The Mahabharata, with the Gita embedded in it, is part of the Indian cultural fabric. This story of the Great War between brothers, has been told, re-told, morphed, and referenced through the centuries in various forms and formats. Devdutt Pattanaik, author of over 50 books and over 1000 columns, all pertaining to mythology, has come out with an audio show with Audible SUNO, "Suno Mahabharata", where he narrates the entire epic through 18 episodes, in 6 hours. It is available in both Hindi and English on the app, which you can download for free.
Below are excerpts from a conversation about the complex sexual and moral elements he brings into his storytelling, and how mythology has become a vehicle for political propaganda.
What is your first memory of hearing the Mahabharata or stories from it? Was it Hindi, English, Odia or Marathi?
It was in English in my school, Our Lady Of Perpetual Succour in Chembur (Mumbai), a Christian school. There were school plays on the Ramayana, the Mahabharata, plays on Ekalavya, and the Sitaharan. I was playing the role of Eklavya. For the Ramayana show I remember collecting pigeon feathers to make Jatayu's wings for my teachers. We never saw it self-consciously as a 'religious' play, as we would most probably do today. It was all fun.
You have grappled with the Mahabharata in various forms in your books. How did you go about the audio-show and the frank discussions about lust and sexuality that you seem to have included?
I wanted to tell the story in a couple of hours and I wanted people to make it sound like a whole story. People make the Mahabharat sound unusually complicated which it is not. From a design point of view, it is quite simple.
I wanted to do 18 episodes, because the Mahabharata has 18 chapters. But the 18 chapters are quite uneven. The first chapter is about a third of the book. I wanted it to be 18 equal sections, so it was quite difficult. I am a structured guy, I like design, order, and frameworks, because with those in place, people immediately get it. In the audio world, one of the challenges is that you can't turn pages and there is no image to see. So that brings its own structural challenges.
The children's book, The Boys Who Fought is marketed very differently from Jaya. The children's book was structured around the 6 battles that take place, and so it is told in 6 chapters. It makes it easier to memorize for the child. I also don't want the child to be protected from violence; I don't like to mollycoddle. The myths were designed to prepare children for the real horrors of this world.
There seems to be a renewed interest in both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata now, with DD re-telecasting their shows. Now Mahabharata's popularity is specifically odd because it is often told that people shouldn't keep this text in their house, it brings bad luck. And yet, people are swarming to watch it. Does that strike you as odd?
It's called 'sympathetic' magic – where the house attracts what you keep in the house. While both the Ramayana and Mahabharata deal with property disputes, in the Ramayana the property isn't divided, and the family stays united, while the opposite happens in Mahabharata so the latter was seen as bringing bad luck. You don't want your house or family divided, do you?
What are your thoughts about the Doordarshan version of it, specifically now with it being re-telecast.
Ramayana, Mahabharata, Gandhi, Cricket and Bollywood are the things that unite India.
In the late 80s, this was all new, as the previous governments shunned all things religious. Many knew the Ramayana, but few knew the Mahabharata. But I knew the story of the Mahabharata so I knew the story was being changed to make it more audience friendly. Shikhandi, for example, came on screen with 'sinister' music. But the casting was fantastic, especially Krishna, and it is very well told, but the story ends with the victory of the Pandavas in the war and totally ignores the last 6 chapters of the Mahabharata. The BR Chopra Mahabharata made the story palatable to the audience – as good wins over bad. It is the same with the Ramanand Sagar Ramayana that ended with Rama's coronation. The Uttar Ramayana where Sita is deserted was treated as a separate story, so as not to offend audiences.
See, everybody brings their own politics into it – some to please the audience, some to please politicians, some to please themselves. In Bharat Ek Khoj Shyam Benegal brought his left leaning view to the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, through Nehru's words, choosing to visualise the epics as some kind of proto-historical tribal war. When you see Star TV versions today aligns with what audience wants – love stories, clear good and bad, no ethical and moral dilemmas that they myths seeks to present. For example in the most popular serial, Radha Krishna on StarPlus, you have Krishna, whose name means the dark one, shown as fair complexioned, and no one is outraged. But in traditional literature, Krishna is always described as sunburnt, and dark, a cowherd who wrestles with bulls and cows, but here he is shown as an upper caste boy with light skin and light eyes. The traditions are very deliberate. Ram is upper caste from a royal refined family, and Krishna comes from a cowherd family, which is raw, elemental, earthy. Both are 'shyam' or dark. You don't see that difference in the mythological serials of popular channels because the audience doesn't want to see it, or at least that's what we are repeatedly told.
This shows that the popular stories will never be spiritual or scholastic. It will just tell you what you want to hear and entertain you by keeping you in your safe comfort zone. That's what popular gurus do. But that is not the aim of mythological narratives, that seek to stir emotions and expand the mind, help us include and empathize this complex world of ours.
I have seen Sacred Games and I have seen the trailer of Leila and got a sense of the model they are using. Most of the filmmakers are upper caste educated Hindus, some who don't live in India but seem to know more about India than Indians. So virtue signalling becomes part of the storytelling. You show the 'other' as unusually good and yourself as unusually bad. The policeman is always Muslim who is overly virtuous and religious. Like Christians of Bollywood who were/are always shown as God-fearing teachers, and secretaries, with drunk fathers. The anti-hero of Sacred Games is not just Hindu, he has to be Brahmin, no other caste, as well as killer of his prostitute mother, for maximum impact. If Handmaiden's Tale makes Christian men monsters, then Leila makes Hindus just like Nazis. Filmmaking becomes a subtle form of activism- it isn't storytelling anymore. This self-consciousness is destroying the story. Our filmmakers, who are often atheists, don't know how to negotiate religion and so seek refuge in simple caricatures.
This happened with the Ramanand Sagar's Ramayana and BR Chopra's Mahabharata as well. They were telling you what the heartland wants to hear, of an ancient glorious civilization, valorised by the Right Wing. Sacred Games and the rest tell what the Left wants to hear, where everything is dark and gritty and horrifying and Hinduism is oppressive, but not Islam or Christianity. Both bring in their politics. I wish they actually told mythology.
And there is a deep distrust of and discomfort with their own culture- let's not deny that. We don't know how to deal with the horror of Indian society with its privilege and entitlement and therefore we do virtue signalling, all the time.
But isn't this simplistic narrative of the left coming from a space of urgency with what's going on in the country?
No, its just plain simple capitalism. It's an opportunity. The phrase Paatal Lok gets attention immediately. If they called it something else, they wouldn't have gotten the attention. It's a great marketing tool. But what is Paatal Lok? Are you saying the poor people and criminals live in Paatal Lok? Because Paatal Lok doesn't mean narak (hell), and I am sure the makers won't know the difference. They seem to have this Christian understanding of the underworld and hell, and have mixed it with the idea of Paatal, which is more to do with occult and regeneration in Hindu mythology.
That's why when in Suno Mahabharata I make it very clear that the Mahabharata is not a revenge drama about justice and equality. Justice and equality are Western ideas. The Indian concept is diversity. Justice exists in ecosystems that presuppose equality. Equality is anti-diversity, as it yearns for homogeneity. But dharma exists when you understand diversity, where you accept that everybody is different, and where the mighty have to help the meek but the meek are not helpless. So in Hindu culture we have two characters Rama, the refined King and Krishna, the raw cowherd. Both are God. The king, whose wife gets abducted, is not the oppressor and the cowherd, who faces tyrants, is not the oppressed.