Thursday, April 14, 2016

408: First Impressions: My Gita by Devdutt Pattanaik

When you start reading the book, you wonder about an interesting 'What-if' situation. What if Krishna had recited the Gita to Arjuna in the way Pattanaik has described it here? Chances are that there would have been no war. Everybody would have dozed off or Arjuna would have shot himself in the foot due to sheer exasperation.

But none of that happened. So I'll move on with my thoughts on the book.

The book begins with Pattanaik giving a brief overview of what the Gita is. (It's a song sermon, if you will, that Krishna gave Arjuna when Arjuna lost nerve while battling his family. It's an important text because it condenses some of the most important concepts of Hinduism and outlines a framework in which you can apply it.) Pattanaik then goes on to specify, rather elaborately, why the book is called 'My Gita' and not 'Gita'. It's his interpretation and therefore personal. He sees Gita as a treatise on how we interact with the world. This social dimension is as important as the commonly understood theme of 'self' development. Basically, 'My Gita' tells us what it is to be with others instead of the spiritual navel-gazing that other variations of the book may proffer.

But for all the democracy that the author wants to infuse, he sure pushes forth his ideas rather autocratically. So much so, that 'gita' becomes 'Gita' and that becomes 'My Gita' in the latter parts of the book. The capitalization is an interesting indicator of just how close Pattanaik is to his ideas and just how much he wants us to be on his side. (Or that may be my understanding of the book.)

There is also much contrasting of the Eastern open, meandering philosophy to the rigid, structured Western philosophy. Which would all be well and good if they didn't also come with some very simple, crude diagrams which are funny and paradoxical. Oh, and the long, long treatise on paradox!

What I found disconcerting is the dismissiveness of the traditions that have propagated monastic principles - like Buddhism. What I got from the book is this notion that Hinduism is a superior religion because it shows you a path to God even if you're a householder. This is not something that Buddhism or Jainism propagate. (To digress a bit: Buddhism for me has been about the message that you alone are enough. A lot of traditions insist on relying on a guru or a teacher to take you further. The guru shows you the way and makes it easier for your spiritual growth to occur. But until you find your guru, you flounder and therefore, you must seek. Buddha didn't have a guru. He was driven. He sat and meditated and he got enlightened.)

And Hinduism, frankly, explained through this book seems endless - a desert you have to drag your feet through. I felt like flipping across pages to get to nuggets about the war. But no. 'My Gita' will slowly take you through every turn of thought in Devdutt Pattanaik's mind before you can lift your finger and flip a page. (The first 50 pages seriously feels like a work out.) A lot of the themes have already been covered in the author's earlier works. So the repetitiveness didn't help either. In all honesty, I started feeling like I was reading a printed 'Goodreads' compilation of all of Pattanaik's work.

If this is your first Devdutt Pattanaik book, then I'm guessing you'll be impressed with it. Because he is impressive in the cogent way he even gives timelessness (or the sense of eternity) a historical context. He's gifted like that.

However, the book comes together towards the end. The pace picks up. Things start getting more lucid. You start seeing a pattern. Then the pattern seems beautiful. And then the beauty sets you free.

Maybe that's the point...of the author, of the book, of our lives.

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