The work falls short when it comes to both nuanced details as well as the big picture.
The Bhagavad-Gita (or simply Gita) is one of the most popular Hindu texts. Along with the Upanishads and the Brahma Sutra, it constitutes the ‘prasthana-trayi’, which means ‘the set of three foundations’. These three texts are considered the foundational texts of Hindu philosophy, especially Vedanta.
As the Gita is primarily a philosophical text, I was surprised when I came across ‘My Gita’ by Devdutt Pattanaik, a self-proclaimed mythologist. The book—categorised as ‘non-fiction/philosophy’ on its back cover by Rupa Publications— is replete with errors. Its interpretations display a lack of basic knowledge of Sanskrit. The philosophical elements are a hodgepodge (or ‘masala-mix’) of terms, ideas, and concepts drawn from various kinds of sources, including probably the author’s own imagination, and presented as if they are based on Hindu texts. The work falls short when it comes to both nuanced details as well as the big picture. Consequently, one of the core texts of Hindu philosophy has been trivialised to a deficient caricature. In this article, I present a critique of the book from factual, conceptual, linguistic, and scholastic integrity perspectives.
False Claims And Factual Errors
Non-fiction authors are expected to have researched the book’s subject matter thoroughly and double-checked all claims made in the book. They are entitled to their views and opinions, but false claims and factual errors in a non-fiction book show a lack of serious effort from the author(s) and low reviewing and proofreading standards of the publisher. The numerous false claims and factual errors in My Gita are unexpected from a bestselling author and a prominent publisher. Many of these are from Pattanaik’s own domain of expertise: the Mahabharata and Puranas. Quite a few are used to draw further interpretations or conclusions, and so they are not harmless slips: they impact the overall narrative of the book.
Pattanaik has authored an illustrated retelling of the Mahabharata named Jaya. However, in a non-fiction book (which My Gita is), the expectation is that the author accurately presents the narrative of the Mahabharata, which - unless explicitly stated otherwise - refers to the original Sanskrit Mahabharata attributed to Veda Vyasa. To narrate something from a retelling of the Mahabharata and attribute it to the Mahabharata amounts to misleading readers. Pattanaik’s narration of events from the Mahabharata in My Gita significantly deviates from the epic. As an example, Pattanaik writes, “The Mahabharata also speaks of conflict generated by comparison” (p. 198), and then tries to show that Gandhari, Kunti, and Madri were in a ‘competition’ to produce more sons. The supporting narrative, which fits in a single paragraph on one page, has seven false claims which are contradicted by or not backed by the Mahabharata (see note I). As the supporting narrative is wrong, Pattanaik’s conclusion based on this erroneous narrative stands discredited. There are similarly many other false claims regarding the Mahabharata at other places in the book (see note II for some of them). These errors show that Pattanaik has not bothered to cross-check his narrative with the Mahabharata while writing My Gita. Given his lack of Sanskrit knowledge (as I show later in this critique), Pattanaik has most likely not read the Mahabharata in Sanskrit, and I doubt if he has even referenced a complete translation of the epic for My Gita. His narratives are possibly from one of the retellings of the Mahabharata.
The situation is no different when it comes to Bhagavata Purana. Pattanaik makes many mistakes in just a short narration of seven lines from the episode of ‘yajnapatnis’ (p. 106, see note III). When presenting the episode where Krishna eats mud, Pattanaik wrongly says that Yashoda consciously acts as a mother even after knowing Krishna is God (p. 165). On the contrary, the Bhagavata Purana says that Krishna makes Yashoda lose her memory (10.8.43–44). This erroneous narrative is used to arrive at a conclusion that the devotee (Yashoda) stayed as a mother for the sake of Krishna. While talking of Sudama (p. 220), Pattanaik says he carries puffed rice saved by denying himself of meals, whereas the Bhagavata Purana says that the Brahmin’s wife borrows beaten fried rice from neighbours (10.80.13–14). Whether such mistakes are harmless or not, a question arises as to why Pattanaik, an expert on Puranas, makes so many mistakes and deviations in narrating events from Puranas in a non-fiction book? If they are unintentional, the author is guilty of sloppy work or ignorance of Puranic texts. If they are deliberate, the author and publisher are not being completely honest by categorising ‘My Gita’ as non-fiction.
