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Human Arenas

, Volume 1, Issue 4, pp 386–395 | Cite as

A Different Way of Seeing the World

  • Devdutt Pattanaik
ARENA OF MYTH

Abstract

Western civilisation is generally presented as a journey from the world of many gods, to the world of one god, to the world of no god, i.e. from myth, to religion to science. This, we are told, is progress, the march of civilisation towards equality, hence Universal Human Rights, one that the rest of the world from Africa through India to China is expected to emulate. But is it? This paper asserts, but does not argue (for that would mean subscribing to the Western myth of one truth) that this view of the world is based on Western myth that tends to be universal, linear, singular, and objective-driven. There are other ways of seeing the world, shaped by different myths, the Indian myth, for example, that makes our worldview contextual, cyclical, plural and consequence-based (Pattanaik 2013a). Considering such non-Western worldviews will help the West realise how the West’s current conflict with immigrants is not modern, or unique, but timeless, an integral part of its worldview.

Keywords

Myth Mythology Linear Cyclical Culture Template Plurality Multiple lives Consequences of action Many truths 

Introduction

Nina Paley1 is a critically acclaimed award-winning American animator, atheist by choice, but respectful of her Jewish heritage, who believes in a copyright-free world. She is famous for two films, both based on mythology, freely available on the Internet, characterised by her simple yet evocative signature graphics that move to toe-tapping modern American music such as Jazz and Blues. The first film ‘Sita sings the Blues’2 was released in 2008 and is loosely based on the Hindu epic Ramayana. The second film ‘Seder-Masochism’3 was released in 2018 and is loosely based on the biblical tale of Exodus.

The same artist has created a work based on Hindu myth and Abrahamic myth. For the former she has been accused not only of cultural appropriation but also distorting a venerable Hindu epic using a Western lens (Lodhia 2015). For the latter, she has been admired mostly by the liberal press for retelling Abrahamic lore, revered by people of Jewish, Christian and Islamic faiths, using a feminist lens (Katz 2018; Mintzer 2018).

One can argue that as an artist she has right to express herself freely. One can also argue that it is politically correct to respect other people’s faith, and so while she can radically retell a Jewish faith, since she is Jewish, she cannot distort Hindu faith, since she is not Hindu. Be that as it may, these are not issues that this paper seeks to address.

This paper seeks to point out how Nina imposes the structure of the biblical myth on the Hindu myth without realising it. And how this structure of the biblical myth has today become a global myth, eclipsing other myths of the world, resulting in an invisible and unacknowledged colonisation of the mind.

Nina’s work here is simply illustrative of a trend that is widely prevalent in the West. She means no disrespect but, without realising, it ends up presenting a Hinduism that is alien to a Hindu as ‘the truth’ to the Western mind, eager to think the worst about a ‘pagan’ culture (Dodd 2016). This is twenty-first century Orientalism, a new construction of the exotic, born out of the liberal, rather than the colonial, gaze.

We will begin first by understanding how I use the word myth and mythology. Then we will understand what I mean by Western myth, and how it is to be distinguished from Hindu myth. Then I will demonstrate how Nina’s work is essentially based on Western myth, even though it claims to reimagine a Western myth, and even while she is narrating a Hindu epic. This will lead us to how political discourse around the world, especially in social media, is presented using a template based on Western myth, and how today’s conflicts will look very different when presented using a template based on Hindu myth.

Considering the nature of the subject, there will be generalisations. The point is not to accuse the West of a crime, but to draw attention to an overlooked tendency in social discourse today. This is a subjective essay, and does not claim to be objective. Also, this is not an argument, as argument presupposes the existence of one objective truth, which is the cornerstone of Western myth, which – as this article asserts – need not be taken as a global myth.

Myth and Mythology

Myth is cultural truth transmitted over generations through stories, symbols and rituals. Mythology is both the body of stories, symbols and rituals that communicates the cultural truth as. Mythology also means the academic study of myth.

