Devdutt Pattanaik: East vs. West

Parabola magazine has, in its most recent issue, a transcript of an old talk by Joseph Campbell, “The Vitality of Myth.” It’s not available online, but it addresses one of Jung’s favorite questions: “What myth are you living by?” The question sounds academic and inert. You might ask: How much difference could a superstition make?

I thought of Campbell’s talk when I saw a video of Devdutt Pattanaik speaking at TED India: East vs. West — the myths that mystify. Pattanaik is the Chief Belief Officer at an Indian retail chain called the Future Group. What does a Chief Belief Officer do? He tries to figure out what myths his company lives by. And he sees his job partly as counterpoise to the overwhelming influence that process-oriented Western business culture has on Indian firms.

If an overemphasis on linear process is something he seeks to balance with the cyclic mythology of India, does that suggest that linear process is an artifact of Western mythology? It does. One definition of mythology is a funny hat that the other guy is wearing. It distracts you from noticing you’ve got one too.

In his talk, Pattanaik tells the story of an encounter between Alexander the Great and a naked mystic (“gymnosophist”) at the Indus river in 326 BC.

Alexander asked, “What are you doing?” and the gymnosophist answered, “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 that the other was a fool.

Alexander is maximizing personal achievement so as to win glory during the one lifetime allotted to him. The mystic is contemplating the pointlessness of desire and striving across many lifetimes. The world views could scarcely be more different. Pattanaik takes stories like this very seriously as he tries to understand how to build an Indian business culture that is both conventionally successful (profits matter) and that also resonates with the mythological groundplane.

I was struck by this, because I have often wondered how much our Western mythologies had to do with the development of math, science, and technology in the Europe and America. Progress, self-improvement, and relentless optimization all make more sense when time has a beginning and an end.

I recently read Daniel Walker Howe’s history of America between 1815 and 1848 (What Hath God Wrought). It was absolutely incredible to see how much modernism’s rise was propelled by religion. So many of the things we associate with enlightened progressive practice in America came about because of efforts of religious organizations, including the abolition of slavery, universal suffrage, and public education. And these organizations that were not simply preaching charity or tolerance in some vague sense; they were electrified with a specific millenarian mission. They were preparing for the return of Jesus. Because time had an end, just like Alexander’s life, it was important to set things right as quickly as possible. Don’t dawdle like you’ve got another lifetime coming… there is not a moment to be lost! They don’t call it the Protestant work ethic for nothing.

What all this means in the coming world of turbulent global mixing is unclear. What is clear is that India has a lot to teach us. I’m looking forward to it.

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