Devdutt Pattanaik: Are There Any Universal Beliefs and Truths?

Aug 23, 2019
Originally published on September 5, 2019 6:49 am

Part 5 of the TED Radio Hour episode Believers and Doubters.

About Devdutt Pattanaik's TED Talk

Devdutt Pattanaik takes an eye-opening look at the myths of India and of the West — and shows how these fundamentally different sets of beliefs about God, death, and heaven help us consistently misunderstand one another.

About Devdutt Pattanaik

Devdutt Pattanaik looks at business and modern life through the lens of mythology. He is the chief belief officer at Future Group in Mumbai and helps managers harness the power of myth to understand their employees, their companies and their customers.

Pattanaik is a self-taught mythologist, and the author of several works on aspects of myth, including Myth = Mithya: A Handbook of Hindu Mythology and his most recent book, 7 Secrets from Hindu Calendar Art.

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So what if everyone we've heard from on the show today is right? Like, what if there is only your truth, which is what Devdutt Pattanaik believes?

DEVDUTT PATTANAIK: My truth is my truth. Your truth is your truth. And 6 billion people on this planet have 6 billion truths. And you believe your truth is the truth. I believe my truth is the truth. And that's why we argue.

RAZ: Devdutt writes about Hinduism, particularly about Hindu mythology. But he's also really interested in universal myths and truths and why people argue about them. Here's how he starts his TED Talk.


PATTANAIK: The world is objective, logical, universal, scientific. My world is subjective. It's personal. It's perceptions, thoughts, feelings, dreams. It is the belief system that we carry. It's the myth that we live in. The world tells us how the sun rises, how we are born. My world tells us why the sun rises, why were we born.

RAZ: So I want to ask you about belief.


RAZ: I mean, what do you think it is about belief or faith that people seem to need?

PATTANAIK: Well, you see, if you look at nature, there is the animal which is a predator, which is constantly looking for food. And it's restless and frightened. That's hunger. And then there are animals which are prey, which are constantly seeking protection and security because otherwise, the predator will eat them. So that's fear.

And then the human beings come along. And we imagine a world without hunger, and we imagine a world without fear. And we also imagine the opposite, a world with absolute terrible hunger and absolute terrible fear. The former, the world without hunger and fear, we call heaven. And the world full of infinite hunger and fear we call hell.

And we are wondering how do we avoid hell and go towards heaven? And we're looking for answers everywhere. And someone comes along and tells us something, and we say hey, that'll take me to heaven. And that's faith.


PATTANAIK: This understanding of our ancestors is transmitted generation from generation in the form of stories, symbols and rituals, which are always indifferent to rationality. And so when you study it, you realize that different people of the world have a different understanding of the world. There is my world, and there is your world. And my world is always better than your world because my world, you see, is rational. And yours is superstition. Yours is faith. Yours is illogical. This is the root of the clash of civilizations.

RAZ: I was really interested in the story you told in your talk about Alexander the Great and the completely different perspectives on it, like, from the Hindu perspective and from the Greek perspective.

PATTANAIK: Yes, the story goes that Alexander met a person in India called the gymnosophist, which is - basically means a naked wise man. And he asked the gymnosophist, who is doing - sitting on a rock doing nothing, just staring at the sky. And Alexander asked him, so what are you doing?


PATTANAIK: What are you doing? And the gymnosophist said I'm experiencing nothingness. Then the gymnosophist asked, what are you doing? And Alexander said, I am conquering the world. And they both laughed. Each one thought the other was a fool. Gymnosophist said, why is he conquering the world? It's pointless. And Alexander thought, why is he sitting around doing nothing? What a waste of a life.

The two people looked at the same situation very differently because each of them believed in different things. Alexander believed you live only once. All his life as a child, he read stories of heroes who do something spectacular. And because they do something spectacular, they land up in a place called Elysium, heaven of heroes. And he wanted to be one of them. So he worked all his life trying to be a great man. But that's not the story the gymnosophist heard.


PATTANAIK: He heard a very different story. You see, the Indians also had a river which separates the land of the living from the land of the dead, but you don't cross it once. You go to and fro endlessly because you see, nothing lasts forever in India, not even death. The same life is lived infinite times until you get the point of it all - Groundhog's Day.


PATTANAIK: Two different mythologies, two different ways of looking at the world. One believes this is the one and only life. The other believes this is one of many lives.

RAZ: People must ask you all the time, who's right?

PATTANAIK: Yes, they do. And I say you decide. It's your decision. You are the judge.

RAZ: I guess I'd rather live, you know, multiple lives than just one, right? Less pressure in some ways.

PATTANAIK: There is less pressure. But you see, it also makes you inefficient. It makes you lackadaisical, lazy. So if you want to save the world, you need one life.

RAZ: Do you think more people would identify with the gymnosophist or with Alexander?

PATTANAIK: The simple answer is when things are going right for you, think of yourself as Alexander. You've achieved success. If things are not going so well, your relationships are breaking down and, you know, life just sucks, then you say, hey, I'm the gymnosophist. This shall not last forever. A new life will come along, and everything will change. And you are happy.


PATTANAIK: And if you look at cultures around the world, all have to do is understand the mythology, and you will see how they behave and how they do business. If you live only once in one life culture, around the world, you will see an obsession with binary logic, absolute truth, standardization, absoluteness, linear patterns and design. But if you look at cultures which are cyclical and based on infinite lives, you will see a comfort with fuzzy logic, with contextual thinking, with everything is relative sort of, mostly. Just look at your Indian people around here. You'll see them smile. They know what it is.


PATTANAIK: And then look at people who have done business in India. You'll see the exasperation on their faces.


PATTANAIK: There will always be people who believe in one life. And there will always be people who believe in many lives.

RAZ: What's your truth?

PATTANAIK: That everybody has a right to their truth.

RAZ: What about yours?

PATTANAIK: It is that there - nothing in this world is permanent. Nothing is perfect. Everything is transforming all the time.

RAZ: You believe this...


RAZ: ...With all of your heart and soul?

PATTANAIK: Well, every time I look into the mirror, I see I'm growing older, so there it is. My hairs are going gray. My skin is wrinkling. The trees are falling. People are changing all the time. That never changes.


PATTANAIK: And so the next time you meet someone, a stranger, one request. Understand that you live in the subjective truth, and so does he. Understand it, and when you understand it, you will discover something spectacular. You will discover that within infinite myths lies the eternal truth. Who sees it all? Varuna has but 1,000 eyes. Indra, 100. You and I, only two. Thank you. Namaste.


RAZ: Devdutt Pattanaik, he's written more than a dozen books on Hindu mythology. You can see his entire TED Talk at


FATBOY SLIM: (Singing) We've come a long, long way together, through the hard times and the good. I have to celebrate you, baby. I have to praise you like I should.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show on believers and doubters this week. Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Brent Baughman, Meghan Keane, Sanaz Meshkinpour and Neva Grant, with help from Daniel Shukin, Portia Robertson-Migas and Eric Nuzum. Our partners at TED include Chris Anderson, June Cohen, Deron Triff and Janet Lee. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


FATBOY SLIM: (Singing) I have to praise you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.