My rating: 3 of 5 stars
A friend recently told me that he had read Dr. Pattanaik’s “Jaya” and had found it quite interesting. I had been meaning to read it for some time and found myself browsing through the shelves of the bookstore at Jaipur airport for the book. Of course they had it, but another book caught my eye. “Shikhandi and Other Stories They Don’t Tell You” seemed to be quite interesting so I got it instead. “Jaya” would have to wait for another time.
I was immensely impressed by Devdutt Pattanaik’s “myth=mithya”. He seemed to be one of those sensible mythologists who seek out the history in mythology. This book tried to justify the LGBT movements that India saw recently in terms of Hindu religion and mythology. Dr. Pattanaik uses the word queer to refer to any sexuality that is not sanctioned by the major religions. Though the usage of the word might seem a bit ironic, especially when the author is arguing that the queer are just as natural as the non-queer, but if you rid the word of all the negative connotations that it has gathered over time, it is just another word. The book looks into all the twisted stories from various mythological sources of Hindu cultures across India and tries to establish that diversity in genders and sexuality are not only present from times immemorial but are also accepted and celebrated by the pantheon of Hindu gods.
The book talks about gods and men who find themselves in a position to do many of the acts that modern religions (including modern Hinduism) find inappropriate and unnatural. These include acts of changing gender, same sex love, cross dressing, castration to fit a role and many such acts that seem outrageous to our trained minds. All these acts are either done out of volition or as a result of a curse or boon. But never are the subjects of such action frowned upon or outlawed in these stories. Dr. Pattanaik also tells how and why such stories have been suppressed from popular mythology or modified to more suitable forms.
The short read was quite impressive in terms of showing how stories are forgotten when the popular culture does not support them. It was also quite interesting from a point of view of curiosity as it shows the diversity that the Hindu folk lore contain. However, reading the book I felt that Dr. Pattanaik is not an unbiased observer. He is rather someone who holds Hinduism in a higher esteem than other ways of life. Not that there is anything wrong with it, especially when it is being used to bring about a change in the uptight style of living that the monastic order has made popular. But this attitude also tends to distort the interpretation of mythology and things get modified in translation.