A book review of Mithya By Devdatta Pattanaik

So symbolic and metaphorical is the Hindu mythology that it has forever been creating intrigue and interest in anybody who comes across it. So much has been written and spoken through movies and T.V serials about Hindu mythology that it has almost become cliché. I too, was at the receiving end of the intrigue and somehow, could never make myself accept all the mythological tales on their face value.  The signs, symbols and metaphors increase the beauty of the mysterious truth, but it is open to interpretation and that is what has happened to these mythological tales. So, when I read in the introduction of the book Mithya, by Devdutt Pattanaik this sentence, “Behind the mythology is a myth. Behind the myth a truth: an inherited truth about life and death, about nature and culture, about perfection and possibility, about hierarchies and horizons”, I had to read it.

Devdutt Pattanaik starts with the explanation of Purusha and Prakriti. He says that first there was only Purusha , the self. He was alone and fearful. He split himself and the split portion was called as Prakriti. Purusha is the conscious being- the subject, which feels and Prakriti is the object, the stimulating environment that which makes its presence felt. Purusha is unchanging and Prakriti is ever-changing. Purusha is unaffected by time and space and Prakriti is affected by time and space. He states that all the stories of the Gods and the Goddesses are the narrative expressions of the relationship between the spiritual demands and the material needs, between the conscious being and the enveloping environment, between the divine within and the divine without.

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On this principle he explains the relationship between Vishnu and Laxhmi and also between Shiva and Parvati.

He goes on to elucidate the birth of Brahma. Narayana, who is the consciousness un crumpled, un creased and unknotted, slept a dreamless slumber. From his navel rose a lotus in which sat Brahma. Then Brahma gives birth to the ten Prajapatis. The prajapatis are described as the five sense organs and five action organs. The Goddess is the Yog-nidra during the dreamless slumber and she becomes the Yog-Maya (stimulating senses) after the birth of the Prajapatis. He later goes on methodically to describe the whole development of the interaction between the Purusha and Prakriti.

In the next part Devdutt Patnaik elaborates the concept of Vishnu and Laxhmi.  Vishnu is a blue-coloured warrior God. He is adorned with gold and jewels, flowers and a garland and dressed in silk. He has four hands. His one hand holds a conch –shell trumpet announcing his presence to the world, a discus in one hand representing the rhythm of life, a mace in the third hand to punish the law breakers and a lotus in the fourth hand to reward the law-abiders. He rests on the coils of a serpent until disorder forces him to ride into battle on his eagle and set things right. Vishnu’s serpent represents a steady state and his eagle represents a change and regeneration with the seasons and tides. And it is a beautiful metaphor of a steady state and revolution, opposite to each other as shown by the serpent and an eagle, which are forever in conflict.

Vishnu has two Goddesses, Laxhmi, the desirable one and Alaxhmi, the not desirable one. Bejewelled and dressed in red, seated in a lotus, holding a pot of gold and grain, she is the Goddess of prosperity. Her twin sister, Alaxhmi is the Goddess of poverty, strife and misfortune. The author describes through a number of references how Vishnu and Laxhmi have a control over the balance between the ways of the jungle and ways of domestication

He describes the avatars of Vishnu who took birth in the world to save the world from imbalance and destruction.

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In his description of Rama he recounts the story of Rama and brings to light how Ramayana depicts that Rama’s strict following of the rules of the society brings him personal grief. The popularity and the reading of Ramayana is a norm in every house-hold in India and it also speaks of the Hindu ideology of sticking to the rules of the society, at the cost of personal loss.

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He goes on to clarify the differences in the Ramayana and Mahabharata and the two essential God heroes of the two epics. He describes how Krishna advises the Pandavas against the prevalent rules of the times and steers them towards victory in the battle against the Kavravas. He has effectively shown the difference between the Krishna in the Bhagwata  Purana and the Krishna of the Mahabharata. The Krishna of Bhagwat Purana was associated with butter, Radha, Gopis and Yashoda. There he is a cow-herd. He states that the character sketch of Krishna, with one mother who gives him birth and the other who rears him prove, how the relationships do not essentially depend on blood.  The Krishna of Mahabharata is related to blood and battlefield. He is a politician, and he goes beyond rules to recreate Dharma.

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The Shiv Purana throws light on the nature of Shiva as a God.  Shiva is an ascetic God. His hair is matted, body smeared with ash and sits naked atop a snow –clad mountain totally internalized, unmindful of the universe. Devdatt Pattanaik describes in detail the relationship between Shankar and Parvati and the meaning of the Shiv-Linga that we see in almost all the temples of Shiva. The symbolic significance of Natraja is extremely enchanting. The Damaru of the Natraja is the two traingles pointing towards each other and depict the matter pointing downward and the spirit pointing upward. The ash on the forehead of Shiva represents the soul. He then he goes on to describe in detail the symbolic significance and difference between Kali, Durga and Gauri, the three forms of Parvati. He also explains the meaning of the form of the Goddess Annapurna.

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And lastly he goes on to explain the metaphorical significance of the elephant God, Ganesha. He says that Ganasha effectively symbolises his being the God of the humanity, since he took birth from the turmeric paste applied on the body of Devi Parvati and after being beheaded, he was given a second life by Shiva. So he in the combination represents both Shiva and Shakti.

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If we look at our mythological tales in the symbolic manner we realize that it is less of magic and more of values. The strife between the material and the spiritual, the strife between the domesticated civilization and the nature is beautifully brought out. It is always peaceful to know our roots, how the psychology of the earlier generation and our forefathers was formed and with what values they lived. It explains their fixation with shraddha( cremation rituals), marriage, child-birth and their fear of childlessness, which still has roots in the Hindu sub-conscious of today’s generation.  The question is not of believing or non- believing of God and the concept but it is about looking at the variety and beauty of the symbols and metaphors that depict the Hindu, and on a broad scale, human values, strife and efforts to overcome it, and in the end, peace in knowing that the quest is eternal, and even Gods were not immune to it. So I thoroughly enjoyed the book.

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