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Critical analysis of devdutt pattanaik’s writing on culture

Introduction Mythology is the tales and narratives constructed by our ancestors in order to help explain natural and cultural phenomenon of their times. It was also used as a means to portray good societal behavior and encourage a certain kind of thinking and beliefs. However, it is undeniable that myths still can provide the same function even today. In this paper, the researcher will look at the impact of myths on culture. The methodology is by analyzing Devdutt Pattanaik’s book “Culture: 50 insights from mythology”. This book was chosen because the author is a well-known established author who has been writing about mythology, it’s symbolism and significance for 20 years now. Devdutt Pattanaik’s views influence a large majority of people due to his standing and popularity. This paper will critically analyze his writing. Literature review When it comes to the literature around culture and mythology, the researcher must give a disclaimer that their list is not comprehensive as they have had a time constraint of only one week to search for literature. When it comes to the relationship between mythology and culture, there are many papers covering varying subjects and scopes. There are comparative analysis (Young and Kim 259), content analysis (Gupta 2558), personal experiences (Pati 105) and many more. Multiple papers agree that Indian mythology still plays a role in modern Indian life (Gupta 2558; Young 313; Srivatsava 189, 192; Pati 108; Tharoor 336). Meanwhile, when it comes to academic work on Devdutt Pattanaik himself, many have cited him in their works and a few have written paper specifically analyzing his books. The researcher will now elaborate on a few of the literature found. A paper title “A Comparative Study on the Heroic Mythology of India and China” talks about the general differences between western and oriental mythology while focusing on Indian and Chinese mythology specifically. However, this paper makes little to no connection to current day culture and society of India and China. A paper titled “Cultural Diversity: A Pedagogical Negotiation” talks about how the true nature of our culturally diverse society is not properly represented of taught at any level of education. When referring to the story of Ekalavya, the researcher says “…ancient myths still represent a cultural heirloom that encodes the history of human species. Modern times also use myths for political and social functions. Myths were never totally apolitical, asocial or ageographic—this is questionable. Thus, myths, epics and legends from classical times to the vernacular tradition, can be looked upon and perceived as the repository of interiority and imagination.”(Srivatsava 192). And then goes on to talk about the 2006 Vinod Chopra film “Ekalavya” and it’s influence from mythology and on daily life (Srivastava 193). Shashi Tharoor in his paper “India as a soft power” stresses upon the fact that India’s appealing culture and enthralling narratives can be its biggest ally in the modern world as we can use it to construct an appealing idea of the nation to the rest of the world (Tharoor 343). “No return from Haridwar” is a personal story of a man who is a great devotee of Jaganath of Puri and how he had a deep bond with another friend who like him, was deeply influenced by the mythology. It is a perfect example of how mythology can still have a deep personal impact on people’s lives. “Sexual Politics of Television Mythology” is a paper that not only talks about how the Indian epics are still alive in the Indian consciousness but also about how a wrong, deceiving representation of the epics also still causes a huge ripple effect in the Indian sub consciousness. Meanwhile, papers about Devdutt Pattanaik are usually on his works like “Shikandi” and “The pregnant king”. There are no works on his book “Culture: 50 insights from mythology”. Content analysis In this paper, the researcher will be talking about the themes the author talks about throughout the book. Each chapter acts as an independent essay on its own- not connected directly to any other chapter. This paper will cover the book through themes and will hence skip across chapters that refer to particular topics. The paper will not cover all chapters since some chapters a purely philosophical or religious in nature. The researcher will also give their personal opinions at points where they disagree or have something to add to what Devdutt Pattanaik has to say. The book starts with Pattanaik talking about the relevance of story-telling. How every one is a story teller in their own way whenever they have conversation with another person. Pattanaik believes that the role of the storyteller as the creators of values and judgements, a feat that is rarely acknowledged. He says stories are a potent tool for political and cultural propaganda. To quote: “A story is a plot but narration is the process by which a story is told. The same story sounds different when the storyteller is different. And every storyteller changes his narration depending on the audience. All this makes storytelling rather complex, which is why