Book Review | A brief history of God
To begin with, explaining three faiths in a few hundred pages is a humongous task. To do so from an “Indian” perspective is perhaps even more formidable. But Devdutt Pattanaik has done it, and the result is before us — an immensely readable retelling of stories from three influential faiths, illustrated profusely in Pattanaik’s unique style.
It’s also immensely provocative. The very name of the book raises questions. First, what is Jewish, Christian, and Islamic lore, and how is it different from the gospels of these faiths? Pattanaik sidesteps the question of why he uses “lore” instead of “scripture” or “gospel”. Lore, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, means “traditional knowledge and stories about a subject”. Pattanaik explores these faiths through stories from their scriptures, attempting, perhaps, to avoid offending the faithful.
And what does “Indian” mean in this context? Pattanaik explains that it is based on a point of view that includes Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism, all of which are capable of accepting alternative narrations of myth. He narrates the story of a Jain monk whose telling of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata was different from the local narrative. When the king demanded an explanation, the monk explained that the world goes through cycles of creation and destruction, and the same events happen in all these cycles but with minor differences. This acceptance of differences made the “Indian” faiths fundamentally more tolerant that the “monotheistic” Abrahamic faiths.
It’s worthwhile looking at the application of the meaning of the words “monotheistic” in this context. Of course, monotheistic means “believing in one God”, while polytheistic means “believing in many gods”. The key to understanding this lies in the difference between the meaning of “god” and “God”. The god Brahma in Hindu scriptural literature is very different from omnipotent, omniscient Yahweh in Judaism or God in Christianity or Allah in Islam. There is no equivalent for Yahweh/God/Allah in the three Indian faiths Pattanaik names: the closest we can get to it is perhaps the Hindu notion of the all-pervasive brahman, which is the fount of all existence. If we accept that brahman is the Hindu equivalent of the Abrahamic God, then Hinduism too becomes a monotheistic religion with many deities, including Brahma and Vishnu and Shiva and so on. In this understanding, a fundamental principle of Hinduism is that there are many ways to reach that God, so it’s no big deal accepting that some people have named their God Allah and pray to Him five times a day in Arabic, a vastly different practice from anything in Hinduism. Hinduism doesn’t deny the possibility of the existence of other gods, so a better label would be “henotheistic”, meaning believing in one god but not excluding the possibility of other gods. This is very different from Pattanaik’s argument that the core of tolerance in Indian faiths arises from the doctrine of rebirth, and hence multiple existences during which slightly different truths hold good.
Further, almost a sixth of India’s population follows the Abrahamic faiths, though the number of Jews is vanishingly small. There are also followers of other faiths, such as Sikhism — almost as numerous as Christians — and there’re a growing number of non-religious atheists. Given that, is it fair to include only Hinduism, Buddhism, and Jainism in the “Indian” point of view? Would it be better to use the word “Indic” instead, referring to faiths that originated in the Indian subcontinent? And even then, is the exclusion of Sikhism, for instance, appropriate?
Here’s what Pattanaik himself says about how he’s told the stories: “In this book, I have chosen to narrate these stories the way Indian parents tell sacred stories to their children: unselfconsciously, respectfully, but casually, fully aware of my prejudices, and fully accepting that a prejudice free story does not exist.”
To be fair, he’s done it with considerable success. His writing is unpretentious and simple. There are no explicit value judgments in the way that he tells a story. Even the story of Lot and his departure from Sodom before its destruction — is told without judgment. While I’m not sure what exactly Pattanaik means by “unselfconsciously”, I suspect he means “without taking oneself too seriously”.
And so to one of the most strikingly effective aspects of Pattanaik’s storytelling, the inserts with historical notes, connections with other stories and other faiths, and occasionally another story. For example, there is the story of Hud, a descendant of Noah who lived in a prosperous city of Aad where people worshipped false gods. When Hud told the people of the one true God, they ignored him. One day a great storm arose, blowing away the people and burying the city in sand. The notes tell of the Quranic version that speaks of a cloud that’s a storm cloud but the people think is a normal rain cloud. They also tell of a Jewish legend in which Solomon discovers a city that seems to have no gates. A 1,300-year-old eagle tells Solomon that his — the eagle’s — father spoke of such a city with its gate to the west. Solomon has the sand on that side removed, finds the gate, and enters the city. There he finds a statue under which is writing that “humbles the arrogant Solomon”, for it tells of the builder of the city, the master of a million kingdoms, great conqueror, who could not resist death…
While the stories themselves are from the Abrahamic faiths, the notes include notes on similarities with Indian faiths. For instance, the notes accompanying the story of Elijah challenging the priests of Asherah to “a contest of death [sic]”, a contest that Elijah wins. The accompanying notes mention the custom, at some Jewish circumcision rituals, of placing an empty chair for Elijah. This is similar to the North Indian Hindu custom of keeping a chair vacant for Hanuman at every reading of the Ramayana.
And in the Epilogue which covers Judgment day, is a debate, as there is in the beginning, illustrating the common elements of these faiths. The effect of all these stories and notes, combined with a table, at the beginning, containing a parallel chronology of the faiths, is that of an evolving tapestry of stories linked across populations, continents, and centuries.
One question remains unanswered. How did Pattanaik choose the stories that he presents? Does the choice of stories itself contain prejudices? There’s no way to tell.
Eden: An Indian Exploration of Jewish, Christian and Islamic Lore By Devdutt Pattanaik
Penguin Random House
pp. 276; Rs 599