These days a lot of Indians as well as foreigners have begun to show interest in Hinduism, Hindu mythology and Indian mythological fiction. And a lot of books have been written on this topic. Almost every reader in India has read or at least heard of the popular Shiva Trilogy by Amish Tripathi and books by India’s most eminent mythologist – Devdutt Pattnaik. Agreed, mythology is an interesting topic and I am myself into mythologies from around the world. Here are my ten recommendations to get you started with the fascinating world of Indian myths! Some of the excerpts are from Goodreads.
1) Myth = Mithya: A Handbook of Hindu Mythology by Devdutt Pattnaik
A decoding of Hindu mythology, Hindus have one God. They also have 330 million gods: male gods, female gods, personal gods, family gods, household gods, village gods, gods of space and time, gods for specific castes and particular professions, gods who reside in trees, in animals, in minerals, in geometrical patterns and in man-made objects. Then there are a whole host of demons. But no Devil. In this groundbreaking book Dr Devdutt Pattanaik, one of India’s most popular mythologists, seeks an answer to these apparent paradoxes and unravels an inherited truth about life and death, nature and culture, perfection and possibility. He retells sacred Hindu stories and decodes Hindu symbols and rituals, using a unique style of commentary, illustrations and diagrams.
2) Sita: An Illustrated Retelling of the Ramayana by Devdutt Pattnaik
As the name suggests, this book is Devdutt’s own retelling of the famous Hindu epic Ramayana. Many versions of the epic exist in India and the author has incorporated elements from all the versions. It tells the story from the point of view of Sita who is the devoted wife of Lord Ram and is the heroine of the story. The book approaches Ram by speculating on Sita: her childhood in Mithila, her marriage with Ram, her abduction by the evil King Ravana, her eventual rescue and then banishment from the kingdom by Ram. The book also incorporates beautiful line drawing illustrations created by the author himself. Apart from the actual narrative, it enlightens the reader with ancient Indian concepts such as fidelity, property, self-image and rituals such as idol worship and puja.
3) Jaya: An Illustrated Retelling of the Mahabharata by Devdutt Pattnaik
Just like the previously mentioned book, Jaya is Devdutt’s own retelling of the second Hindu epic Mahabharata which is the largest written epic in the world. It has been written on the same lines and in the same style as Sita and includes line drawing illustrations and extra concepts from Hindu philosophy. It recounts the long and extremely complicated story of the Mahabharata war which is impossible to summarise in a few words but it is basically a story of inter-family feud which involves a number of dynastic clans, the chain of events following Draupadi’s humiliation and the triumph of good over evil. The 108 chapters abound with little-known details such as the names of the hundred Kauravas, the worship of Draupadi as a goddess in Tamil Nadu, the stories of Astika, Madhavi, Jaimini, Aravan and Barbareek, the Mahabharata version of the Shakuntalam and the Ramayana, and the dating of the war based on astronomical data. If you think you know everything about this enthralling epic, then check this one out as it will surely amaze you with facts not known to many!
4) The Pregnant King by Devdutt Pattnaik
The Mahabharata speaks of Yuvanashva, a childless king who accidentally drinks a magic potion meant to make his queens pregnant, and gives birth to a son. The Pregnant King, mythologist Devdutt Pattnaik’s first work of fiction, weaves the tale of the ensuing crisis with the stories of Somvat, who surrenders his genitals to become a wife; Arjuna, the great warrior with many wives, who is forced to masquerade as a woman after being temporarily castrated by a nymph; Ileshwara, a god on full-moon days and a goddess on new-moon nights; and others who wonder what their dharma is when they exist not here, not there, but somewhere in between. Devdutt Pattnaik creates a lush and fecund work of fiction in which the lines are continually blurred between men and women, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, fathers and mothers. Confronted with such fluidity the reader is drawn into Yuvanashva’s struggle to be fair to all— those here, those there and all those in between.
5) Shikhandi and other Tales they don’t tell you by Devdutt Pattnaik
Queerness isn’t only modern, Western or sexual says mythologist Devdutt Pattnaik. Take a close look at the vast written and oral traditions in Hinduism, some over two thousand years old, and you will find many overlooked tales, such as those of Shikhandi, who became a man to satisfy her wife; Mahadeva, who became a woman to deliver his devotee’s child; Chudala, who became a man to enlighten her husband; Samavan, who became the wife of his male friend; and many more… Playful and touching- and sometimes disturbing- these stories, when compared with their Greek, Chinese and Biblical counterparts, reveal the unique Indian way of making sense of queerness and sexuality. This book contains 30 short stories taken from various Hindu sources like the epics and the Puranas.
