The Intellectual Submission of Devdutt Pattanaik
12 minute read
In my review of “The Illustrated Mahabharata”, I wrote that this is a magnificent coffee-table book that fills a need for a lavishly produced book on the epic. The only blemishes in the book are the innumerable errors that have crept into the book as a result of the editors sourcing the story of the Mahabharata from Devdutt Pattanaik’s adaptation, “Jaya”.
These are just some, a small percentage, of the outright errors, distortions, and subtle misinterpretations that Devdutt’s text contains.
- Gandhari’s Pregnancy
What the book (IM) says – “Impatient now, Gandhari decided to force the child out of her. She ordered her maids to strike her belly with an iron bar….”
What the Critical Edition (CE) says – “Unknown to Dhritarashtra, Gandhari violently struck her belly and aborted herself, fainting with the pain. A hard mass of flesh, like an iron ball, came out.” [Unabridged Mahabahrata, Adi Parva, Ch 107]
What the Gita Press (GP) says – it is more or less consistent with the Critical Edition
Devdutt is wrong: Gandhari did not order her maids to strike her belly, and certainly not “repeatedly”.
If Devdutt believes he is writing a new Mahabharata, then it is certainly his creative right to do so. If, on the other hand, he is talking about the Mahabharata the epic, then he has no right to take such creative liberties that border on the absurd. A scholar, or even a self-proclaimed “mythologist”, should know better.
- Satyavati’s Departure
IM: Satyavati “decided to leave the palace on witnessing a public fight between the Pandavas and Kauravas.”
CE: After Pandu’s death and last rites, it was Vyasa who told Satyavati that hard times were ahead, and advised her to “give everything up and live in a hermitage. You will not be able to witness the destruction of your sons and lineage.” [Adi Parva, Ch 119]
GP: is in line with the Critical Edition.
So, firstly, there is no mention of a “public fight” between the Kauravas and Pandavas. Why Devdutt thought of this fight is not clear. Perhaps Vedvyasa whispered these secrets to him? Secondly, it was Vyasa who advised Satyavati to retire to the forest, not simply “Satyavati’s decision”.
Again, it begs the question, and let us assume that some version of the Mahabharata does in fact contain a description of such a fight, why is Devdutt so eager to deviate so often from the universally accepted version of the Mahabharata?
- Karna Donates His Earrings and Armour
IM: when Indra, Arjuna’s celestial father, approached Karna and asked him for his earrings and armour, “Karna instantly gave them away.”
CE: When Indra, disguised as a brahmana, asked Karna for his “natural armour and earrings,” Karna refused, saying, “I will not part with them.” (from Kundala-harana upaParva of the Aranyaka Parva)
Devdutt gets it wrong again: Karna did NOT instantly give away his earrings and armour. Karna told Indra that he could take his earrings and armour only as an “exchange” or not at all, “Otherwise, I will not give them.” The exchange was Indra’s celestial weapon, the Shakti. The rest, as they say, is history; or shall we say “itihaas”?
At this point, one has to have serious doubts if he has indeed read the complete, unabridged Mahabharata, or whether he has been relying mostly on hearsay and ersatz translations. The Mahabharata is infinitely subtler than the coarse, black-or-white colours that Devdutt uses to paint the epic in.
- Devayani and Yayati
IM: “While helping her out, he had held her hand. Having done so, tradition demanded that he marry her. So Devayani married Yayati and went with him to his kingdom as his wife.”
Devayani said, “O son of Nahusha! Earlier, no man except you has ever touched my hand. Therefore, in accordance with the dharma of accepting the hand, I accept you as my husband. My hand has been touched by you, who are a rishi and the son of a rishi. How can a proud one like me allow any other man to touch my hand?”
CE: “After pulling the one with beautiful hips out of the well, Yayati gently bid farewell and returned to his capital.
