Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Concept of Role Models in Hinduism

by Sri Ajit Halder 


Through the ages, Hindu religious characters endowed with life-ennobling virtues have been adored as Role Models. Hindus admire these virtues so much that they feel inspired to incorporate these attributes into their daily lives. So, the term ‘Hindu role models’ generally refer to holy figures who possess intrinsic values and behaviors that are considered worthy of emulation and fit to imbibe as part of the Hindu life style.


Hindu scriptures are full of Gods and Goddesses who are held in high esteem as Role Models.  Their divine virtues offer guidance on how to lead a righteous life.  By embracing those noble qualities in life, a Hindu genuinely hopes to be elevated to a higher and nobler h level. Additionally, emulation of the attributes of these Role Models by an individual in his/her life establishes a link between the Divine and the human, and the person feels that a godly figure is always with him/her.  Thus, Hindu devis and devatas do not remain as distant heavenly figures, but become a living presence in the lives of the Hindus.


Each one of us has the capacity to transform our life style, and this potential (laying hidden inside us) needs to be awakened.  By copying the attributes of the role models, our inner qualities will be brought into action.  With the activation of our latent capabilities, we will be empowered to improve the quality of our lives and also help others lead a better spiritual life.


This article investigates the ways in which Hindu Gods, Goddesses and mythological characters have influenced, and continue serving as epic role models in matters of authority and power.  The article will also look into the lives of a selection of contemporary saintly figures and social leaders who are idolized for their spiritual message and social roles.


It should be mentioned right at the outset that this paper’s main aim is of course, to understand the contribution and influence of the major Hindu God-like mythological characters regarded as role models that mark the moral landscapes navigated by the Hindus.   Hindu mythology narrates the appearance of religious figures in our world in human forms providing example of ideal human behavior. Hence Hindus can easily identify themselves with those humanized characters. Since mythological figures appear close to human perception, it is thus possible for the Hindus to inculcate their holy message in life and feel elevated to a higher spiritual level. Before I elaborate further on the theme of this article, it will be of advantage to know of the sources wherefrom the moral teachings of Role Models reach us.  These sources are:


1)   Hindu Scriptures; 2) Mythology – The Ramayana and the Krishna story from the Mahabharata; 3) Folk tales e.g. the Manasa Mangal Kavya; 4) Jatra Plays  e.g. Ram Lila and enactment of stories from the Puranas conveying moral lessons;  5)  TV serials  - Ramananda Sagar’s TV episodes on the Ramayana and the Krishna story from the Mahabharata televised in recent times; 6)  Kathakathaa - oral narratives on Puranic stories given by the Kathak Thakur (a story teller) to an audience of believers.


Often a role model depicts not just one, but many diverse performing roles.  Take for example Rama, who exemplifies the dignity of an ideal son, a noble and benevolent king caring for the welfare of his subject, an ideal brother, and a dutiful husband.


Female Role Models


Of all the organized religions of the world, women have perhaps the         most important presence in Hindu scriptural literature, and many of them behaved as genuinely inspiring role models. In Indian mythology, five women – Sita, Savitri, Draupadi, Ahalya and Arundhati, the Pancha Satis or the five ideal women – are held up as role models to the Indian women and men alike.  Indian girls are taught at home by their mothers that their main purpose in life is to be a good wife and caring mother and they are groomed for those roles from an early age holding before them the exemplary characters of the five ideal women.   Our discussion starts with the account of Sita.


Devi Sita of Ramayana is regarded as a woman of virtue.  She is a perfect example of loyalty, obedience and morality, and has all the values that people believe a woman must have in her character.  Her entire life constitutes an example of idealism – ideal daughter, ideal wife and ideal mother.  She leaves the palace charms and amenities in order to stay in exile in a forest with her husband, Rama.  While in exile, the demon-king Ravana abducted her and imprisoned her in Lanka.  When Sita got freed from the clutches of Ravana, she proved her sanctity to Rama by giving Agni Pariksha (Fire Ordeal).   Sita has captured the hearts of millions of people and is regarded as the role model of wifely love and adherence to duty.


Savitri brings back her dead husband Satyaban to life through intense prayer, and by outwitting the God of death, Yama.  Behula in Manasa Mangal revives her dead husband Lakhindar ( killed by snake-bite) by her devotion to Devi Manasa and both act as role models and inspiration to be ideal wives to the women of India because they exemplify a wife’s devotion to her husband, the virtue of a Patibrataa (i.e. fidelity to a husband) Wife.  Many other feminine figures worthy to be accepted as role models will be found in the religious literature, and the reader may look them up only to find out that as role models they have made unique contributions to the Hindu family as well as community life.


Male Role Models


Traditionally, Lord Rama and Shri Krishna are considered as the most positive male role models for all Hindus.


Lord Rama is revered as Purushottama, i.e. the noblest of men, thereby acknowledging the fact that Rama – the hero of the epic Ramayana - upholds the dignity of the diverse social roles he is expected to perform.  He is an ideal son and as an elder brother, his actions command love and devotion.  As a king, the wishes and interests of His subjects are far more important to Him than His own.


