The devotional traditions of India have sometimes been judged as an inferior form of spirituality, a path meant for those who are less able to appreciate the deeper metaphysical truths. The various stories told are written off ancient fairy tales, mythology tailor-made for the simple-minded and superstitious. The narrations of how the boy Krishna lifted a giant mountain on his little finger, of how Hanuman the monkey fly in the sky, of how the Goddess Durga mounted on her lion killed the shape-shifting demon Mahishasura, all seen entirely ungrounded and irrational. But these stories form an integral part of the spiritual culture of Hinduism, so how does one look at these amazing, fantastic tales?
Essentially one can approach them in any or all of three ways. Some can be seen as entirely symbolic, other as based on historical events and some as an actual reality to get absorbed in. For example, in one Purana there is a symbolic story of how Lord Shiva and Parvathi are given a fruit by the celestial sage Narada. A challenge is set to their 2 sons Ganesha and Murugan, that whoever can go round the whole world 3 times will be declared the winner. Upon hearing this Murugan sets off immediately and races around the world on his peacock.
Ganesh, on the other hand, stares lovingly at his parents and walks around them 3 times. Shiva and Parvathi are puzzled by his actions, Ganesh explains that for his brother this external reality is his world but for him, the world is defined by his parents. Having been moved by this sentiment Shiva and Parvathi declare Ganesh the winner and the embodiment of wisdom. What this story highlights is that the fruit of life is not conquering the material world, but in honoring and delving deep into our own truth and what we connect with within.
Hindus have realized that words and philosophy can easily be forgotten but a story can drive the message home with far more impact. This tale is one of many examples of how various deities are placed in a certain context to symbolically deliver a specific spiritual lesson.