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Book Review: Ramayana versus Mahabharata by Devdutt Pattanaik

Ramayana, known as the Aadi Kavya (the first poem) is the story of how Ram, the prince of Ayodhya abdicates his claim to the throne, and goes on exile, to fulfil the promises made by his father King Dasarath. During the exile, his wife Sita is abducted by Ravana. What follows is the tale of how Ram rescues her with the help of an army of monkeys, only to desert his pregnant wife later to uphold Rajdharma.

Mahabharata, the longest epic ever written, is a story about family feud. Two clans in the Kuru dynasty – Pandavas and Kauravas – fight over their rightful inheritance. The epic battle at Kurukshetra sees the Kaurava clan decimated. But do these tales follow such simplistic storyline? The version of Ramayana and Mahabharata that we read – are they are real stories, itihasa, as it is claimed?

India’s favourite mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik answers these questions, and many more in his new book Ramayana versus Mahabharata. As he himself claims, this book is his ‘playful comparison’ of the two epics. There is a perception that Ramayana is set in the Treta Yug and is an idealistic narrative. The Mahabharata, on the other hand, is a more realistic tale where rules are meant to be broken – to preserve dharma. Devdutt Pattanaik challenges these claims, and presents his version of events. He even claims, it is possible that the two tracks of events may have happened at the same time period.

Although seemingly different, Ramayana and Mahabharata have several similarities – both the stories involve exiled princes, avatars of Vishnu; both presuppose a crisis of kingship; they are both set in similar geographical terrains; both are composed by witnesses;  both begin with childless king and feature ambitious queens; wives are won in archery competitions in both the epics. The similarities are aplenty.

Ramayana and Mahabharata have their dissimilarities too. In Ramayana, Ram, the avatar of Vishnu is unaware of his divinity; Krishna is well aware of his divine powers in Mahabharata. Ram plays the king while Krishna is kingmaker. In Mahabharata, the brothers are sparring – which forms the basis of the epic; in Ramayana, brothers are loyal and devoted. Pattanaik opines, these similarities and dissimilarities are neither accidental nor coincidental. Rather, these are intended to bring Vedic wisdom into the household.

In short, these epics only reveal that dharma is a work in progress. In Hindu mythology, non-enlightened beings are hungry, frieghtened and restless. Enlightened beings are neither. Dharma cannot be established without empathy, and these epics reveal how both Ram and Krishna struggle in this enterprise.

‘Ramayana and Mahabharata’ is a brisk read. True to his style, Devdutt Pattanaik communicates deep philosophical thoughts with ease, in a ‘playful’ narrative. The short snippets about the epics, little anecdotal references strewn over the places, little pearls of wisdom always make it enthralling to read his books. No matter how many times you read these books, you’d still be left with this question in the end:

Within infinite myths, lies an eternal truth

Who sees it all?

Varuna has thousand eyes,

Indra, a hundred.

You and I, only two.

 

My Rating: 4/5 stars

P.S. This review is part of the Flipkart Bloggers’ Affiliate Programme

 

DISCLAIMER: All Images Used In This Post Have Their Respective Copyrights

Book Review: Shyam by Devdutt Pattanaik

When it comes to mythology in India, Devdutt Pattanaik is a name to reckon with. In times like these, when history (and religious texts) have become tools of political power play, and mythology is being sanitised and re-imagined to propagate a narrative that suits a certain belief system, Devdutt Pattanaik’s works help set the record straight.

India is a land of diversity. It is but natural that the ancient texts – the Vedas, Upanishads, and even our epics – would have diverse interpretations across the subcontinent. Even as some attempt to reposition (or repackage) ‘Hinduism’ as a monotheistic, toxically masculine religion (like the Abrahamic faiths), Devdutt Pattanaik relies on, and puts on record, the various narratives centred around the same characters, and stories.

In his latest book, Shyam – An illustrated retelling of the Bhagavata, Devdutt weaves together the tales of Krishna. It is the “story from Krishna’s birth to his death” and chronicles his transformation from “his descent to the butter-smeared world of happy women and his ascent from the blood-soaked world of angry men”. The title of the book, as the author explains, can be attributed to the colour of Krishna’s skin, which was dark (but has now been sanitised to blue).

There is no single source chronicling Krishna’s story in entirety. It has been narrated in fragments in various scriptures – in the Mahabharata (where we learn about Krishna’s adulthood and his relationship with the Pandavas), then in the Harivamsa (that speaks of his pastoral foster family). It also finds a mention then in the Vishnu Purana (where he is described as one of Vishnu’s avatars), and of course, the Geeta Govind of Jayadeva (that is a tribute to his love story with Radha).

Shyam, the book, comes in eighteen chapters (16 chapters and the prologue and the epilogue). Krishna’s life story is narrated sequentially – from the circumstances that led to Vishnu’s eighth avatar till Krishna’s death, and subsequent description of Goloka – a heaven for cows. The author has been politically incorrect, and presented facts as they stand. Krishna’s story has been dissected in great detail, and his persona explored in all his forms. Devdutt minces no words when he laments the current trends of portraying Krishna only as a ‘masculine, war hero’. This is a great disservice to Shyam, who is incomplete without his androgyny. In fact, his feminine self is worshipped in many parts of the country.

The life of Krishna has been narrated in various stages – the infant, the son, the lover, the cowherd, the warrior, the king. Anecdotes have been cited from different sources. like the Bhagavata Purana, the Harivamsa, Geeta Govinda, the Greek mythology as well as Buddhist texts. References have been drawn to traditions prevalent in south India, Rajasthan, Bengal or Odisha. No one interpretation of Krishna has been declared superior (or real) over the other. Krishna is a complete figure, only when we accept all the facets of his personality in entirety.

Anyone with interest in mythology – and also thanks to Amar Chitra Katha – may know most of the stories that Devdutt Pattanaik shares in this book. What sets this book apart are the myriad factoids that he presents, in an illustrated presentation. And he also shares new information with us, which spikes your interest in the subject. Like, the paradise for cows or the references of Krishna in Buddhism, the two Bhagavat Gitas, the interpolation of Krishna and Kali, and so on.

Unlike Ram, who is now a political icon because he was ‘maryada puroshottam’ (the ideal man) and exemplified masculinity, Krishna is as human as much he is an avatar. His ‘colourful’ life comes with frailties. And that’s why his story needs to be told more and more. For Shyam is the perfect epitome of pluralistic, multi-faceted diversity that our country stands for.

My Rating: 4/5 stars

P.S. This review is part of the Flipkart Bloggers’ Affiliate Programme

DISCLAIMER: All Images Used In This Post Have Their Respective Copyrights 

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