Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Book Review - 7 Secrets of Vishnu by Devdutt Pattanaik

I have always been big on following mythology and folklore around our thousands of Gods and Goddesses.  Along came this book ‘7 Secrets of Vishnu’ by Devdutt Pattanaik which promised to reveal all.  From Mohini to Krishna, this book wanders between folklore, stories as we know them and as we don’t, symbolism in various art forms across the country and tenets of Hindu philosophy.

The book starts off with a chapter titled Mohini. It starts off with explaining that Mohini is none other but Vishnu in female form, then the chapter goes on to various stories revolving around Brahma, Narada, Suka and Shiva with no apparent context with respect to Mohini and ends with a brief paragraph on Mohini’s liaison with Shiva. Now had the author not titled this chapter Mohini, the explanation behind Narada and Brahma falling into ‘Maya’ or the delusional ephemeral world, would have made far more sense.
That aside, I am glad, the author explained the structure of the book at the outset in the foreword since the names of the chapters are seemingly misnomers.  The rest of the book concentrates on the popular tales from the Dashaavtar covering all of them in the remaining six chapters.  Plenty of stories have been woven in around those tales with explanation using more tales!

The war between Deva’s and Asura’s, symbolism around the Goddesses of Lakshmi and Saraswati, stories from the Mahabharata and Ramayana have been narrated quite well and heavily illustrated.  The book secures plenty of brownie points with the lovely illustrations of murals, sculptures and paintings from all parts of India.  

Unfortunately, here is the ‘but’ though with respect to the illustrations – But, the captions of the pictures were grossly inadequate, as were the labels.  Perhaps a listing of various temples/locations of the illustrations at the end in an appendix would have really helped curious readers to know where they could actually see the real thing.   Many of the labels seemed quite superfluous too – a spear pointed as a ‘weapon’ or a painting of Matsya avatar (half human half fish image) with a label on the human body part as ‘The human upper body is a reminder of human possibility’.  Sometimes the lotus indicated appreciation; sometimes it indicated affiliation with Kama, the God of Love, sometimes, just something that was held by Lakshmi. It seemed to me, pretty random, that holding a child by a Yakshin, indicated earth’s fertility.

What I also did not like was the stress on ‘domesticated’ consorts of Lakshmi, Sita, Saraswati. About Sita, the book claimed –‘Sita embodies culture which is domesticated nature’, Lakshmi who is not ‘chased’ by Vishnu but who ‘chases’ Vishnu, Lakshmi massaging Vishnu’s feet.  The author did sound pretty chauvinistic to me!

My Verdict - All in all, I would give a rating of 3.5 stars (out of 5) to the book.  I would take away a few points for illustrations not being aptly labeled, titles of the chapters not entirely living upto the content and some seemingly far-fetched answers. However, the positives still override the negatives with a good mix of stories interwoven with the guiding philosophy and apt illustrations. All in all, reading this book was like reading an interesting textbook with plenty of illustrations, stories and learning!

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  1. I am an avid follower of Dr Pattanaik's column in First City. He's the one who got me hooked on to mythology.

  2. This is the second review of this book I am reading. The emphasis on illustrations and photographs makes it tempting enough to read. But there hardly seems to be time to do much reading these days. :(

  3. @ Purba - Didn't know about First City earlier. Think I will check it out

    @zephyr - Things will get better soon I hope.

    @magiceye - it is. Do read it!

  4. Nice review, Richa. You did well to bring out the point about chapter titles not really matching up to the content. I somehow missed that out in my review of this boo. Have you read "7 Secrets of Shiva" by Pattanaik? It is much better than this one.

    Now let's see which book we review next :-)

  5. Might be dated but here is my take on this book - http://rangarajaniyengar.wordpress.com/2013/08/31/book-review-7-secrets-of-vishnu-by-devdutt-pattanaik/