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Philosophy marries mythology | Book review: ‘The Stories We Tell’ by Devdutt Pattanaik


Interesting interpretations of faith come together in Devdutt Pattanaik’s new book.

Devdutt Pattanaik is the best known name for interpretation of mythology in India, who has transcended barriers of religion to encompass not just Hinduism but also Buddhism, Jainism, Judaism, Islam and Christianity in his writings, lectures and podcasts. During the pandemic, he talked about how mythology can teach us lessons in our everyday life in a series of lectures that have been summarised in his latest book, The Stories We Tell.

There are 72 short chapters in just under 200 pages, which means that each one runs for two-three pages. He justifies the number 72 with mythology again, making fascinating connections. Jesus came back to life after 72 hours. Jacob dreamt of a ladder with 72 rungs that connect the earth with heaven. The Jewish Kabbalah has 72 names for god. There are 72 stupas in Borobudur, as are number of temples in Angkor Wat. Finally, there are 72 Houris of Jannat according to Islam. This is quite remarkable research that ends up with the number 72.

The Stories We Tell has stories that make for interesting reading for sure. However, if the reader were to relate to the second part of the title—mythology to make sense of modern life—she could be left searching as the loose ends are not quite tied up by the author.

Let’s take for instance the story of famous king Vikramaditya and the ghost. The question asked is that a lady had three admirers and when she died there were different responses. One jumps into the pyre, the second continues waiting endlessly for her at the crematorium, while the third brings her back to life, which also means that the lover who jumped into the pyre also is alive. Who should the lady choose? The rationale for the answer is fascinating as the king explains. The man who was waiting is entitled to become husband because the one who brought her back to life is now the father for giving birth. The one who joined the pyre comes back with the lady and hence is the brother. Therefore, logically, the one who is entitled to the lady’s love is the third person. Good logic one would say, but does this have a moral for us? Not really, or if there was one, needed to be explained.

There is another tale told about Ravana being a very learned person who, however, had the evil strain. Is there a lesson for us here? The author says that we need to be good people and not let arrogance take over when we have superior knowledge. This sounds fair, but one could often relate hubris with all people who have fallen from grade. There is another story of how Vikramaditya gets killed which meanders along to the end till we are told that one cannot survive with knowledge of just one language but should be conversant with all. While this sounds fair, one can argue that the world moves along without the need to know multiple languages in the Internet age.

One can still find this book engaging, as is the case with most works of Pattanaik, which are refreshing for being able to cross-pollinate views across religions. Hence almost all of them refer to the same subject, and here the author draws how spring time is celebrated by all religions through different names of the festivals.

The book is entertaining, no doubt, especially for the uninitiated, which holds for most readers who may know things about their religion but not others. He explains in one chapter as to why the Buddha goes with the hair knot in most statues, though the laughing Buddha is bald. Most stories spoke of him moving around without hair. The reason is that baldness is considered to be inauspicious and that’s why people who shave their heads after a funeral leave a little bit behind. On the other hand, baldness is supposed to signify renunciation of life, which is why most monks go this way. When one mulls over this concept, it is quite interesting, though the Oscar awards faux pas had other consequences.

Pattanaik is quite the expert in his interpretation of what all of us see but do not stop to think about. His take on creation of temples is fascinating as he compares the Hindu structures with Buddhist stupas. The Buddha’s belief of impermanence of the body did not stop his followers from putting various parts of his body in various places and building stupas on them. The chaitya came for people to walk around and worship and the vihara was the third creation to allow for accommodation for the priests. The Hindu temples, too, have similar structures, except that at the centre is the garbha griha, which is the centre for creation, and is what the womb symbolises, while for the Buddhists it is the ideal of death.

The Stories We Tell is definitely a book that should be on the shelf if one is interested in religion and what is stands for, as it narrates philosophy through mythology. There are very useful takeaways from each bit of mythology, if one can interpret them the right way, which is Pattanaik’s trademark.

Madan Sabnavis is chief economist, Bank of Baroda.

The Stories We Tell: Mythology to Make Sense of Modern Lives
Devdutt Pattanaik
Aleph Book Company
Pp 197, Rs 499

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