Shyam: An Illustrated Retelling of the Bhagavata by Devdutt Pattanaik-Review

Title: Shyam: An Illustrated Retelling of the Bhagavata

Author: Devdutt Pattanaik

Publisher: Penguin

Price: Rs 499

Pages: 304

A recent popular Hindi film dialogue hits the bulls-eye, “Main jaadu Karta hoon isliye Krishna Nahi hoon, main Krishna hoon isliye jaadu kar Sakta hoon.” (I am Krishna so I can perform miracles, but just because I can perform miracles I cannot become a Krishna). Many times our belief in the almighty is measured by the amount of benefits he can give us. We tend to trust God, but with a condition that he would give us something in return for our love and beliefs. Why do we need God to prove himself again and again to us by making our lives easier? A visit to the spiritual destination only after getting a job or feeding the poor only when a son is born in the family, or just performing a puja only after certain wish has been accomplished… why can’t we trust the almighty and his discretion? Or are our beliefs too shallow to be washed away with mere difficult circumstances? Why do we judge Godlike do other fellow humans, is He one of us? These and many more questions are raised and discussed in Devdutt Pattanaik’s recent book Shyam: An Illustrated Retelling of the Bhagavata.

Pattanaik has become a word on mythology, what with his numerous articles, and screen discussions, add these books to it and he sure makes for a noted authority on what he writes. The best part about Shyam is that it can easily be the first book you can read by the author. It’s a part of the series yet doesn’t conform to the earlier books by him. The writing style and presentation is, of course, similar, but Shyam is also different in a sense that it tells the story of one protagonist in various situations and not the history of the events alone.

The book is laced with beautiful illustrations — by the author himself — which makes it an interesting read for younger readers as well, same for the language. Pattanaik avoids using superfluous words and sticks to simple English where he explains everything as if he’s narrating a story in person to his readers. He refuses to adhere to the majestic tales and folklore of our land about the God that Krishna is, but narrates the story as it may have happened in the past times. Without questioning beliefs and sentiments, Pattanaik colours his book on the palette of history interspersing it with the hues of mythology. In the whole process, one can see that he tries to determine religion with the lens of logic, but nowhere in the book, his love for Krishna can be questioned. His faith in his subject stays unwavered till the end. This itself is a prime example of questioning religion without losing trust in it.

The definition of dharma keeps changing with time, and so does its ideals. Ram’s dharma was in his actions — for him his dharma was identifying right from the wrong and following the correct path. So was Yudhishthira’s dharma. Krishna taught dharma through love… Buddha’s dharma is equality. The beauty of Hinduism lies in the fact that it doesn’t restrict its followers. We can choose our own dharma, but again the definition of each one’s dharma is different from the other. It’s not easy to understand religion as it’s not easy to understand God. Millions of sages have been trying to solve this mystery of the universe for ages and yet we are nowhere near to the one question we have been asking since the time immemorial… the question of our existence. Pattanaik helps us understand Krishna, if you understand his love, you may get closer to him.

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