Religious Beliefs

Are there mythic elements in Hindu tradition?

Hinduism’s sacred texts comprise one of the world’s greatest treasure troves of myth. Non-Hindus, especially “westerners” who find themselves inclined to discount Hindu tradition as “just a collection of stories,” are shutting the door to that watershed of insight called the imagination. All religious traditions build on a master story composed of accounts about how the world came to be, what human beings are all about, and the relationship between humankind and the greater Being or Power responsible for the shape of things. Some traditions, such as the Abrahamic faiths, wrap themselves around narratives they call their sacred history. Other traditions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, for example, consider human history much too small a stage for any drama under the direction of the Ultimate Reality. History begins, stretches out, and comes to a definitive end. But the view that history is all about what “actually happened” while myth is purely “imaginary” is seriously flawed.

History and myth are two very different ways to answer the big questions about human life. Sacred history tells how God has worked in the world by identifying certain events as the result of divine intervention. Mythic narrative tells the story of the otherness of Ultimate Reality by stretching the limits of the imagination. History works from the ground up, so to speak, and turns around the power of memory, while myth starts with mystery and cultivates the human capacity for wonder. What non-Hindus may be tempted to criticize as a weakness in Hindu tradition, Hindus regard as their tradition’s great strength. Both approaches yield important forms of narrative theology. Far from being simply contradictory, myth and history complement each other.

  Hinduism Buddhism
Scriptures Divinely inspired Words of Buddha
Deity Nearly ultimate power No immediate consequence
Society caste Not stratified, Sangha
Individual Eternal Atman (self/soul) Anatta (no indestructible self)
Karma/Action Without thought of results Unattached, compassionate
Dharma/Law cosmic/individual rule Teaching of Buddha
Samsara/World cycle of transmigration Rebirth of consciousness
Sacred Ritual God-oriented sacrifice/devotion Meditation/Buddha as teacher
Proximate Goal Improve one’s station Reduce attachment/suffering
Ultimate Goal Moksha, end of rebirth Nirvana, end of suffering


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