Values and Story

Within Hindu tradition, story remains an essential means of transmitting values. Heroes and heroines embody ideal virtues, which they exhibit through exemplary behaviour. Many of the stories focus on the kshatriyas and brahmanas, the two classes most responsible for maintaining social and spiritual culture and corresponding norms of behaviour. Stories can be explored repeatedly, with the reader or listener gaining progressively deeper insight.

The tales of Krishna, particularly those discussing his childhood and youth, are perhaps the most famous. They are readily accessible even to young children, and yet illustrate profound truths about God and Hindu attitudes towards him. Many texts compare the soul’s relationship with the Supreme to relationships found in this world. These familial exchanges are sweet, loving, and saturated with pleasure, devoid of fear, guilt, and other debilitating traits. God is replete with unlimited attractive features, and the soul delights tirelessly in his company.

Krishna’s lila (spiritual pastime) as the butter thief, for example, shows how God is the source of all human tendencies, even mischief. Krishna’s stealing, however, is free from greed and envy, and serves only to enhance the love of his devotees. For centuries, such stories have captured the hearts of millions of Hindu people.

Stories often illustrate key values. The tale of Mrigari the hunter examines non-violence (ahimsa) and its relationship to key concepts such as karma and reincarnation. It reflects the Hindu tendency to see life not merely through its physical symptoms but through the eyes of the consciousness inherent in all species. This story is relevant to issues of diet, hunting, empathy, violence, compassion, and animal welfare. It also illustrates the role of the guru in transforming the lives of others. Many narratives explore the qualities of such spiritual leaders, and their abilities to instill wisdom and character in others. Before meeting his spiritual teacher, Mrigari used to enjoy half-killing his victims. Afterwards, he avoided all violence, even going out of his way to avoid stepping on ants.

The kshatriya class carried responsibility for protecting its citizens – and not just in human society. A pigeon about to be devoured by a hawk took shelter of King Shibi. The hawk subsequently insisted that he also had a right to protection and that the king must provide eatables for all dependants, including carnivores. Maharaja Shibi resolved the problem by cutting and donating flesh from his own body, equal in weight to that of the pigeon. Once on the scales, the pigeon miraculously became heavier and heavier and the king was about to sacrifice his entire body. Two demigods then revealed that they had decided to test the king by taking the forms of the two contesting birds. Many Hindu stories focus on the grave responsibilities of public leaders.

Some stories illustrate how traditional values can clash with contemporary ideals. Draupadi, one of the heroines of the Mahabharata, accepted the role of a faithful wife and at the same time was an influential, assertive, and discerning woman. Although Hinduism assigns specific roles to women, it in no way condones their exploitation. On the contrary, Draupadi’s tale teaches that those who offend women lose all good fortune. As a result of offending Draupadi, millions of nobles had to lay down their lives on the plains of Kurukshetra. Draupadi’s character may appear somewhat ambiguous. Though she demonstrated the fiery self-esteem often associated with royalty she also exhibited remarkable compassion by forgiving the murderer of her five adolescent sons. In India today, there are traditions which focus on the veneration of Draupadi.

Shravana Kumar, who exemplifies the Hindu ideal of service to elders, in this case his parents. Shravana was accidentally killed by King Dasharatha, Rama’s father, for which the king later died as a result of separation from his own son. Respect for elders does not automatically imply contempt for those of lesser status – well illustrated by the story of King Rantideva.

Contemporary, everyday people also play an important role in nurturing moral conduct, with their daily struggles to follow the lofty examples set by their role-models. For them, the tradition places more emphasis on moral behavior than on conformity to a particular belief or doctrine. Morality is largely realised through the respective duties allocated to the different sectors of society. The prime responsibility for values rested on brahmanas (teachers and priests), kshatriyas (administrators) and parents, reflecting the need for an appropriate ethos in the school, temple, home and state. Thus values were nurtured through an appropriate social system as well as through the example of individuals. Also important was etiquette. Customarily, juniors offered respect to elders by bowing and touching their feet, and seniors in turn bestowed their blessings. Elders were considered sources of wisdom and good counsel. Today, as values change within the Hindu community, still conspicuous is the respect and veneration offered to holy people and family elders. Story remains a principal means of preserving such culture and etiquette.

Scriptural Passages

“It is said that great personalities almost always accept voluntary suffering because of the suffering of people in general. This is considered the highest method of worshiping the Supreme Lord, who is present in everyone’s heart.”

Bhagavat Purana 8.7.44

Common Misunderstandings

Hindu stories are symbolic, so we can derive whatever meaning we like from them; we can also change them to promote values we consider suitable to students.
Many Hindus do not consider their stories and “myths” to be entirely metaphorical (in the same way as, say, fairy tales) Out of respect for the tradition, it is better not to change stories or to use them to illustrate values other than those originally intended.

For more information

See: Story and Myth, Mahabharata, Bhagavad-gita, Ramayana