When talking about mythologists, his name comes to mind instantly. Having written over 41 books on the relevance of mythology in the functioning of the modern world, he takes a mythological approach concerning areas like governance, leadership, and management. He is none other than Devdutt Pattanaik, an eminent author, a flawless illustrator, an eloquent speaker, and a renowned mythologist. Having published bestsellers like My Gita, Business Sutra, Sita, Jaya, and the 7 Secret Series, Devdutt is also trained in medicine and has worked for 15 years in the healthcare industry before he finally chose his passion for studying mythology into his profession. He has also been consulted by producers of mythological television serials like ‘Devon Ke Dev Mahadev (2011)’, ‘Mahabharata (2013)’, and ‘Siya Ke Ram (2015)’ for his valuable insights on the storylines of these shows. The shows ‘Business Sutra’ on CNBC-TV18 and ‘Devlok’ on Epic that featured Devdutt are considered landmarks in the Indian Infotainment Industry.
In an insightful interview with me, Devdutt talks about his two famous books – ‘Dharma Artha Kama Moksha’ and ‘My Gita’.
Dharma Artha Kama Moksha
Launched in 2021, ‘Dharma Artha Kama Moksha’ is a management book based on these four Hindu shastras. In this book, Devdutt has elucidated his ideas of Hindu Mythology in the form of short essays and an illustration pattern that explains the working and relevance of these shastras in modern times. The book has explained the synchrony among the four shastras of Dharma, Artha, Kama, and Moksha, keeping in mind the dependency and relationships of human life on them.
In your book, you mention that the Purush-Artha can be attained by the Chatur-Varga followed by one-line descriptions of them, which seems easy to understand but holds a deeper meaning. What are those underlying meanings?
We have to understand Purush-Artha, or the meaning of human life, by observing all living life forms. All living life forms generate food, which is Artha, and consume food, Kama. So we generate resources, and we enjoy resources, which is the Kama. Artha and Kama are understood by all living creatures.
But what makes humans unique is that we can give our resources to others and feed others around us and create an ecosystem that is caring and helpful for others, and that is Dharma. This can only happen when we outgrow our own needs and greed and hunger for resources, which is Moksha. Moksha is when we liberate ourselves from the need for things. These four qualities, i.e. Dharma Artha Kama Moksha, become the four pillars of validating human existence, and that’s the essence of the book.
We see everyone talking about following Dharma and seeking Moksha as they think highly of these ideas. But when someone is heard discussing Artha and Kama, people look at him with disdain. How do you think this scenario has emerged?
There are two levels at which this conversation can happen. Dharma and Moksha are used in the spiritual space, Artha and Kama are used in the worldly or material, or sensory space. So naturally, in a world where materialism is considered inferior to spirituality, Dharma and Moksha become glamorous, and everybody talks about it.
However, you cannot talk about Dharma and Moksha without Artha and Kama because Artha and Kama are the foundation of human life. We need to generate resources; we have to consume resources. The question is, when this becomes the sole purpose of existence, then we stop developing spiritual beings, which is the purpose of human life. And that can only happen through generosity which is the cornerstone of Dharma. An abnegation or denial of our pleasures, more than denial, is rising above our yearning for resources and indulgences, which is Moksha.
“So materialism forms the foundation of spirituality; they’re not in opposition of each other. “Says Devdutt
You have talked about Mulya. What are these? Is the practice of the human race to create something of Mulya in exchange for something selfish?
Mulya means value. What is your value? Everything has value.
The plants value the sun because the sun gives them nourishment. Animals value plants because plants give them nourishment. Carnivorous animals eat other animals because those animals grant them nourishment.
In human society, we have to ask ourselves, what value do we bring to the table? Unlike plants and animals whose bodies are consumed. We provide goods, services, and ideas that are consumed by those around us. And therefore, we should constantly ask ourselves what goods, services and value, or other ideas we bring to the table that makes us valuable. We often don’t have these conversations. We are too busy consuming value to realize that we are also the source of value, and Mulya draws attention to that.
