Before there were written scriptures, religious ideas were transmitted orally; and before the existence of the religions we know today, hunter-gatherers and tribal communities would gather around the fire to share stories about mysterious forces that had the power to affect their living world. The stories of the indigenous cultures that predate formal religions often featured animals that embody specific virtues.
Over time, many different religions evolved. And in those that exist today, parables are still often used as an important tool for teaching spiritual and moral values. They can be found in a variety of religious texts, including the Bible, the Quran, and the Buddhist sutras, to name just a few.
In Christianity, Jesus often used parables to teach his followers about ethical and spiritual principles. For example, the parable of the Good Samaritan teaches the importance of showing compassion and kindness to others, even to those who may be seen as outsiders or enemies. The parable of the Prodigal Son teaches the importance of forgiveness and redemption.
The Prophet Muhammad also used parables to explain complex theological concepts to his followers in the early days of Islam. For example, the parable of the Blind Man And The Seeing Man teaches the importance of seeking knowledge from those who are enlightened. The parable of the Garden in the Quran teaches about the importance of humility and the dangers of arrogance, while the parable of the Spider illustrates the fragility of worldly pleasures and the importance of seeking God’s guidance.
The Buddha frequently used parables to teach his followers about the nature of suffering and the path to enlightenment. The Jataka Tales is a collection of such parables often used to teach moral lessons. For example, the parable of the Poisoned Arrow teaches that it is not necessary to know all the details of the universe to achieve liberation, while the parable of the Burning House illustrates the need to escape the suffering of the world.
Hinduism draws upon a rich tradition of parables and stories dating back to the ‘Manusmriti,’ one of the ancient legal texts of Hinduism that contains numerous references to stories and parables used to illustrate moral and ethical principles. Similarly, the stories in the Hindu epic ‘Ramayana’ underscore the importance of loyalty, devotion, and selflessness, and are often cited for highlighting exemplary behavior.
The Baha’i faith also places great emphasis on the use of parables and allegories to explain truths and moral principles. The importance of recognizing spiritual wealth and pursuing it with diligence is covered in the parable of the Hidden Treasure in the Baha’i writings.
Stories can change the way we think, which is why all religions rely on stories, myths, and parables. We get hung up on the differences in the content of the stories from various religions and fail to see the underlying commonality: all religions have many parables, and often they have the same purpose and function, which is to help us make meaning in our lives and to live more peacefully and harmoniously with one another.
People differ in many ways, one of which is the level of education and exposure. The great prophets knew this and understood that the abstract and complex nature of their teachings would not be palatable for many people. They used parables to meet people at their respective cognitive levels. They skillfully used parables as powerful teaching tools to simplify complex moral and spiritual principles–to make them more down-to-earth, relatable, and memorable.
Parables allow people to find their own meanings out of the stories and lessons that have been passed down throughout generations and to gain insights about the mysteries of life and the nature of the divine through metaphorical interpretations.
“Jesus spoke all these things to the crowd in parables; he did not say anything to them without using a parable.”
—The New Testament (Matthew 13:34), Christian scripture
“The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”
—The New testament (Matthew 13:31-32), Christian scripture
“Allah sets forth parables for mankind, and Allah has knowledge of all things.”
—The Quran (14:25)
“The likeness of those who spend their wealth in Allah’s way is as the likeness of a grain which groweth seven ears, in every ear a hundred grains. Allah giveth increase manifold to whom He will. Allah is All-Embracing, All-Knowing.”
—The Quran (2:261)
“Consider the king who has lost a gold coin or a precious pearl in his house. May he not find it by the light of a wick worth no more than an issar? Likewise, do not let the parable appear of little worth to you. By its light, a man may fathom words of Torah.”
—The Talmud, Collection of Jewish texts
“Did I not previously tell you that all the Buddha Bhagavats explain the Dharma with various explanations and illustrations using skillful means, all for the sake of highest, complete enlightenment!?”
—The Lotus Sutra, Buddhist text
“The Lord is the repository of all learning, and the Vedas are the scriptures meant for the good of all. By reading and reflecting on the stories and teachings contained in the vedas, one can attain the highest knowledge.”
— Atharva Veda, Sacred Ancient Hindu Text
“O Brahmanas! Stories serve as an excellent means for explaining things. They make understanding easy and memory firm. In ancient times, this was how the wise taught the ignorant.”
—The Mahabharata, Anushasana Parva (91.19)
“Narrate unto them, O Servant, the story of ‘Alí, when He came to a city in His wanderings, calling out “Hasten to the mercy of your Lord!” Some believed Him, and some denied Him.”
—Bahá’u’lláh, The Kitab-i-iqan
“In every age and cycle, the tales, the traditions, the sayings and the admonitions of the past prophets and sages have exerted a profound influence over the thoughts, the manners, and the customs of their respective peoples.”
—Shoghi Effendi, The World Order of Bahá’u’lláh
Modern Psychology and Philosophy
“[You should] read religion as parable, as folklore, as poetic presentation of your own history and nature.”
—Robert Aitken, Translator
“An educator never says what he himself thinks, but always only what he thinks of a thing in relation to the requirements of those he educates.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosopher