Understanding a religion is difficult. The most important place to start is to realize that there are as many types of Hinduism, Islam and Judiasm as there are types of Christianity. Believers in any given religion may tell you that there are “core beliefs” or that their version is the only true version, but the former is wrong, and the later is merely political rhetoric. Every religion comes in many flavors. And in our case today, there are many types of Hinduism with many different types of believers.
Because of all that complication, starting with religious literature may be a good beginning as many religious traditions have sacred literature. But as my diagram above illustrates, sacred literature is only a small part of that religion.
In this Mahabharata series we will use the myths discussed in the Mahabharata to explore other aspects of Hinduism, but the Mahabharata can only take us so far in understanding Hinduism, much like the Bible can only take us so far in understanding Christianity.
I made the top diagram to illustrate some of the components needed to deeply understand most religions. Of course, you can get a flavor of a religion by knowing just a few components. Indeed, probably most believers in any religion really only know a few components. To be an adherent (a follower, a believer), it is not necessary to understand one’s own religion, it is usually enough just to claim it as your own.
Below I made another diagram categorizing the major texts of Hinduism. Hopefully this image and the one above show how the Mahabharata is just one small element of Hinduism.
Finally, here is another diagram I made which gives a timeline of Hindu religious literature in comparison to other sacred literature. Remember, many ancient texts are the recording of much more ancient oral traditions. And oral traditions, in an age of no technology, meant that stories varied from area to area. The person writing it down can choose to either record differing stories or to try and homogenize them. The sad thing about the written traditions, is that these myths can then become fossilized — they stop changing and morphing and the religious specialist often try to tell us that they have been the same forever, and are accurate stories and not campfire myths.