Shri Krishna is a Purna Avatar meaning he is the incarnation complete with all holy attributes and the most exalted godhead. He is the perfect role model whose valor, wisdom and heroism are fit to be emulated by humans to vanquish the external evil forces and also the evil instincts of the human mind.


Two aspects of Shri Krishna as a role model are: 1) Shri Krishna engaged in his divine sport (Lila) with Radha and the Gopis as described in the Srimad Bhagavatam and 2) Avatar Shri Krishna, extensively described in the Mahabharata.


The tenth chapter of Srimad Bhagavatam narrates the birth of Krishna in Mathura and his activities in Vrindaban and Dwarka.  The fascinating stories of Krishna’s childhood and youth tell of his mischievous pranks as Nani Chore, his killing of the female demon Putana, taming of the serpent Kaliya, and the lifting of the Govardhana Hill to protect the native people of Vrindavan.


In His youth, Krishna becomes the model lover.  The intense love of Radha and the Gopis (milkmaids) for Krishna is well-known. The story of the culmination of this love taking place in the Ras Lila dance, an ecstatic celebration of love set at midnight in the forest, is very popular and spiritually significant. It is a metaphor for the union of human soul with the divine spirit and has been romanticized in Jaideva’s Gita Gobinda and other poems. These became important in the development of the Krishna Bhakti traditions worshipping the dual Radha-Krishna.


The Gita section of the Mahabharata depicts Shri Krishna as the charioteer of Arjuna, his instructor and as a divine companion advising Arjuna and through him the entire humankind on how to tackle life’s problems and be engaged in doing one’s duties.  Shri Krishna is a model teacher and benefactor of humanity, and it is in this role that He shines supreme.


Ramanand Sagar’s TV serials


Sagar’s TV episodes on the Ramayana (telecast on Doordarshan from January 1987 until July 1988), and ‘Shri Krishna’ (telecast during 1991-93) were immensely popular with the TV audiences that found these shows both religiously rewarding and entertaining.


The viewers witnessed their role models in action, appearing in human form and performing their roles with grace and dignity.  Although the characters were enacting scenes from the epics, to the TV audiences (with their eyes glued to the color screens), they appeared to be real persons portraying real life situations.  This screening thus made an enduring impact on the viewers leaving a lasting impression on their minds of the triumph of Truth, goodness and piety over evil doings.  As a medium of religious instruction on morality and righteous living, Sagar’s telecast of the epic stories was a grand success as the episodes brought hundreds of thousands to a fresh understanding and enthusiasm for the Hindu scriptures.


Sagar’s reconstruction of Radha and the Gopis (unmarried girl friends of Radha) for a contemporary audience shows the Gopis performing a brata (puja to a Goddess), so behaving with conventional morality and performing a traditional woman’s duty.  As a result of their devotional efforts, the Gopis earn the boon of partaking with Krishna in the Ras Lila dance not as adulterous lovers but as devotees meeting with their beloved God.


The popularity of the televised versions of the epic role models and the many allusions to them in everyday life in India emphasize their noble virtues and references made about their lives and activities.  This shows that role models are just as relevant today as they have been in the past. 


Contemporary role models


Many saintly figures and social stalwarts of recent times displaying noble virtues often themselves become role models to their followers.  Sri Ramakrishna and Sri Sri Babathakur may be mentioned here in that context.  We benefit from the enlightening messages of Sri Sri Babathakur available in his books.  His sermons delivered during His life time at many Satsanga gatherings inspired the devotees, and still continue to inspire them after His ascent to the heavenly abode.


We should also mention Swami Vivekananda who through his speeches and writings and his personal aesthetic qualities has inspired the youths of India to dedicate their lives for the welfare of the masses.  The poet Rabindranath Tagore has served as a role model to a host of budding Bengali writers who have been inspired by the poet’s humanity and theme of universalism, and the poet’s influence is clearly felt in many areas of modern Bengali literature.




Hindus admire the noble ideals of Role Models as found described in the scriptures.  By following those virtues in life, Hindus add a spiritual dimension to their worldly existence.


It is popular with the family elders to use the name of a Hindu Role Model in naming a new born baby.  Also in recognition of a good act or pleasant behavior of a junior, the family elders often address that member by using an appropriate holy name.  It is very common for a dutiful son to be praised as Rama incarnate, or a talented daughter commended as a virtual Saraswati.  A satisfied mother-in-law will refer to her son’s wife as the coming of Lakshmi, Goddess of fortune and prosperity, into her home.  All this shows how deep rooted are the influences of Role Models in the life of a Hindu.


In this article mention has been made of role models who possess the qualities that Hindus would like to have.  It is hoped that the Hindu role models gleaned from the scriptures will encourage and guide the reader to make the right choices in life, reach the goals of human life, be a better person today and enjoy a much nobler life tomorrow.

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