Friday, August 04, 2017

In which Devdutt Pattanaik gets mad as hell and won't take it anymore

As a follow-up to my profile of Devdutt Pattanaik – and to provide added context – here's a rough chronology of what happened during our second phone conversation, when Pattanaik got irritated with me. (Some of this was hurriedly scribbled out after the conversation, and I have probably forgotten a few details - in addition to setting out things in a way that makes me look like the tragic hero - but even so…)

It began with my making a reference to our earlier chat. I asked DP: further to what you said the other day (about Dalit and feminist narratives never acknowledging other perspectives), what about a perspective telling of the Mahabharata through the eyes of (to take a very clichéd example) Ekalavya? Why in that case would the author have an obligation to be “fair” or “balanced” or accommodating of other viewpoints? Wouldn’t he use a single lens throughout, that of the protagonist? 

DP: but that is fiction. You’re talking about novelized versions now. 

J (more or less expecting this answer, but still a little confused about DP’s exact position on the texts he deals with): I’m a huge Mahabharata obsessive, but to my mind it is a great work of literature, which reveals so much about people, their relationship with the world, and how they respond to situations. Could you let me know how you distinguish myths from fiction?

At this point, DP starts to lose it. Says things like “fiction is entertainment, it is authors telling stories. Would you compare Harry Potter to the Bible?"

Pointedly asks me a series of questions, starting with: “Would you say the Bible is a work of fiction?”

I say: yes, it certainly can be viewed that way. As a very old work that was a product of its place and time, put together by different people at different times, with both interesting and problematic things in it. 

“How about the Quran? Would you say that is fiction?”

“Sure. I don’t know very much about it, but if it is made up of stories about prophets and people who lived a thousand years ago, with references to a Supreme Being, yes, I would treat it as literature.” 

“Would you say that to a religious Muslim?” 

“No. But only because self-preservation is a little more important to me than honesty, and I wouldn’t want to risk getting my head lopped off.”

“If Ram Guha writes about India after Gandhi, would you call that history or fiction?”

“I would think of it as a useful history, dealing with events that can be verified or questioned through many other sources – with the proviso that any such history is always filtered through the writer’s lenses: biases, life experience, education, nature of research, etc. So it doesn’t have to be viewed as undisputed truth.”

At this point I also try to clarify to DP that when I refer to something as great fiction (or great literature), it is just about the highest compliment I can pay that thing. I don’t see fiction in the terms that he does, as “just entertainment”. But he is fuming by now, and launches into a monologue that includes mild forms of personal attack – mentioning that he is surprised that I am arguing with him about these things, that he was under the impression that I was trying to interview HIM, that this was about the things HE has to say, not about my views. More than once, speaking with some annoyance, he says versions of the phrase “Jai, I am NOT interested in what you think.” 

On one occasion, he tempers this by adding that he gets that we disagree about some things, which is okay – but that he thought this was an interview where he was the interviewee.

Which is a fair point – and, partly to placate him, I apologised for being a little more long-winded than I should have been. At the same time, I tried to explain – when I could get a word in edgewise, for he was quite angry – that my putting forth my position was a way of trying to understand exactly how his differed (on the myth-vs-fiction subject). And also that I had hoped to have a conversation – that I look at indepth interviews as conversations; I wasn’t a 20-year-old kid sent off on a brief assignment with a boiler-plate list of questions on a subject that he knew very little about.

[This is conjecture, but my feeling is that one reason why he initially got so annoyed and frustrated was that when he asked those questions about the Bible and the Quran, I didn’t provide the answers that would slot me in with the Evil Pseudo-Secularist who finds it easy to mock Hinduism while being cautious or respectful of other faiths.]

The overall impression from his tirade was that of someone who was expecting a young journalist to play supplicant and obediently note down everything he was saying (which I actually did do for large parts of the main interview two days earlier), rather than raise any points of his own or express even a mild difference of opinion. And he definitely wasn’t expecting to be in a two-way discussion with someone who was invested in mythology, knew a few things about it, and had a perspective that didn’t match his own.

He kept repeating “It is deeply disrespectful to call other people’s beliefs fiction”, even after I had tried to clarify what I meant by fiction. And he used the words “respect” and “disrespect” in a way that implied that the only possible way I could be “respectful” of religious beliefs was by holding those beliefs myself! Anything less would automatically be “disrespectful”. This is, to say the least, a bizarre usage of an already problematic and ambiguous word.

If I were thinking more clearly at the time, I would have asked him, “Well, what about MY atheistic beliefs? Shouldn’t you be respectful of those as well? How does respect flow only in one direction?” This isn’t a flippant question: it is pertinent given that DP often sardonically writes things like “Atheism is just another religion” on Twitter. Even Harry Potterheads and Star Trek convention-attendees can be deeply wounded and offended if you mock their myths (and one of the ways in which Pattanaik defines myths is "a set of beliefs that get accepted by a community").