My Gita abounds in many other factual errors, some of which betray a profound ignorance of the subject matter. As an example, Pattanaik’s understanding that an ‘anushtup’ verse has “four sentences and each sentence have eight syllables” (p. 21) is completely wrong, as there is no such relation between the number of sentences and a verse: verse 1.32 of Gita has two sentences, verse 1.1 has one, and verse 1.17 is an incomplete sentence. An ‘anushtup’ verse has four quarters and not four sentences. A comprehensive list of such errors in the book is beyond the scope of this article—they are spread throughout the work and harm the credibility of the author.
Conceptual And Philosophical Errors
When dealing with conceptual and philosophical matters, Pattanaik misappropriates, misinterprets, and misattributes concepts of Hindu philosophy at many places in the book. Some examples are presented below.
Throughout My Gita, Pattanaik associates the theme of ‘expanding the mind’ with the word ‘brahman’ and presents it in at least 28 places (see note IV). The theme of one whole chapter (Chapter 11) of 10 pages is “Expanding the mind (brahmana)” (p. 32). The root of this inexcusably pervasive misconception is incorrect etymology of the word ‘brahman’. Pattanaik says that the word ‘brahman’, which he misspells as ‘brahmana’, “has two roots: expansion (brah) and mind (manas)” (p. 147). The word actually comes from the root ‘brih’ and the suffix ‘man’, which has nothing to do with ‘manas’ or mind. Pattanaik has weaved a grand theme in the book based on a wrong etymology.
Pattanaik presents a new concept of ‘social body’ which he says is inherited/earned property. He adds that it is called ‘kshetra’ in the Upanishads and is the outermost layer or the ‘karana sharira’ (p. 190). There is no such concept of social body in Indian philosophy, and neither the 60 odd occurrences of ‘kshetra’ in 28 Upanishads (see note V) nor the innermost ‘karana sharira’ in yoga and Vedanta traditions is associated with inherited/earned property. Pattanaik has imagined a new concept, used a standard extant term for it, and ascribed it to the Upanishads.
As both the words ‘para’ and ‘parama’ mean ‘supreme’ in Sanskrit, the words ‘paratma’ and ‘paramatma’ are both used for ‘the supreme atma’. The word ‘paratma’ is largely used in this sense in Puranic and Vedantic texts like Bhagavata Purana and Viveka-chudamani. In My Gita, Pattanaik uses the word ‘paratma’ to describe the concept of ‘another atma’ at several places (pp. 9, 71, 72, 136, 137) and presents it as the third reality along with the standard Vedantic dichotomy of ‘jivatma’ and ‘paratma’/‘paramatma’. This looks like another example of using a standard extant term for a novel concept. In some rare instances in few Buddhist and Nyaya works, when used in explicit contrast with the word ‘svatma’, the word ‘paratma’ means ‘another atma’. If Pattanaik’s use of the term ‘paratma’ comes from this rare and highly contextual use (which I doubt), it amounts to matching and mixing terms and concepts borrowed out of context from different philosophical systems.
Pattanaik gives his own novel translation/definition of deva and asura as those who accept and reject, respectively, the reality of atma (p. 122). He misattributes this new understanding to Krishna by saying “Krishna uses them differently” (ibid.). While explaining six terms defined by Krishna in verses 8.3 and 8.4 of the Gita (p. 140), Pattanaik gives incorrect and totally unrelated explanations of four of them (see note VI). The well-established philosophical terms gyana and vigyana are used for the completely unrelated concepts of ‘what is told’ and ‘what is heard’ (p. 4).
Perhaps to just spice things up in the book, Pattanaik brings in a completely out-of-the-context reference to sex and violence when he links the word astika (one who believes [God/another world] exists) with the word iti which he says earlier meant “‘as things are’–accepting the reality of sex and violence, desires and conflicts …”, but later denoted “faith in God” (p. 21). Not only is the word astika not related to iti (it derives from asti instead), iti has no link whatsoever with reality of sex and violence or faith in God.
Similarly, the word yoni means both ‘the female generative organ’ and ‘source/place of origin’. The latter meaning is implied in Gita 7.6, but Pattanaik prefers the former in his paraphrase (p. 73) and says the language is used metaphorically as Krishna refers to his wombs despite sporting a male form.