In the nineteenth century, with the rise of scientific study of cultures and human behaviours, the word mythology was used pejoratively by European powers for the cultural truth of their colonies in Asia, Africa, America and Australia. It was meant for faiths that were not Christian. Christian myth was assumed by European colonisers to be true and scientific (Tylor 1871). Judaism and Islam were seen as distortions of Christian truth, as they were monotheistic and Abrahamic. All other beliefs were seen as false and unscientific. In fact the word myth was equated with polytheism. Polytheism was false, monotheism was true, and the world had to move from falsehood towards the truth, which was Christianity (Robbins 1860).

In the twenty-first century, in the wake of World War II that marked the end of colonisation and fuelled rise of feminism, and postmodern studies, monotheism also came to be seen as myth, a cultural rather than scientific truth. Mythology today includes even atheism, or any ideology such as socialism or capitalism or humanism that constructs a worldview for a community and drives social behaviour. Mythology is no longer restricted to the study of the sacred narratives of ‘pagans’. Marxist Utopia is today recognised as much myth, as are notions of Eden and Judgement Day that anchors Jewish, Christian and Islamic belief.

For many, however, myth continues to hold its nineteenth century pejorative meaning and that is indicative of how colonised we still are. We refuse to believe that humanity remains indifferent to rationality, despite the huge impact of science of human technology. We want to believe that our assumptions about life is true, and those of others are false. Such is the nature of myth.

Western Myth

Western mythology is a combination of Abrahamic mythology and Greek mythology. The former is rooted in collectivism and tribalism while the latter is rooted in individualism. It influences global mythology as it is the foundation of the nation state that is based on the idea of submitting to the power of the state (Abrahamic myth) that has the paradoxical aim of ensuring individual freedom (Greek myth) (Pattanaik 2013a).

For the political West, Islamic nations belong to the East. However, from a mythological point of view, Islamic world is part of the West, for like Europe and America it is thoroughly influenced by Abrahamic mythology. Unlike Europe and America, however, it shuns Greek mythology that is the wellspring of individualism and liberal ideas.

The world Abrahamic mythology is used for the narrative foundation of Judaism, Christianity and Islam (Kaufmann 1951). However, this phrase is recent. It is only after the Holocaust, that the Christian world acknowledged the similarity of their worldview with those of Jewish people with the phrase Judeo-Christian. After the Gulf War, there is increasing acknowledgement that Islam shares the much of the same worldview as those of Jewish and Christian faiths, where God creates the world and communicates laws through his messengers that humans are expected to obey if they wish to avoid Hell and attain Heaven after death. They differ on who is the final prophet.

Greek mythology is different from Abrahamic mythology because it has many gods, both male and female (Pattanaik 2016). They gods vie for supremacy, with the primal goddess being overpowered by Giants, Titans overpowering Giants and Olympians overpowering Titans. The gods fear humans and control them. They serve as mentors and cheerleaders but also create trouble for humans, keeping them busy so that they do not eye power over Olympians. While humans struggle, gods enjoy the good life. People admire the hero who goes on adventures and thrives despite all the gods. The gods are ambiguous in their affection; they favour some and torture others. In Greek stories, the human hero is at the centre of the story. The Greek world was individualistic but hierarchical while the Abrahamic world spoke of equality in the eyes of the one true God. The Greeks rejected authority and valorised resistance while the Abrahamic religions submitted to authority and valorised submission. In the Greek epics, the hero fights the gods, who are whimsical. In Abrahamic lore, the prophet fights for god, and seeks to liberate the people who follow the law, the Chosen People, from those who do not.

While mythology overtly may have been abandoned after the Roman Empire turned Christian, this ‘pagan’ thought played a key role in the Renaissance, which saw not only the rise of science but also the placement of the individual at the centre of the social discourse, not just the king or the tribe or the city-state or the empire.

While there is much to differentiate the Greek worldview from the Abrahamic worldview, they also have much in common. Both assume we live only once, and both believe in judgement after death. Thus there is a destination after death, which forces one to live life a particular way making these worldviews objective-driven, singular, linear and universal, applicable to all.

In Greek mythology, judgement was about heroism. Ordinary folk went to Asphodel, those who angered the Olympian gods, especially Zeus, were cast in Tartarus, while those who earned their grudging admiration found a place in Elysium. There were also three judges, none of whom were gods while Abrahamic mythology spoke of one judge, God. Also the Greeks had no concept of written law; the gods punished people arbitrarily and it had nothing to do with justice. One can trace the idea of law and judgement found in Abrahamic mythology to ancient Egyptian mythology as well as to ancient Zoroastrian and Mesopotamian mythology, revealing a vast influence across history and geography.

