Short Book Review: Shiva to Shankara and Shikhandi and Other Tales They Don’t Tell you by Devdutt Pattanaik
SBR: I am reviewing two books together because I read them not more than a month apart and they are both about Indian mythology from the same author. In both the books the collection of mythological stories are good. If you have grown up hearing Indian stories, some of them will be familiar. But Dr. Pattanaik, true to his vocation as a mythologist, collects them from many different sources; so you are likely to find stuff that’s new to you, or at least a variation on what you have heard.
What doesn’t work in both the books is the part that I expected to find scholarly. In Shiva to Shankara: Decoding the Phallic Symbol, the historical changes happening in the society and the stories being added to the Shiva canon are treated equivalent. It is good poetry and makes for a nice read, but doesn’t help in “decoding the phallic symbol” in a satisfactory fashion. The author’s philosophy is to treat mythological truths no different from other kinds of subjective truths (historical truths, for example, which can’t be always accurate, but which historians and archaeologists go to great lengths to try to prove or disprove). I appreciate the sentiment, accept the importance of mythology, I know the truth is almost always subjective, but don’t like the conflation of the two kinds of truths (if I am allowed to have different kinds that is).
Shikhandi and Other Tales They Don’t Tell You has to be appreciated simply for its subject matter. The author has drawn attention to the issue of queerness through the Indian mythological stories where gender and sexual identities are often fluid, without any apparent discomfort to the society. It points to a much more liberal tradition in our country than what we have today. But in the introductory chapters and in the footnotes after each story (which are sometimes longer than the stories themselves), he gives scholarly inputs and interpretation, which are often careless generalizations and simplifications. Having read about some of them from other sources, I know that I can’t trust him to even try to be objective there or to not twist perspectives to fit his pre-decided, resonant narrative.
To read or not to read: Read for the stories, but keep your judgmental antenna up on the parts that deal with history, philosophy or interpretation of the stories.