7 Secrets of Vishnu by Devdutt Pattanaik
Well, to begin with, I am happy to be among the chosen ten to review the latest book by Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik. So, thank you BlogAdda!
For those who haven’t heard of Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik, he is India’s renowned mythologist and has penned several books, like: Myth = Mithya, The Pregnant King, Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata, 7 Secrets of Shiva, 7 Secrets from Hindu Calendar Art, among others. Actually he wears many hats – that of author, speaker, illustrator and mythologist – and is a medical doctor by training, a marketing manager by profession and a mythologist by passion.
7 Secrets of Vishnu attempts to unravel the mysteries and secrets of Shri Vishnu – one of the Hindu Trinity (trimurti) who is essentially known to be the preserver, the balancer or the sustainer.
I have not read any of the author’s previous books and therefore I went about reading this one with a clean slate – unaware of how much about Shri Vishnu he has already revealed, rather explained in his earlier books.
Book Summary of 7 Secrets Of Vishnu: It is significant that the stories of Vishnu rose to prominence after the rise of Buddhism. Prior to that, Hinduism was the religion of the elite-based complex rituals known as yagna and esoteric speculations captured in texts known as the Aranyakas and the Upanishads. These seemed very distant to the common man who focused on fertility rituals, worship of plants and animals and nature.
To help readers unravel the secrets of Vishnu, the chapters have been arranged as below:
* The first chapter focuses on how gender is used to explain fundamental metaphysical concepts integral to Hinduism.
* The second chapter discusses the difference between man and animal.
* The third and fourth chapters focus on the Devas and the Asuras, both of whom are unhappy, as one struggles with insecurity and the other with Ambition.
The fifth and sixth chapters revolve around the Ramayana and Mahabharata, as man struggles with his humanity.
The seventh chapter is about the wisdom of letting go, with faith in renewal.
Frankly, this is not a quick, breezy read that one can curl up with and read for fun or entertainment purposes. Do not expect to skim through the book coz this is no cursory read. It demands your full attention and is worth every bit of it. One needs to pay attention, visualize as well as exercise one’s gray cells – simultaneously – in order to fully grasp what the author has tried to convey.
Devdutt has tried to explain several things; words, events and aspects that we may be quite familiar with, yet may not be aware of or understand very well or perhaps are unaware of their full significance. These are: Vishnu, Brahma, Prakriti, Purusha, Brahmanda, Maya, Maha-Maya, Yoga-Maya, Yoga-nidra, Atma, Paramatma, jiva-atma, Narad Muni and his nature (which is akin to that of a gossipmonger or that of any popular tabloid, I dare say), Shiva, Mohini, Lakshmi, Panchajana, Pralaya, Garuda, Matsya, Kurma, Varaha, Adi-Ananta-Sesha, Balarama, Varna-dharma, Shri Ram, Shri Krishna, Hanuman, Kalki, pravritti-marga, nivritti-marga, Buddha-avatar, various symbols, Vadavagni, Hayagriva and many more.
He also explains various mythological stories that we have heard sitting on our grandparents’ lap or courtesy Uncle Pai and his Amar Chitra Katha: Rishi Durvasa and Indra, Samudramanthan, Devas, Ashuras, Nagas, Prahalad and Holika, Hiranayaksha and Hiranakashipu, Krishna-Yashoda, Ramayan, Mahabharat, Yayati, the killing of Kamsa, other stories, symbols, rituals and the like.
The book perhaps consciously uses black and white renditions of stone, brass and wood carving, temple art and wall sculpture, painting including miniature painting, mural, calendar art and clay dolls, so as not to distract the reader from what is being conveyed through the text.
The book also feels good to hold and the cover art is very attractive. Hindu households often have calendars with images of their favorite gods and goddesses. And so does temples with their intricately carved walls and painted ceilings and murals. But what do these images signify? Only a handful take a keen interest and stop by to have a closer look and are perhaps aware of their significance … to an extent, that is. Most “see” them but do not “notice,” let alone think; busy as they are posing and clicking pictures or elbowing out others to have a better “view” of god. Hindu mythology is as vivid as it gets, and the more you read about it the more intrigued you are. 7 Secrets of Vishnu employs art as a metaphor to unravel several myths and interesting tales from that treasure-trove.
I must say that the author is very crisp, precise, informative and imaginative in his narration. The book makes for a very interesting read indeed. But do I agree? Well, I would like to reserve my opinion on that one.
I will not reveal the author’s thoughts and explanations in detail and play the spoiler. That is something I will not do. So if you want to know more, go ahead, get hold of this book and read all you can!
And here’s my two pence: As we all know … a weak spine cannot support a strong and righteous mind. So, whether Buddhism and its (excessive?) message of peace and renunciation weakened our spines and left us vulnerable to all sorts of marauding hordes from the east and the west is for us to ponder and wonder.
The day we can answer that one, we will be back on track.
One cannot renounce (tyag) anything unless and until one has experienced it (bhog).
Hinduism on the other hand has space for both – the active and the renouncer.
The verse “gnanayogena saankhyaanaam, karmayogena yoginaam” comes before “Karmanye Vadhikaraste Ma Phaleshu Kadachana, Ma Karma Phala Hetur Bhurmatey Sangostva Akarmani” in the Srimad Bhagavat Gita – universally renowned as the jewel of India’s spiritual wisdom.
