Mythology, Selfhood, and Cultural Diversity: A Conversation with Devdutt Pattanaik

Our blog post this week is a transcription of part of a recent recorded discussion between Indian mythologist Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik, our Founding Editor Craig Chalquist, and Editorial Board Member Hannah Custis. If you would like to hear the entire hour recording we are offering a link to it as a bonus for subscribing to Immanence Journal by October 31, 2016, the date our first issue comes out.

Craig Chalquist: In mythological studies there’s a lot of contested definitions about what is a myth. So I’d love to hear you say, when you say “myth,” what do you mean?

Devdutt Pattanaik: So myth for me is the study of stories, symbols, and rituals which communicate a community’s truth. This is important. It has to be a community’s truth. How large, how small, current community, past community, future community – that doesn’t matter. So for example, if I were to go to an island and suddenly there’s a tribe there. How do these people look at the world? The only way I will understand how they look at the world, what are their notions of life, death, or meaning comes from, their notion of property, valor, anything that we humans value – which is not part of the animal kingdom – comes from these stories, these symbols, these rituals. They help me understand.

That is why I would spend hours if I were an anthropologist observing their rituals. And that’s what people really do. That’s what people did in the 19th century, 18th century, 17th century, when they encountered new places and new tribes. They tried to understand their language, they tried to understand their stories, their symbols, and they tried to figure out why? What are they thinking? Of course the problem then was that they wanted to correct. They wanted to bring it to a “normative” structure, to a “normative” narrative, which they assumed there was only one narrative of the human world.

Today we don’t belong in that world. Luckily because of post-modern studies. And that plays a very important role – deconstruction, Nietzsche, Foucault, Derrida, Marx … These have forced us to question. Question intention. And for mythology that enables me to see the mind of a people. We can also apply it to individuals. So the architecture of your mind is revealed through the stories, symbols, and rituals that you follow. Therefore some people took it to an individual level. Freud took it to an individual level. Jung took it to an individual level.

But we can also look at it from any organizational level. And that’s what I study. So if somebody tells me – you know we use this word casually – “Oh, he’s so American.” Well, what does it mean? Let’s break it down. Let’s figure out what are the American stories, what are the symbols and rituals, what a parent transfers to the child, often unconsciously. So the rituals are important. For example, sitting in India, I look at America and I see they seem to take prom very seriously. What is prom? Why is prom so important? How do I know this? I’ve never come to your country – I see it in every story. Every teenage story will have a prom as if it’s the earth-shattering event of your life, so I say “Oh, that’s an important rite of passage.” Note to myself: “Prom is important.” So is it really? I don’t know. The story is forcing you to look at the culture as okay, the rite of passage is prom. The rite of passage is the cheerleading team and the football team.

These are things, the norms that keep emerging when I hear American stories. They keep coming again and again and again. I keep noticing stories of Marvel. You know, the superhero stories. They don’t have to be supernatural; they can be even regular storytelling. You know, stories like the Westerns. They are very popular. They were popular. Today you have superheroes. So Western cowboys are replaced today by superheroes. The shift in storytelling tells me something has shifted in America. What has shifted in America? So I’m able to access the American mind through the story, the symbols. Why have they used this flag? Why is this flag so important? Why was the bald eagle chosen? Why did they not choose a bandicoot, or a rat? Why that bird? What does it reveal about the mind? Why is the First Amendment so important? What’s so special? Every tribe doesn’t have that.

So when I start looking, I am able to understand America. Because as I go closer to America, I realize there’s no one narrative – there are many, many little narratives inside. The grand narrative from far away becomes splintered into multiple micro-units. And then I come closer still and I see that every city has its own narrative. And when I meet an individual – so I’m talking right now to you. If I were to spend time with you, I would start observing, “Hey, you keep repeating a story all the time. You keep following a particular ritual all the time.” A ritual can be that every morning you get up at a particular time, go to play golf at a particular time. Why is he doing that? Then the symbols that you follow. What are the colors that you wear all the time? Why do you choose to wear these colors? How does that reveal your personal myth?

So myth for me is subjective truth. That’s the key word – subjective. We sort of overturn the applecart. Subjectivity is very important.


Visit Devdutt’s website at

Artwork copyright Devdutt Pattanaik. Used with permission.

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