Accessing the World’s Faith Traditions Through Story
by Vicki Garlock
Everyone loves stories, and most of us are familiar with the idea of Bible storybooks as a point of entry for kids being raised in the Judeo-Christian traditions. When looking at sacred texts like the Tao Te Ching (which is highly abstract), the Qu’ran (which is highly poetic), or the Rigveda (which is highly complex), it’s easy to assume that the Bible is the go-to religious book for stories. To be sure, the great sagas of Moses and Joseph, the account of David’s kingship, and the parables of Jesus seem to offer a narrative universe unrivaled in other traditions, but this may only be because we haven’t looked at the narratives in other traditions seriously enough.
For example, the Biblical creation story accounts for only two chapters, yet creation stories abound, especially in indigenous traditions. (For more on creation stories and using them with kids, see How the World Came to Be, Animals, Butterflies, Sun, and Sky, and Caring for Creation.) As it turns out, every single one of the world’s major religions retains a rich set of narratives that both educate and entertain their youth. That’s why we use numerous stories in our interfaith curriculum for kids. What follows is an outline of the religion-based story collections we often draw from.
Legends of the Prophets and Rebbes
Many of the major religious traditions were established by people who led legendary, almost mythical, lives. In addition to the Biblical characters mentioned above, we can add Abraham, Jonah, and Samson from the Hebrew/Christian Bible. But the lives of the Prophet Muhammad and the early rebbes of the Hasidic tradition also provide narrative fodder for their respective followers.
Some storylines are surprisingly similar across traditions. The story about Muhammad nursing one of his enemies back to health brings to mind Jesus’ teachings to loving your enemies and praying for those who persecute you. The healing stories told about Baal Shem Tov (founder of Hasidic Judaism) and his successor, the Maggid of Mezeritch, are similar to healing stories attributed to Jesus and his disciples. And legendary characters in all three Abrahamic traditions are known for their ability to elicit kindness, generosity, and acts of great faith from their followers.
For those of us unskilled in Arabic or Hebrew, many of these tales are now available in English. Here are some of our favorite web sites and published volumes for kids of all ages.
365 Days with the Prophet Muhammad (2014) by Nurdan Damla (auth.) and Osman Turhan (illus.). Istanbul: Timas Kids Publishing.
Tales of the Hasidim (1947/1975) by Martin Buber. New York: Schocken Books.
The Prince who Turned into a Rooster: One Hundred Tales from the Hasidic Tradition (1993) by Tzvi Rabinowicz. New Jersey: Jason Aronson, Inc.
The Great Tales of India
Abrahamic traditions do not have a monopoly on magical and mystical narratives. India, which is ground zero for several major religious traditions, including Sanatana Dharma (commonly known as Hinduism), Buddhism, and Sikhism, is also the source of innumerable legendary tales. The point of these tales is to impart wisdom to the next generation, making them analogous to the stories of the Abrahamic prophets and great Hasidic rebbes. The range of characters, however, is as vast as the Indian sub-continent itself and includes deities, talking animals, demons, and gurus.
The Ancient Epics
The Mahabharata and the Ramayana are the two ancient epics of India. The Mahabharata, often called the longest poem the world has ever known, tells of the great war between the Kaurava and Pandava clans. It is divided into 18 books; the sacred Hindu text, the Bhagavad Gita, is actually an excerpt from the sixth book.
The Ramayana tells the tale of the divine prince Rama, who was exiled for 14 years with his great love, Sita, and his brother Laksmana. When Sita was kidnapped by Ravana, Rama defeated Ravana and rescued Sita with the assistance of Hanuman and his army of monkeys.
Although both epics are centuries old, they are still widely told throughout Southeast Asia via kids’ books, graphic novels, dance dramas, puppet theater, live re-enactments, video productions, and adult literature. There have even been modern-day, extremely popular, prime-time TV series of the Ramayana saga. Here are a few resources if you’re interested in sharing these stories with your kids.
Mahabharata Animated Movie for Kids (with brief introduction)
Ramayana Animated Movie for Kids (11 minutes)
Ramayana Animated Movie for Kids (1 hour)
Illustrated Mahabharata for Children (2009) by Chandu (illus.). Bangalore, India: Vasan Publications.
Illustrated Ramayana for Children (2009). Bangalore, India: Vasan Publications.
Tales of the Panchatantra
The animal fables that constitute the Panchatantra, which originated in ancient India, are much shorter, yet they rank among the most widely known stories on the planet. Shared the world over, they have experienced centuries of adaptation by differing cultures and new generations. In fact, one scholar estimates that there are more than 200 versions of these tales in more than 50 languages.
