“There is no one world, different eyes create different ones. And the mismatch creates the soup of experience” - Author
From Indian mythology to Greek mythology, author Devdutt Pattanaik in his book Olympus: An Indian Retelling of the Greek Myths reverses the gaze magnificently through the lenses of ancient Indian tales. Interestingly, this time the writer has shed some light on the tales of the West, amidst several western scholars and writers writing about India and her tales. The book begins with Greek creation myths moving on to the story of Titans, Olympians through the semi-divine human heroes and their vivid enigmatic description, touching the realms of ancient divine history.
The writer holds the narrative together and imagines a conversation between Alexander the great and a gymnosophist during his Indian expedition. As a historical human hero who believed he was the son of god and destined for Olympus, Alexander is the perfect narrator. He connects the worlds of History and mythology often diminishing the lines. Besides, all ancient cultures come with certain myths, however, Greek mythology arouses a special interest as Greece is often considered the cradle of western civilization.
The book aims to compare and contrast the Greek and Indian myths. In pointing out conceptual equivalents such as Hermaphroditus and Ardhanarishvara, Eros and Kama, Zeus and Indra, Dionysus and Shiva, or Heracles and Krishna, the author manifests our similarities amidst peculiarities. Moreover, he does not confine to Hindu mythology but goes on further to bring elements of folk religion, Jainism, Buddhism, Christianity and even ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian myths.
Above all, the author has written a lucid cultural history of the world. Suffice it to say, that he presents a case for cross-cultural exchange that has gone on from bygone. Throughout the book, it is apparent how Alexander’s numerous conquests opened the floodgates for these exchanges. This became evident in the swapping of storytelling templates. Greek models in the Hindu Puranas, Puranic stories in Iran, or Egyptian tales in Greece; the amalgamation is ubiquitous and complete with enigmatic illustrations.
The paradox is what we think of sunlight as probably another part of cave. Perhaps, the cave is a labyrinth that one can never leave and we keep imagining that my portion of cave is sunlight and there is vast symposium and argument that may be the cave is vast and bright. Until we realize there is no sun and may be the sun is inside, awaiting discovery while we are searching outside and this is the way Indian story tellers talk about the cave, an entirely unique way of looking at things, the god who sits inside the cave, and the wise man gets into it. He is inside labyrinth that is where wisdom resides, not outside.
The book throws light on how the old god Cronus eats his own son, Saturday eating the week time. One thing apparent in Greek mythology is old gods the titans who eat and consume and Olympians.
The Olympians overpowered the old gods, the titans unlike the way Greeks would imagine. The author has imagined it as Hindu god symmetrical with gestures of vairagya mudra ‘I will give you what you want’. In Bharatnatyam dance, holding the thunderbolt the new gods defeat old gods and are uncomfortable with future god (humans). They are terrified with future gods in the form of humans. Early translations of Hindu mythology depicted the conflict between devas and asuras (demons). But, however, the asuras were the old gods.
The structure didn’t work as it was linear, in which the old god tries to eat the new generation but the next generation triumphs. It’s about triumph of the younger generation.
In Oedipus philosophy, it works the other way, as the older generation prevails. The idea of an angry god who can punish you is not quite fitting in puranic stricture. On the contrary, the idea of a judgemental god is not there in Hindu mythology. Significantly, Indians believe in Karma, where fate is determined as one lives. Action creates reaction which is the real punishment.
Pattanaik also marks several names derived from Greeks that are used in the fields of astrology, geography, sports, popular culture and even technology.
In this book, there is always an intervention of gods to create extraordinary beings. Pointedly, Hero as a concept does not exist in Hindu mythology. The most striking part is that the Greek story structure revolves around chaos and order. Cave with shadows is chaos, ignorance and absence of reason because you are subjected to mythos of other people until you leave the cave and come to sunlight out of shadows towards knowledge. There is linearity in the narrative. What were shadows to a philosopher was chaos to a bard. What was sunlight to a philosopher was cosmos to a bard.
If there was a difference between the Greek Philosopher and the Greek bard it was this, the former shared what he understood whereas the latter simply transmitted what he received. But neither really abandoned the finite linear structure from chaos to order, from shadows to sunlight, from here
Philosophy Vs Mythology
Interestingly, Greek mythology has always been at loggerheads with Abrahamic mythology which forms the basis of Judaic, Christian and Islamic faiths. Greek mythology placed greater values on individual contemplation of nature and culture while Abrahamic mythology demands submission to supernatural force. Abrahamic mythology speaks of wilderness of false gods and instead of cosmos, it speaks of the Promised Land of one true God of Abraham. If Greek mythology is about destination, adventure and discovery, Abrahamic mythology is about frustrated adventurers returning to a lost home. The struggle between these two finite linear mythologies Greek and Abrahamic shapes much of Western thought. Modern secular thought is just an avatar of Greek mythology and philosophy and this becomes evident as we see western history as a series of attempts to define what constitutes shadows and what constitutes sunlight, many gods, one god or no god. The west here refers to the world that stretches from Persia and Arabia through Mesopotamia and Mediterranean to Europe and now America.
The ancient Greeks believed in Polis (city states) not empires, in democracy, not monarchy, in consensus, not authority and in heroes who will hold their own before capricious and whimsical gods. Greek art was individualistic and realistic, seeking to mimic reality. The west dismisses the Indic worldview as chaos, thus closing its mind to any new possibility but its own. There are many books by western scholars that explain Hindu mythology but very few by Indian scholars that bother to observe western mythology. This book is an attempt to bridge the gap.
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