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Olympus by Devdutt Pattanaik – A Review

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The elegant front cover features an illustration of the Trojan Horse. There is another interesting image on the back cover ― this one of Atlas bearing the world on his shoulders. The blurb ends with the tantalizing words: ‘Long have Europeans and Americans retold Indic mythologies. It is time for Indians to reverse the gaze.’ These glimpses of what lies inside induce the reader to pick up ‘Olympus – An Indian Retelling of the Greek Myths’ by Devdutt Pattanaik, published by Penguin. And the book lives up to its promise, revealing itself to be a veritable treasure house of intriguing tales and incisive analysis of Greek myths. Pattanaik also juxtaposes Greek tales with parallels from Roman and Indian tales, highlighting the similarities and differences that make the stories more relevant to us.

Some of the characters he writes about are familiar ― Zeus, Hera, Artemis, Apollo, Oedipus, Poseidon, Hermes, Circe and Helen. Zeus, the king of the gods rules in Olympus and wields the thunderbolt, much like our Indra. But he rides the eagle and is the protector of the universe like Vishnu. Zeus and his brothers divide the cosmos between themselves. Zeus rules the sky, Poseidon the seas and Hades the underworld. We remember that our Puranas talk about the three realms too: Bhu-loka, Swarga-loka and Patala-loka.

But there are a host of other characters we have not heard of as well. To give an example: The beautiful Leto captures the interest of Zeus and becomes pregnant. Jealous Hera, Zeus’ wife, invokes a monster, the Python, to devour her. Leto finds shelter with her sister and gives birth to the twins Apollo and Artemis. The newborns raise their bows and shoot arrows that kill Python. Much like our own Karthikeya, says Pattanaik, for Shiva’s son kills Tarakasura within days of his birth. Again, their gods, like ours, fall prey to lust and envy, ambition and greed. But what seems to be lacking in them is a desire to reform or to draw lessons from their travails.

Just as there are similarities, there are differences too between Western and Hindu lore. Pattanaik highlights their belief that ‘the world is in need of changing, either by Greek heroes, or by Abrahamic prophets and kings, or by scientists, activists and capitalists. Indic mythology presents the idea that the world is constantly changing, human intervention notwithstanding.’ He also emphasizes that Indic mythologies do not follow the linear structure of Western philosophers but a cyclical one.

Maybe Pattanaik will delve deeper into a few selected stories and characters in a later book and bring out the Greek world view and philosophy. That would be an interesting read!

While we dip into Pattanaik’s book, we cannot help but ponder on how people everywhere are the same. And yet so different.

Olympus is a must read for all those who are interested in mythology. Exuberant tales peppered with beautiful illustrations. This one is for your library!

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