, bloodthirsty . . . the list of her aspects, if not her actual manifestations, goes on and on. Even for her worshippers, though, the goddess is able to hold these many contradictions within herself, with no discomfort to anyone. Pattanaik’s 7 Secrets essentially cover seven manifestations of the goddess: Gaia, Kali, Gauri, Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Vitthai. These take us through a generic, universal mother goddess, five of the classical (largely Puranic) Hindu female deities and one folk goddess from western India.

Although I personally find these choices and these separations somewhat arbitrary, Pattanaik’s information, his sources and resources, are, as always, vast and deep. He sweeps across centuries and cultures, languages and sects, to provide us with an idiosyncratic religious history of the female deity and her symbols.

7 Secrets Of The Goddess: Westland, 259 pages, 395.
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7 Secrets Of The Goddess: Westland, 259 pages, 395.

Short, punchy sentences, short, punchy ideas strung along to make an attractive argument that can’t be refuted (if that’s what one cares to do) without reams of musty pages and stuffy references. Even as I appreciated every single instance of Pattanaik’s side-swipes against patriarchal institutions and beliefs (which are frequent in this book), I wished I could follow his arguments rather than simply applaud his conclusions. Pattanaik’s power lies in the fact that there is nothing apparently wrong with what he says—it’s just that he says it too quickly, leaving the careful reader to ponder the leaps of faith s/he has to make between the rocks that make his bridge over troubled water.

The text in 7 Secrets is accompanied by images from all over the place, from the Roman statue of the Rape Of The Sabine to poster art, calendar art and esoteric tantrik diagrams of power. The images are extensively annotated, with Pattanaik indicating points of interest within them as well as explaining some of the iconography, but with no mention of the source of the image or the period from which it comes.

I will concede that these omissions are part of Pattanaik’s larger project: that whoever we are and wherever we come from, some aspect of the goddess will speak to us, for while her symbols might be specific, her significance (if not her power) is universally acknowledged.

Without a doubt, my favourite among all of Pattanaik’s works is the delightful fable The Pregnant King (Penguin, 2008), drawn from one of the lesser-known stories in the Mahabharat. Retelling the story of a king who gets pregnant when he drinks the fertility potion meant for his wives, Pattanaik is in full flow—his subversive wit, his probing questions and his undeniable abilities as a storyteller combine to make this a rollicking good yarn that nudges us to rethink issues of gender, both inherited and constructed. For my money, that’s the Pattanaik I would read.

And so I am disappointed that such an inventive and unique talent squanders itself on a “Seven Secrets" formula. You, on the other hand, dear seeker, might find your money well spent on this volume.

To read an excerpt from 7 Secrets Of The Goddess, click here.

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Updated: 18 Nov 2014, 11:17 AM IST
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