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Religion Library: Hinduism

Sacred Narratives

Written by: Jacob N. Kinnard

Shiva, Parvati, and the baby GaneshaEach of the major divisions or sects—Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Shaktism, etc.—within Hinduism has its own set of sacred narratives that, although distinct to a particular sect, also contains overlapping elements. The Shaivas, for instance, hold Shiva as the highest form of the divine, and thus emphasize Shiva in their myths and sacred narratives. Many of these myths depict Shiva as a renouncer of the world who abandons the trappings of the world and goes off to the Himalayas to meditate. In some of these myths, a beautiful mountain girl, Parvati, falls in love with the wild-haired ascetic, much to the chagrin of her parents.

In one of the best-known such stories, the myth of Daksa, the power and sometimes unpredictability of Shiva is demonstrated (as well as his reputation as "the destroyer"). Hindu god ShivaParvati (who is here called Sati) is married to Shiva, although her parents are very much against the marriage. Her father Daksha holds a great sacrifice, and as a slight to Shiva, he does not invite him. Shiva is not bothered by the insult, but Sati is. She goes to her father, and in her extreme anger she commits suicide (in some versions her anger simply causes her to catch fire). Shiva, enraged, destroys the sacrifice and kills Daksha, thus creating cosmic disorder, adharma. The gods then praise Shiva, who relents and restores the sacrifice and brings Daksha back to life (Sati's body is scattered, and she is reborn as Parvati).

Vishnu, Hindu god of sustenanceNarratives concerning Vishnu tend to reflect, in contrast, his status as the cosmic maintainer of dharma.  Some of the best-known of these narratives are the myths having to do with Vishnu's avataras, the forms he takes to come down to the human realm and restore cosmic and social order. The many, many myths and stories having to do with Krishna are among the most popular and oft-repeated sacred narratives in the Hindu world. Particularly important are the devotional stories and songs in the bhakti tradition that narrate the relationship between Krishna and his human consort, Radha, in the sacred forest of Vrindavana.

Krishna and RadhaThe great Hindu epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana are often seen as Vaishnava texts, although they contain many myths and rituals oriented to Shiva and the goddesses as well. For many Hindus, the stories and myths in these texts represent the most sacred of all narratives, because they describe the activities of the gods in the human realm. On one level, these are simply great stories. They are told and retold, enacted, sung, and, in the modern realm, filmed. They are also great myths, however, sacred narratives that unveil profound truths, present moral and ethical guidance, and articulate the formation and order of the cosmos.

Three principal sects of Hinduism
SectSupreme BeingName of the followersWhere sect is most widespreadTexts
Sri Lanka
VaishnavismVishnu (or his avatars: Rama and Krishna)VaishnavasIndiaUpanishads
Bhagavad Gita
SaktismShakti (or Devi), the Divine MotherShaktasIndiaPuranas

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