Hindu Myth

European Orientalists saw Hindu mythology as a variation of Greek mythology. They assumed all pagan religions being polytheistic function the same way in opposition to Abrahamic monotheism. Even today, the asuras are translated in English books as Titans or anti-gods, even though their nature is very different.

These early students of mythology failed to notice that Greek mythology with its faith in one life, and judgement after death, has more in common with Abrahamic mythology than Hindu, Buddhist and Jain mythology which are based on rebirth and where there is no concept of Judgement Day. The colonial understanding of Hinduism has had widespread impact around the world thanks to the spread of modern education system established along old colonial lines. Other than specialists, and experts in the field of folklore, most people assume this colonial understanding of Hinduism as well as other Indic religions to be true (McArthur 1993). Even today, Hindus are asked why they worship the ‘phallus’ and idols in general (Brown 1916; Doniger 2011). Why are they not of the ‘true faith’, i.e. monotheism? Or why are they not scientific and rational, i.e. atheist?

Trying to explain Hinduism using the Abrahamic template is like trying to explain the game of cricket using the rules of football. Globalisation creates the false notion of a ‘universal God’ who is good and kind. This notion of God comes to us from Greek converts to Christianity who turned the jealous god of Jewish traditions to their notion of an ideal king and ruler of the Roman Empire.

In Hinduism, the idea of God as saviour becomes powerful only after Islam enters India around 800 years ago. Before that, God is the spirit that makes all creatures alive and aware, present within all living organism (jiva-atma) and simultaneously encompassing the cosmos (param-atma) (Pattanaik 2015). Soul is a crude translation of atma, making jiva-atma the individual soul and param-atma the cosmic soul. The soul is God and God is soul. And this God can take many forms: plant, animal human. God does not control your destiny, nor does he judge.

Most importantly, Hinduism is rooted in the concept of rebirth. The soul wears the cloth of flesh at birth and discards it at death, we are told in the Bhagavad Gita. Each life is a function of deeds of the previous life. And deeds of the present life influence the circumstances of the future life. But this karma is not determinism or ‘as you sow, so shall you reap’, which is popular in colonial and now New Age readings of Hinduism (Humphreys 2005). Karma is based on uncertainty hence Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita says, ‘Focus on labour not fruit of labour’. There are too many forces in the world to control destiny.

Of course, Indian mythology is not just Hindu mythology, even though it is the most dominant one. Buddhist and Jain mythologies are also part of Indian mythology. They all believe in rebirth. Jainism believes in individual soul but not in cosmic soul or God. Buddhism does not believe in anything permanent, not even soul. This makes Buddhism and Jainism ‘atheistic’ technically. But here, the meaning of ‘theos’ is Judeo-Christian-Islamic, not Hindu. For the Brahmins, Buddhists were nastika for not believing in atma; but the Buddhists did believe in karma.

New Age (Navayana) readings of Buddhism insist that Buddha never spoke of karma and that Buddhism is the original revolutionary religion driven towards social justice (Ambedkar 2011). These interpreters romanticise Buddhism to the extent that they refuse to see its misogynistic and queerphobic side, evident in early scriptures. All this happens as Buddhism, like Hinduism, is read through the Western template.

Today, modern day gurus try to present Hinduism using the Abrahamic template. So the guru functions as a prophet, who tells people how to live life. There is talk of sin, heaven and hell, and how Krishna, the avatar, is a kind of messiah. Hinduism now has a goal, that of liberation (moksha) from the cycle of birth and death. No one points out that until 1500 years ago, this was not a goal of all Hindus, only that of hermits. For the rest, human life was validated by pursuing social and religious obligations (dharma), success (artha) and pleasure (kama). Indeed, under influence of Victorian values, Hinduism was more associated with celibate mystics (yogis) while its joyful side (kama) was confused with its occult side (tantra) and seen as some kind of bacchanal excess, after all according to Greek myth, Dionysus did come from India (Pattanaik 2018).