It means, “People who already have a meditative bent of mind can take up renunciation, while the rest of the folks (including Arjun) who are yet to have that mind set are better off taking to an active lifestyle.”
“Dvividha nishtha” or the 2-fold path is not exclusive of “Karm Yog” – the art and science of achieving perfection in action.
People who already have a meditative bent of mind can take up renunciation – that is their Karm Yog.
While the rest of the folks (including Arjun) who are yet to have that mind set are better off taking to an active lifestyle – that is their Karm Yog.
Hinduism – was never envisaged as a ‘religion’ as we understand today. It was an accumulation of the wisdom of the ancients over the ages. This faith was a ‘way of life’ and the stress was on ‘dharm’ meaning ‘the path of righteousness and doing one’s duty no matter what obstacles appear’. Today ‘dharm’ has become ‘dharma’ and is automatically taken to mean ‘religion’.
The word ‘religion’ never existed in this ancient Vedic faith, called “Sanatan Dharm”. ‘Sanatan’ means ‘ancient’ and ‘Dharm,’ refers to ‘righteousness’. ‘Dharm’ did not mean ‘religion’ as we think or know it today. It was given the colour of religion by later day interpreters who either misunderstood the words/phrases or did not have adequate phonetics/words/vocabulary in their language. Or maybe willfully misinterpreted it.
I think the ancient Persians called the people living east of the Indus River (Sindhu Nad) as “Hindu” since they could not pronounce the Sanskrit “Sindhu” in their language. Then came the Greeks (especially Alexander the Great) who too could not pronounce “Sindhu” in their language, and so called them “Hindu” instead. That is how the people of this land began to be known as “Hindu”.
Something akin to ‘Shammi Kapoor’ becoming ‘Shami Kaboor’ in Iraq, ‘people’ becoming ‘beoble’ in Egypt and ‘Kapaleshwar’ becoming ‘Kabaleshwar’ in Tamil.
Hinduism is not a religion such as Christianity or Islam since the particular ‘ism’ did not have a single founder nor is it a cult movement to unite people under a single founder.
The people of India/Bharatvarsh or the so-called “Hindus” followed a pattern of life that was unique. They believed in a Single Supreme being in whom all the Power and Energy of the Universe resides and also from which it emanates much like the source of a river.
They believed that this Power and Energy could be broadly branched: Brahma – the Creator, Vishnu – the Preserver and Shiv – the Destroyer.
This region – large parts of India and places as far west and north as modern-day Afghanistan and Xinjiang, had become entirely Buddhist. By the sixth century or so this Buddhism had also become adulterated with diverse forms of animism, occult practices, promiscuity, and the like, something in the nature of what is known in Hinduism as “vamachara” and had degenerated into a loose faith. The great Sankaracharya (Sri Adi Shankaracharya) set out on foot from faraway Kerala to set right this state of affairs and in a short life of only 32 years got the country firmly back into the Hindu fold. It is possible that the great Acharya could not reach the eastern parts of pre-independence Bengal because of the relative inaccessibility of the delta. In fact the delta of Eastern Bengal (now Bangladesh) is known in legend as “Pandava Varjita Desha” – the land that even the Pandavas avoided. The population here therefore remained Buddhist-Animist, and easily converted to Islam when the marauders from the west came to Bengal. Extensive ruins of Buddhist monasteries are found at Paharpur and Mahasthangarh in the northern parts of present-day Bangladesh. The Buddhist teacher and pandit – Dipankar Srigyan (Atiśa Dipankara, Shrijnana) had set out from a village called Bajrajogini (in Bikram Pur) near Dhaka to convert the whole of Tibet to Buddhism.
The ancient Tibetans were fierce warriors and were widely known for their skillful horsemanship. What Buddhism has done to Tibet and Tibetans – we are not unaware of.
Till today (or at least until recently) Hindu Bengalis, when they choose to be err … abusive, refer to Muslims by the term “Neray” (with a stress on the letter “r”; it is a diminutive of “Nyaraa,” meaning shaven-headed.) And a lot of Bengali Muslims do tonsure their heads – believed to be a custom inherited by them from the Buddhist viharas (monasteries) that their ancestors attended. All these bear eloquent testimony to the hold of Buddhism in erstwhile East Bengal.
My two pence but I digress.
My rating: Do I agree with the author’s thoughts and interpretations? Well, like I have already stated above, I would like to reserve my opinion on that one.
But is the book informative? Yes, it is. Interesting? Yes. It also holds your attention, makes you think and of course provides a different perspective on the stories, symbols, rituals and aspects that have been our staple diet for generations but of which there perhaps cannot be a single answer or interpretation.
I am going with a 4/5 for Devdutt Pattanaik’s latest offering.
Details of the book: 7 Secrets of Vishnu/ Author: Devdutt Pattanaik/ Publisher: Westland/ Edition: 2011/ Language: English/ ISBN: 9380658681/ ISBN-13: 9789380658681, 978-9380658681/ Bookbinding: Paperback/ Price: Rs. 250 (Rs. 163 on Flipkart)/ No. of pages: 219.
Photograph: The cover art of ’7 Secrets of Vishnu’. Picture courtesy: link.