Devayani said, “O father! This is the king who is Nahusha’s son. He grasped my hand when I was in trouble. Bestow me to him. I will accept no one else in the world as my husband.” [Adi Parva, Ch 73]
Devdutt would have one believe that Devayani had no choice but to let herself get married to Yayati because of the “demands” of “tradition”. It was in fact Devayani who asked the reluctant Yayati to marry her. Devayani more or less forced the matter. Devdutt’s interpretation suggests the opposite. Devayani went to her father and told him that Yayati was the one she had chosen as her husband.
Again, Devdutt has trouble accepting the fact that Devayani was a strong-willed woman with her own mind. He seems intent on portraying women in the Mahabharata as helpless and without the freedom of choice. Subjugation of the feminine is a trope, a western stereotype that Devdutt seems desperate to perpetuate.
- Jayadrath’s Death
IM: “Drona was livid that despite his desperate measures, Jaydratha had been killed. He ordered his troops to continue fighting against the Pandavas after the sun had set…”
CE: Drona was the commander of the Kaurava army at the time. The decision to order the army to continue fighting after sunset was indeed his. However, chapter 125 of Drona Parva tells us that after Saindhava (Jayadratha) was killed, Duryodhana sought out Drona and poured out his litany of woes in front of his guru, ending his tirade with an accusation that Drona had “always been partial towards your excellent disciple, Dhananjaya.” Drona felt hurt at these biting words and unfair accusations. After all, hadn’t Drona, just a day ago, told the Kauravas how to disarm and kill Abhimanyu? Drona now reminded Duryodhana of the fateful game of dice where he had refused to listen to Vidura’s advice. In Drona’s words, Duryodhana was “reaping the fruits of that adharma now.”
To say Drona was “livid” is a fanciful flight of imagination not supported by the Mahabharata text. “Desperate measures” is poetic license at best, or worse, a shoddy misrepresentation. Drona was clear that the blame for Jayadratha’s death could not be all lain at his feet. He pointedly asked Duryodhana, “All of you surrounded Arjuna and sought to protect the king of Sindhu. How was he killed in your midst? O Kouravya! How was Saindhava killed when you, Karna, Kripa, Shalya and Ashvatthama were alive?” He finally ends chapter 126 with this pronouncement to Duryodhana, “The angry Kurus and Srinjayas will fight, even during the night.”
Therefore, Drona ordered the army to fight through the night only in response to Duryodnaha’s accusatory tirade, and not out of any “lividness”.
IM: “Bhishma chose to die on the auspicious day of Uttarayan, after the winter solstice, when the sun moves close to the Pole Star – the bright half of the lunar month, when the moon is waxing.”
CE: the first chapter in the short Bhishma-Svargarohana Parva has this to say about Bhishma – “He saw that the sun had retreated and was proceeding towards uttarayana.”
Uttarayan is not a single day. Rather, Uttarayan refers to the six-month period between Makara Sankranti and Karka Sankranti. In some ways, one could refer to Uttarayan as the day when the sun starts to move towards the Northern Hemisphere (in a manner of speaking). The “bright half of the lunar month,” as Devdutt refers to, is the Shukla-paksha, when “the moon is waxing.” And whichever way one looks at it, Uttarayana has nothing, I repeat, nothing, to do with the nothing to do with the lunar month, or the waxing and waning of the moon. Devdutt is, again, hopelessly confused.
Devdutt writes that Shikhandi’s “contribution has been given little importance.”
This is an absurd remark, given that one entire Parva, the Ambopakhyana Parva, deals with Amba and Shikhandi’s backstory. This history is recounted by Bhishma on the eve of the war, which surely is a sign of the importance that the commander of the Kaurava army lent to Shikhandi. Furthermore, the term Shikhandi itself has lived on and is remembered and used in several contexts even today, most often to refer to the use of a proxy in a fight against an enemy.
Perhaps Devdutt has an agenda here that he is not quite willing to be open or honest about. His readers deserve both from him.
