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Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Deconstructing Devdutt Pattanaik

Devdutt Pattanaik needs no introduction. The bestselling ‘mythologist’, illustrator, author of over 30 bestsellers, TV shows, and 500 articles on Bharatiya ‘mythology’ in various online and traditional media publications, has emerged as a hugely influential icon in the country.

So, what does it take to challenge a hugely influential author who is the ubiquitous go-to person  for  knowledge of our country’s Ithihasa-Purana tradition? Unlike the flamboyant Devdutt Pattanaik, his contemporary, the erudite and scholarly  Nityanand Mishra  is a rare  combination  of modern education and rootedness in the  ancient wisdom tradition of Bharat. An engineer with a management degree (IIM Bengaluru),  Nithyanand Mishra works in the investment banking industry. However, that is just one facet of his multi dimensionality. He is also an author, editor, and scholar in Samskrtam, Shastras, Bharatiya music, art and literature, and a disciple of Pujya Swami Jagadguru Ramanandacharya Swami Rambhadracharya.

In a conversation (‘Demolishing Devdutt Pattanaik’) with Rajiv Malhotra, Nityanand Mishra uses a dharmic framework (in contrast to the pervasive lens of Western universalism) to insightfully and perceptively deconstruct several problematic interpretations and extrapolations in Pattanaik’s books.

While  generously acknowledging that Pattanaik is a “talented and great  illustrator who has the art, who with his great marketing skills has established himself as the numero uno author in this space”, Mishra concedes that he was compelled to “delve deep into the works of Devdutt Pattanaik” after several of his friends and family members waxed eloquent about the author acknowledging him as a status symbol and the go-to person for insights and perspectives on our Itihasa Purana  tradition, with movie stars  such as Sonam Kapoor (with  her mega following on Twitter) endorsing Pattanaik as the last word on these topics!

In the candid conversation with Rajiv Malhotra, Nityanand Mishra delves deep into Pattanaik’s My Gita (which is in its tenth reprint)  and several of his other writings to deconstruct  thematic strands in his offerings.

“I had looked up his Jaya: An illustrated retelling of Mahabharata, but found it shallow. But when friends and family raised him profusely, I thought perhaps I should take a deeper look at what he writes!” says Mishra.

Therefore, he began with My Gita, which he says surprised him because he had always thought of Pattanaik as an “interesting story  teller”.

“I wondered why a story teller would write on the Gita, which is a philosophical text, which takes years and years to understand! The moment I started reading My Gita, it struck me that something was seriously wrong. Right from the understanding of every concept to the minute details, it is completely wrong, and Pattanaik presents it as his authoritative interpretation!”

Incredulously, Mishra explains that Pattanaik asserts his right to interpret the Gita and even uses an outrageous analogy—“If Shankaracharya, Ramanujacharya and Madhvacharya could interpret the Gita, why can’t I?”

“That’s so funny! Because people like Shankara and Ramanuja who have commented on the Gita have spent years learning the scriptures and learning and understanding Samskrta language. Its akin to somebody not knowing English reading Hindi translations or adaptations of Shakespeare’s works!” says Mishra, who also seconded  Malhotra’s point that Pattanaik, unlike Shankara and Ramanuja, was not part of a parampara or lineage and therefore did not have the adhikara or authority for such a gigantic re-interpretation!

Mishra also highlights that he found Pattanaik’s  knowledge of Samskrta inadequate, which is reflected in the mistranslations and misinterpretations liberally sprinkled throughout the book. However, not wanting to  come across as selectively biased, Mishra  says he read a few more pieces by Pattanaik  and his misgivings were confirmed.

“There is a logic called Seshwat nyay in our sampradaya. If you taste the water at  a seashore, you can conclude that the sea water is salty. Similarly, if you read a few books or articles by an author, you can get the big picture of what this author is about. And if there are so many errors and issues it will  extend to his other works! In this case, I felt compelled to tell people, you have a bestseller who is literally trying to pull wool over your eyes by just writing anything!”

According to Mishra, there are major issues in Pattanaik’s works—not only in terms of philosophical interpretation but also an obvious lack of mastery in his chosen sphere—the Puranas and Ithihasa. He markets his works such as Hanuman chalisa and My Gita as non-fiction. He also represents narratives from the Mahabharata and the Puranas in a completely distorted manner.

“That made me conclude that a person who considers himself an authority in Puranalogy (or what he calls mythology), has he read them in the original version? He’s probably read adaptations or translations!”

According to Mishra, the following are some  of the problematic strands in Pattanaik’s works: Incorrect narrations/distortions, wild imagination, sex and violence, LGBTQIA+ issues, zero knowledge of Samskrtam, integrity issues, factual errors and  Brahmin-phobia.

Specifically, based on in-depth readings of My Gita, Hanuman chalisa, his tweets and some of his articles, Mishra says, “There are serious issues in his works. For a person who is universally regarded as an authority on Puranas, his narrations based on the Mahabharata and Bhagavata Mahapurana are so inaccurate, which is surprising! If I style myself as a ‘mythologist’, I should have read the texts concerned in their source language and be knowledgeable about them, which clearly is not the case with Pattanaik! He is not only a story teller, but (has positioned himself as) a commentator on philosophical concepts, origin of Samkrtam, Aryan Invasion theory—where his imagination runs wild!  He explains concepts and terms that have no foundation in our shastras—invent concepts and terms, misattribute them and proclaim ‘This is my interpretation!’”

According to Mishra, this is a “serious issue. You can say it is my imagination, but not pass it off as nonfiction and philosophy!” This falsification of tradition is hugely problematic. Another major issue in his work is his “obsession with force fitting themes of sex, violence and LGBTQIA+ aspects into our shastras, our works and art! If he sees two Gopis together, he’d say they are lesbians!”

Mishra highlights that My Gita is full of errors and is a “marvel of scholarly ineptitude! The several categories of errors include wrong narration from source texts, fabricating facts to create a certain impression, falsifying and misrepresenting  traditions in order to appear politically correct, attributing incorrect motives and trivialising and misrepresenting characters, Westernised models of representation for greater accessibility and woefully inadequate knowledge of Samskrtam etymology.”

For example, Mishra highlights misrepresentation and distortion with reference to an the yagna patni episode from the Bhagavata Purana.

“In seven lines he makes as many as five blatant errors! In My Gita (page 106). Having read the Bhagavata Purana myself, I know there are major errors here. In My Gita, Pattanaik writes that the yajamana gives authority to a person to perform a yajna. However, in the Bhagavata (10.23.3) , it’s the Brahmins, not yajamanas who perform the sacrifice.”

Listening to the erudite Nityanand Mishra deconstruct the false narratives peddled by Devdutt Pattanaik is deeply disturbing and raises a plethora of problematic issues about whose narrative is it anyway? Context matters. Delinking and decontextualising narratives from the Dharmic eco system renders our traditions and heritage vulnerable to cultural hijacks, balkanisation and  homogenisation.


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Dr. Nandini Murali
Dr. Nandini Murali is a communications professional,  author and researcher in Indic Studies.  She is a Contributing Editor with the HinduPost. She loves to wander in the forests with her camera. 

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