My Gita by Devdutt Pattanaik: Book Review

Devdutt Pattanaik has emerged as one of the most prominent orators and writers of our times on Indian mythology.

Mythology in India was largely catered to us via television through the 1990s. Of course, we always had our temple visits and ritualistic celebrations. But, Sanskrit stood as a barrier between us and the scriptures read during the rituals. We just had to be content with our physical presence during the rituals rather than questioning or delving deeper into mythology. As we progressed, we negated many aspects of Hinduism but with Devdutt Pattanaik, there seems to be a resurgence in popularity of understanding Hindu mythology.

My Gita by Devdutt Pattanaik,
Rupa Publications, 246 pages

My Gita’ by Devdutt Pattanaik was published in 2015. In the book, Pattanaik supplements the text with illustrations and flowcharts in ‘My Gita’. He tells the readers his objective in writing this book in the introduction. Pattanaik makes it clear that ‘My Gita’ is his subjective interpretation of the Bhagavad and not a mere retelling. He beautifully cites the fact that Arjuna’s doubts and the clarifications sought led to his discourse with Krishna on Gita. While Dhritarashtra, the blind King was a silent listener. The two individuals heard the same Gita but had different understandings. Hence, as readers, we can tread our own paths on the learnings from the Gita.

“The Gita we overhear is essentially that which is narrated by a man with no authority but infinite sight (Sanjaya) to a man with no sight but full authority (Dhritarashtra)…While Arjuna asks many questions and clarifications”.  

My Gita‘ is not a literal interpretation of Bhagavad Gita, rather an amalgamation of interpretations, viewpoints on various faiths of the world and stories from Mahabharata and Ramayana. It is more like decoding a part of Hindu mythology. In Bhagavad Gita, Arjuna had put forth his confusion and problem to Shri Krishna in chapter 1 and then Krishna recited the solution from chapters 2 – 18. This book does not follow the sequential order of Bhagavad Gita but is thematically divided into 18 chapters.

In the history of Gita, the author writes about Hinduism and how it is spread over 5000 years consisting of Puranic Hinduism, Vedic Hinduism and Pronto Hinduism. Pattanaik tells us about different Gitas and the existence of Vyadha Gita or Butcher’s song before Bhagavad Gita. This discourse on ‘dharma, karma and atma’ is delivered by a butcher to a hermit in Mithila.

In Shanti Parva of the Mahabharata, Bhishma reveals nine Gitas to the Pandavas. Then, there is Anu Gita, which Krishna provides to Arjuna on his request, after the war, when Krishna is leaving for Dwarka. Besides, outside the purview of Mahabharata, there are innumerable Gitas. This is quite a revelation when we keep referring to Bhagavad Gita as ‘The Gita’ in regular reference.

“The Bhagavad Gita, ofcourse, remains the most widely read of the Gitas. It is the counsel of a chariot-driver called Krishna to the chariot-rider and archer, Arjuna, just before the start of a war at Kuru-shetra between the five Pandava brothers and their hundred Kaurava cousins.”

There are a few stories and their interpretation that engage you in the labyrinth of thematic interpretations. One such story is of Karna, he is a foundling brought up by a charioteer but is actually of royal blood, son of Kunti abandoned at birth. He rises to become a king truly based on his talent yet Kunti’s legitimate sons – Pandavas and the world mocks him.

His story is tragic, his sincerity and honesty are tricked to pull him down. Even, in life’s last moments, Arjuna strikes him at a helpless, unarmed instant in the war. But Krishna reveals truth about Karna’s previous lives.  Karna was an asura (demon) in the time that Vishnu descended on earth as Nara and Narayana to destroy this asura. Karna is a victim in the present story but a villain in the previous one. Therefore, explaining the karma of past lives affecting our present life.

“The idea that life has no beginning (anadi) and no end (ananta), that our existence has no borders, no starting or finishing line, stands in direct contrast to modern ideas based on Greek mythology, where life is like an Olympic race where we have to ‘win’. The winners of Greek mythology found a place for themselves in the afterlife, called Elysium”.

Another interesting chapter explains Deha and on the four-fold divisions of the world – Humans, animals, plants and elements. Human beings experience the world and have imagination skills. Division of human body into five containers – anna kosha, prana kosha, mana kosha, buddhi kosha and chitta kosha create three realities of sensory, emotional and conceptual (imagination and intelligence). After Deha, the explanation of Dehi or the immortal soul that dwells within the body comes.

“The Rig Veda speaks of a bird that watches another bird eating fruit. This is a metaphor of the world (fruit), the body (bird eating the fruit) and the dehi (bird watching bird eating fruit). We can watch others, and ourselves, seeking fruit.”  

Pattanaik also explores the Krishna-Radha saga that appeared on the Hindu landscape eight centuries after the Gita. It is rather intriguing to know that the childhood lore of Krishna was put down in writing after the composition of Mahabharata and Gita. This aspect of Hindu mythology forms the basis for a more natural and emotional relationship between the deity and the devotees.

He explains that ‘Bhakti’ took two distinct routes – masculine – based on submission, celibacy and restraint, embodied in Hanuman and feminine route based on affection, sensuality and demand embodied in Yashoda, Radha and the Gopikas. Hanuman followed the Hindu monastic order while devadasis followed the latter.

‘My Gita’ explores the relationship between deity and the devotee. Pattanaik explores this through stories around Ram and Sita and Draupadi. He adds that Krishna’s story defies caste. He became more loved as the head of cowherds rather than Vasudev’s son or King of Mathura. The most popular images of Krishna are from his childhood and adolescence where he is with the cows and gopikas. Thus, decoding the imagery to understand the deity-devotee bond.

There is an explanation on the Tri-Guna comprising Tamas, Rajas and Sattva. Following this, we understand Yagna that was understood by Europeans as a sacrifice but later found that it had another term for it called Bali. Significance of Yagna lies in the fact that, “Brahma created humans through yagna and decided that yagna will satisfy all human needs”. Pattanaik also explains the types of charity – Dakshina which means a return for the service, Bhiksha without service for status and Daan for the self. This is explained through the poignant stories of Drupada-Drona and Krishna-Sudama.

There is a comparison between Buddhism and Hinduism. Ram’s return from forest as a King while Buddha returns from the forest to renounce his kingdom and family. Hinduism’s focus is on undertaking an inward journey to achieve a fruitful outward journey. There is also the mention of modern day ironies on how Buddha preached impermanence of things and yet after his death, his followers held to his belongings for memory.  

In another section, Pattanaik discusses Hindu mythology’s three heavens – Indira’s swarg, Shiva’s Kailas and Vishnu’s Vaikunth. Ofcourse, nothing is permanent so the present life’s merits and demerits bring a human being to Indira’s swarg or banish him/her to the narka or hell. It is interesting to know that Arjuna is sent to narka for the evils that he accumulated in his life. Deeds or the ‘Karma’ are of supreme importance.

‘My Gita’ is refreshingly new in the sense that it does not go about explaining to you verse-by-verse. The hint of modern outlook and comparisons beyond Mahabharata make this book interesting.  

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