Story and Myth

A Hindu parent reads traditional stories to his son and daughter: Many of these popular stories are also available in comic form, or on video.

Story and myth have always been part of sanatana-dharma, but scholars ascertain that they rose to prominence in the Epic and Puranic periods. Since then, Hindu concepts and values have been transmitted more through story than through philosophical or theological exposition, and stories are central in disseminating popular Hinduism. Stories were customarily passed down through the family, particularly by grandparents. They were also popularised by musicians, dancers and travelling theatre troupes. More recently, they have been retold through books, film, TV, and video. Hinduism is rich in meaningful stories. Western film-makers and playwrights have realised this, as illustrated by the Peter Brooks version (1989) of the Mahabharata.

A key element of story is the role of the hero and heroine, who embody exemplary values. Many narratives explore the nuances of dharma and the difficulties in its precise application. Although many of the stories are ancient, Hindu people talk of their hero figures with a sense of immediacy, as if they are alive today. These characters serve not as dated, tribal ancestors but as residents of a previously glorious age. Especially for children, the Panchatantra and Hitopadesh include allegorical animal stories with moral themes. Many of Aesop’s fables are believed to be derived from the Panchatantra. (For more information on story, please see Values and Story, Mahabharata, Bhagavad-gita, Ramayana, and The Puranas)

Glossary Terms

  • Draupadi, heroine of the Mahabharata. Many Hindus consider her, and other mythical and legendary figures, to be historical rather then fictional.

    Myth — a story, not necessarily fictional, which maps reality through understanding the higher dimensions of life

Personal Reflection

  • How does our own consciousness affect our use of language?
  • Does language give any indication of a culture and its specific values?
  • What impact have stories had on our own lives?

Common Misunderstandings

Hindu stories are entirely allegorical
Some Hindus contend that the Epics, Puranas, etc. are historical accounts, but happen beyond our normal realms of comprehension. These narratives span vast periods of time and space, and occur within multiple dimensions. There may appear to be factual contradictions, but Hindus place greater emphasis on appropriate values than on exactitude in names, dates, and so forth. One should be careful in using terms such as “myth” (see Glossary Terms, above)

One can derive whatever message one wants from Hindu stories
Although the tradition is liberal, and accepts that stories have multi-layered meanings, teachers should be careful about changing stories, or projecting their own values onto them without checking that they are actually consistent with Hindu thought. (See also Common Misunderstandings (above), Reincarnation and Samsara)