He also peremptorily referred to an email I sent him the previous day as “that long essay you wrote to me, when I thought I had made everything clear”. As it happens, that “essay” was written as a prelude to a specific question I asked DP about the growth of chauvinistic Hindutva in the currently climate, and whether that concerns him. A question he never got around to answering, by the way, though he always seems to find it very easy to take potshots at Dawkins and other “atheist fundamentalists” or “secularists”.

Here, for the record, is the full text of the “essay” I had sent him, and his response:

J: To take off from something you said earlier, and which you have also touched on in your Twitter feeds: I politely disagree with this idea that “militant” or “hardline” atheism can be equated (in terms of the damage it can do) with religious fundamentalism. Of course, we all know that non-religious people are capable of violence or savagery (any human being is – and one doesn’t need to look further than the Communist atrocities), but surely history shows us that religion-driven extremism drives people towards barbarism and intolerance more surely than any other force. In today’s context, it would be problematic to draw an equivalence between what the ISIS does (or what the RSS endorses in some contexts) with the mocking invective of Dawkins, Hitchens etc, as if they were a similar magnitude of violent behaviour.

I admire people who manage to be “moderate” about these burning issues (you, for instance, have been trolled by both the Left and the Right – which perhaps indicates that you are doing something right!), but in the current climate I wonder how you feel about the more hardline manifestations of Hindutva we are seeing around us – especially this triumphal narrative that aims to build a Hindu rashtra by harking on the supposed glories of the past. Is this something that goes against the spirit of the benevolent Hinduism that you prefer to engage with?

DP: I feel men like Dawkins in mocking religion just fuel fundamentalism. In their obsession with being 'right', they end up fermenting the 'wrong'. They do not know the function of religion: "meaning"

So they end up destroying sacred knowledge and transforming 'Buddha' into a prop for a spa. Its rational, therefore ok. They do not see that humans are emotional creatures who rationalise the world, not rational creatures who are emotional.

Very easy to attack ISIS and RSS, but they are engendered by atheists and secularists who deny the role of the sacred and the transcendental in the world. They create the monsters we fear and claim innocence.

I guess because they have no understanding of karma, and absolutely no understanding of Indian philosophy. 

I won’t soft-pedal this: while I appreciate what DP says about humans being emotional creatures who try to rationalize the world, I am appalled by the statement (which I have put in bold above) that atheists and secularists bear responsibility for the worst extremes of religion-driven violence. It comes across as another version of the equivocating, the “but…but…butting” we saw from so many “liberals” when the Charlie Hebdo murders happened. And as I mentioned, there was no answer to the actual question I asked DP, about militant Hindutva.

More than anything, I was surprised when he lost his temper, because I had had him pegged as someone who was so secure and thick-skinned and Buddha-like that he simply wouldn’t respond in this way, even if he found me a pest. (Maybe he would just beg off, say he was busy or that the interview had gone on long enough.) But what came across in those 3-4 minutes was the slipping of a mask to reveal an insecure, slightly childlike persona that couldn’t deal with measured counter-argument. And there was a very telling moment when he sulked “Please go ahead now and write for your magazine that Devdutt Pattanaik is an evil person!”

He somewhat calmed down after I assured him that I had no intention of doing any such thing, that I respected a lot of his work, and only that morning I had read his wonderfully generous 2014 piece where he defended Wendy Doniger after the pulping of The Hindus, despite having strong disagreements with her about Hinduism.

When I mentioned this, he said something like “see, that’s exactly what I mean by having respect for different views.” But where was his respect and consideration for MY views – not that I had even got to express them at any length before he lost his cool.

“Fiction is nobody’s truth,” he says. How reductive this is.

When I told him that some of the people closest to me, whom I care for and respect, were religious believers, he went: “So would you go to your grandmother’s prayer room and say, oh, all these God figures are like Barbie dolls?”

I didn’t mention it to him at the time, only later on WhatsApp, but my nani – a very devout lady, so devout that she clapped her hands and cheered loudly when she saw TV footage of the Babri Masjid being demolished in 1992 – used to refer to her Krishna murtis as her “dolls”, which she could play with and arrange in different positions. Other friends, whose grandparents were just as religious but perhaps had a more open-minded and inclusive upbringing than my nani did, tell me that it was possible for them to have frank, long-drawn conversations about faith and lack of faith with these pious grandparents. Pattanaik may be doing religious believers (especially believers within a traditionally fluid religion like Hinduism) a disservice when he treats them as one homogenous group of children whose feelings must absolutely not be “hurt” in any way.


