The Ramayana, Illustrated
Shubha Bala, associate producer
Sanjay Patel, supervising animator at Pixar, has come out with his second illustrated book on Hinduism, Ramayana: Divine Loophole. Patel is one of the few people who have presented Hindu mythology in a way for North American kids to understand, and enjoy. But he also presents the Ramayana, one of the Hindu epic mythological stories, in a wonderful way for adults too — complete with illustrated character bios and geography lessons in the back.
He says in an Atlantic Monthly interview:
“I grew up in a house where there was no explanation—there was just practice. It was like eating for me: ‘Okay, I’ve got to eat. I’ve got to sit down and pray and stare at these wild illustrations of Hindu gods.’ My parents completely subscribe to these stories as philosophy, of course, but it’s also very much a religion to them, and they do see these beings as gods. I would ask my father, ‘Dad, do you really think there’s a blue guy out there?’ I couldn’t really narrow him down on that. But he seems to believe it.
So the Ramayana was always something my parents would study and worship, but it had no meaning to me until I read the story. Then I was like, ‘Wow, the characters are so cool. The plot is so cool. What they symbolize is so cool. This totally needs to be told!’ I wanted to use all the skills and the knowledge I’d gained at Pixar to put these ancient stories in a package that’s relatable and entertaining. If I have children, I want them to know something about their cultural mythology in a way that’s fresh and dynamic.”
He’s also asked about finding existing images of the Ramayana before creating his book:
“I realized after doing some research that centuries and centuries ago, The Ramayana wasn’t actually illustrated. It was sung and performed, and the actors would bring it to life with masks and costumes. Then later, there were these amazing sculptures. So I was looking at that for sure. But artists only really depicted certain episodes in the Ramayana. I wanted to show all those other scenes, like the part where they meet Jambavan the bear! If I were a kid, I’d want to see cool icons and badass graphics.
That’s what’s so great about this story. If you want to get into the dogma you can. But on a raw level, these stories are amazing conduits for really deep philosophy. I think that’s uniquely Indian in many ways. It’s this profound stuff but told through stories that common people can completely engage with—avatars and man-gods.”
From Building Blocks to Erector Sets
Shubha Bala, associate producer
“…there are some scientists who say ‘I don’t think electrons really exist.’ It’s useful to think of them as existing. It’s useful to build computers with that image in mind of an electron, but I don’t think they really exist… when other people think of God as a personal thing, that’s as close as you can get given the constraints on human cognition and maybe it’s not something you should apologize for…”
Transcribing Krista’s interview with Robert Wright for next week’s show, I came across this passage, which reminded me of a conversation I had with a Hindu Sanyasi when I was 16. In Hinduism, “God” has different definitions depending on what appeals to you. For example, in my family, I grew up understanding that all the different deities were forms of one personal being. But working in India, I met people who literally believed every deity existed as a separate identity — true polytheism. And this Sanyasi was my first exposure to the idea of God not as a personal being.
He explained it by saying that you have to start in kindergarten, learning simple concepts and forms. I think he believed that many people need rituals and images to understand God, but as their spirits reincarnate (and they “graduate”), they can refine their perception of God towards the truth, just like over time we can understand quantum physics (maybe!).