Google the term ‘Chief Belief Officer’ and the only references you’ll see are those that point to an Indian man. The man in question, Devdutt Pattanaik, is still known as a Chief Belief Officer well after his tenure at Future Group as consultant on matters relating to belief and culture. A trained medical doctor, Pattanaik worked in the healthcare industry for 14 years before he became business advisor at Ernst & Young. But his passion for mythology soon turned into a profession in 2008, landing him the post of Chief Belief Officer—a designation that has evidently failed to be disassociated from him till date.
At the Ubud Writers & Readers Festival 2004 (UWRF 2014), Pattanaik hosted art workshops like “Drawing the Gods”, but it was at the festival’s main programme, “The Chief Belief Officer” that I was truly enthralled by this man’s thoughts and simple ways of deconstructing myths in a contemporary context. Simply put, he uses mythology to approach questions in a creative way. Pattanaik is also an author, columnist, illustrator and author, but he most aptly sums up his skills saying, “I have this unique ability to articulate and communicate extremely complex ideas across structures. I discovered I have a patterned way of thinking, which is part intuition, part logic. It’s an ability that many people have, but I also have the ability to communicate and articulate.”
On mythology Pattanaik said, “Have you noticed that we have always recycled myths and never created new ones? Mythology is cyclical in nature and it continues to be valid in some people’s minds because it is old and it is never going to change.” So did the characters in the Ramayana actually roam the earth? He counter-questioned this by saying, “Is social reality a reality for you, or is mental reality–what you’re thinking right now—real?” Go figure! He explained how Krishna, portrayed in Hindu texts in a feminine way and unfaithful to his consort, is still viewed as the supreme or ideal man in India.
Another interesting topic brought up at this session was whether the minds of human beings are becoming rewired because of all the technology that we have access to.
The concept of ‘a supreme man’ clearly doesn’t translate as ‘alpha male’ in an Indian context. He also went on to explain how it is practically impossible to understand Ram without Krishna. To understand Hinduism’s gods and goddesses, one also needs plenty of references to the entire gamut of characters in these texts. Which brings us to the fact that one simply cannot learn about a particular god without the goddess. “The presence of the female is essential to understand Hindu gods. Divinity is seen as a pair. It is dual in nature,” he said at the session that was chaired by writer, broadcaster and journalist Michael Vatikiotis.
A 2009 TEDTalks video of Devdutt Pattanaik– A look at business and modern life through the lens of mythology
But take, for instance, God, who almost always is referred to as a masculine entity; there’s Zeus in Greek mythology and so on. The issue of intercultural translation comes into play in the Indian context, where one has several words—Bhagwan, Eashwar, Devta and Aatma— to explain different facets of God in India. Next up was an explanation on the conversation between the animal self and human self, a recurrent theme in Hindu texts. He spoke about Hanuman as the animal self whose tendency is to ‘grab’ and Ram as the human self whose tendency is to ‘give’. Hanuman is the only animal character that feels obliged to help Ram find his wife Sita (kidnapped by Ravan), even though he gets nothing in return. Pattanaik also mentions that in Indian scriptures Hanuman is celibate, which means that he enjoys no pleasure. Hanuman burns his own tail to help Ram find his wife. Ravan, on the other hand, a rich and powerful human being, stoops to a low level when he kidnaps Ram’s wife. The triumph of an animal over a human being, of good over evil is seen time and again in Hindu texts. Hanuman rises above other monkeys so frequently spotted in these texts because of his ability to respond to the misery of humans, which in other words is super human.
Another interesting topic brought up at this session was whether the minds of human beings are becoming rewired because of all the technology that we have access to. To this, Pattanaik said, “In ancient times, slavery was endorsed because a slave had to do whatever his master told him to, and the slave was never expected to be paid. In recent times, while slavery is no longer held in high regard, we still have the desire within us to tell someone or something what to do. And thus came about the invention of robots or technology, which are, simply put, modern slaves. We clearly haven’t changed. Even Hollywood films depict the assertion of control because it is something that we can relate to. We get hysterically afraid when our smartphone gets misplaced or when there’s no Wi-Fi! Look at slavery and look at the current advancement of technology and robots. Why was the former created? It’s the same reason why technology and robots were created!”