Unlike Abrahamic mythology, Indian mythology has no beginning nor end, no Genesis or Judgement Day, hence no destination. It goes through cycles of birth and death. Every living creature experiences hunger and fear that ensure they fight for life and against death. This hunger and fear, inherent in life, causes organisms to act which leads to a series of reactions that sustains the cycle of life. Wisdom is acquiring the knowledge that enables one to outgrow that hunger and fear and break free from the cycle of life. This does not necessarily mean being a hermit. It also means being an enlightened householder, one who has outgrown hunger and fear like a hermit but continues to engage with the world (Pattanaik 2006). Thus, while Buddhism tells stories of a prince who abandons his family and kingdom to become a sage, Hinduism tells the story of Shiva, a hermit-god who gets married and establishes a household. Ram and Krishna whose stories are told in the most revered Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata are householder-gods, who deal with household politics and war and love and heartbreak and ethical dilemmas. In these narratives, there is no value placed on Original Sin, prophets or Judgement Day. Every living creature lives in his or her own context, hence there is no one rule for all, or one message for all. The tendency here is not towards equality but towards diversity. The wise sees equality in diversity; the unwise turns diversity into inequality.

It is important to recognise the epistemic difference between the two mythologies, which accounts for why Hindus of India are so different from the Christians of America.

Nina’s Invisible Myth

When Nina retells the Ramayana, she is following an old Indian tradition.

Ramayana tells the story of Ram, a noble prince, who on the eve of his coronation is asked by his father to go to the forest and live there as a hermit for fourteen years while his half-brother becomes king. Ram agrees without remorse or resentment. In the forest, his wife, Sita, is abducted by the demon-king Ravana. He raises an army of monkeys, and rescues his wife. However on his return to Ayodhya, where he is welcomed as king, he banishes his wife to the forest following public gossip about her reputation stained by her stay in Ravana’s palace.

In all retellings, and there are over 300 of them, Ram is the ideal hero, even a mortal form of God who is not aware of his divinity. And so it is always perplexing why he, despite all evidence that is wife is faithful and innocent, banishes her to the forest. No answer is offered. We are told that Ram values his royal role more than his domestic role. He is first king then husband. We are also told that he never remarries—a detail reminding us of his fidelity to her. This is significant since Ram is the only major character in Hindu mythology to be faithful to a single woman. Other gods have many wives.

However, when Nina retells her story, she does not point to Ram’s fidelity or to the struggle between his royal and conjugal role. She presents him, and his celestial form, Vishnu, as a Greek god or an Abrahamic patriarch who expects his wife to serve him. She seems clueless that in Indian mythology Lakshmi, the goddess of fortune, consort of Vishnu, is a whimsical and demanding goddess who cannot be controlled.

Nina sees Sita as an abused wife, a victim of domestic violence so in her eyes Ram becomes the villain, the abuser of the wife. There is even a frame showing Ram kicking the pregnant Sita, an idea that is unthinkable and horrific to any Hindu, for Ram and Sita are still considered in India an ideal couple. Ram is thus constructed as a misogynist patriarch. And we are left to assume Ram has many wives and enjoys the forest while Sita suffers, left to raise her children alone in the forest (Pattanaik 2013b). This is manipulation by omission born of Nina’s personal tragedy for ‘Sita Sings the Blues’ is clearly inspired by a personal tragedy: of an Indian boyfriend refusing to marry her following family pressure (Sridharan 2017). This false equivalence caused much uproar at the release of the film but was dismissed, as it often happens in academic circles around the world (Dodd 2016), by its many liberal and atheist critics, as the rage of Hindu fundamentalists who are qualified to be essentially anti-women.

Nina’s story is linear with a victim, a hero and a villain. The hero is actually a villain. And all villains are men. You feel sorry for Sita. But, it lacks the complexity of the tale that makes Ramayana a sacred Hindu narrative. No role of ethical dilemmas of a king. No commentary on fidelity, of men and women. No idea of loving men who are bound more by codes of society than codes of love. Nina sees images of goddesses at the feet of Hindu gods as representative of patriarchy. So naturally images of gods at the feet of Hindu goddesses are simplistically understood as representative of matriarchy, an earlier happier time. Nina refuses to consider the possibility that these are metaphors with different meanings and how Hindus value the metaphorical to the literal. There are no layers in the tale. They are simplistic hence popular, and giving the impression of being real.

