Does all that is divine have an element of Devi and Devil? Or are we obsessed with finding only good in our gods? In this detailed interview, Devdutt Pattanaik says our mythology never talks of good or evil but it’s only people who have sought to find parables in every story. Why don’t we tell stories as they are? Why do we look for a moral from each? Watch or read this engaging conversation on Sita, patriarchy, feminism and faith.
The Girl Who Chose: What’s the title trying to tell us as readers about Sita?
When I was doing the workshop Sia Ke Ram on Star TV and explaining the structure how the Ramayan is designed, it suddenly struck me Sita makes five choices in the Ramayan. And we are never told about it. In fact the only two choices that she doesn’t make are her marriage and her exile. In the first it was a decision taken by her father and in the second it was a decision taken by her husband where she is not consulted. But there are five instances in the Ramayan where she makes the decision under very trying circumstances. And we are never told the Ramayan in this way as we always show Sita as a lady of no agency and I feel it’s very unfortunate. This book is trying to rectify that and empower girls and boys about the nature of choice.
Without the goddess, the god has no place to stay. And without god, the goddess has no purpose.
In this book, written from Sita’s perspective, what’s your assessment about her personality? Was she mostly conflicted?
Actually I have not written this from Sita’s perspective. I have only foregrounded her. I always tell Valmiki’s Ramayan the way it is. I don’t know Sita’s mind and that would be introducing a thought which is not there in the Ramayan. I only spotlight the events in a different way and spotlight them in a way we understand them better. Just looking at her decision making that she takes tough decisions often out of empathy for others and not out of security for herself. And she takes responsibility for her actions and is not really angry with people when they take decisions for her and she realises that in life everything is not in your control, revealing that she has a deep understanding of the Vedas.
Are we constantly looking for positive/good from our mythology? We are in awe, we believe most characters can’t do wrong except the Rakshas. Does this give us a narrow view of the gods and goddesses? Why do we as people only look for parables in our mythology?
Indian mythology doesn’t look at the world from positive or negative point of view. This is a very western construct where god is good and the prophets are good and the followers are good. And those who don’t follow god are evil so devil is evil. You find this kind of a division, a haram-halal sort of division as I call it not there in Hindu mythology, which is based on Karma. You take actions and your actions are based either on your desire or on your duty. So Ram’s decisions are based on duty, not on desire. These have consequences, sometimes good, sometimes bad. That’s how Indian mythology is narrated. Unfortunately parents turn them into parables and that is unfortunate.
The Devi vs Devil. Is there a real difference between the two or are they two sides to the same coin?
Devil is a Christian concept. It doesn’t exist in Hinduism. The asuras or rakshasas are children of Brahma just as Devas are. So Vasudev Kutumbakum includes them both. Where is the problem? So the issue is how you deal with in relationships. The goddess or Devi is the embodiment of nature and how you treat nature is decides whether you are good or bad or right or wrong. Indra takes goddess for granted and constantly loses Laxmi. Brahma tries to possess her therefore Saraswati runs away from him. Shiva tries to be indifferent to her therefore the goddess enchants him. Therefore we find different relationships with nature manifesting in stories of Devi.
At SheThePeople we recently wrote about the power of women’s anger. And just why women must get angry because it leads them to revolutions and the change they want to see. In mythology there have been many angry goddesses – how would you view the notion of anger through them?
It’s interesting. You know anger is not a virtue in Hinduism. It has become a virtue in activist circles. But it is a sign of helplessness and since goddess is never helpless, she isn’t angry. She can play-act anger and this is called Leela. The way a mother shows a child anger in order to get him to do something. Gods don’t get angry per se. Only god who gets angry is Shiva as Rudra but he is the innocent one. And his anger is called irritation. This notion of anger and frustration is a manifestation of ego and is not seen as a divine trait.
You have said before that patriarchy is an invention. But feminism is a discovery. What’s your insight on that?
You see, you discover what already exists and you invent what doesn’t exist. Nature doesn’t care for the male species. For example, out of 2 million sperms released by a man only one sperm actually matters. In the animal kingdom the alpha male sperm is chosen therefore the beta, gamma become residue and are rejected. Each and every ova, the female egg is always valued and must be turned into the next generation. However sperm doesn’t matter. Just extrapolating this to human society, it means that in a hierarchy only the alpha male succeeds while beta, gamma, omega etc don’t and this creates anxiety in the mediocre male who therefore invents patriarchy. That’s my hypothesis.
What are the most powerful traits of these goddesses?
We must first recognise that when we are talking about goddess, we are talking about them as nature not as women. Nature is neither male nor female. That which seeks control is masculine that which cannot be controlled is feminine. Our body our breath or what we inherit from the nature is feminine. This relationship between masculine and feminine is a relationship between god and the goddess. At a simple level its a relationship between the mind and the body. Mind is the resident of the body, dehi is the resident of the deha and therefore god is the resident of the goddess. Without the goddess, the god has no place to stay. And without god, the goddess has no purpose.
Image Credit: Devdutt