Are There Any Truths in Mythological Stories?

By Kollengode S Venkataraman

There was a story by Laurie Goodstein in the July 20th issue of The New York Times ( focusing on an intrafaith challenge: When Mormons search the web for reinforcement and clarifications in their faith, they end up with doubt and disillusionment because of the historical anomalies, inconsistencies and church practices between what they hear in their tightly managed churches and read in the Mormon Bible, and what is widely available on the Internet.

Goodstein quotes a deeply religious Mormon overseeing the Mormon Church’s European operations: “I felt like I had an earthquake under my feet. Everything I’d been taught, everything I’d been proud to preach about and witness about just crumbled under my feet. It was such a terrible psychological and nearly physical disturbance.”

A few days later, Harold Kushner, a Conservative Rabbi and the author of the bestseller When Bad Things Happen to Good People, chimed in advising Mormons on how Judaism deals with inconsistencies in its Bible, the Old Testament, compiled a few thousand years before the Mormon Bible’s time (Letter to The New York Times, July 23). The rabbi writes:

“Might I suggest that they [Mormons] use the tactic used by many modern Jews dealing with biblical narratives that defy credulity, from a six-day story of creation to Jonah living inside a large fish. We [Jews] distinguish between left-brain narratives (meant to convey factual truth) and right-brain narratives (meant to make a point through a story).”

The rabbi goes on: “The message will be true even if the story isn’t factually defensible.” Modern Jews’ efforts to reconcile credulous events in their Bible with their skeptic members today are understandable.

In this background, we hope—and also expect—that the Abrahamics extend the same approach when they study mythologies in other systems of beliefs instead of showing condescension and derision.

In any case, there is nothing “modern” or original in modern Jews’ attempt to reconcile the incredulous with the cerebral. In fact, this is the very basis of stories in Indian and Greek mythologies, and in the Sufi stories that came over 1500 years later. In all these stories, even when the narratives themselves are incredible and truly fantastic, the kernel messages they convey are valid for all times and in all places.

So, here is an example of a story I heard in the Bhagavatam discourse by Shantananda at the Chinmaya Mission in August:

In the Hindu cosmology, time is divided into four sequential yugas or epochs, called the Satya or Krta, Treta, Dwapara, and Kali yugas, with each yuga thousands and thousands and thousands of years long. But that is not important here.

In the Satya Yuga, the noble and the evil people lived isolated in different worlds. In the Treta Yuga (Ramayana’s time), the noble and evil people came closer—in different land masses on earth separated only by water. The noble Rama was in India and the evil Ravana in Lanka, separated by water.  In Dwapara Yuga, the evil and noble people became closer still—cousins of the same family, as the noble Pandavas and the evil Kauravas. In the Kali Yuga (our time), the Noble and Evil are the closest they can ever be—the two are in all of us in our own mind. As ideas and thoughts, the two constantly battle each other all the time each trying to have an upper hand within each one of us.  ♦

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