Devdutt Pattanaik’s “Olympus: A Retelling of Greek Myths”: Recasting and Recontextualising the Western Classical in terms of the Eastern Classical canon
Widely regarded as one of the most influential and popular mythologists of today’s India, Devdutt Pattanaik is a crucial figure on the Indian non-fiction and fiction landscape today. He has the distinction of being proficient in Indian mythology and epics, and, as his latest book, Olympus: A Retelling of Greek Myths, shows, an exponent of the Western Classical canons of literature and mythology.
By situating the unfamiliar within the familiar, Pattanaik does a great service to his primarily Indian audience, who are voracious consumers of his books on Indian mythology. The title is a fairly accurate representation of the contents of the book, but one place where he broadens his horizons is locating Antigone, a Greek tragedy by Sophocles, (he recognises this as such), in his zeitgeist of Indo-Greek myths.
Accompanying the book, however, is an equally remarkable series of videos that give readers a unique insight into Devdutt’s mind, and how he links two traditions that are so far, yet so close, in a manner that would stand a fair amount of academic scrutiny. To an Indian audience largely unfamiliar with the myths of nations across the sea, it helps that it is being grounded in a tradition and context that most Indians partake in, regardless of their religion. The book serves as an essential, almost needed, introduction to the Greco-Roman myths, and to a whole new world of classical literature. While it is not exhaustive in nature, a revolutionary feat of this magnitude is able serve as an essential starting point.
One of the largest issues that surround Indian authors when they write about Hindu mythology is their inability to reconcile their personal beliefs and an objective, academic outlook. To Devdutt’s credit, he manages to reconcile these two aspects, and churn out a book that reflects his passion and is guided by an effective use of logos, and minimises the role of pathos.
However, this book is not solely a study of similarities and differences between Greek and Indian myths. In another revolutionary step for mainstream Indian literature, Devdutt goes into the epistemology of the knowledge that he uses to connect the tales (read excerpt here). The emphasis, again, is placed on the derivation of the opinion presented, and not just on the opinion. By connecting the implications of his knowledge with different areas of knowledge and ways of knowing, he establishes himself as an intellectual powerhouse in an unforeseen way.
Science focuses on facts and with more facts and more ways to make sense of them, scientific truth expands. Religious truth, however, remains static. Naturally, with scientific facts challenging fundamental assumptions about the material world, religious truth failed to satisfy. So scientists turned to Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle for answers.
— Devdutt Pattanaik, Olympus: An Indian Retelling of the Greek Myths
By attempting to reconcile science and mythology, and explaining the historical relations between them, he clearly attempts to break down a false dichotomy that has existed for the significant part of the last century and the current one in India. Indian atheism is marked by a deference to science, and Indian religion, in many cases, marked by a diminishing of science and creation of fatuous scientific theory. His reconciliation of the two, again, using knowledge about knowledge (epistemology), reflects a nuanced and layered understanding of mythology and knowledge, that is lacking throughout a wide spectrum of Indian literature.
Olympus: An Indian Retelling of the Greek Myths establishes Pattanaik as a cross-culture exponent on knowledge and epistemology, while adding to his expertise in the Indian myths. He presents a book that audiences not just in India, but all over the world, must read.