“My goal in life in all my books, and I write a lot, for over 20 years, has been to get Saraswati out of the closet. She belongs everywhere and she has to flow everywhere.” That was author and mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik at the Express Adda on Tuesday where he opened up on a range of topics including the #MeToo phenomenon that is sweeping across film, media and entertainment, the Supreme Court’s Section 377 verdict, the problem with textual dependency in religion, and the flawed perception of tradition versus modernity. Pattanaik correlated the ancient concept of matsya nyaya with the #MeToo movement. “In Hindu mythology, there’s the fundamental concept of matsya nyaya, the crude English translation of which would be jungle law. It’s where the predator runs after the prey and there’s nothing immoral about it because it’s doing so purely out of sustenance,” he said.
“Matsya nyaya is perfect as long as it is in the jungle and belongs to animals. The moment humans start behaving in the same way, it becomes adharma. When a human starts to devour other human beings in order to indulge his sense of self, something has gone wrong. He has lost his humanity. That’s what has happened here (with the #MeToo movement), with people calling out the predators.”
“In this case, it is a psychological devouring where the man disrespects the woman’s space and body to the extent that the woman is an object, not a person,” he said.
Beyond political and social explanations for #MeToo, Pattanaik offered a mythological prism to look at the movement saying, “This ‘purge’ is a cyclical thing which happens every time things go out of control. The Jains have this concept of avasarpani and utasarpani — where time goes up and down in waves. So you have good times and bad times. What we are seeing now is also a wave of ideas by women to stand their ground. And one idea always leads to the other and so on.”
Linking the #MeToo events to the cyclical pattern of karma, Pattanaik said, “When it is about Karma, every action has a reaction. When insecure men behave in pathetic ways, you do have secure women standing up and raising points. This too will have consequences. It isn’t a linear journey from injustice to justice. This will have consequences in relationships between men and women, and relations in power spaces. Things that are happening now will have an impact, thus, on what happens in future. It’s karmic, in that sense.”
Referring to the apex court verdict on Section 377, which decriminalised homosexuality, and how he navigated the disappointment of an earlier judgement, Pattanaik said, “It was December 11, which also is my birthday, in 2013. When I heard that Section 377 had been upheld and homosexuality has been recriminalised, I was devastated. I wept so much because I felt betrayed by the Indian state.”
That is also about the same time Pattanaik was working on Shikhandi: And Other Tales They Don’t Tell You. He said that was the point in his life when he became a “quasi-activist”, adding that he always likes his work to do the talking.
“But then, I went out of my way to write books on queer sexuality in Indic traditions. Later I helped introduce and curate I Am Divine. So Are You. It was on how Buddhism, Jainism and Hinduism are allies to queer sexuality, not adversaries. Which is why I am driven by a desire to get Saraswati out of the closet.”
Talking about his 2016 book, The Girl Who Chose, and foregrounding Sita’s agency in the Ramayana in it, Pattanaik spoke of the problems of perceived modernity. “Modern people invent tradition. Because modern people want to feel ‘liberal’ and ‘modern’ they will construct a past which is conservative. That is reflected in the writings we have. So, Sita doesn’t have a mind of her own but when you read the Valmiki Ramayan, you’ll realise this lady has a lot of voice. But, popular culture won’t show you that because it likes to portray women as suffering only.”
On the subject of the many Ramayanas beyond the textual versions, the multiple views which inform it and whether more myths are being received in contemporary times as dogma, Pattanaik said, “Beyond the textual Ramayanas, there are other kinds. The oral Ramayanas, for example, which use songs in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and other places. This textual obsession comes from a Protestant mindset.”
“Academia is strongly influenced by Protestants, and academics told us how text is important. Which is how the printed Bible became so important. Eventually, when the Gutenberg Bible came into being, the ‘text’ became ossified.”
That Protestant worldview, according to Pattanaik, was brought into India by the British. He pointed out how 99.9 per cent of Indians over the last 2,000 years haven’t read the Sanskrit text of the Ramayana, which they assume to be the original because there’s no such version of the Valmiki Ramayan to begin with.
Pattanaik went on to correlate this flawed reading and emphasis of what constitutes “the original” to our notion of “one singular Truth”, which he described as a Judeo-Christian concept. “We are the land of, as the Jains believe, Anekantavada (non-absolutism). So, there’s no ‘The Truth’ in Indian thought. What we have is param satya — it isn’t The Truth, but comprehensive truth. This is in contrast to the rigid truth and falsehood binary or right-wrong or halal-haram — which is basically a Judeo-Christian way of looking at things.”
Pattanaik also spoke about his new book, Shyam: An Illustrated Retelling of the Bhagavata. “I wore pink not because of Section 377 but because the cover of my book is that colour. Centred around Krishna it is all about holi, gulal, dancing, singing and what have you. The wonderful thing about Hindu gods is that they dance and sing all the time.” Pattanaik also pointed out how Krishna is a god who likes to adorn himself.
“He’s garlanded with forest flowers, anointed with sandal-paste, wears a peacock feather on the head, a nose-ring like a woman. and Shyam’s story is exciting because it’s a journey from a feminine to a masculine world – his journey from the world of women to that of men.” A guest at the Adda, which is a series of informal interactions organised by The Indian Express Group and features those at the centre of change, Pattanaik was in conversation with The Indian Express Literary Editor Pratik Kanjilal.