The Gita being a work in Sanskrit, it’s first-hand or direct interpretation requires advanced knowledge of Sanskrit. For second-hand or indirect interpretations, an interpreter can draw on other translations or interpretations. In My Gita, Pattanaik gives an impression that he has the requisite knowledge of Sanskrit required to interpret the text directly. Pattanaik states that he heard the Gita in the original Sanskrit for several months (p. 5) before writing the book. He gives sources, meanings, and etymologies of Sanskrit words and translations of famous Sanskrit phrases at many places in the book. The unsuspecting reader takes it for granted that Pattanaik is comfortable enough with Sanskrit to know what he is talking about.
However, a reader with intermediate or even basic knowledge of Sanskrit can see that Pattanaik gets a large number of sources, meanings, etymologies, and translations wrong in My Gita. As a result, he ends up misinterpreting and mistranslating at many places. Many linguistic errors in ‘My Gita’ are egregious, while many others are outright ludicrous. It is not possible to present a comprehensive list; but I list 10 types of linguistic errors in the book with one or more examples or each:
(1) Confusing one vowel for another: The word bhagavan is repeatedly associated with the word bhaga which Pattanaik explains as ‘slice’ of reality (pp. 7, 58, 71, 133, 144, 166). The word bhagavan comes from the word ‘bhaga’ (भग) which has many meanings but does not mean slice. The word bhaga (भाग), which means ‘slice’ or ‘portion’, is a totally different word in which the first vowel is long.
(2) Confusing one consonant for another: The word samadhi is split into sama and adi, which is explained as ‘primal origin’ (p. 232). Here Pattanaik confuses the consonant ‘dh’ (ध) with the consonant ‘d’ (द). The word samadhi (समाधि) has the former, while the word ‘adi’ (आदि) meaning origin has the latter.
(3) Confusing a word for a similar word: The different words brahman (ब्रह्मन्), brahma (ब्रह्मा), and brahmana (ब्राह्मण) are all mistaken to be the same word brahmana (p. 147).
(4) Translating the wrong word: The last verse of the Gita has the word bhuti (prosperity), while Pattanaik’s paraphrase and explanation uses the word bhu (dominion/earth) (pp. 224–225). A ‘Vaishnava mythology’ connection is also established based on this translation of a wrong word.
(5) Misplacing a word in historical context: The post-Vedic word bhagavata, absent in Bloomfield’s Vedic concordance, is described as being in use in Vedic time as a title for king or sages (pp. 132–133). Perhaps the author confuses the word with parama-bhagavata used as a title by Gupta kings in post-Vedic era.
(6) Wrong etymologies: As pointed in the previous section, the word brahman is incorrectly explained as deriving from two roots (p. 147) and astika is incorrectly linked with the word iti (p. 21). Such crude etymologies are similar to saying that the English word ‘friendship’ derives from the ship in which friends used to sail together.
(7) Wrong meanings: Three meanings of brahman are given as “language, the power of language to expand the mind, and expanded mind” (p. 147). None of these three meanings is attested in any standard dictionary. The three meanings are traced to Rig Veda but no specific reference is given. As another example, the standard term karta (doer, agent) in Gita 18.14 is paraphrased as ‘mind’ (p. 82), which is totally unrelated to karta.
(8) Confusing gender of a word: The word dhruva (ध्रुवा) in the last verse of the Gita is feminine, but it is interpreted as the male devotee Dhruva (pp. 224–225).
(9) Confusing parts of speech: An adjective dhruva (ध्रुवा) is paraphrased as the abstract noun ‘stability’ (pp. 224–225), while an abstract noun purnatva is translated as the adjective ‘comprehensive’ (p. 243).
(10) Confusing grammatical case: The word brahma in nominative case in the phrase jagad mithya brahma satya [sic] (p. 203) is translated as ‘by language’, which requires instrumental case. This shows ignorance of the fact that Sanskrit is an inflected language.
