The thing about myths is that they aren’t just stories. Of course they are memorable, imaginative stories and that’s why we remember them and pass them on from generation to generation. But that’s not all. Myths have messages, ideas and thoughts that a culture finds important, and rather than stating these important things in bland, uninteresting terms, a myth weaves a story that brings them to life. Then there’s the symbolism. Most bodies of mythology don’t just tell a surface story; there are so many levels to what is going on and everything, including the appearance of the characters, has a meaning. Myths are interconnected — after some time you start seeing how all the myths and legends of a culture have common ideas and even characters or incidents. In short, mythical stories are not just individual stand-alone narratives but are part of a rich, complex weave. Nowhere is this truer than in India, where a living body of mythology, legend and folklore is still alive and a part of millions of people’s lives.
We have many sources of standalone mythical stories, such as the evergreen Amar Chitra Katha comics, which will always be a wonderful institution like no other. But there was something about a kind old granny or grandpa telling you more than just the mere story — like why the gods have banners and what the different hands of Saraswati are for.
Or they would branch off from one story to another on the most tenuous of tangents, and of course they would be sure to tell you what it really meant to have to churn an ocean of milk and first get poison before getting the nectar of immortality. Myth with meaning is an ocean of tales and ideas and lessons.
That’s what makes Devdutt Pattanaik’s books on myth so special. He has written scores of books , unpacking stories, the symbolism and meaning of the icons of Indian myth. His books on the Ramayana and Mahabharata are like handbooks of mythology and meaning, full of little asides and explanations, their connections to other things and even their significance in shaping the psyche of modern Indians.
And the really good news is that Pattanaik has also been writing books for younger readers. Pashu, his latest offering, is all about animals in our myths. Snakes guarding gems, a dog who follows a hero to heaven, the consequences of killing a deer and stories told by crows. It’s just amazing how many animal stories there are in there and I learnt a lot about new things, such as about Shashthi, a goddess who protects children, loves cats and is often depicted as a woman with a cat’s head! Divided into sections for animals that fly, animals with hooves, strange animals that fit no category and so on, it also delves into the conflict between humans and animals and the need for balance and harmony. You’ll meet familiar characters like Rama, Sita and Duryodhan and see them in a new light and you will come away with a new appreciation for the infinite variety of mythological stories. If you’ve loved this book, there’s more. Pattanaik also has a series of books under the collective titles of Fun in Devlok. Each volume focuses on one of the gods or goddesses, such as Indra, Krishna or Saraswati, and through a story tells us their tales that give us valuable insight. For example, there’s one where no less than Shiva joins a game of dumb charade being played by five children and ends up teaching them more than a few lessons on myth and life.
Chatty, not at all preachy, and fun to read, these books are some of the best of their kind today. Pick one up soon and prepare to dive deep into the sea of stories.