You have talked about neuroscience and its proximity with the Hindu Shastras, and we have a generation that tends to disregard this relation. What are your comments on this?
Hindu Shastras were not as familiar with human physiology as we are today. The sages were aware that happiness is of different kinds. There is joy when you generate wealth when you are successful. There is a different kind of joy when you are indulging, eating good food, listening to good music. Having the company of your friends. There is a different kind of joy when you are kind and generous to the world. And there’s a different kind of joy when you let go of anger and greed and jealousy. These different kinds of fits of anger were classified into Dharma Artha Kama Moksha.
“We are too busy in consuming value to realize that we are also the source of value.“Says Devdutt
Now we find that neuroscientists have found that different kinds of chemicals are released in our brain during different activities. When there is an achievement, dopamine is released; when there is a larger purpose of giving or magnanimity, serotonin is released. Too much dopamine gives us ephemeral happiness and gets the body high but can also crash and cause depression. Oxytocin is associated with intimacy. Endorphins are released to take away pain in our bodies. So different kinds of chemicals are released.
I thought there is a correlation. We are seeing how science is explaining why we have different kinds of happiness. And that was an interesting thought which I wanted to add to the book.
We must stay away from this false identification that ancient Indian sages knew neurosciences; that’s a very silly way of thinking. It just means that today we have the technology to understand the logic or the chemical basis of certain observations made a long time ago.
You have talked about Ganikas in chapter 7. What is their origin, and why do they have a significant role in the Kamasutra?
Ganikas were courtesans, and they exist, not just in Kamasutra. However, in Kamasutra, they play a very central role because Kamasutra deals with sensory indulgences. Ganikas were independent women who provided sensory services to society, so they’ve provided music and dance and perhaps culinary skills, different kinds of bodily pleasure, and we have reference to them. For example, in Tamil Sangam literature and Buddhist documents, we find their mentions.
These were rich women because they had their jobs. And this was perhaps the only job women could do as an independent entity. But over time, we decided to classify them as servants and sex workers, and they lost their status in society. This was amplified in the 19th century under Victorian law.
You have made illustrations in the book, and every illustration of yours is codified with a meaning. Is there any particular technique that you stick to while designing them? Is there any particular set of rules?
I illustrate my articles the way in science journals we illustrate various scientific principles. For me, my diagrams are a way of communicating what is left unsaid in the articles. But there is no code. I pay a lot of attention to the eyes because I think eyes are the mirror to the soul. But I try to cut out the clutter and try to help people focus on the key theme that I’m trying to promote.
“Many people appreciate lines better than words, and therefore the artwork helps them appreciate better what I’m trying to say in an article.“Says Devdutt
There is a chapter that discusses Apad Dharma. What is it, and how is it relevant in the present times when we are struggling with the Covid-19 pandemic?
In an organized and regulated society where everything is predictable, we know what to do. But in an emergency, all rules are tossed aside, and we make tough decisions. For example, during the COVID pandemic, you could be the CEO of a company, but if you are homebound with your family, you also have to manage the kitchen, or if your wife is in the hospital, you have to cook and provide for her. House-helps had to take care of children. Also, suddenly Apad Dharma became about children taking care of their parents. In a small house, space had to be sacrificed. These are all part of Apad Dharma. It is okay during the pandemic; once the pandemic goes away, the rules will change once again. New hierarchies will emerge, new activities will emerge, and that is okay, and it’s part of life.
Published in 2015, ‘My Gita’ is a mythological work Devdutt and, as the name refers, is a book based on his understanding of the ‘Bhagavad Gita’. Against the stereotypical verse-by-verse approach, this book has unique thematic explanations combined with illustrations and simple diagrams that help the readers understand human relationships through this book. This book cannot have a summary because it is a journey of understanding the Gita and accepting the fact that your Gita is what one derives their meaning from and not a chapter or subject that can be taught. Therefore, Devdutt writes, “Let My Gita inform your Gita”
The title itself invokes curiosity. Why is the book named My Gita? Can there be a Gita that is individualistic?
