Among the many things that come to our mind when we think of Hinduism, polytheism is one. The world’s oldest faith has 330 million gods. All the gods have legends, unique customs and rituals associated with them. Some even have festivals dedicated to them. For a novice, Hinduism could be a vast ocean of myths, legends, and rituals. However, should we take a closer look, it unravels itself and answers questions about life. It does so, often using mythology as a vehicle.
Mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik demystifies Hindu mythology and introduces us to Hindu philosophy in his book Myth=Mithya: Decoding Hindu Mythology. He writes, “This book explores the Hindu mythology. Behind the mythology is a myth. Behind the myth a truth: an inherited truth about life and death, about nature and culture, about perfection and possibility, about hierarchies and horizons.” And this truth, according to him, is hidden beneath the hyperbolic and fantastical nature of mythology. Pattanaik takes Narayana, an avatar of the Hindu god Vishnu, for instance. Narayana rests in a state of dreamless sleep, on a coiled serpent. As fantastical as this might seem, Pattanaik draws profound meaning–and a ‘subjective truth’–from this mythical representation. This state is called Pralaya, a state of dissolution, and the coiled snake represents the timeless nature of Purusha, the universal consciousness with unlimited potential.
The purpose of anyone’s life is to discover this truth. And as Pattanaik writes, the only way to go about it is by engaging with the world.
The book has three chapters. The first chapter is dedicated to Lord Brahma, the second to Lord Vishnu and the third to Lord Shiva. These chapters explain the nature of the universe, the evolution of cultural codes and the self-realisation of the soul. The first chapter talks about the beginning of life, its cyclical nature, the law of Karma, and the power of desire over destiny. The second chapter, dedicated to Lord Vishnu, talks about the evolution of culture. Comparing Ramayana and Mahabharata, Pattanaik explains how order was brought in the world by the two leaders–Lord Rama and Lord Krishna. While Rama adhered to societal rules, Krishna sought to break free from them and forge new rules. Highlighting the ever-changing cultural codes, Pattanaik shows us how these changes form the lifecycle of a society.
Dedicated to Lord Shiva, the final chapter is about transcending subjective worldly truths which are constantly changing. This chapter also talks about the objective truth–sat–which is “permanent, absolute and unconditional.” Becoming aware of this truth leads to enlightenment and tranquil bliss. The purpose of anyone’s life is to discover this truth. And as Pattanaik writes, the only way to go about it is by engaging with the world.
Though the Hindu philosophy is complex, Pattanaik’s simple language makes the book an easy read. Taking references from the Vedas and Upanishads, Pattanaik explains the symbolism behind the mythical stories and decodes them. With Myth=Mithya: Decoding Hindu Mythology, Pattanaik attempts to help readers understand Hinduism more deeply and appreciate its rich philosophy.