The stories feature talking snakes, birds, amphibians, and mammals of every shape and size who share both human virtues and vices. Each tale offers a moral lesson, and their influence can be felt in Greek mythology, Persian folk stories, and European morality tales like Aesop’s fables. There is the story of the crab who outsmarted the lying heron, the story of quails who worked together to defeat the clever hunter, and the story of elephants whose kindness toward mice paid off when they were captured.
According to the Panchatantra itself, its stories were initially told to educate three princes about the “Indian way of wisdom” – which is arguably why they are still told today. Over 80 fables make up the five-volume work, and like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, they can be found in various formats for various ages.
The Panchatantra: Wisdom for Today from the Timeless Classic (2011) by Sunita Parasuraman. Mumbai: Jaico Publishing House.
Although many legendary tales find their roots in the lives of humans, the Sanatana Dharma includes stories from Hinduism’s pantheon of heavenly beings – only some of whom appear in human form. Many people know about the Hindu triumvirate of Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, or the popular god, Ganesha. Some people have even heard of their female consorts (e.g., Lakshmi, Parvati) or some of Vishnu’s avatars (e.g., Krishna). But the Puranas contain hundreds of stories about the gods, goddesses, and demons populating the Hindu list of memorable characters. Some passages from the Puranas have been turned into stories for kids. Stories about Lord Krishna are world-wide favorites, but there are many others that are also fun to read.
Little Krishna – English (A series of animated videos about the life of the boy Krishna. Most are about 25 minutes long)
My First Book of Hindu Gods and Goddesses – Picture Board Book (2016) by Sonila Prashant. CA: Beanstalk Cottage.
Tales of Indian Gods and Goddesses (2011) by Divya Jain. New Delhi, India: Unicorn Books.
The Jataka tales consist of stories, poems, and commentaries found in several volumes written over time in various languages (e.g., Pali, Sanskrit, Tibetan, Sinhalese). Like the tales of the Panchatantra, this makes them somewhat difficult to categorize.
The Jataka tales are generally associated with the Buddhism. Some of the stories were told by the Buddha himself, or his followers, to illuminate the Dharma. Other stories are said to contain characters that represent the Buddha living out his past lives. Either way, they tend to promote the quintessential Buddhist qualities of loving-kindness, generosity, honesty, thoughtfulness, and equanimity, and they are still shared today by monks and lay teachers during their discourses.
Buddha at Bedtime (2008) by Dharmachari Nagaraja. London: Watkins Publishing.
Tales of the Sikh Gurus
Among the great stories from India are the Sikh tales about their 10 living gurus. These stories tell of the courage, godliness, and wisdom of Sikhism’s great leaders who lived from the mid-1400s to the early 1700s. There is the story of Guru Nanak, founder of the faith, who brought water bubbling up from the ground using a small stick and then stopped a huge boulder rolling toward him with one hand. There is the story of Guru Har Krishan who, even as a young student, exhibited a love so divine it could turn wood to wax. And there is the story of Guru Gobind Singh who, as a boy, cured a leper bathing in the Ganges. Later as an adult, he shot his gold-tipped arrow into a table leg from two miles away to keep the Sikhs from having to fight a war. These and other Sikh tales tales provide glimpses into the cultural context and socioeconomic circumstances that laid the foundation for the Sikh religion. Many of them can be found on-line at SikhNet Stories for Kids or in SikhNet’s 2009 published volume Sikhnet Stories for Children by Harijot S. Khalsa.
The Nature of Stories
It is no accident that the world is full of stories. Human brains perk up as soon as a narrative begins. Stories fascinate, engage, and transcend time and place in a way that few other mediums can. They provide ready-made, age-appropriate ways to share human truths and collective values, and the narrative context often offers a window into other cultures: Jesus teaches near the Sea of Galilee, Muhammad lives in a desert environment, Hasidic tales are set in 19th century Eastern Europe, the Hindu deities reside in the heavenly realm, and the Jataka tales occur in India.
Research seems to support what caregivers, educators, and publishers already know from everyday experience. According to Brian Boyd, author of On the Origins of Stories, storytelling and the creation of narrative are integral aspects of being human. Stories can focus attention, highlight our commonalities, and promote social cohesion – all of which are evolutionarily advantageous. Neuroscientists, using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) techniques, have arrived at similar conclusions about the human potential for processing story. For example, different brain regions are activated by different aspects of a narrative, i.e., when a character’s goals change in a story, the prefrontal cortex – an area known to be involved in real-life goal-directed behavior – shows increased activation in the listener.
It therefore makes perfect sense that myths and legends hold a special place in all faith traditions and that story-sharing has become an important component of multifaith exploration. Stories have allowed generations of elders to share behavioral standards, moral lessons, and ethical principles with their descendants. Stories provide narratives for grasping and articulating Divine Nature. And stories offer a fun and entertaining way to learn – for both listeners and tellers – regardless of age or life circumstance.
Header Photo: Max Pixel