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Observers and Observation

Every year the Ram-lila is performed in the Gangetic plains. Every year the Mahabharata is enacted in the villages of North Tamil Nadu. Every year the nativity play is staged in churches across the world at Christmas time. Every year the same story is told again and again. Yet, no one finds it boring.

Devdutt Pattanaik
Illustration/Devdutt Pattanaik

For as the years pass, the audience changes, matures and they receive the same story differently. What seemed exciting during childhood and tedious in youth, becomes necessary, even wise, in maturity. What changes is not what is being said but what is being heard.

A key theme underlying Indian thought is that observers create observation. Simply put, it means that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. We see what we want to see. A good illustration of this is some of the emails I get to my articles and books.

I started writing mythology in around 1996 and after 16 years have over 400 articles and 25 books to my credit. But the response to them has had me bewildered. Here is a sample of some of the responses over the past eight years, and observe how mutually contradictory some of them are, often to the same webpage post or book:

“You have opened my eyes to the world of mythology.”
“You are a fraud and know nothing about Santana Dharma.”
“You are a Right-wing Hindu fundamentalist disguised as an intellectual.”
“You are a pseudo-secularist with no knowledge of the truth.”
“How dare you write about my religion?”
“You are a seer, my guru.”
“You are a fraud.”
“Do you even know Sanskrit?”
“I don’t think you know anything about mythology.”
“Why do you call Hinduism mythology?”
“You are a Westernised Orientalist who makes Indians look bad.”
“You make me proud to be Indian.”
“Your thoughts are deep and intellectually stimulating.”
“Are you trying to demystify God?”
“You are deeply spiritual.”
“Are you religious?”
“Do you believe in God or are you saying it is all myth?”
“Your theories are all warped.”
“Your theories finally helped me make sense of life.”
“You are promoting the caste system and patriarchy.”

As you read these emails, ranging from the delightful to the disgusting, you wonder about the complexities of communication. What you say versus what is heard, what you write versus what is read. Every member of the audience filters everything through the sieve of their own imagination. What is read passes through a lens of prejudice and so what is ultimately received is a very different version of what you actually say, not always close to what you wish to say.

In such a world, what is the truth? Is my truth the truth? Is the respondent’s truth the truth? Is there the truth at all? Is the intention of the writer superior to the interpretation of the reader? Is there a correct interpretation out there? Is every interpretation true and correct and equal to other interpretation? Who judges?

The appreciation of the subjectivity of human thoughts lead to many Indian philosophies such as the Jain syada-vaad (doctrine of doubt) and anekanta-vada (doctrine of plurality) and Buddhist shunya-vaad (doctrine of nothingness) and the Hindu maya-vaad (doctrine of delusion). At its heart is the idea that objectivity is elusive. We have to live in a world of multiple interpretations and multiple, even cruel and unfair, judgments.

The author is Chief Belief Officer of the Future Group, and can be reached at devdutt@devdutt.com
The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper. 

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