Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik is the first person to acknowledge, compile and comment on Queer ideas in Hindu metaphysics and mythology. Devdutt (born 1970) was the third child of Prafulla and Sabitri Pattanaik, born after two daughters and a gap of 8 years. He was born, raised and continues to live in Mumbai, the commercial capital of India.
Academically brilliant (he stood in the merit list of the Secondary School Certificate exams), his parents hoped he would become a doctor. He did, from Grant Medical College, Mumbai. But after obtaining his medical degree, Devdutt decided not to take up clinical practice.
He was confused, knowing what he did not want, but not what he wanted. So he appeared in the much-revered Union Public Service Commission Exams, cleared the tests that recruits the India’s top bureaucrats, but refused to take up the assignment. To earn money, he freelanced as a writer and illustrator in many popular lifestyle magazines such as Island, Society and Savvy. He even worked part-time as an editor of health magazines, such as My Doctor, putting his medical knowledge to good use. And also worked as an assistant to a behavioral scientist, Dr. Giri Shankar, who conducted corporate workshops on transforming attitudes.
It was in this period, in the mid-1990s, that one of the magazine editors, Mr. Randhir Khare of Debonair, noticed Devdutt’s natural ability to narrate stories from Indian and World mythology. Not just tell the stories but provide deep insight into their structures and probable meanings. He encouraged Devdutt to write articles in various local newspapers and magazines. He even introduced him to Mr. Arun Mehta, of VFS publications who suggested Devdutt write a book introducing Shiva, an intriguing Hindu god. Shiva - An Introduction, Devdutt’s first book with its many illustrations and images was much appreciated by readers. This led to the publication of many books within the Introduction series: Vishnu, Devi, Hanuman and Lakshmi, all popular deities of the Hindu pantheon.
Devdutt decided to pursue a formal course on mythology and did the Post-Graduate Diploma in Comparative Mythology, offered by the Sanskrit Department of Mumbai University. Though he topped the course, he was disappointed. It did not give him any insight into this wonderful subject. Family obligations prevented him from pursuing his interest in American or European universities. So he decided to study on his own: Freud, Campbell, Jung, Levi-Strauss, Wendy Doniger, and a whole bunch of authors who wrote on Indian and World mythology.
Devdutt developed a radical and unorthodox understanding of Indian mythology that correlated complex Indian philosophy to ancient Indian art and household rituals. He was encouraged by Mr. Parag Trivedi, who ran a cultural organization that demystified the classical arts called Sabrang, to give lectures on the subject. The lectures were hugely popular and led to him being invited to conduct workshops for various corporate houses, including banks and advertising agencies.
In 1998, Devdutt wrote the book Women in Indian Lore that was published as Goddesses in India: Five Faces of the Eternal Feminine by Inner Traditions, USA. It compiled all stories related to women in Hindu, Buddhist and Jain mythology. The book helped Devdutt appreciate the relationship between nature and culture, woman and man, as perceived by the Indian people, whose collective unconscious gave rise to the complex mythology were women were nymphs and goddesses and chaste wives with magical powers. This book introduced Devdutt to a number of stories where boundaries between sex and gender were blurred.
Understanding of queer mythology, came at a time when Devdutt was also freelancing for Tata Institute of Social Sciences that was in the process of developing a “Train the Trainer” module for people involved in AIDS/HIV projects. He was interacting with many Gay, Lesbian, Transgender and Queer groups who were concerned about the general apathy and indifference in India to sexual minorities.
Devdutt’s exposure to Queer narratives in Hindu lore and to gays and lesbians and hijras of Indian society, led him to write the book Man Who Was a Woman and Other Queer Tales From Hindu Lore” which was published by Haworth Press, USA. This was the first popular book that gave an insight into the meaning of Queer mythology within the context of the grand Hindu tradition, with sensitivity to the popular Hindu vision.
The book wonders why Queer tales exist in Hindu lore. What does it say about the Hindu understanding of the world? Devdutt was convinced that while the Hindu worldview accepts Queer behavior, be it cross dressing or homosexual intercourse, as perfectly natural, it leaves its social acceptance or rejection to culture, which is an artificial dynamic artificial construct. Societies, depending on their requirements, may choose to condemn, condone, or celebrate sexual and gender plurality. Rejection or acceptance of society does not render any sexual or gender expression invalid in the cosmos. In the Hindu world, everything is a manifestation of the divine. Everything.
Devdutt also wrote an essay, “Homosexuality in Ancient India” which was published by Debonair in 2000. It was well received by the Gay community which hosted the article on the gaybombay website.
Currently (as of this writing in 2004), Devdutt is working on his book on Krishna and is dabbling into fiction based on mythology. Mythology remains his passion, but not the sole interest. Professionally, he is anything but the lecturer/writer. For the past five years he has been working in the health care industry, developing business processes for clinical research organizations, health care websites and hospitals. He is now senior manager in a multinational pharmaceutical company, Aventis, where he is involved in knowledge management and business processes development.
Devdutt believes that in India, Gay, Lesbian, Transgendered and Queer people experience more “shame” than “guilt” compared to those in the Western counterparts. Because in the Hindu scheme of things, homosexuality is not seen as sin, rather as a socially inappropriate behavior. Good sons and daughters are supposed to obey parents and get married at the appropriate age. The idea of sexual/romantic love outside the heterosexual paradigm is seen as disruptive. Add to this the colonial legal legacy of condemning such acts as “unnatural” and one can appreciate the challenges before the LGBTQ community in India. Within the community is the conflict between private comfort and public acknowledgement of one’s sexuality as well as the conflict between the more-Westernized LGBTQ community and the less-Westernized LGBTQ groups such as kotis and hijras. Things today are quite different from the scene a decade ago – LGBTQ issues are more visible and society seems more accepting. Behavior once considered unacceptable is becoming acceptable.
According to Devdutt, while social expression and acceptance of romantic/sexual desires/feelings matter, more important for every individual, gay or straight, is to appreciate the meaning behind the madness of emotions and thoughts. Why am I the way I am? Why is the world the way it is? Why do I need love, approval, and acknowledgement? What can be changed – myself, the world or the objects of my affection? And why should anything change? These answers will take us away from the need to dominate and actualize in the external world, to a more private and inner world of self-realization, self-containment and eventually, contentment. Which according to ancient Hindu seers is the ultimate purpose of life.
Devdutt's first work of fiction, The Pregnant King, was published by Penguin Books India in February, 2008. This mythological story is based upon a fragment of a tale found in the Mahabharata and many Puranas.
(This biographical statement provided by Devdutt Pattanaik.)
Biography Date: April, 2004
“Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik | Profile”, LGBTQ Religious Archives Network, accessed November 30, 2023, https://lgbtqreligiousarchives.org/profiles/devdutt-pattanaik.