This is repeated ten years later in Seder-Masochism where the Exodus of slaves out of Egypt is equated to the rise of patriarchy. The rejection of the golden calf is a rejection of the old ways where the Goddess in all her forms thrived. After all, ancient Egypt had goddesses as did other tribal cultures before monotheism took root. Here too, the narrative is linear, with a female victim and a male villain. Here too, the meaning is singular. And the form is very entertaining.

We assume that Goddess cultures were a kind of Utopia, much like the Marxist world before the rise of property. That there were no wars before agriculture and industrialisation came into being. That violence and hierarchy are cultural constructs that take us away from nature. These romantic ideas about pre-patriarchal society are assumptions to create a false binary of good matriarchy or good feminism and bad patriarchy. It creates the illusion that a world controlled by women would be better than a world controlled by men, just as missionaries believed a world controlled by the Church would be better than any other world, or as Capitalists and Technocrats believe that money and technology will solve all problems of the world.

While the bible is a tale of the journey from many gods (including female gods) to one God, it is linear and singular and destination-based. Ramayana is not such a journey. Ramayana is not about rejecting the feminine, or the goddess. In fact, Sita is a Goddess. In many retellings, she kills a demon more powerful than Ravana. She ‘allows’ Ram to kill Ravana so that he can do his roleplay (leela) as God to uplift humanity from ignorance to wisdom. By making the Exodus a tale of patriarchy and equating it with Ramayana, a false equivalence is being drawn, that serves Nina’s politics but does disservice especially to the Hindu discourse.

By titling her film Seder-Masochism, Nina is openly equating a Jewish festival of Passover with the cultural impulse to derive pleasure from discipline and denial. She is openly mocking her religion, and so redeems herself from mocking Hinduism, at least in her eyes. She proves, to herself, that she is not a chauvinist or a cultural appropriator. She calls out patriarchy everywhere. She is completely oblivious how she imposes her structure on the world, ignoring the possibility of other structures, or perhaps invalidating other structures altogether. Here the artist-academician takes centre stage, and everyone else is reduced to an audience, allowed only to adore or criticise her. She is subversive and rebellious; she does not see herself as the oppressor.

Nina’s discourse is linear: from slavery to freedom, from patriarchy to feminism, from bad to good, from chaos or order, from barbaric to civilised, from inequality to equality. Structurally, this mirrors the discourse of Christian missionaries who sought to bring the world to the ‘true path’ by spreading the good news. It is the reason why radical Islamic clerics continue to refer to non-Muslims as infidels and heretics. It was the White Man’s burden. To make the world a better place. To establish ‘Happily Ever After’.

Globalisation Through Western Myth

Western myth is about combat4 (Pattanaik 2013a). About overcoming obstacles in Greek myth, and overpowering evil in Abrahamic myth. There is always a villain that needs to be conquered and beyond is the Good Life, the Promised Land. Like Greek myth, Communism finds its villain in those with authority. Like Abrahamic myth, Capitalism finds its villain in those who do not follow the rules, and get to work, and make themselves productive. Greek myth looks at authority as the ‘cruel father’ who needs to be resisted (Cronus eating his children). Abrahamic myth looks at authority as ‘kind father’ who disciplines us for our own good and forgives those who trespass (Parable of the Prodigal Son). The Western world is built around narratives of resistance and compliance whose roots can be traced to Greek and Abrahamic myths.

Following colonisation, Western ideas of resistance as well as compliance spread throughout the world (Dunch 2002). Freedom struggles were struggles against the Cruel Father. Nation states were designed around the idea of a constitution (the secular version of commandments) with ‘the people’ functioning as God. The army, the judiciary, the legislative as well as the media work as archangels to protect the constitution, which guarantees individual freedom. So the nation states functions as a tribe, that seeks to work for the individual. Thus, there is tension between the collective (Abrahamic way) and the individual (Greek way). The individual needs to align with the state. But for that the state needs to function as a caring father. Patriarchy is seen as demanding submission and so feminism becomes about resistance. Hetero-normative is seen as demanding submission and so queer politics becomes about resistance.