  1. Looks like Lata Mangeshkar needs to be judged by her singing than about what she thinks of singing. It would have been even better if she had great thoughts about singing itself. Nevertheless!

  2. Surprised to see that Devdutt Pattnaik lost his cooltoo when you really didnt day much. I always thought him as a cool thick skinned person open to to other perspectives. But then,we all have our own buttons that can be pushed.
    However, I would also like to add that Devdutt Pattanaik did play a role in me discovering and opening up to other perspectives on mythology ( but not much on religion though ) and also on sexuality in Indian epics which I had no idea about. I do think he has lot of interesting stuff to say.Brought his book - "Myth = Mithya" recently and looking forward to reading it.
    But Jai , as guy who learns towards non-religious spirituality ( mostly jiddu krishanmurthy works, Zen etc.. if that makes sense) , but shares your atheist perspective on religion and god, I think Mr Pattnaik seem to be irritated on rationalist's tendency to place the intellectual over emotional. While being emotional about a belief certainly doesn't make it "real", I do think rationlists tend to miss out when they reject the emotional view altogether.

  3. You are bang on the money.I do appreciate the way Mr Pattnaik has tried to mainstream the idea of homosexuality in our scriptures. What confounds me is his unwillingness to let other marginalised sections do the same.His distaste for Wendy Doniger's Hinduism an alternate history (a book that beautifully illustrates that the subalters can and do speak if we learn how to listen),is a case in point . In fact he echoes the views of those Hindutva crazies, when he says that only Indians (read:Savarana Hindus) can rightly interpret Hinduism.Such primitive tribalism, this!

  4. When subalterns (be it dalits or women or tribals) interpret Hinduism with their own lenses to suit their prejudices and experiences, isn't that "primitive tribalism"?

    "In fact he echoes the views of those Hindutva crazies, when he says that only Indians (read:Savarana Hindus) can rightly interpret Hinduism"

    Savarna hindus is something you add. Not Pattanaik. Nor those hindutva "crazies". The original texts of HInduism written by Savarna Hindus are in fact very sceptical of many establishments within Hinduism. For eg : In Bhagavad Gita (possibly authored by a brahmin) Krishna mocks those brahmins who make a big fuss about vedic recital without following the path of Nishkama Karma.

    So based on my experience, Savarna Hindus have written less prejudiced writings on Hinduism than the "oppressed" groups.

    I am no fan of Pattanaik by the way. A very mediocre writer.

  5. "I think Mr Pattnaik seem to be irritated on rationalist's tendency to place the intellectual over emotional. While being emotional about a belief certainly doesn't make it "real", I do think rationlists tend to miss out when they reject the emotional view altogether"

    The Vedantic religion (particularly the philosophy of Jnanakaand) is strikingly rational. This is true for the "Prasthanatrayi" scriptures as a whole - the triad of Upanisads, Badarayana's Brahma sutra, as well as Bhagavad Gita.

    The Brahma sutras are very ambivalent in their position. Which is why they have lent themselves to commentaries. Sankara, Ramanuja and Madhwa - all three have commented on Brahma sutras from both monistic and theistic perspectives.

    And they are willing to argue at great length to justify their positions. The mode of argumentation follows classic Mimamsa theory where they explicitly state "Purva-paksha" (i.e the opinion and assumptions of their opponents) before taking them on with their objections! Something that we don't do in Jai's threads :)

    I am not sure they were altogether rational. But definitely more rational than a lot of us.

  6. "I wonder how you feel about the more hardline manifestations of Hindutva we are seeing around us – especially this triumphal narrative that aims to build a Hindu rashtra by harking on the supposed glories of the past."

    Firstly I am not sure if that narrative is all that dominant within the BJP.

    And suppose I grant that it is, why is that narrative less valid than the Nehruvian narrative which regards India as an identity carved out during the "nationalist" struggle by some chosen people? Many well meaning liberals have endorsed this narrative. Tharoor wrote a book on it titled "Nehru - The Invention of India".

    I don't subscribe to either narrative. But at the same time, I don't feel it necessary to rubbish the Hindu rashtra narrative on one hand and lionize the Nehruvian narrative.

    Both in my view are reductive and only partly true.

  7. Mr. Pattnaik has been trying with great care to mainstream the idea of homosexuality, but it is not in love for literature or art or history that is getting him to do so. He was molested as a child and is gay and writing is his way of coping with all the trouble he had then. His stubbornness in emphasizing that works are fiction/entertainment rises out of his difficult to admit that such things happened to him.