6) ASURA: tale of the Vanquished by Anand Neelakantan
The story of the Ramayana has been told innumerable times. The enthralling story of Rama, the incarnation of God, who slew Ravana, the evil demon of darkness, is known to every Indian. And in the pages of history, as always, it is the version told by the victors that lives on. The voice of the vanquished remains lost in silence. But what if Ravana and his people had a different story to tell? The story of the Ravanayana has never been told. Asura is an epic tale of the vanquished Asura people, a story that has been cherished by the oppressed outcasts of India for 3000 years. Until now, no Asura has dared to tell the tale. But perhaps the time has come for the dead and the defeated to speak. This book is Ramayana retold from the point of view of Ravana. By reading this book you’ll get a whole new perspective on the epic – one that has never been known or told!
7) Menaka’s Choice by Kavita Kane
Born during the churning of the ocean of milk, Menaka is the most beautiful of all the apsaras (damsels) in heaven, with quick intelligence and innate talent. However, she craves for the one thing she can never have – family. Elsewhere, after severe austerities, a man, now blessed with the name Vishwamitra, challenges the gods and dares to create another heaven. Fearing his growing powers, Indra, the king of the devas (gods), decides to put a stop to his ambitions by making Menaka seduce him. What will happen when Menaka and Vishwamitra meet each other? Will Menaka finally find what she really wished for? Or will she again be forced to surrender to her destiny? Find out in this fascinating portrait of one of the most enduring mythological figures. This is the fourth book in Kavita Kane’s series on mythological fiction about lesser known women from Indian mythology and is an interesting read.
8) The Serpent’s Revenge: Unusual tales from the Mahabharata by Sudha Murty
This book is the first one in Sudha Murty’s series on Indian mythology. How many names does Arjuna have? Why was Yama cursed? What lesson did a little mongoose teach Yudhisthira? The Kurukshetra war, which forced even the gods to take sides, may be well known, but there are innumerable stories set before, after and during it that lend the Mahabharata its many varied shades. In this collection of 25 short stories, award-winning author Sudha Murty reintroduces the fascinating world of India’s greatest epic though these little-known but extraordinary tales, each of which us sure to fill you with wonder and amazement. While you’re at it also check out the author’s second book in the series – ‘The Man from the Egg‘ which I have reviewed here.
9) The Ram Chandra Series by Amish Tripathi
This is popular author Amish’s own take on the Indian epic – Ramayana. While I would not call it a retelling as the story is in many many ways different from the actual epic, it does make for an interesting read. Of course the series takes the major content and characters from the actual epic but modifies them greatly to create an entirely new story! For example- in this book Sita is depicted as a strong warrior while in the actual epic she is just Rama’s demure wife. This series infuses elements of mystery and uses somewhat modern day vocabulary and slang. Yet I would recommend it to you because it does retain the essence of Indian teachings and Hindu cultural practices and the book delves into philosophy at various levels. The author has slated this series to contain 4 to 5 books and so far two books have been released which are – ‘Ram: The Scion of Ikshvaku’ (2015) and ‘Sita: The Warrier of Mithila‘ (2017). The third book – ‘Raavan: The Orphan of Aryavarta‘ is expected to be released this year.
10) 7 Secrets from Hindu Calendar Art by Devdutt Pattnaik
Hindu Calendar Art may be gaudy and kitsch, but it is the most modern and democratic expression of a mythic imagery that once adorned temple walls and palm leaf manuscripts. They speak a language that is indifferent to rationality. It is the language of a people’s faith. In this book, Dr. Devdutt Pattanaik, India’s renowned mythologist, translates this language and reveals an ancient Indian truth that will certainly impact your life. The book is divided into seven chapters (hence, 7 secrets) in which each chapter talks about the imagery associated with a particular Hindu god – Ganesha, Narayana, Ardhanari, Shiva, Devi, Vishnu and Brahma. It has full length illustrations on the left side and textual matter on the right hand side and the illustrations complement the text and the point being explained.
So these are my top 10 recommendations for Hindu mythology. There many many more books that I’d like to recommend you and I’ll just mention some of them for your reference:
- Sita’s sister by Kavita Kane (Fiction based on the Ramayana)
- The Palace of Illusions by Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni (Fiction based on the Mahabharata)
- Culture: 50 insights from Mythology by Devdutt Pattnaik
- My Gita by Devdutt Pattnaik
- Shiva Trilogy by Amish Tripathi
- The Hindus: An Alternative History by Wendy Doniger (an account on Hinduism by a foreign scholar on Hinduism)
Have you read these books or any other similar books? Do let me and other readers know! Xia ci zai jian!