The idea of a transcendental Gita which talks to everyone is absurd; there is no such thing. Shankaracharya, in the eighth century, saw the Gita as something totally different from saying what Dhynaeshwar wrote in his first translation in Marathi. Gandhi’s Gita is very different from Ambedkar’s Gita.
“It’s a subjective reading, I am saying what I’m seeing, and I’m sharing it with the world.”Says Devdutt
Everybody brings their own prejudices and politics into the reading of the Gita. And I wanted to call it out and call it My Gita. It’s a subjective reading, I am saying what I’m seeing, and I’m sharing it with the world. And I don’t want to pretend that this is what perhaps Krishna told Arjuna on the battlefield, whenever it happened.
In the book, I came across a table that establishes a relationship between the themes in the Gita and the themes in My Gita. Please highlight the idea behind it.
My Gita does not follow the traditional chapter by chapter explanation of the Gita because the Gita is not designed that way; many ideas are clustered in some chapters; the same idea is elaborated over several chapters. It is not designed with each chapter having an idea.
We are now so conditioned to go systematically to understand the subject that we need explanations for various topics. Therefore I decided to explain the Gita one concept at a time, so it’s a thematic explanation, not a verse by verse explanation, which is a traditional model.
However, people would like to know that what sequence does the traditional Gita follow and what does My Gita follow and therefore, I decided to create a table. In my writings, I use many tables and flowcharts, which are modern ways of communication to make them accessible to the public.
You have written about Karma-Phala. How does this Karma–Phala give poignant differences in the characteristics of Ram and Ravana, Krishna and Duryodhana?
Ravana denies a woman consent, and as a result of which his entire kingdom is set aflame. And but he continues to think he’s the victim. Duryodhana publicly humiliates a woman instead of respecting her, and he refuses to share the kingdom with his cousins and this results in a great war, but in the end, he continues to see himself as a victim.
Ram is exiled for no fault of his, Krishna is a refugee for no fault of his. He defends the city of Mathura and, in the process of defending the city, kills Kansa, and his widows complained to their father, Jarasand, who burns the city of Mathura. Therefore, we realize that everybody, whether you’re a villain or a hero, whether you’re good or bad, everyone has to experience the consequences of their actions. And sometimes, we face consequences of other people’s actions, as in the case of Ram’s exile. And thus, we understand how complex Dharma is.
In Chapter 5, Verses 27 to 29, Krishna says to Arjuna, “Arjuna, ignore the onslaught of external stimuli and focus between your eyebrows, regulating inhalation and exhalation at the nostrils, to liberate yourself from fear, desire, and anger, and discover me within you, I who receive and consume every offering of your yagnas.” What are these Yagnas?
A Yagya is an exchange, an exchange that happens between two entities. And Krishna asks Arjuna the act of meditation and pranayama, breath control that when you are doing these actions, to whom are you offering it? And Krishna says you’re offering it to me, and in exchange, I will help you liberate yourself from your desire.
So he transforms what looks like a solitary act of meditation and pranayama popularized by monks into a relationship between the mortal flesh and the immortal divine; that’s what he’s trying to explain.
“Whether you’re a villain or a hero, whether you’re good or bad, everyone has to experience the consequences of their actions.“Says Devdutt
Please shed some light on the Tri-guna: Sattva, Tamas, Rajas.
All material things have qualities. A material thing is sometimes in what is called a state of randomness, then it gets highly organized, what is called entropy.
We have heard about thermodynamic laws. In Physics and Chemistry, people talk about how all matter is moving towards the state of randomness, and its entropy is expanding. So basically, all material things are dynamic; they look static. And that’s what Sattva, Tamas, Rajas just refers to. All material things are going through stages of agitation or Rajas, a state of equilibrium, which is a Sattva, and a state of sloth which Tamas. So, for example, some days, you feel energized and motivated, that is your Rajas, you are aggressive, and you want to get things done. There are days when you are highly organized and calm and composed, and that is Sattva, and there are days when you don’t feel like doing anything, and that is Tamas.
And we go through these cycles constantly, and all material things go through it, and we must be aware of this. It doesn’t mean one state is good or bad. Generally, Sattva is what we aspire for, but we keep fluctuating between extremes.
