Book review

What Greek myths have in common with Indian mythology (and why it matters)

Devdutt Pattanaik’s new book unveils convergences and spots connections.

If you are even remotely active on social media, chances are you have come across a viral video titled Momondo – The DNA Journey. It features a bunch of strangers of different nationalities participating in a DNA investigation programme. The project was created by a travel search engine called Momondo, in association with a company named Ancestry, in which 67 participants were made to take a DNA test that would reveal their ancestral journey far, far beyond their immediate predecessors.

The video features the shocked, surprised and even emotional responses of these participants as they realise that some part of their DNA comes from nations and people they are rather prejudiced against. The message is simple yet profound: You have more in common with the world than you think.

At a time when partisan politics, boundary walls, and force-fed nationalism dominate our front pages and news feeds, messages like these are important. And renowned Indian mythologist, Devdutt Pattanaik seems to want to drive home a similar message with his new book, Olympus: An Indian Retelling of Greek Myths. By talking about the “other”, Pattnaik also holds up a mirror to the self.

Elsewhere

Olympus is a paradigm shift for Pattanaik, whose domain so far has been Indian mythology. Even those who do not particularly care for mythology will have certainly heard about and/or read this prolific writer, columnist, illustrator and speaker. Whether on political issues or gay rights, social concerns or management models, Pattanaik’s thinkpieces are ubiquitous. But he writes about them all through the lenses of ancient Indian stories. Now, for the first time, in his own words, he “reverses the gaze”.

While numerous Western scholars and writers have been writing about India and her tales, Pattanaik now tells us the tales of the “West”. But yes, he merely tells them; it is not a “retelling” as the title claims. What he does add are trivia boxes at the end of each sub-chapter, highlighting instances from Indian (and other) mythology that resemble the story he has just told. These are valuable indeed, and I shall come back to them a little later.

Pattanaik starts the book with the Greek creation myths, moving on to the story of the Titans, the Olympians, through the semi divine human heroes, going right up to the brink of ancient Greek history. The book is divided into 10 sections, starting with a Prologue, followed by eight chapters named after eight prominent Greek gods/heroes, and ending with an Epilogue playfully titled “The Indian Headshake”.

He makes an interesting choice of a sutradhar who holds the narrative together. The author imagines a conversation between the Greek warrior-king, Alexander the Great, and a gymnosophist during his Indian expedition. As a historical human hero who believed he was a son of god and destined for Olympus, Alexander is the perfect narrator. He straddles the worlds of history and mythology, often blurring the lines.

Roots

While all ancient cultures come with their respective myths, Greek mythology evokes a special interest because Greece is often considered the cradle of western civilisation. It is only when one reads this book that one realises just how far reaching its influence is on public consciousness. It is something of a crash course in etymology with plenty of “Oh!” moments, even as one realises the Greek roots of so many words in common parlance.

Take the following terms drawn directly from Greek mythological characters: “Psychology” from Psyche, “Europe” from Europa, and “nemesis” from…well, Nemesis. Pattanaik also notes the many names that are used in the fields of astrology, geography, sports, popular culture and even technology. This book will help answer questions such as why the Trojan virus gets that name, what the name of the movie Ship of Theseus really implies, and why a Cadmean victory is not worth it.

I, for one, was truly taken aback when I realised that “Nemo” means “nothing”, which means Finding Nemo really amounts to finding nothing! The author’s cross-disciplinary approach is truly laudable.

Convergences

Coming back to the trivia boxes with notes on comparative mythology, it is by comparing and contrasting Greek and Indian myths that the purpose of the book is truly fulfilled. In pointing out conceptual equivalents such Hermaphroditus and Ardhanarishvara, Eros and Kama, Zeus and Indra, Dionysus and Shiva, or Heracles and Krishna, the author successfully demonstrates how similar we all are despite our differences. And he does not stop at Hindu mythology. He brings in elements of folk religion, Jainism, Buddhism, Christianity and even ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian myths where applicable.

But what shines most brightly are the insights on history. My absolute favourite part of the book is the Author’s Note in the beginning. In just seven odd pages, littered with his attractive illustrations, Pattanaik writes a most succinct cultural history of the world. In very simple words, he presents a case for cross-cultural exchange that has gone on from the ancient times.

Throughout the book we see how Alexander’s numerous conquests opened the floodgates to these exchanges. This became evident in the swapping of storytelling templates. Greek models in the Hindu Puranas, Puranic stories in Iran, or Egyptian tales back in Greece – the mashup was ubiquitous and complete.

Beyond our political boundaries live our genetic cousins we care not to think about. This book is a great reminder that we ought to.

Olympus: An Indian Retelling of Greek Myths, Devdutt Pattanaik, Penguin Random House India

Urmi Chanda-Vaz is an Indologist, writing and researching in the areas of history, culture and mythology. You can know more about her work at Culture Express.

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