Book review

Why reading Devdutt Pattanaik’s ‘My Gita’ makes sense but does not mean you're reading the Gita

In a first, the author presents a thematic take on the Bhagavad Gita rather than the usual translations and commentaries.

Devdutt Pattanaik knows his game well. He plays it subjectively and he plays it safe. In a country like India, where mythology and religion are so inextricably linked and everyone screams bloody murder each time you beg to differ, caution is the only way to go.

For years we’ve read Pattanaik’s books and articles on Hindu mythology and gods, sages and heroes, but his disclaimers are always loud and clear. He reminds us over and over how it is “his truth”, which may or may not be the same as other people’s truths.

It serves especially well against the self-professed guardians of our culture, who have the tolerance of an elephant in musth. It is hard to be angry with or throw ink on someone who is merely telling a story the way he understands it, without claiming absolutes. His subjective and diplomatic craft continues to shine through in his new book, My Gita.

A book of many firsts

But My Gita is not just another work by the prolific author that is Pattanaik. It is a book of many firsts – that incredibly clever title to begin with. It seems innocuous, but by calling the book My Gita, he pushes the envelope in terms of both subjectivity and branding. It helps distinguish between “The Gita” and his.

With that little possessive adjective, he at once lines up his defences and stakes his claim on a work that belongs to everyone. And rightly so, because the format of the book is rather unique.

Hundreds of translations and commentaries have been written on the Bhagavad Gita, as it is one of the most popular texts of Hinduism. However, Pattanaik presents the Gita thematically, not adhering to the original order of chapters.

In yet another first, this book marks his transition from mythology to philosophy – one that he makes with deftness and skill. That he chose the Gita to be his first in this genre is both remarkable and obvious, given that Hindus are so emotional about it.

The book begins with his reasons for writing about the Gita the way he has, followed by a lovely little history of the text. It gives those readers unacquainted with the Hindu scriptural tradition a great perspective on when the Gita was written and what its sociocultural import is.

Reorganised for clarity

The main part of the book is divided into 18 chapters, much like the original text, but the division is thematic rather than sequential. Themes that are scattered and recurrent in the Bhagavad Gita become coherent units that flow logically in Pattanaik’s chosen structure. Of course, this will be helpful to those who haven’t read the original or are not inclined to.

There’s a helpful table in the book that compares and contrasts the two books in terms of content. Pattanaik’s eighteen themes are Observation (Darshan), Rebirth (Atma), Mortal Body (Deha), Body’s Immortal Resident (Dehi), Cause and Consequence (Karma), Appropriate Conduct (Dharma), Exchange (Yagna), Introspection (Yoga), Trust (Deva-Asura), Potential (Bhagavan), Expanding the Mind (Brahmana), Contracting the mind (Avatar), Tendencies of Matter (Guna), Propreitorship (Kshetra), Measurement (Maya), Attachment (Moha), Liberation (Moksha) and Union (Brahma-Nirvana). The book concludes with a chapter that speaks of two other Gitas and summarily ties it all up.

While most of the broader themes of My Gita overlap with the Bhagvad Gita, Pattanaik takes a few liberties and makes a few deviations for the sake of clarity. The Gita presupposes a knowledge of core Vedic ideas in its readers, but the author takes the trouble of briefly explaining these concepts as he goes along.

Simplified, but over-simplified?

He offers simple etymological meanings of words like Dehi, Purusha, Yagna, Citta, Buddhi, Brahmana, Yoga, Sankhya, etc., which most readers are only vaguely familiar with. There is even a fun explanation of the word ‘jugaad’!

Pattanaik also distinguishes between occidental and oriental terminology, and between Hindu and Jain/Buddhist terminology, which sound similar but have different connotations. For example, he illustrates the difference between ‘soul’ and ‘atma’, or between ‘nirvana’ and ‘moksha’.

As with his other books, Pattanaik uses his illustrating skills in My Gita too. Unfortunately, he goes for overkill in his zeal to simplify. There are way too many charts, tables and illustrations corresponding to philosophical concepts and seem unnecessary. The author has clearly taken all kinds of readers into consideration from his ever-increasing fan base.

However, here’s a word of caution for his readers who are used to his amusing stories from Indian mythology. The Bhagavad Gita is a serious work, and does not become entertaining even when Pattanaik pens it. Pick it up only if you are ready to move on from mythology to philosophy like your favourite author has.

My Gita, Devdutt Pattanaik, Rupa Publications.

Urmi Chanda-Vaz is a psychologist by training, a journalist by profession and an Indologist in the making. She also has a Youtube channel on Indian Culture called Culture Express. She tweets here.

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