    1. You, whoever you are, are an absolute waste of human skin.

  8. "I say: yes, it certainly can be viewed that way. As a very old work that was a product of its place and time, put together by different people at different times, with both interesting and problematic things in it"

    Well here's how fiction is usually defined (just googled to see how it is understood -
    "literature, especially short stories and novels, that describes imaginary events and people"

    Going by this definition, I am not sure if the Bible meets the bill. The Book of Ezra references Cyrus - a historical king of Persia. The Cyrus Cylinder discovered in 19th century, explicitly refers to the repatriation of deported people (a very very likely reference to the Babylonian captivity of the Jews and their repatriation after Cyrus conquered Babylon). The fall of Belshazzar (remember the phrase "Writing on the wall"?) also very nicely corresponds to the record in the Cyrus cylinder.

    There is very clearly historical material aplenty in the Bible (as well as in the Mahabharata). I am less sure about Ramayana. But a lot more confident about the other two.

    Does that mean these are histories? No. They are not. But even legends can be exaggerated records of actual events.

    Even in the Indian tradition, there is clearly a distinction drawn between - a) Itihaasas b) Puranas

    The two epics are Itihaasas, which are regarded as inspired by historical events. Doesn't make them histories in the modern sense. But they are not fiction either. Puranas on the other hand, are for the most part entirely fictional.

    For eg - the original Jaya epic hardly discusses Krishna's childhood or his dalliances with the Gopis or his exploits in Vrindavan. Krishna is purely a political character engaged in Kuru politics. The elaboration on his childhood and his Leelas happens much later in Hari Vamsa and in Bhagavad Purana (which are not accorded the status of Itihaasa in the tradition).

    I am not making a plea here to regard the epics as histories. But to call them fiction is also not accurate. Exaggerated, misremembered legendary accounts are not fiction. There is a big difference between legend and fiction.

  9. "this triumphal narrative that aims to build a Hindu rashtra by harking on the supposed glories of the past."

    Actually the Jews did just that and managed to build a nation for themselves in their "ancient homeland". The inspiration for that homeland came mainly from the Old Testament (which you just called fiction). Israel is doing quite well as a country. It is one of the few beacons of hope in the middle east. One of the richest and easily the nation closest to a "liberal democracy" in the whole region.

    I think it is good for mankind that Israel exists. And I have to credit religion for that

    Also regarding "triumphal" "good vs evil" narratives - sure they are simplifications. But why should they be any less valid than subaltern narratives (which are also quite ahistorical and equally simplistic?)

  10. By the way I was just reminded of the work of Diana Eck, the distinguished lesbian Orientalist at the Harvard Divinity school.

    In her recent work 'India - A Sacred Geography' she makes a very very strong claim that the idea of India long predates the freedom struggle or even British colonialism. She regards this idea as being a product of the numerous pilgrimage centers (almost entirely Hindu) that dot this country. She feels that the travels of pilgrims over the past couple of thousand years, have contributed greatly to this "Indian" consciousness we all feel. I thought it was a very explicit attribution of the development of Indian nationhood to the Hindu religious faith (without necessarily excluding the other non Hindu groups that live in this land).

    Now Diana is a fine scholar. And is hardly what I would call a conservative. She is I think clearly a left of center LGBT professor at Harvard. Yet, even she doesn't seem to have a problem harking back to the distant past to construct an Indian identity.

    Now would the work have been just as well received if the author were an Indian or worse a Hindu with right-wing associations? No. I am sure the word "triumphalist" would've been used in every review.

  11. He was probably trying to hit on you and realized you were not as gay as he is or his expectations failed. If you questioned him about anything, he gets angry. This is the sign of someone totally insecure! His knowledge and all his stuff has been challenged and he has been ripped apart by several Sanskrit scholars like Nityanand Misra. Tweet threads are available for reference. When he has no clear answer, he begins to get irritated or call the other party names. Usual tactic of DP. However, no one takes him to be a serious scholar. He is the Chetan Bhagat of that genre of writing. If you want to read any writing/ scholarship around the Mahabharata, he is not the person to go to. There are bigger and better scholars. But good that you managed to provoke him. It exposed his shallow pretentious and wannabe identity pretty clear.

  12. It is very amusing to see how the thought process of some Indians have been corrupted.Quite a few of them seem to have lost the faculty of thought. Pattnaik has atleast started to incorporate counter-views in his opinions which he never did earlier. Most probably he has been exposed to thoughts other than the narrow leftist-communist-marxist drivel that has been thrown at Indians under the name of history.
    Of course Ramayan and Mahabharat are itihaas(history), and these might be highly exaggerated but they are still history. Just because there are no 2000 year old copies of Ramayan and Mahabharat did not mean they came out of thin air.
    The job of the historian is to sift through these legends and anecdote and piece together the pieces.Not all histories are written down in black and white. This is the reason why Indian history is unique. But things are slowly looking up and nonsensical things about Indian history are being challenged backed by some very good proof. And that has nothing to do with BJP-RSS-Hindutva or whatever some might want to call it. It is a simple case of bringing history to the fore.