- Bhishma’s Vow
IM: “I shall never marry. Neither will I ever be with a woman…”
CE: “I have already relinquished my right to the kingdom. I will not destroy the doubt that has arisen about my sons. O fisherman! From today, I take the vow of brahmacharya. Even if I die without a son, I will attain the eternal world of heaven.”” [Adi Parva, Ch 95]
Bhishma does not talk about never being “with a woman.” Yet, Devdutt attributes this sentence directly to Bhishma. It is not Devdutt’s interpretation. He would have the reader believe these were the words of Bhishma. The Mahabharata tells us that was not so. In other words, Devdutt lied.
- Running With The Elders, Hunting With The Children
In one place, the book talks about the “plight of old men and women and the way they are treated by their sons and daughters.” I am speculating that these also are Devdutt’s inputs. Elsewhere, the book, and Devdutt (again, I am speculating) talks about the “stranglehold of tradition over modernity”, where “a father demands and extracts a sacrifice from the son” and how the “older generation dominates society.”
So, by Devdutt’s logic, and certainly his words, the older generation on the one hand dominates society and where a father extracts a sacrifice from the son, and yet on the other hand the same older generation suffers a pitiable plight at the hands of its sons and daughters. A leap of logic that defies logic. Perhaps Devdutt’s logic is beyond, err, logic?
- Koushika or Viswamitra?
It was Rishi Viswamitra that the apsara Menaka distracted and seduced, not King Koushika. Yes, it was the King who gave up his kingdom and went on to acquire the status of a rishi with his penances. But after becoming a sage, he is almost always referred to as Viswamitra.
The Menaka episode certainly does not refer to Viswamitra as Kaushika; not even once. The story of Shakuntala’s birth is recounted by Shakuntala herself, to Dushyanta, as she had heard it from Sage Kanwa, her adopted father. (Chapter 66, Adi Parva)
- Yayati Complex
The story of Yayati is fascinating in its own right. Not only can one trace the history and divergence of the the fates of the Kurus and Yadus dynasties from Yayati, but also the desires that burn in humans, the burning desire need to quench these infinite desires. It is parents who turn to their children to help fulfil these unsatisfied desires. But to phrase this so-called Yayati Complex as explaining “the stranglehold of tradition over modernity in Indian society” is a very, very western view of Indian society. Such a sweeping, simplistic stereotyping would fit more naturally inside the warped world of a Wendy Doniger. Given Devdutt’s cloying adulation of Wendy Doniger (notwithstanding his recent attempts to distance himself from her), perhaps it is no surprise.
- Parashurama Fights Bhishma
This also Devdutt gets somewhat wrong. The fight between Parashurama and Bhishma ended because Bhishma withdrew a weapon that he had drawn, ready to unleash at Parashurama. The gods advised Bhishma against doing so, and he complied. Parashurama took that to be his defeat. The fight thus stopped there. Why Devdutt sees a need to distort even this is not clear.
Why? Why? Why?
On almost every single page that contains Devdutt’s text from “Jaya”, or blurbs with his commentary, there are errors. Some are outright errors, but many are those needless, small, lies and distortions that seem entirely unnecessary. Devdutt is obviously a hard-working neo-scholar of the Mahabharata. Yet the kinds of errors in his text and their frequency suggests that there is perhaps a pathological aspect to his behaviour.
Devdutt is an unabashed fan of Wendy Doniger. Wendy’s work on Hinduism has been marked by needless lies, omissions, and distortions that have been called out innumerable times by scholars, and yet which she has been unable to respond to. Her reputation as a scholar in the West continues to thrive, despite an unending stream of Hinduphobia that runs through her work, and scholarly incompetence that would end most academic careers. It is entirely possible that he is subconsciously paying homage to his idol by littering his work with the same kinds of errors and distortions that line Doniger’s work.
It is perhaps, in his mind, the ultimate act of submission, an intellectual prostration.
© 2017, Abhinav Agarwal (अभिनव अग्रवाल). All rights reserved.
(Editor: This article first appeared on Abhinav Agarwal’s blog in May 2017. The reader is encouraged to visit the original and see the various images and original texts for each of the above examples. Also see on Twitter. His balanced recommendation for the IM can be found here.)