“When we talk about global village, I would like to see a Chinese author write about Hinduism. Would that be different from a European’s view?” says physician turned mythologist and author Devdutt Pattanaik as he opened his seminar at India International Centre (IIC) in Delhi on the topic “From Apollo to Dionysus, Vishnu to Shiva: Mythological connections between Greece and India.” An enthusiast of mythology and ancient philosophy, Pattanaik began his lecture by underlining the need for understanding the contribution made by ancient Greek philosophical concepts in order to appreciate the modern pluralistic global order.
“Greek mythology plays an important role in our understanding of concepts like ‘democracy’, ‘justice’ and ‘nation-state’,” said Pattanaik. He went on to explain that to draw links between Indian cultural concepts and those in ancient Greece is not to say that both had the exact same representation. However one might appreciate the fact that there are connections with different depictions, depending on the socio-cultural setup of each. “You don’t need to appreciate ‘the’ truth, you need to appreciate ‘a’ truth which may not accommodate all truths,” he says.
In his book, “Olympus: An Indian Retelling of Greek Myths,” Pattanaik put together a number of Greek mythological stories, underlining comparisons we can draw between them and their Indian counterparts. As a field of study, comparative mythology has been in existence for the past couple of centuries among scholars who wanted to draw attention to the common origin of different cultures. Pattanaik’s method of drawing connections has an element of innovation to it. During his seminar at IIC, he remarked upon the fact that the associations he is drawing might not appeal to academicians. However, his point is simplistic. By thinking out of the box and drawing parallels between the East and the West, one might be able to better appreciate a multicultural world order.
Here are some parallels Pattanaik pointed out to between Greek and Indian mythology in the course of the seminar.
Dionysus and Shiva
Son of Zeus and Semele, Dionysus is considered in Greek mythology to be the God of Son of Zeus and Semele, Dionysus is considered in Greek mythology to be the God of fertility and wine. Associated with intoxication, madness and break down of culture, Dionysus is believed to have two sides to him. His obsession with wine can on one hand result in the spread of ecstasy and on another hand lead to rage and destruction. Dionysus’ popularity can be traced back to the first millennium BC when he was perhaps worshipped by the Mycenaean Greeks.
The description of Dionysus can immediately be compared to that of the Hindu God Shiva, who is revered for his energetic and creative powers. Just like Dionysus, Shiva too has both benevolent and malevolent sides to him. As an ascetic who dwells in Mount Kailash with his wife, Parvati, Shiva is celebrated for ideals of domesticity. However, he has a fierce side to him too that sees him slay demons. Similar to Dionysus, Shiva is often associated with intoxication and madness that can both create and destroy.
Icarus and Daedalus- Jatayu and Sampati
The Greek mythological character, Daedalus was first mentioned by Homer in the epic Iliad. Daedalus, as depicted by Homer, was believed to be a skilled craftsman who created the labyrinth where a Minotaur (half man, half bull) was held on the orders of the king of Crete. Following the creation of the labyrinth, Daedalus along with his son, Icarus was locked up in a tower so that he wouldn’t be able to impart his knowledge to others. In order to escape, Daedalus created wings for himself and his son using feathers and wax. During their flight towards freedom, Daedalus was believed to have warned his son to not go too close to the sun for the fear of the wax in his wings melting. However, Icarus, who was in good spirits, soared high above the skies and went so close to the sun that his wings fell off and he died. According to Pattanaik, the story of Icarus and Daedalus is part of the ancient Greek philosophy called “hubris”.
The story of Icarus and Daedalus can find parallels in the anecdote of Jatayu and Sampati as narrated in the Ramayana. However unlike the Greek tale, the story of Jatayu and Sampati is one of fraternal affection. Jatayu, who took pride in his power of flight, reached so close to the sun that his wings were about to be destroyed. It was then that his brother, Sampati decided to spread his own wings in order to shield his brother. However, in the process Sampati loses his wings and spends the rest of his life without them.
Iliad and Ramayana
Scholars have on several occasions tried to find linkages between the Greek epic Iliad and the Ramayana, in particular between the Trojan war and the search for Sita. However, Pattanaik pointed out that an essential distinction between the two epics is that in the Iliad, Helen fell in love with Paris and eloped, while in the Ramayana Sita was abducted by Ravana. Pattanaik went on to explain that both the Iliad and Ramayana end on tragic notes, where the victors were not happy despite having won. Citing the 5th century BCE text Natya Shastra of Bharat Muni that deals with the description of performative arts in the Indian subcontinent, Pattanaik said that an essential quality of Indian mythological stories was the necessity of happy endings. However, the fact that the Ramayana ended on a tragic note, similar to the Greek epic makes one wonder if the latter was the inspiration for the former.
Heracles and Krishna
When the Greek ambassador and historian Megasthenes visited the court of king Chadragupta Maurya in Pataliputra, he is believed to have made references to Lord Krishna in his work, ‘Indica’. However, Krishna in Megasthenes’ account is addressed as the Greek half-god, Heracles. Scholars have deciphered Megasthenes’ reference to Heracles as “Hari-kula-es”, meaning the clan of Hari, thus associating it to the clan of Krishna. Pattanaik said that the association might be purely accidental, but one cannot rule out the possibility. This apart, there are some striking similarities between the mythology of Heracles and Krishna which are hard to ignore. For instance, the image of Lord Krishna fighting the serpent Kaliya can be found reflected in the image of Heracles fighting the Hydra, a serpent with many heads.