Is there a relationship between the nine gates of the body and 18 days of the Mahabharata Yudha?
Krishna in the Gita refers to Navdwar Pura, which is a metaphor for the human body. The human body is visualized as a city, which is occupied by the soul, and the city has nine gates, which are the mouth, the nostrils, the eyes, the two ears, the genitals, and the anus. It is a kind of metaphor; one should not take it literally. And all relationships, all Yagyas, happen between two entities, each one having nine doors, so nine plus nine is 18. And therefore, 18 becomes a magical number, a metaphorical number to represent relationships. Therefore, we have 18 chapters of the Mahabharata, 18 chapters of the Gita, 18 days of the Mahabharata war, Kurukshetra involving 18 armies. So it kinds of draws attention to human relationships.
You have mentioned in your book that after the Gita, there were the Kama Gita and the Anu Gita, both narrated by Krishna. What made these two Gitas emerge, and what do these two scriptures talk about?
The Mahabharata has many philosophical conversations, which are called songs or Gita. Around a dozen of them are there, and two of them are the Kama Gita and the Anu Gita. The Anu Gita is the most interesting because it happens after the war when Arjuna goes to Krishna and says, “Can you please summarize what you told me before the war?” And Krishna gets very angry, saying that it was told in a moment as an inspiring speech. Now I can’t remember what I told you before the war. However, he then proceeds to explain the broad principles of Vedanta but what is interesting is he focuses on Gyan yoga and Karma yoga. He doesn’t talk about Bhakti Yoga. Also, the Anu Gita is almost double the size of the Bhagavad Gita. So it has 36 chapters which make it interesting. Kama Gita is about cravings, where Krishna talks about cravings, and this is told to Yudhishthira overheard by Arjuna.
Tea for the Mind
In your books, I have come across this phrase, “Within infinite myths lies an eternal truth, Who sees it all? Varuna has but a thousand eyes, Indra, a hundred, You and I, only two”, Does this phrase has an underlying meaning? What does it want to make the human race realize?
This phrase is found in every book of mine. I had first written it 25 years ago in my first book, Shiva: An introduction that was published in 1997. It deals with how everyone cannot see everything, and therefore, our conversations should be based on curiosity and not judgment. So it tells a simple idea that nobody sees everything, not even the Gods.
You have also worked as a mythological consultant for several Indian television series like Mahabharat, Siya Ke Ram, and Devon Ke Dev-Mahadev. These shows changed some conventional thought processes that were flowing in the masses about these legends. Why do you think it was necessary to challenge those thought processes and develop something that makes more sense and connects with the audience?
These shows are the 21st-century retellings of the books Shiva, Mahabharata, and Ramayana, and these were not just my ideas but a compilation of thoughts and ideas of the producers, writers, directors, actors, and all those associated with these shows. So, therefore, these shows got a storyline that was inspired by the unconventionality of the 21st-century but not altering the central themes of these legends. The garnishing of the stories change but not its essence. This is how storytelling works.
Since this is Pride Month and you have openly talked about the LGBTQI+ community, be it in your books or even in the media, would you like to share your thoughts on the same?
Well talking about the LGBTQ+ community, I belong to it. I am a gay, and I am open and very comfortable about it. I have written books like Shikhandi, The Pregnant King and have contributed to the essay I Am Divine. So Are You, and all these are based on queer ideas. I think we should be open to all kinds of sexualities and genders. We should find ways to accept and accommodate them to make the world a better place.
A person who does not believe in giving advice, Devdutt says that everybody has to figure out their own lives and take inspiration from the art around them. I strongly believe in the study of mythologies and how it is germane in the present times when we see the Kurukshetra in politics, Shastras in management, and Ashramas in personal life. We do not know about the absolute truth, but we keep trying to seek it so that somewhere in this universe, we achieve the peace that we yearn for. This was unlocking the secrets of mythologies with Devdutt. I know Devdutt’s ideas and answers must have made you curious about the underlying truths of the popular legends and a mystical world.