our view of the world and our truths are also complex.” (Pattanaik 6) It is with this base assumption: that the world and the truth is complex that he continues with the rest of the book. When talking about patriarchy and women, he first talks about how patriarchy creates boundaries for women. He believes that with boundaries come divisions and hierarchies that prop up the privileged (6). He talks about how the female is seen as the provider and the male is seen as the protector (8). Which he reiterates by referring to modern day ashramas where male sanyasis are called ‘Swami’ while female sanyasis are called ‘Ma’ (9). He talks about how for the monks of Buddhism, women were seen as temptresses (8). So, Hindu temples were built glorifying the household life in order to counter the Buddhist temples. However, these temples were still controlled by men, the brahmins. Hence, when devadasis became too powerful, they were kicked out by being declared ‘prostitutes’, with a little help from the British (9). Later in the book, he has a chapter about the Mahabharata in family business which he formatted in a question-answer layout. Here the 10th question was “What about a daughters taking over the family business?” (85). This question had the undertone of the fact that in the Mahabharata, and to a great extent even in today’s world, inheritance of business, land and assets is only talked about referring to sons. To this question Pattanaik argues that the gendered telling of myths is meant to be metaphorical (86). The fact that the ‘male’ protects the ‘female’ is not meant to imply that only men are powerful enough to protect the weak woman. But that anyone who is powerful should protect anyone who is weak. Although the sentiment behind the idea of gender being a metaphor in myth is not wrong in itself, it is a grossly misconceiving way of talking about the issue of gender itself. Patriarchy and misogyny are real and they effect up to, if not more than, half the population of the planet. The metaphors of myth cannot erase that. It does not help that Pattanaiak points out a specific instance of the patriarchy in another chapter when talking about the marriages of the Pandavas and Draupadi: “The world of the Mahabharata very comfortably refers to polyandry and polygamy. What’s interesting is that most storyteller are embarrassed only by the former than the latter; hence there are tales to ’explain’ Draupadi’s many husbands, but none to explain each Pandava’s other wives.” (Pattanaik 151) And then points out even more openly in the following chapter about the wife of a sage who was ordered to satisfy all the needs of a guest that arrives to their residence while the sage is absent on some errands. The story goes that the guest that arrives asks for the sexual favors of the sage’s wife. To which she obliges. The guest is revealed to be the god of death and Dharma who is pleased with her hospitality. The incident is overall painted as positive without any mention regarding the wife’s consent in any matter (154, 155). Another sensitive social topic he tried to handle with philosophy was that of caste. He believes that studying caste in isolation, without considering rebirth, creates a myopic view of the subject (11). He goes on to make his case: “If people continued to believe in rebirth, the Dalit would not be treated as he was and continues to be even today. If one believed that the current caste privileges were a result of merit earned in past life, then one would not spend this life exhausting merit. One would instead focus on accumulating merit. Merit is accumulated by acts of human empathy and compassion and kindness. That exploitation and indifference and even cruelty, not empathy, mark the caste system, indicates a decline of faith in the notion of rebirth.” (Pattanaik 13) Again, this does not take into consideration that the high caste Hindus who discriminate against the lower castes and Dalits do believe in rebirth. But they use their belief to justify the ill-treatment of the oppressed castes along the lines of- being born in a lower caste is a punishment for crimes of a previous life and hence one must bear the hardships as punishment. An aspect of culture that Pattanaiak refers to multiple times through the book is that of ritual. As he puts it: “Rituals play a key role in our lives. They give structure. They shape our days, our months, our years. They serve as milestones and help us go through life in an orderly way. Rituals make us believe that we are part of a plan, that life is not random, that all things have meaning.” (Pattanaik 70) He starts by talking about the daily ritual of Rangoli. How it represents the individuality of every woman as she draws whichever pattern she wants to every morning (31) and how yet, it also represents the togetherness of a community as the Rangoli is uniform during the time of festival (32). He calls the Rangoli a “mood indicator” of a household and also calls it a representative of the cyclic nature of the world- everyday the pattern is wiped out only for a new one to be drawn the next day (32). He talks about how rituals create an identity. Individual rituals create and identity for the individual, rituals for the