EP 7 – Devdutt Pattnaik on Indian Mythology and Rituals

We are so pleased to bring this Episode to you. Ketaki and I spoke with Devdutt Pattnaik and got his answers to common questions asked by travellers to Delhi, India. He answers over 20 questions on Indian Mythology and rituals in this episode. Hope you enjoy it.

Ketaki and Devdutt Pattnaik
Ketaki and Devdutt

Devdutt Pattanaik writes on relevance of mythology in modern times, especially in areas of management, governance and leadership. Trained in medicine, he worked for 15 years in the healthcare and pharma industries before he focused on his passion full time. He is author of 30 books and 600 columns, with bestsellers such as My Gita, Jaya, Sita, Business Sutra and the 7 Secret Series. He was a speaker at TEDIndia 2009 and spoke on Myths that Mystify, East versus West. His TV shows include Business Sutra on CNBC-TV18 and Devlok


Full transcript below. The questions in BOLD are from Ketaki and Anubhav. Answers from Devdutt are not in bold.

Devdutt, thank you for taking time to meet with us and common questions from travellers to India. When travellers check in to a hotel, the hotel greets them with a dot on the forehead or Tilak. These travellers often ask us,  why? What is this supposed to mean? Is that how everybody is welcome home so why don’t we start with that?

All rituals Around the World are choreographed performances  to make you special or comfortable. It’s like someone is asking you why do you cut a cake on a party. Why do you blow out candles on a birthday? It did not exist all the time. Someone designed it and we took it forward.

So, these are the rituals of India. Especially on special occasions whenever somebody came to the house he was welcomed and the guest was seen as god. And in India everything is a God . Rock is a God, Tree is a God, Animals are gods, everybody is a god if I choose to make it. I have to choose to make it a god. Therefore the hotels are, through choreography, communicating the idea that you are special to them and they are expressing the specialness by garlanding you. I think thats the whole part of the India experience right? That’s what you signed up for it came to India. I think they are trying to share it with you.

Hotel is acknowledging you as as a God and not just a customer. You are special. Remember when we use the word  God and if you are from Europe or America, you start thinking of Percy Jackson and Greek Gods. In India the notion of God is very different. It means you are a special being is capable of fulfilling other people’s wishes.

Oh! Interesting.

The word god is used in the video game world to describe someone with lots of power when you read in a comic, it’s someone who has a lot of power and is able to do things with his powers that’s the way people think. When you say he is a God, it has a very different connotation. In India at the word is not really God, the word is devata. Devata is invited and invoked to bring in usher in prosperity into ones life so in a way as a client of Hotel you’re ushering in prosperity.

How is the Tilak different from the Bindi and a lot of different smears of ashes and other things that people have one their foreheads?

You see, once upon a time tribes around the world used to paint a body is in different ways to express different things. Over time modernization is destroyed these things. Like native American had lovely painted faces. Today they can’t do that, right? We have modernized them. India has managed to survive. We somehow don’t need to modernize everything we allowed it to coexist with a cell phone. I think this is body painting in a way of a particular kind it has a particular meaning in a particular context and usually a dot iis put in the forehead of women and a vertical mark pointing upwards in the case of men. There are many such patterns each with different meaning for different religious groups subsects. One can see that this is just tribal paint while in America it has been wiped out brutally, it survives in India wonderfully.

We get a lot of questions around the millions of gods that exist in India. How do we make sense of it? Who do you pray to? Does everybody pray to the same god? or can you pick your own god or are these just symbols of a great person? What is the best way to interpret this?

Indian thought revolves aroundthe idea that divinity is infinite and impermanent and plural and contextual so depending on your context Gods change. When you are a poor money becomes god. When you are hungry food becomes God. When you’re curious knowledge becomes God. Gods keep coming and going in different forms and shapes. We are not rigid about nowadays everybody wants everything to be so fixed. It’s the engineering mind taking over but we in India have always had the poet’s mind.

Ok so depending on your state of mind or state of being you can you change your your God?

Or your family has got its Gods and you have have both of them coexisting but they are really part of the same so they are different kinds of flowcharts that you can create to comfort your self.

And many handed many headed god?

It is to show someone is greater than you. More hands than you, more heads than you. Someone who can think better than you, can do more than you can do and that’s what you say to celebrate someone who is different than you.  Someone who is different that’s how you show the Supernatural that there is something larger than mundane life that’s what they are trying to communicate.

How should someone make sense of Hinduism? Is it best understood as a philosophy first?

It depends on how you understand other religions. You can’t understand in the religion unless you understand yourself so for example some people believe in god some people don’t believe in God. Hindus believe and don’t believe in God. some people believe there is only one God some people believe in both one and many so essentially Hinduism is about fluidity and specially Western religions are about rigidity and rules and structure. In India it is the very opposite of that and that’s why it is unnerving.

While the west will say god is one or there is none, India will say god is infinite which iis more inclusive 1 or infinite?

Infinite is better..

And complicated and chaotic

We like it’s complicated. We don’t want it black and white we want lot of colour that is what India is all about, color. Why does India have so many colors?

