Jaya – Illustrated retelling of Mahabharata is authored by Devdutt Pattnaik, India’s best known mythologist. I got to ask him a few questions about his latest work, and here is what he had to say:
What is your motivation behind re-writing Mahabharata? Every author who has written has added their perspective while telling the story, so what is your perspective that you think you added to the story?
I have rewritten the Mahabharata because most people do not know the scale of the Mahabharata and think of it is a fight between cousins over land. They do not know its regional tellings or the ritual impact of the narrative or that there are 6 chapters after the war. So it was not about perspective – it is simply about getting more data points out there so that analysis can be made.
You have read and referred many versions of Mahabharata, which version do you believe in the most and why?
Each retelling tells us about one perspective. No retelling is complete as no perspective can be all-encompassing.
While reading Jaya, I got to understand the various births of the characters and that kind of provided the reason for their actions in the birth that they took place during the epic period. Sometimes when I reflect back, it seems that the great war was to mass cleanse a lot of people of their past births and help them get out of the circle of birth and death. What are your thoughts on this?
The data does not say that. At the end of the war some people go to Swarga and some to Naraka. These are not permanent destinations. Stay in both locations has an expiry date followed by yet another life. So, no, I don’t think there is any mass clean. And why should there be a mass clean up. This is life. Messy. We imagine a perfect world but the reality was never ever perfect.
I read somewhere that your favorite character from the epic is Yudhishtra as he changes. Do you think this epic is apart from other things, a big treatise on change management emphasizing the need for people and organizations to be willing to change continuously?
The point is not about change. The point is about growth. To grow involves change. Animals change to, so do plants. Changing because one’s survival depends on it, because one is bored with the current situation is certainly not what the book talks about. The question is: why do you want to change?
India is going through a period on major change since last couple of decades or so, how do you think the stories and lessons of Mahabharata are relevant for the country at this time?
Stories of Mahabharata are eternally relevant as it deals with emotions. Technologically we may be different from people who lived a thousand or ten thousand years ago, but emotionally we still the same, petty and profound. The question is are we capable of grasping it. The Mahabharata that was passed on in the 20th century was a product of Left or Right wing ideology. The Mahabharata in medieval times was a product of bhakti ideology. The book remains the same, the gaze changes as society changes.
The illustrations in the book have style of their own. Would you tell a bit about the iconography that you use in your illustrations. I assume the illustrations have been done by you, is that correct?
My illustrations are my diagrams to convey what texts cannot. No style. This is the only way I can draw.
You are named after Arjuna’s Conch. Do you think that makes you connect with epic in special way?
Well, I don’t think my mother knew that Arjun’s conch is called Devdutt. But yes, it feels strangely prophetic that I should be named so.
If there was one message that you would want the readers to take out of your JAYA, what would that be?
Life is about growth, growth is about inclusion, inclusion demands emotional maturity.