Interview with Devdutt Pathanaik
Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik is an Indian physician turned leadership consultant, mythologist and author whose works focus largely on the areas of myth, mythology, and also management.
1. Devdutt, tell us about your early life, schooling and college university studies.
I was born and have lived all my life in Mumbai. I studied in Our Lady of Perpetual High School, Chembur, Mumbai; did my medicine from Grant Medical College, Mumbai University; and spent over fourteen years of my life in the healthcare and pharmaceutical industry in various capacities before becoming Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group.
2. You are a chief belief officer of Future Group, India`s largest retailers, bringing the wisdom of Indian mythology into business. How does that function?
I spent all my free time studying mythology and was able to recognize that stories, symbols and rituals are the map of a culture. I observed that modern management studies can be easily mapped to Western mythologies and excluded other mythologies. I wrote about this and caught the attention of Kishore Biyani of the Future Group who had established the largest retail chain in India. He felt he needed someone like me to explain to people how every culture is designed differently, and how that plays a key role in business. So he asked me to join his think tank. We created this designation primarily to provoke thought, force people to question their ‘beliefs’ and help them appreciate there is need to break free from the straightjacketed models of modern management.
3. You graduated medicine (M.B.B.S) from Grant Medical College, Mumbai and worked in the pharma and healthcare industry for 14 years. Now you are writing books and columns about mythology. When and how did your interest in mythology started?
Mythology was always a hobby. It became a serious hobby after I passed out medicine when I started doing freelance journalism to amuse myself. I wrote a lot on culture and mythology and this led to a publisher asking me to write a book for him on Indian mythology. This led to a series of books and articles in various newspapers who enjoyed what I had to write. All this while I financially supported myself by working in the healthcare and pharma industry.
4. In November 2009, at the first TED conference in India, you gave lecture ” East vs. West- the myths that Mystify”. Why have you chosen that subject? Was it related in today’s misunderstandings between East and West, hence , such lecture is necessary?
The topic of the lecture was actually ‘Myths that Mystify’. But when the video was posted on TED.com it was renamed as ‘East and West’ to make the content more explicit, although I spoke only of Indian mythology and did not refer to Chinese mythology which is also part of the East. I don’t think the organizers expected the response. They thought it would be about India. But in actuality, it forced many to question what we consider modern and to make them realize that often modern is western, and not quite universal.
5. In your point of view, what is the most amazing and most wisest myth in the world`s mythology? And please explain?
There is no ‘wisest’ myth. Human beings imagine the world in different ways and this imagination of the world establishes notions of right/wrong, good/bad, beautiful/ugly, sacred/profane, heaven/hell. These notions are expressed through stories, symbols and rituals. No culture exists without this imagination and this expression. Without this imagination, there is no worldview, hence no culture. For the culture itself, however, their worldview is no imagination. It is real. The outsider sees it as yet another truth. The insider is convinced it is the only truth.
6. What is the main difference between Eastern and Western mythology?
Indian mythology needs to be separated from Chinese mythology when we speak of the East. The two are very different. Indian mythology is based on the idea that nothing is permanent; not even death. In other words, it is grounded on rebirth. This life then is an outcome of previous lives. Western mythology is all about one life. This is the only life. Events of this life are impacted by history created by others, not our own previous lives.
7. Is mythology in the root of every civilization? Is it the reaction of humankind from the beginnings of human history to the phenomenons of the nature they could not explain?
Yes. Humans are the only creatures with the brain power to wonder about the nature of existence. In fact, mythology comes from the same space as science. Both seek to explain life. Science explains how. Mythology explains why.
8. When it comes to nature, we often hear the Westerns about how they “concurred the nature”, while Eastern often say they “got united with the nature”. How can you explain the difference in those perceptions?
Both these perceptions are rather romantic views of nature. Nature is where only the fit survive and there is no room for the weak and helpless. Human society seeks to deny the truth of nature or suppress it. We end up assuming that social rules are somehow in line with nature when in fact it is the very opposite.
9. Are humans estranged from themselves and from the nature in the era of highly developed science and technology? Do we rely more on logic, facts, objectivity than on imagination, creativity, belief, compassion and wisdom?
There are three ways in which humans make sense of their lives: by what they have, by what they do and who they feel they are. The first too can be measured. The third cannot. Science and technology and objectivity and logic focus on the former two. But they do not help us answer who we are. For that we have always needed imagination that constructs notions of God, justice, fairness, fate, bondage and liberation. From this imagination comes creativity and belief. Wisdom and compassion emerges when we appreciate the human need to imagination to cope with fear. The fear of not knowing who we really our haunts all of existence. So we cling to whatever stories we inherit and create.
10. There is, undeniably, an advantage of science to humanity. However, why such glorification of science in developed countries? Can science provide solutions to all problems of humankind, even the moral ones? Can it give all answers of life issues? According to some scientists it can. What is your opinion on that?
Technology can increase what we have. Science can help us understand how the world function. But neither can explain why we exist or what is the purpose of life. Science and technology cannot give life meaning. Scientists who believe it can are also mythologists constructing realities that comfort them, realities that they often impose on others.
11. In what way does collective consciousness and collective ideas affect on our behavior? How does the mythology affects on collective behavior?
Words like collective consciousness are products of imagination. They were created by Carl Jung to explain the phenomena of human existence and culture. Are they measurable realities? Not quite. They are hypotheses, no different from ideas like God, or prophecy, through which we seek to make sense of life. When a group of people share a common worldview constructed through inherited and shared stories, symbols and rituals, they believe in the same thing and so value the same ideas and ideologies. This is how a community comes into being. Shared mythology explains why different communities share common beliefs. Yet the differences in mythology explains the uniqueness of each community.
12. Every culture is proud of its uniqueness and values. Throughout the history we see many attempts to force upon one or another culture and the way of life to other cultures. However, how much actually is valuable or even necessary to humankind the existence of different cultures and civilizations?
Nature thrives on diversity. There are, and will be, diverse minerals, plants, animals and imaginations that construct different cultures. We may seek to impose our thoughts on others, but nature will always create a counterforce. Why? We don’t know. How? We know. For every human being has a unique brain, the spring of imagination, that is quite capable of rejecting old ideas from outside and creating new ideas from inside.
13. Your opinion about globalization?
Secular monotheism that is jealous of other gods.
14. Your message to our readers?
Appreciate other people’s imagination. Find ways to appreciate, acknowledge and accommodate it, even if the other cannot reciprocate. And you will find wisdom, happiness and love.
Interviewed by Irma Velić
Director of social media at Al Rasub