Just like advanced knowledge of Elizabethan English is required to interpret the works of Shakespeare, a good knowledge of Sanskrit is required to interpret a work like Gita. On the basis of the numerous errors like the ones above, my conclusion is that Pattanaik lacks basic knowledge of Sanskrit and is not even fully conversant with the Sanskrit alphabet. This not only puts a serious question mark over his credentials to directly interpret Gita, but also brings up the issue of scholastic standards for non-fiction authors. If such linguistic errors are unintentional (as I believe them to be), they show extreme sloppiness and lack of rigour on part of the author. If the mistakes are intentional, there is a more serious issue of deliberately misleading readers.
The ‘Veil Of Paraphrase’
Pattanaik writes that in My Gita, verses of the Gita are paraphrased, not translated or transliterated (p. 4). The verses of the Gita are in Sanskrit, whereas the 100+ paraphrases in My Gita are all in English. A paraphrase without a translation is in the same language as that of the source text. If Pattanaik’s claim was true, the paraphrases in the book would be in Sanskrit, and not English. As the paraphrases are in English, it implies that the verses are both translated and paraphrased.
Going by the pervasive linguistic errors in the book, I do not believe that Pattanaik has the requisite knowledge of Sanskrit to translate verses of the Gita himself. Whose English translations are then paraphrased in the book? Pattanaik lists nine English translations under ‘Recommended Reading’ (p. 247). Does he paraphrase from these translations without acknowledging them explicitly? If so, it amounts to academic dishonesty. If not, it remains a mystery as to how a person not conversant with even basic Sanskrit can translate verses of the Gita all by himself. Perhaps only Pattanaik knows what the mystery behind this ‘veil of paraphrase’ is.
A paraphrase is a rewording for better explanation while remaining true to the essence of the source text, and not adding to, deleting from, or distorting the meaning of the original text to suit one’s own narrative. Many paraphrases of Pattanaik are not just rewordings; they involve additions, deletions, and distortions. A comprehensive list is beyond the scope of this article, but below I give an example of each:
(1) Addition: In the paraphrase of verse 16.14, Pattanaik writes “that enemy of mine I have destroyed, by any means available” (p. 127). The verse has simply asau maya hatah shatruh (“I have killed that enemy”). The clause “by any means available” is not a rewording or paraphrase of the source but an addition.
(2) Deletion: Partial or full verses are missing from many paraphrases, for example 5.20 (p. 204), 10.32–10.34 (p. 142), and 18.42–44 (p. 178).
(3) Distortion: In verse 4.8, vinashaya dushkritam simply translates as ‘for the destruction of the evil-doers’. Pattanaik’s paraphrase reads ‘to … shake up those without faith’ (p. 91). The base words vinasha (destruction) and dush-krit (evil-doer) are distorted.
The additions, deletions, and distortions in the paraphrases are further compounded by the multiple linguistic errors outlined in the previous section. All this is hidden from the unsuspecting reader behind the ‘veil of paraphrase’. With faulty and problematic paraphrases as the building blocks, the themes and narrative of My Gita end up distorting or caricaturing, rather than interpreting, the ideas and concepts of the Gita.
As a serious student of Sanskrit, Gita, and Indian philosophy, I find the ‘non-fiction/philosophy’ book My Gita to be fictional and non-philosophical to quite an extent. The book lacks rigour and is a result of sloppy work, as reflected in the many false claims and factual errors. Philosophical aspects of the book suffer from misappropriations, misinterpretations, and misattributions of terms and concepts. There are egregious and ludicrous linguistic errors of multiple kinds. The mysterious ‘veil of paraphrase’ hides a lot from the unsuspecting reader. The book is a marvel of scholarly ineptitude and a travesty of Hindu philosophy. With its many illustrations, tables, diagrams, and simple language, the book may be entertaining for readers whose knowledge of Sanskrit, Gita, and Hindu philosophy is abysmally scant and who believe everything Pattanaik writes. The serious reader is let down and disappointed as Pattanaik force-fits verses of Gita and weaves a narrative using his own way of interpreting Sanskrit, his own etymologies and meanings, his own versions of epics, and his own imagined concepts. In short, My Gita is not just his Gita, it is Pattanaik’s own fantasy world.
(The author would like to thank Ami Ganatra for her valuable feedback and inputs.)
For further references: Notes to the review of Devdutt Pattanaik’s My Gita
To download the notes: (PDF)