Family, Community, Nation also do the same respectively. He also mentions how when times change, rituals change too. Here he uses the example of the Sangeet at weddings and how they have been Bollywoodized (69). Pattanaik does talk about the popular culture of Bollywood in two instances across the book. Firstly, he does in the 17th chapter of the book titled “Aspirational Nautanki”. Here he talks about two kinds of entertainment- “Nautanki” and “Natyashastra”. “Nautanki” is common media and entertainment for the masses. While “Natyashastra” is the upper class and ‘sophisticated’ entertainment (73). He explains how both existed side by side all this time but in recent years “Nautanki” has been given preference over “Natyashastra” due to its profitability. Here, for probably the only time in the whole book, he states his own opinion. He believes that media culture is now aspiring to create “Nautanki” entertainment. Which he is completely against. I quote: “I refuse to make Nautanki aspirational. Not because Natyashastra is ‘better’ but because Natyashastra seeks to push the boundaries of human capability and capacity. It seeks to uplift, not merely to entertain. It demands faith and patience and rigor and there is absolutely no guarantee of its critical or commercial success. It needs to be pursued for its own sake, like prayer. Like Kalidasa, some of us may have to pursue Nautanki to pay the bills, or to stroke the ego with popularity. But validation and veneration of crass buffoonery- I draw the line there” (Pattanaik 75) According to this researcher, the rigid distinction Pattanaik draws between “Nautanki” and “Natyashastra” itself can prove to be quite elitist. It is not necessary, or even true that commercial successes in entertainment is only filled with “crass buffoonery”. At it is also not true that only high-class entertainment requires “faith and patience and rigor”. A perfect example to counter this would be the Marvel Cinematic Universe(MCU). The MCU is a series of movies made by the Marvel Studios- a Disney owned production house- that makes movies based on comic books published by Marvel. All movies made by Marvel take place in the same universe called the MCU. It has been set up almost 11 years ago now, and fans of the MCU have long awaited the closing finale of this cinematic mega saga. Despite being a huge commercial success now, the MCU was first “pursued for its own sake”. The fans have had much “faith and patience and rigor” over the last decade and the movies have certainly pushed the capacity and capabilities of film making. Meanwhile in the 19th chapter titled “Mara, D.K. Bose”. He almost applauds the movie “Delhi Belly” for it’s clever skirting of censorship through wordplay. He even calls the swearing a necessary catharsis. Conclusion Devdutt Pattanaik, although deserving of the high regard he is currently kept in due to the efforts he puts into researching his work, must not be taken at face value for what he says. In fact, if there’s anything he seems to be consistently trying to put across as a message in all his essays, it is that one must strive to view things with a different perspective. He may not offer anything more concrete than just that thought, but perhaps he never intended to provide answers as he wrote. Perhaps he only writes to provide perspective. After all, he starts every book with the same poem: “Within infinite myths lies one eternal truth But who sees it all? Varuna has but a thousand eyes Indra has a hundred You and I, only two” References • Pattanaik, Devdutt. Culture: 50 Insights from Mythology. Harper Element an Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2017. • Gupta, Shashank. “Am I the Mother or Father?” Individuality and Gender Roles in Devdutt Pattanaik’s The Pregnant King.” Am I the Mother or Father?” Individuality and Gender Roles in Devdutt Pattanaik’s The Pregnant King | International Journal of Multifaceted and Multilingual Studies, 2016, ijmmsind.com/index.php/ijmms/article/view/502. • Young, Kim, et al. “A COMPARATIVE STUDY ON THE HEROIC MYTHOLOGY OF INDIA AND CHINA.” Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute, vol. 76, 2016, pp. 259–266. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26264793. • Srivastava, Prem Kumari. “Cultural Diversity: A Pedagogical Negotiation.” Indian Literature, vol. 54, no. 2 (256), 2010, pp. 188–198. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23342060. • Tharoor, Shashi. “India as a Soft Power.” India International Centre Quarterly, vol. 38, no. 3/4, 2011, pp. 330–343. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41803989. • Pati, Prasanna K. “No Return From Hardwar.” Indian Literature, vol. 54, no. 3 (257), 2010, pp. 105–112. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/23349464. • Suddhabrata Sen Gupta. “Sexual Politics of Television Mythology.” Economic and Political Weekly, vol. 26, no. 45, 1991, pp. 2558–2560. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/4398274. • YOUNG, KIM. “GENERAL CHARACTERISTICS OF ORIENTAL MYTHOLOGY.” Bulletin of the Deccan College Research Institute, vol. 74, 2014, pp. 313–326. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26264711.

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