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. Draupadi, one of the personalities 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.
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.
“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.”
– Srimad Bhagavatam 8.7.44