It’s because you acknowledge in other peoples needs. I’m may like red but you like blue and someone may like purple.  it’s not about what I like, its what other people like and it is if you want to live. We have a phrase, “Vasudeva Kutumbakam”, whole world is my family. And if every family member has a different choice of God, flower, color will you tell them No? You will only do what I tell you to do. That is one kind of family. A very rigid very straightjacketed or a family everybody is accommodated some ways Sunday your God,  Monday my God or Tuesday his God her God and that creates chaotic house but at least you get self expression and life is all about expressing yourself and your needs and dealing with other people so I think the approach is this in India we celebrate plurality and diversity. The consequence of that is the messiness which comes with it if you want orderliness you have to sacrifice plurality

Why is that one god is worshipped on one day and another god on another day?

Its a function of history and georgraphy and how much is your capacity to accommodate. If you dont have time to accomodate many gods, you have one god. So on Monday you have a different god, you dont have anything else to do. You have an occassion to have a feast in a banquet and India is a the land of festivals. You have festivals every second day. We did not have the concent of a weekday or a  weekend. We had Utsavs which used to happen everyday and at irregular intervals. You can conjure one  up everyday if you want. So that approach is very different to life and that approach manifest in these kind of things.

A lot of guests talk about Buddhism, Hinduism and not as much about Jainism but what is a good way to contrast Buddhism Hinduism? Some people say that buddhism is a sanitised form of Hinduism, is that fair?

No its not. The simplest way it to look at the imagery. The Buddha’s eyes are shut but the hindu idols eyes are open. That itself tells you everything about the religion. One is introspective and the other is accomodating of the other. It is a monastic order. The west loves it beacuse it aligns with their need for being isolated in their individualism. Hinduism is about family. The gods have a family and wives and children. They quarrel like any family and they look at you and they participate in wars and they suffer, fall in love. They go through heartbreak, they do stupid things that you dont like. You can arque with them. They are not going to give you the peace of mind that buddha will give you. They will make you feel all emotions including horror and disgust. Which are just as important. Its not about isolation and introspection. Vs Participation.

To each his own?

But I may not let you be. The family may not let you be. So there isn’t that much freedom. In a social circle you have many dieties that you need to worship, your father may have a ritual to follow. Your community, village may ask you to follow a ritual. You are bound by other people’s rules. And, you have to accommodate your freedom in the context of other people’s demands. it’s not like the hippy movement where I can do whatever I want and others will let me. There are many forces at work. I have to deal with my father, my father in law, my wife, my mother, my ecosystem, my neighbor may not appreciate my rituals. So these are the complexities that create India.

I’m dealing with this right now, my daughter is 13 and she is asking us why are doing these artis and bhajans. Our best answer is that its a ritual and do it until you have a strong point of view.

I don’t like you playing video game but I let you right? I buy it for you. In the same way not everything understandable and it’s way of participating in the family as a member of the family everything doesn’t need to be made sense.  Over time when we explore and get more curious about these things they will start making sense or maybe not.  You pass it on to your children and then they’ll perhaps figure it out. Maybe a genius three generation down the line will be decode it for you. Will you deny them the opportunity to decode by destroying the puzzle by not tramitting it ?

Are there any unifying principles around the practice of spirituality in India

Spirituality is Global. India has a unique perspective on it. What is the purpose of life? Why do you exist? Its called purushartha. Its divided into four parts

  • Dharma: Social order
  • Artha: Success
  • Kama – pleasure
  • Moksha – freedom

If you have order, sucess, pleasure and freedom then you have lived a good life. These are ideas that have emerged over thousands of years. We dont even know who came up with them.

Would you say purusharthas are universally understood in India

No, diversity is universally understood in India. We are united by allowing different people to be different. We are not forcing everyone to be the same. USA is a land of immigrants but everyone has to speak english and the dollar only english on in. The US has been made by germans, italians, french, chinese and arabs but where are their languages? Their languages are wiped out. India is a land of many languages. Our notes have 17 languages on it. This makes us inefficient but unified.

What is the best way to understand India. Is it this concept of diversity?

You have to first understand that India has a lot of people. 1.7B. Keep that number in mind. The scale and size of India should always be kept in mind. We are large and crowded and poor country. And, there is inequality like everywhere in the world and we are diverse. People from Denmark or Sweden come from a place without diversity so India will feel very different if you come from that context. A small 2 bedroom flat with 20 people speaking different languges. THat is India. Really we should be killing each other but we are not. We are managing.

Negotiated boundries?

All boundries are negotiated in India all the time. India is also not controlled centrally like Singapore, China or US. India, not matter what you try to do, boundaries are negotiated between people and between you and me. This craetes a very different country since this is happenign across 1.7B people.

What about the use of drugs and pharmaceuticals in India. Bhang is understood  to be ok to have in India. How should we talk about this.

Across the world, all tribal cultures accepted that humans need intoxicants at different times. Got  to the native americans, amazonian tribes, Arab countries, Africa, China, there has always been subtle acceptance of pharmaceuticals in a ritualistic sense to help humans deal with the stress of life.

