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Science of secularism
My Hanuman Chalisa
Author - Devdutt Pattanaik
Publisher - Rupa, Rs 295
Devdutt Pattanaik tells ANANYA BORGOHAIN that our religious roots come from our stories. If we respect existence of many gods, there will be a pursuit of co-existence. As long as we tell diverse stories of gods and imperfect heroes, we will be just fine
Renowned author Devdutt Pattanaik is known for his immensely popular works on modern interpretations of mythology as well as his writings on management and leadership. Trained as a physician, he worked in the healthcare industry for more than a decade until he turned a writer full time. Today he's a famous and successful author, screenwriter, columnist and speaker. In an interview, he shares how monotheism is a Western construct and it affects India.
What according to you distinguishes mythology, religion, and spirituality? Which one do you follow?
Mythology is worldview revealed through stories, symbols and rituals. Religion is about rules enforced by an authority, established through mythology. Spirituality is a personal journey on the path revealed by mythology. Everyone follows all three. Those who claim they don’t are just not aware, for all three are necessary conditions for human existence.
Secularism and atheism are just mythologies with no God, by worldviews nevertheless. I am nourished by mythology. I see the religion in it and spirituality too. As well as the logic.
Being a man of science, have you ever felt torn between two fundamental conflicts of all time — religion v/s science? How did you handle it?
Only stupid scientists see this as a conflict. Every good scientist knows there is a world beyond measurement and evidence. Science reveals ‘how’ of life. Mythology reveals ‘why’ of life. Both are needed for survival. No amount of physics, chemistry or biology can tell you what the purpose, value and meaning of your life are. For that you need a mythic framework to operate from. There is no escaping myth. It comes with imagination that separates the human animal from the rest of nature.
The subjects you write about can tend to be controversial in our country regardless of however harmless they actually are. Were you ever pressured?
We have to deal with immature people in the world. It’s hardly pressure. It’s more like indulgence and self-preservation as immature people can be dangerous, and violent. I try very hard not to be deliberately provocative. That is also immaturity.
You say that the Ramayana was written 2,000 years ago to teach Vedic knowledge to the masses. How do you look at Indian secularity in the current context? How aware are we of our religious roots?
The word religion comes from the West — it is used for monotheistic mythologies where the jealous God tolerates no false gods. The world secularism also comes from the West — a way to cope in an ecosystem of intolerant jealous gods. Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, never had such gods. We lost our plurality when we embraced the glamour of monotheism and the rationality of atheism, and ignored the inclusiveness of polytheism. But our stories, where divinity takes many forms, prepares us for diversity, and plurality, and inclusion. You may call it secularism. I don’t. As long as we respect the existence of many gods, there will be at least a pursuit of co-existence. Our religious roots come from our stories. As long as we tell diverse stories of gods and imperfect heroes, we are fine.
What kind of a metaphor does the figure of Hanuman serve in contemporary India?
Wisdom that creates affection and balances strength. The ability to serve a man even when one is equal to him in capability and capacity, because you are impressed by the grace with which he carries the burden of responsibilities. In Hanuman, I see a warrior as well as a poet, a diplomat and a sage. That makes him wonderful.
You have broadly written about civilisations, religion, and queer studies too. Which religion do you think encourages a discourse on transgender and why?
Hinduism, without doubt, and to a degree, Taoism. There is no cross-dressing gender fluid god or prophet in Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Why, there is no room for goddess! We need to explore our culture and then we will be more relaxed about matters sexual. Most religious folks today are following some puritanical Christian model. If only they knew Adi Shankara also composed the Amaru Shataka, an erotic treatise.
You write about how earrings have a special place in Hinduism. Even gods such as Vishnu and Shiva wore them. Many other religions are not comfortable with such androgyny. Why?
Monotheistic religions tend to domesticate nature to fit into culture. Hinduism appreciates nature in its totality and considers our ability to accommodate the diverse and dynamic other as a measure of our maturity. Buddhism and Jainism also observe nature, but seek to transcend it. Hinduism acknowledges it and also acknowledges that the immature, the frightened, may not be able to accommodate all of infinity, as Shiva and Vishnu do. Earrings are tools used to communicate ideas, just like the stories of the gods. Vishnu becomes Mohini, Shiva becomes Ardhanareshwara.
Earlier, women seldom prayed to Hanuman as he was consistently seen as someone who impregnates the female, but as time passed, this sense of hyper masculinity attached to his image has sobered and now women pray to Hanuman as well. How did that happen?
Stories, symbols and rituals change with time. Today we live in a world where men and women are seen as equal. The gods always knew it. But history did not. We are now discovering what the gods always revealed. Some people saw Hanuman as a form of Rudra, who shuns women. Others saw Hanuman as a devotee of Sita and the Goddess. The former form was popular a thousand years ago. The latter picture emerged later and we can see this shift in the Hanuman Chalisa.
How did European monotheism in the 19th century affect India?
Indians tried hard to prove our many gods are actually one. The elite in 19th century sought to establish superiority of the formless divine over the many forms of divine found in Puranas. We were embarrassed when the West admired the naked wild Kali or the mighty Hanuman. We insisted they were metaphors. We offered explanations as to why we worship trees, but no one asked the West why they venerate torture instruments (crucifix) or pray in one particular direction (Qibla) only if God is everywhere. In short, European monotheism made itself the benchmark for all worldviews, and made us, the colonised, defensive and reactionary. You see this backfooting even today in the Indian diaspora.
What triggered your interest in mythology?
The realisation that philosophy was defensive and elitist and did not capture the faith of the masses communicated through stories, symbols and rituals.
Because this field is so vast, how do you know which research source is reliable and which is not?
You never know. But you trust recurring patterns and an internal consistency in thought process.
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