Stories from sacred texts, myths, morality tales and stories of exemplary people
Given the vast extent, varying genres and fluid boundaries of what can be counted as sacred texts in Hinduism, very few people will be familiar with all of this material. The majority of people, especially children, will be more likely to know certain well-known sections, often shortened and simplified versions, as told by parents, grandparents, priests and teachers, usually in story form. There are also many newer stories of later saints and exemplary people, or stories created to teach traditional topics to new generations. Well-known stories have many purposes. They may explain why certain customs, practices, rituals and festivals take place. They may exemplify moral behaviour, show good winning over evil, or illustrate and explain ideas and teachings. They may be enjoyed at face value or interpreted as symbolic of profound spiritual truths. Many of these stories are retold in graphic, comic book form, or inspire films and television programmes. There is a vast and rich resource of Hindu stories from the main narratives, many subplots and incidental tales of the great epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, stories retold from the Puranas or Upanishads, many stories over the centuries of saints and founders of particular strands of Hindu practice, and more recent stories such as the vrat katha mentioned above, and ones created by contemporary writers of books for children and adults.
Among the very well-known stories that may be heard in temples, illustrated in Hindu art, found in books for Hindu children, or in RE textbooks are the following: the story of Rama and Sita; many stories connected with Krishna such as eating the butter or hiding the cowgirls’ clothes; stories of other avatars of Vishnu such as Narasimha, half-human half-lion, who destroyed the seemingly indestructible demon Hiranyakashipu; and many stories of goddesses (or THE Goddess) destroying evil demons. Stories about Ganesh are attractive to younger children, such as how he lost his tusk, or obtained an elephant’s head. The story in the Chandogya Upanishad of the teacher Uddalaka Aruni getting his son Shvetaketu to dissolve salt in water to illustrate how the divine can be everywhere and in everything yet invisible is a favourite. Other stories can explain how things came to be as they are, such as how the goddess Ganga became the river Ganges. Stories of saints throughout the centuries include that of the princess Mirabai devoted to Krishna, or Ramakrishna, a favourite of the followers of neo-Vedanta, who experienced visions of the divine that crossed religious boundaries. Perhaps more generally Indian than Hindu (but it is hard to make this distinction) is the collection of tales called the Pancatantra, (see list of websites) which includes many tales with morals consistent with Hindu ethics.