It is only modern society that has developed a great disdain for pleasure. That pleasure is seen as a choas principle. This rejection of pleasure is only a few hundred years old. That we are going to create a society of clean people and good people. This is not going to work. Human beings desire to have chemicals. Hindus recognize that. Some gods take chemicals some dont and they accommodate each other with negotiated boundaries. They dont have to bootleg chemicals. They are available for the taking.

Talking about intoxicants, various temples in India offer alcohol and meat but we talk of Hindus as a vegetarian society? Are all hindu’s vegetarian?

20-30% of Indias are vegetarians. They belong to the more dominant community. The world was non vegetarians until Indians came along. The successful vegetarian business families made it out ot the world and people thought that all Indians are vegetarian. This is not true. This idea of vegetarianism came from India. This was because of the dominant vegetarian communities. They are not a true sample of India. India’s default structure is not non vegetarian.

Yoga and Ashrams, does everyone do Yoga and meditation

People see one tree of the forest and assume that all trees in that forest are that tree. These are just the most popular plotted plants: Yoga, Meditation, Vegetarianism. But India is forest, not a homogenous garden. India is not a gardern.

What are the other potted plants from India?

  1. Vegetarianism
  2. Yoga
  3. Idol worship
  4. Worship of female form

Most western cultures and major religions of the world do not give god a form or give them a masculine a form. Our worship of the female form is considered vile or exotic, generally.

Why are certain plants and animals worshipped?

There is no logic. Religion is not logical. However, some god and animal associates are based on matched personality types. Bull – Shiva, Hawk – Vishnu.

What about Rangolis and mandalas. Can anyone make them their own?

The west in highly individualistic but here you are a part of an ecosystem. You take a pattern that exists and tweak it a little bit. Because hinduism is birth based, its very difficult to explain to people. You can’t become a hindu.

People get worried when we say that you are born into a religion or a caste. How do we talk about the caste system in India?

I dont know if this are good or bad, these are social practices.. Like polygamy in the old testament. Should you be embarassed by it? Why do countries have VISAs? Caste comes from the same place. Its an ancient visa system, every is not allowed to enter America. If you are poor you can’t enter America. You are treated like an untouchable. This is exactly how caste system works. We have been doing this for 1000 of years. This is a simplistic one minute answer.

Its a form a limited mobility?

It ensures resource allocation to certain group of people like a guild or a trade union. Its complicated and maybe this deservers more time. Potters had a community and they would train the sons and daughters in this profession. Now in modern types the caste system is a vestige. We are now in a new era. Give it another 100 years and it will change.

The world did not have VISAs. Only came about 100 years ago. Why were they done? To keep the poor people out. There is no other purpose. You are allowed to move capital accross boundaries but not labour. I will not let people cross boundaries. The ancient Indians thought about this a long time ago. They locked in wealth.

The worse part of the caste system is that some people did not get respect and dignity. This is exactly what happens with VISAs. Some countries don’t get respect and dignity like the islamic countries today in America. Some people become Untouchables.

Two other potted plants come to mind, like a Guru. Do you have to have a guru?

The idea became popular in the last hundred years and it is related to the idea of prophet and messenger. The west loves the idea of the prophet in the Messenger who will take you to the promised land and the Guru seems to be doing just that but at a personal and spiritual level. And, they have even become popular in India. Guru’s today increasingly are not what they were meant to be.

Exactly like a prophet or a messenger who is telling you how you are supposed to live a life. They are really modelling themselves on the messianic traditions. This is not what a guru is supposed to do. A guru is supposed to liberate yourself.

They have forgotten that the whole purpose of being the Guru is to enable you to become yourself not a part of a clique or a clan but seek Liberation. It’s not about following but increasingly we can see that the Guru is becoming like any other cult around the world. The Guru idea was the idea was to enable you to discover yourself and then move on in your journey.

What is the difference between Gurus, Sadhu’s and Priests?

Crudely put a Guru is a teacher or an Acharya. They teach you how to live you life/

Priests or Pujari take care of the temple

Sadhu’s have given up the world and walked away. They have become a hermit to discover themselves. Hermit may or may not be a teacher. Typically a pujari or priest is married.. Typically.

What about Sufism, have you had a chance to explain it to people

A unique form of islam grew up in India. It has its own body of language and is highly emptional. Where god is seen as a lover came up in Bhakti and Sufism. Sufism is a mystical tradition of islam which treated the god as the beloved. Hard core followers of islam dont like it. But Islam is different around the world. We dont want to accept. Wahabism is just one of kind of islam. Islam is diverse just like Christianity is different. Hinduism acknowledges this divide. The west wants to say I’m pure. For us buddha also becomes Hindu, Jains also become Hindu. Give us time and even jesus will become Hindu which is no problem at all but is very disturbing for other people.

As you’ve studied so much of Indian Mythology philosophy, has that led to a personal spiritual practice for you?

Yes I just think I just realised that there’s no such thing is “the truth”. There is only your truth and my truth. And happiness happens when we set of accommodate other peoples true and real happiness happen and other people accommodate my truth.

That’s my biggest discovery

Thank you.