Devdutt Pattanaik is a well known author on many works on mythology. He showcases the relevance of age-old myths to modern times. He has written and illustrated many innovative and engaging books for children which introduce young minds to the world of stories from the Mahabharata, Ramayana and other Indian mythology.
Why did you decide to write children’s books? You write and draw your own illustrations. Who are your influences when it comes to writing and drawing?
My first children’s book was Hanuman’s Ramayana and I wrote it because Tulika publishers asked me to. But I did not find the illustrations inspiring so then wrote Fun in Devlok series for Puffin which was illustrated by Vivek Tondon (who passed away recently).
Finally, I felt that I should illustrate my own books, as the drawing style does not look disjointed from the writing style. Thus Pashu, The Girl Who Chose and The Boys Who Fought came into being. I have been influenced by traditional miniature art forms such as Phad and Patta paintings, and the renowned Mario Miranda.
As far as writing is concerned, I have been influenced by computer manuals that make things easy to understand using bullet points and boxes and charts which you will find a lot in my books.
What is it about mythology that interests you? Most mythologies come attached with morals and values. Do you think an understanding of the world through mythology can help prepare children for experiences in their own life?
Morals and values come from parables, not mythologies. Mythologies provide a framework to make sense of life. Most people confuse the two. We think Jataka and Panchatantra are the same. They are not. Jataka is a Buddhist lore written to establish the concept of karma, paap (sin), punya (good deeds) and bodhisattva (motivated by compassion). It is descriptive. It isn’t meant to be prescriptive.
Panchatantra, by contrast, is prescriptive, telling children about friendships and enemies. Story of Genesis in mythology, establishing paradigm of Original Sin, but story of Prodigal Son is a parable, that simply prescribes appropriate behaviour towards errant members of the faith.
Many parents are nostalgic about books and stories from their own childhood such as Amar Chitra Kathas and Jataka tales from which they drew their lessons on mythology. Going back to them as adults, some parents find them too violent or promoting a more patriarchal mindset. How should parents navigate this tricky territory of introducing progressive ideas without tampering the story?
Mythology are not fairy tales. Myths establish paradigms for worldviews. Fairy tales are entertainment. Shiva Purana and Vetalapachisi are both stories, but both are not myths. Postmodernists have reduced all stories into ‘patriarchal propaganda’. One must be careful of such deconstruction as there is an assumption that there is an ‘ideal story’ out there which is gender neutral. Such stories often turn out to be tedious and boring and confusing, totally not preparing children for the world outside, for not everyone in the world except in the ‘bubble of the developed world controlled by postmodern missionaries’ tells politically correct stories where there is no sex, no violence, no monsters, no abduction, no rape, no death.
Would Christians be told to stop telling children how Jesus was conceived in a virgin woman without her permission? Would Muslims be now forced to tell stories of Allah’s female prophets? We live in a world where tribals are exploited and women are abused and abducted. Let children be prepared to face this world, through the safety net of stories, rather than actual experience.
The idea of manipulating a child’s mind through ‘correct’ or ‘incorrect’ storytelling sounds creepy, like a gardener turning a plant into a bonsai, for his or her own pleasure. All kinds of stories must be told to children, that confuse them, and create paradoxical worlds, so that they can figure things out eventually.
What are some lessons that parents can share from the Ramayana and Mahabharata with their young kids today?
Let us not reduce Ramayana and Mahabharata into propaganda. Just enjoy the story and wonder over issues like choices of Sita and fights of the Pandavas. How things sometimes workout and sometimes don’t. How some fights even when won feel like defeats.
How does one distill the basic principles of Hinduism to explain to young children, especially those living in the diaspora?
We need to first know what makes Hinduism unique. We need to clarify that Hinduism is based on rebirth, unlike Abrahamic and secular myths. This means that all life is governed by karma: the past impacts the present and the present impacts the future. Life is full of tough choices and not always pleasant consequences. Beware of reductive western notions of karma that equate it with fatalism.
We need to clarify that Hinduism thrives on diversity and dynamism. So there can be different truths that co-exists and all truths change over space, time and communities (desha-kala-patra). Diversity favors heterogeneity and so will be at odds with doctrine of equality that favors homogeneity. And in Hinduism, God is not a judge; one can say God is an accountant, determining how much debt you still have to repay, in this life, if not the next.
In your book Fun in Devlok, you provide a modern twist to mythology which we found is quite appealing to kids. Did you write it with the intent to make it more accessible? Are there other books you’re writing with a similar approach?
I just was tired of self-appointed Hindu leaders, mostly saffron-robed allegedly celibate men, terrorize people with weird burdensome notions of gods and goddesses, like we must be careful when referring to gods, and not crack jokes about them. Basically they stripped Hinduism of its playfulness, humor and lucidity, primarily to grant themselves more power.
I find that really immature. This is not how Hindus have engaged with gods in village communities and temple complexes. Hindu gods love leela, games. They dance and sing. They are mischievous and wise. They are not boring. Hence it was important to bring back fun in the world of gods, or dev-lok.
Check out more of Devdutt's vlogs here
You define myths as “someone’s truth” or a worldview. You’ve written mostly about Hindu mythology, but also about Islamic, Christian, Buddhist, Jain as well as Greek mythology. Do you find any similarities between these diverse world views?
Each one is trying to make sense of life and death. Each one is trying to give life meaning. Each one is trying to get people to be decent, and mature, and civilized. Some do it with many gods (Hinduism, Greeks), some with one God (Christianity, Islam, Judaism), some without God (Buddhism, Jainism) or gods (secularism).
Also read a guest post by Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni