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Book Review : Devdatt Pattanaik

7 Secrets of Shiva & 7 Secrets of Vishnu

Devdatt Pattanaik

Westland Press

Pages 219 each

The complexities of Hindu thought have had many interpreters. Mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik’s two `Secrets’ are another attempt to extrapolate on the Hindu gods, Shiva and Vishnu. Though nothing new is said, a brief decoction of myths in this time-crunching age is a worthwhile read. Possibly Pattanaik’s training as a medical doctor  brings an incisiveness to the stories he tells; why Shiva is also Bholenath or Vishnu Balarama. Each book of 7 stories,  reflect upon the human frailties of anger, folly, lust, jealousy etc., within godly nature, surmising the  natural world of their creation  is but a reflection of their own virtues and vices.

Pattanaik  applies  a western  academic writing style, replete with reasoning,  logic and referencing, to the exhaustive Hindu narrative tradition. The result is a  `ready reckoner’ for both lay and informed readers. Attractive blurbs and captions accompany  illustrations and photos appropriate  for our  madly rushed world where  Dadi’s sonorous recitations of the Mahabharata and Ramayana shlokas is absent in most homes. Yet philosophical traditions  must be carried forward—hence new formats.

My own first reading of  Pattanaik came with `Devi Mahatya’– a wonderful guide to the mysteries of the `Devi’. Since then the author has produced 15 such books on Hindu gods. Of the seven secrets of `Shiva’, the first deals with `Lingeshwara’, which stresses the importance of  imagination– the key that separates human form from the animal world. Godhead is formless and the phallic symbol, or `linga’, presents  a mixture of male/ female natures; flaccid it indicates an unstirred mind, while erect it is a mind fired by imagination which enables us to challenge the laws of nature, withdraw from them, or even `break free’ leading to liberation or `moksha’.

The story of `Bhairav’  elucidates that fear is the root of  all corruption.  True, many of these stories are allegories of life as we know it. The avatar of `Shankara’ states  without empathy there can be no evolution, while `Bholenath’ asserts that culture is human delusion and brings out the innocence of `Shiva of the pure mind’. Then there are the myths of Ganesha, Murugan,  and Nataraj’s   Tandava dance. However it is the story of Bramha, Vishnu and the unending `pillar of fire’- Shiva – which forms the crux of this book and its exposition of Hindu philosophy.

Mythologies and legends are purported to be man’s attempt to make sense of his world. They give shape and substance to his imagination and define moral codes writes James George Frazer author of the seminal work, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion.  Some, as in Greek mythology, also form the basis of several  European civilizations.

Pattanaik’s  second offering, Secrets of Vishnu follow a similar pattern. The philosophical concepts of Maya, Prakriti, the conflict between Lakshmi (wealth) and Saraswati (learning), are explored. Pattanaik recounts the restlessness of Lakshmi and how over the ages the Devas, Asuras and the Gods,   tried to hold her  but it was only Vishnu who succeeded.

It starts with `Mohini’—a story that reflects spiritual growth need not exclude material growth. It is  followed by  Manu and the celestial fish `Matsya’ that explains  that it is only humans who can empathize and exploit. The myth of `Kurma’ tells  how wealth eludes the insecure and `Trivikarmian’ states that ignorance breeds insecurity and arrogance.  To know `Krishna’ is to know your thought behind action while `Rama’ explains to outgrow the beast is to know the divine. Lastly there is `Kalki’ which allows all things to wane.

It is this  recognition of the complexities of the sensory world combined with the consciousness of the metaphysical that make up the wholeness and sophistication of Hindu philosophy.

Manju Kak