Bringing the divine down to earth

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!”

6 Replies to “Bringing the divine down to earth”

  1. Beverly , liked your account of devdutt patnaik in the context of recent UWRF . while devdutt’s flair to deconstruct myths and stories from indian epics and relate them to modern management practices is widely appreciated , the take on linking robots to yesteryear slavery is a little far-fetched . robots are an extension of computers , created to discharge routine tasks of a repetitive nature more efficiently and cost-effectively , enabling more productive utilization of manpower. Should we really read anything more to it as if the human mind still harbours instinct of subjecting people to slavish tasks ? best wishes…raj .

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    1. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. I do agree with you; robots and technology are definitely making our lives simpler. Yet, as we become more dependent on it (or, in other words, making a piece of machinery do the work for us or become our slave, so to say), we are also inevitably becoming slaves to technology.

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      1. That cannot be helped Beverly…can anyone stop the march of technology ? As to robots slaving for humans or humans becoming a slave to technology , it all depends on how one looks at it . Just consider how technology has eased household chores , specially in the kitchen . Going back fifty years , I recall how my mother used to drudge with day-to-day cooking , her face smeared and eyes smarting in smoke billowing from burning firewood ; comparatively , modern kitchen is a breeze , which only shows how lifestyles have evolved and not any slavish dependency on technology . Saying so would be regressive thinking . However , this is merely stating a view and may kindly be treated as such….best wishes…raj .

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      2. True. I hear stories from my parents about life back in the day. They were definitely harder times, but I can’t help but think that they might have also been simpler and more meaningful. Don’t you feel that we are so caught up in the web of technology? The younger generation, me included, goes a tad berserk when there’s no Internet to be found (sometimes even on holiday!) or when we lose our phone. I think somehow we are forgetting the small pleasures of life.

        I also think that this discussion is interesting and might well help us to take the simplicity of the past and merge it with the future that holds plenty of technological advancements! 🙂

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