When I asked Devdutt Patnaik about hair and mythology


Art by Devdutt Patnaik

When you start reading, and learning someone’s written words, (aka following a writer’s work), you start to create a world of how they would be while writing, and discovering much about their own personality. It was during this process of reading mythology by Devdutt Patnaik, and watching ‘Devlok’, that I referred to him as Dev Uncle. It was heartening to know that he is as wonderful, as his writing. At the recent Times Lit Fest I had the honour of listening to Dev Uncle speak at two sessions. After the first one I met him, and conveyed my love for his work, and he graciously smiled for a picture with my mum and I.


In the next session he spoke of ‘Is God a Boy or a Girl? and what about the Demon?’, in which I asked him…

“What role does gender identity and representation play in the world of the Gods? There has no supreme God that I have come across, who has short hair, for example the Greek Gods, Shiva, Devis, Jesus or Mother Mary, none of them are even bald, keeping in mind that Buddha did not identify as a God.”

He said, “I’ll ask them, and tell you.” *laughs*

“I mean, what role does hair play, does it represent fertility?”

(following is a rough narration of his answer)

He then went on to say, it could mean various things. In Greek Mythology it is often associated with vanity, like “Look, how glorious my long hair are”. The old testament has a tale of Absalom, who had very long and beautiful hair, and when he took his chariot and left, his hair got stuck in thorns. He is said to have been “hanged” by his hair having been caught in a tree. Another story is of Samson, who’s power lied in his hair. Only after his hair was cut, was Samson captured by the Philistines, and killed.

However, in Ramayana when Sita gives the ‘chudamani’ (hair tie jewel) to Hanuman, to pass on Ram, it is signals that “something can go wrong, do something quick”, as a symbol for him to come soon and save her. Even when you see Kali, you see open wild hair, and she lives in the forest. But when the Devi becomes Gauri Parvati, she steps into the household life (ghar grahasti jivan), and ties her hair.


In the case of the Buddha of course, letting go of the hair was a part of letting go of everything that carries attachment. He carried on to narrate the reason for short hair today, where he said, that it was only during the Roman Empire that the crew cut began. It was easy to attack soldiers, by grabbing their hair and slitting their throats. Then even women started cutting their hair, wondering ‘Why should we be easy preys for attack?’. With time this short hair has been associated with being masculine and macho.

But just like humans can turn a rock into a God figure, we can also turn hair into a representation of vanity, wildness, household responsibility, or defence requirements.

In this answer one must note that none of the representations bring out gender. Gender representations is what society and culture created with time, and as gender associations grew. In the history of the Indic mythological writings, Sita and Draupadi’s beauty has often been described, along with the long flowing hair. But no where is a man’s long hair looked at as effeminate. Ravan when describing Lord Shiva speaks of his thick, and other descriptions, as though it was no big deal. There are many aspects to perceive hair, and so I leave you with some of my favourite words by Dev Uncle.

“Within infinite myths lies the eternal truth.
Who sees it all?
Varuna has but a thousand eyes,
Indra has a hundred,
You and I, only two.”

“अनंत पुराणों में छिपा है सनातनः सत्य,

इसे पूर्णतः किसने देखा?

वरुण के हैं नयन हज़ार ,

इन्द्र के सौ,

आपके मेरे केवल दो ।”

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