Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels: Folk Narrative in Hindu Religious Teaching

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In Storytellers, Saints, and Scoundrels: Folk Narrative in Hindu Religious Teaching Kiran Narayan narrates her journey to India starting in September 1985 when she took a trip as a graduate student in anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley. Her goal was to learn about Swamiji’s life and write a dissertation showing how folk narrative can be used as a form of religious teaching. Narayan herself was born in India to a Gujarati father and German-American mother and relocated with them to America when she was sixteen. As she says, “Anthropologists have traditionally studied the Other” while “folklorists…have tended to study their own society” (7). Being half-Indian and half-American makes her neither a foreigner nor a native when it comes to India so her views of the culture are of a unique perspective.

Many of the lessons that Swamiji teaches to Narayan and his other disciples are learned through storytelling, a practice that has been used for thousands of years. For example, when talking about the different types of stories that Swamiji tells, Kiran discusses the Upanishads. These Hindu scriptures date back to the middle of the first millennium BCE and convey stories learned from various teachers, just as they are now. It is obvious that “the use of storytelling as a medium for religious instruction extends far back into Indian history” (43). And it is not just Indians that use stories to pass on religious thoughts. “Christ told parables, Buddha recounted episodes from this past lives, Jewish rabbis use stories, Sufi masters frequently instruct disciples through tales, and ever the paradoxical statements of Zen masters often have a narrative form (5). Religion was often taught through stories in the past because of the limitations that applied to written works. A large portion of the Indian population was illiterate, so written teachings held no meaning to them. Instead, because religious teachings were passed on through stories, they were more accessible to the general public. Narayan’s grandmother would often point out that being illiterate did not mean she had no brains. There are also language barriers that prevent written stories from being transmitted to all. The total number of languages spoken in India is in the hundreds. It would simply be impossible for religious lessons and stories to be written down and transcribed into every one. Instead, as people travel and retell these stories they are transmitted across language barriers and are able to reach everyone. Also, because the stories are transferred orally, they can be repeated in different languages, or even in a combination of languages. Narayan is baffled by the fact that “the basic framework [of Swamiji’s storytelling] is Hindi, with Kannada case endings, Marathi colloquialisms, Sanskrit religious terms, and English words all thrown in” (20). And even with all this going on at once, “most of Swamiji’s visitors appear to have no trouble understanding him” (20). Using storytelling to teach religion can also be affective simply because it makes learning lessons more fun. As children we all loved to be told stories, fictional or not, because they allowed us to become a different character and live whatever that character was living at that moment. For this reason Swamiji says, “If you want to change the world, start with the children” (19). It is as children that we are first captivated by the world of storytelling and most influenced by them. When we are young we simply accept the lessons that is conveyed through stories, while as adults we are more inclined to question what we are being taught. Swamiji points out that “in the eyes of Bhagavan we are always children” (42), suggesting that we should accept the lessons that are being taught through these stories as a child would. Telling stories orally also allows some room for slight variations and gives the teller the opportunity to tailor stories to particular...
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