In 2017, Devdutt Pattanaik wrote the highly engaging Olympus: An Indian Retelling of Greek Myths. Five years later, he turns his attention to Abrahamic mythology with his new book Eden: An Indian Exploration of Jewish, Christian, and Islamic Lore. The stories that make up Eden span vast swathes of time and geographies, and according to the mythologist, he has “chosen to narrate the stories the way Indian parents tell sacred stories to their children: un-self-consciously, respectfully, but casually, fully aware of my prejudices, and fully accepting that a prejudice-free story does not exist”. In this interview Pattanaik talks about how the idea behind the book emerged, the influence of Abrahamic thinking on Indian belief systems, and his favourite tales. Excerpts:
How did this idea of looking at Jewish, Christian, and Islamic lore through an Indian lens emerge?
There are many reasons for the generation of this idea. One is that, you know, 20 percent of India is not Hindu. I realised that most people aren’t familiar with Jewish, Christian, and Islamic lore. So, one reason is to dispel this simple unfamiliarity from the minds of people. I studied in a missionary school, and we were very secular. It was the pre-communal era, one can say, of the 1970s and early ’80s. But then I realised I only knew the Christian stories because I was exposed to the Old Testament and the New Testament. I was not familiar with the Islamic version of these tales, which is strange, considering the vast Muslim population in our country. And when I asked my Muslim friends, they also did not talk about the storytelling traditions. In time, I realised that there is a vast storytelling tradition in Islam, with which people are unfamiliar. It is just not considered part of tradition. I found that strange and fascinating, thus, I decided to tell it. I tell it not from the point of view of a God—a view that states I know everything—but from an Indian point of view. I also wanted to pay attention to how differences emerged.
Were there any preeminent factors that led to Indian thinking being so radically different from monotheism?
That’s a difficult question to answer. It could be the monsoon winds, which is a unique feature found in the Indian sub-continent. This creates many river systems that create a different history. Unlike monotheism, which originates in a land of deep contrast, this arises from dry or desert land, with one or two very powerful river systems. Nature plays an important role in the manifestations of big differences within ideas. So, monotheism comes from a combination of desert cultures. Arabia, Mesopotamia, and Egypt are each next to great river valleys. Mesopotamia brings in the idea of commandments. Monotheism begins in Egypt. That’s one way of looking at it. India has many river systems as well as an ecosystem shaped by the monsoons. This cyclical geographical system manifested rebirth as a possibility. That’s the only way one can understand this.
How much was Indian thinking, especially Hinduism, exposed to Abrahamic mythology via trade routes, and how did it manifest itself?
There is a connection between Indian thinking and Abrahamic thinking. This is amplified, in the last 700-800 years, with the Muslim rulers. The court language became Persian. You find greater importance given to texts. So, holy books, like Ramcharitmanas, come by the 15th century. Before that, we don’t hear of holy books as famous, sacred stories. The idea of the holy book emerges, with this classic example of the Ramcharitmanas. It is then that the idea of Nirguna Brahmana, or the god who does not have any form, becomes even more important, and the conflict between Nirguna Brahmana, the formless god, and Saguna Brahmana, the god with a form is observed.
Ramanuja Acharya gives a lot of importance to the temple enshrined god, Saguna Brahmana, in the 12th century. His idea challenges Nirguna Bhakti, the worship of a formless god, which dates back to Shankaracharya. Ramanuja Acharya’s ideas in the 12th century were happening when Muslim invaders were first making their presence felt in India. They spoke Persian and valued the Book. So, is there a correlation, one can say yes. Bhakti, as we know it today, through the last 500 years, was strongly influenced by Mughal culture and its Sufi ideas. Before that bhakti had a more tantric influence, which was seen in Alwar and Nayanar poetry. The word ‘tantric’ signifies a connection with the temple and its power. That was far more important than the idea of a universal god. But these are weakly researched subjects and need far more attention.
Misogyny runs rife through a lot of these tales. Would these tales have been different if women had the opportunity to narrate/record them?
I guess we wouldn’t know because the given for us is a society that is patriarchal. Though the patriarchy in Abrahamic religions is very different from that in the Hindu traditions. When you have only the idea of a single god, then you have to choose one of the two genders. So, the male god predominates. But when you have many gods or an idea of a god that has two forms, male and female, they start vying for power, which you find in Tantra. Women did have a lot of language in the bhakti movement when they start playing important roles. Poets start imagining themselves as feminine. This was fine in Sufi traditions.
However, the feminine is kept at a distance in the Abrahamic traditions. Here, if the women had power, they would be perhaps more accommodating of multiple entities. One of my theses is that multiple gods thrive under feminine ecosystems. Feminine ecosystems are more accommodating of many deities. Masculinity tends towards monotheism because it allows for a single dominating factor. Femininity tends to be more collaborative. So, we can speculate using that, but that is, of course, controversial.
Which is your favourite among all the stories you have included in your book?
My favourite story, honestly, is the story of Ayub, in Islam, or Job, in the Jewish and Christian traditions. It is about a person whose patience has been tested by misfortune. I think, in life, the ability to cling to our belief, even in misfortune, is not easy. In bad times, we tend to slip. I also like the story of Jonah, or Yunus, who does not have faith in people and God is trying to get him to have faith in people. When he is inside the belly of the whale, he listens to the fish saying, “Allah, Allah.” I think there’s a surreal visual imagery that comes with that story, especially its Islamic retelling that really captures my artistic side.