Stories of Faith
The three most important stories in the Hindu tradition are the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagavat purana. The first two are classed as itihas, meaning ‘history’, the implication being that both these stories have historic bases. However, it is recognised that over time, some addition and subtraction to the narrative may have occurred. It is also recognised that some exaggerations would have crept into the narrative. The third story is classed as a purana meaning a legendary tale.
The Ramayana is considered sacred because it revolves around the life of the great Hindu personality Rama, who the Hindus revere as an incarnation of God on earth, an avatar. Rama represents idealism. Rama lived for higher values rather than property and possession. The story of his life has inspired millions of Hindus. The story travelled far into South East Asia where it continues to be revered by many Hindus as well as non-Hindus.
The Mahabharata is an epic with another sacred Hindu personality, Krishna, also an incarnation of God. He helped the righteous, the Pandavas, to defeat their unrighteous cousins called the Kauravas. However, it is more than a simple story of good over evil. Krishna brought religious principles into the public eye. He showed how these higher ideals can be achieved in people’s daily lives. He was the first personality to recognise the role of pluralism in the way one perceives and progresses in a spiritual journey.
The Bhagavat purana focuses mainly on the life and teachings of Krishna. It is religious narrative at its best. It manages to put across extremely subtle ideas of Hindu philosophy in a very accessible form, using stories and sub-stories. Sometimes philosophy and abstract ideas seem dry; narratives are important for making religious teachings vivid and digestible. The power of narrative can never be underestimated.
Hinduism, which is not apologetic about promoting the idea of God with form and attributes, takes full advantage of this by weaving very colourful stories of Gods and Goddesses and putting across subtle principles in an accessible form.
Stories of faith are subject to interpretation. The Hindu narrative has a habit of evolving to take into account the needs of different times. Each narrative will have multiple layers of meaning invoked through plots and sub-plots dealing with a variety of social and ethical issues. Exaggeration too would have crept into some of these stories and the devotees are warned to decide for themselves what aspects to accept as literal truth and what aspects as pure narration. However, there are certain key morals which these stories put across, and it is for us to inculcate them and put them into practice. Narratives are not given the same status as the scriptures of authority like the Vedas. Narratives are recognised as ‘man-made’ instruments to make abstract spiritual ideas accessible to the lay person.
These stories give vivid examples of how to translate religious ideals into practice. They promote ethical values for the benefit of the individual and the greater society.