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
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