‘Listen, this is what your ancestors are telling you’

Author of ‘Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata’, Devdutt Pattanaik speaks to Smriti Daniel of his endeavour to make this epic literature of the east more readable for the 21st century

The Mahabharata – sometimes considered the fifth Vedda – is longer than the Odyssey and the Iliad combined, and its influence rivals that of the Bible and the Quran. Though ranked high among the world’s most ambitious and absorbing works of literature, it hasn’t always been among the most accessible. Yet, Devdutt Pattanaik’s ‘Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata’ was published late last year to near universal acclaim.

Devdutt Pattanaik

It’s possible that the clarity and brevity of his prose was simply more readable than that of his competition - one rival translation is divided into 12 weighty volumes, while another is written entirely in rhyming couplets; the version children are routinely introduced to is purged of its explicit content and simplified to the point of inanity. But Devdutt embraces the moral ambiguity inherent in the Mahabharata and in doing so sets himself apart.

In Colombo to address the CIMA Business Leaders Summit 2011, Devdutt says he has always seen the “dissonance” between popular retellings of the Mahabharata and the philosophical complexity of the original. “Whatever versions I would read it would bother me,” he says. In particular, sexuality is fluid and a subject of frank discussion throughout. Husbands share their wives with gods, voice is given to several ‘queer’ narratives, women bear illegitimate children, one woman has five husbands, yet longs for a sixth man while a male god even transforms into a woman to offer a doomed man a final night of passion. Some of these stories are “quite scandalous,” Devdutt admits, laughing. “The scriptures themselves are ambiguous, they’re asking very tough questions about day-to-day life.”

The climax of the Mahabharata is the terrible clash of the Kaurava and Pandava clans in an epic battle – but sub-plots proliferate and the epic is populated with a cast of hundreds, each with their own individual histories that span centuries of rebirths. At the very heart of this 3,000 year old epic is the Bhagavad Gita. The words, spoken by Krishna to Arjuna on the battlefield, are widely quoted as the very essence of Vedic wisdom.

Devdutt chose to tailor his version of the Mahabharata to a young, modern audience. Convinced that “we don’t read novels anymore, we read manuals,” he kept it simple. Two hundred and fifty line drawings illustrate it. Likening them to “science diagrams,” he says, “there is not an extra line, no shading...I go to the minimum.” At the end of every chapter, he included asides and a number of alternate, folk versions. “If you go to Tamil Nadu, they have a version called Terukuttu, which is very local. You go to Himachal, to the mountains, and they tell stories that nobody else knows.” The Ramayana itself, just one among many stories, has no less than 300 versions. “So, this whole book is not about the original Mahabharata but the Mahabharata tradition,” he says, calling it a “restructuring of the Mahabharata for the 21st century.”

Devdutt has described himself as ‘a medical doctor by education, a leadership consultant by profession, and a mythologist by passion.’ As an author his work is overwhelmingly inspired by the rich tradition of Hindu literature. Aside from ‘Jaya’ there’s also ‘The Book of Ram’ ‘Myth = Mythya: A Handbook of Indian Mythology’, ‘The Pregnant King’ and the ‘Book of Kali’. For him, their lessons find surprising resonance in the field of management. As the Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group, one of India’s biggest brands, he’s in charge of inventing a whole new vocabulary for his company, one that relies heavily on myth and legend. He describes it as applied mythology.

An example of his thinking is ‘LSD’, where the three Indian ‘currencies’ are embodied in the three aspects of the Goddess - Lakshmi, Saraswathie and Durga. Applied to the workplace, each represents a facet of employee satisfaction. Lakshmi is wealth; Saraswathie, intellectual stimulation and then there’s Durga – the part of us that needs emotional security to perform our best. “These currencies can make you happy in different proportions...At crisis points L,S and D collapse – we become insecure, we become poor and we don’t have imagination,” he says speaking of the ways in which a good manager nurtures an employee.

His management philosophies are sometimes the very anti-thesis of Western thought. He believes instead that our culture should more clearly inform our business philosophies. He even has a favourite metaphor to illustrate this. Despite the large number of people who prefer to use water faucets, a hotel bathroom will typically provide only toilet paper. “They take the cultural practices of the West and impose it on the rest of the world, calling it ‘modern’.” Explaining that the same approach is applied to business management he says, “We are being given toilet paper in cultures that use water.”

“Most of us have looked at our culture through Western eyes and been embarrassed by it,” says Devdutt sharing his belief that countries like China and India are now becoming confident enough to return to and reconsider their traditions and philosophies independent of a Western framework. For him the real value of these stories lies in reflection they inspire. “Once you begin to think, then you are risen as a human animal, that is Saraswathie, that is moving to the next level of thought.” He imagines a young reader discovering the Mahabharata for the first time. “I want to say, this is the depth of the culture that you were born into. This is what your ancestors are telling you. Listen.”

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