Globalisation Through Hindu Myth

In Western thought, there is a clear privileging of one discourse over the other. Many gods have to be wiped out by one God and one God has to be wiped out by no God, for civilisation, for development, for goodness (Inglehart 2018). The United States of America had first the colonial powers of Europe as its villains, then it was the Nazis and the Japanese, then it was the Soviet Union, then it was the Islamic terrorists. Now increasingly, in academic circles, it is the White Privileged Heterosexual Male (Kimmel 2018, pp. 42–54).

Indian thought avoids such combat. It acknowledges that nature is designed on the principle of ‘might is right’ or ‘survival of the fittest’ known in scriptures as matsya nyaya (fish justice, where big fish eat small fish). Culture seeks to outgrow this natural animal instinct so that mighty take care of the meek. But it’s an eternal struggle. Only few reach a level that they are free of all animal instincts, all hunger and all fear. These are the sages and the gods. The rest fight as dogs fight over meat. The meat can be property or ideology.

Hindu mythology speaks of Brahma’s children who are constantly fighting. Ramayana and Mahabharata are property disputes mimicking the celestial battles between gods and demons. But gods here is a mistranslation; they are not morally superior beings. Devas simply means creatures who live in the realm of light above the sky as against asuras who live under the earth; the latter are hardly demons. God is one who does not distinguish between the two; he gets them to collaborate and churn the ocean of milk. But there will be always disputes over share of property. And there is no ‘right’ way to distribute. It all depends on the wisdom and generosity of at least one of the two parties. There are no fair rules. More real than a rule is empathy born of wisdom.

From the Hindu point of view, there are no villains or victims in the world. Just ignorant beings who need wisdom to be understanding and patient of nature’s indifference and humanity’s inability to rise above animal instincts. Hence, the value on the sage, over the warrior or judge (Pattanaik 2015).

Anything in extreme is dangerous. It is the sun that establishes our discomfort with darkness. If we never knew the sun, we would have adapted to the darkness and lived happily there. Having known the sun, we cannot live with the sun always. We need to harmonise it with darkness. Everything needs to have an expiry date, a limit—hence Buddha’s words, ‘All things are impermanent’.5 Attachment to things causes suffering. Happiness follows detachment, not the quest to make things permanent. In the Hindu scheme of things, there is value in capitalism and communism, but to a limit. Feminism is important but so is patriarchy; if it did not have some value, it would not have emerged and thrived for so long. Queerness has a place but for that to happen there is no need to demonise the heterosexuality or cis-genders. Eventually revolution creates oppressive realms that demands submission, and oppressors spawn revolutionaries. The two extremes, Left is mother of Right, and Right is the mother of Left. The greed of developed economies is as much responsible for immigration problem as the incapability or the inability of developing economies to catch up. The colonisers are not villains, in the Hindu scheme of things. They brought new ideas with them, some good, some bad. They changed the old ways and established new ways. Even the new ways will change, eventually, due to internal discord or external challenges.

Conclusion

We need to include other ways of seeing for the future of the world. The Western way has its value in projects, in transforming societies and in achieving goals. However, the Indian way has its value in controlling ambition and empathising with people who are different from, not as driven as us. The Western way brings to us the value of equality—everyone is equal before God, everyone can be a hero. The Indian way brings us the value of diversity—not everyone is the same, not every circumstance is the same, though everyone is valid, in his own way, in his own context. The tension between worldviews is what makes us human. To appreciate multiple worldviews establishes our humanity.

Footnotes

  1. 1.

    Nina Paley’s blog is http://blog.ninapaley.com/

  2. 2.

    The official website is http://www.sitasingstheblues.com/

  3. 3.

    The official website is http://sedermasochism.com

  4. 4.

    Pattanaik (2013a) refers to ‘rana-bhoomi’ versus ‘ranga-bhoomi’

  5. 5.

    Mahāparinibbānasutta (in Davids 2000)

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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Devdutt EnterprisesMumbaiIndia

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