Pick up any mythological story, and sooner or later you will come across a moment of magic. More often than not, this magicking will be something a god does or causes to happen so that a certain prophecy made by another deity in the distant past may be fulfilled.
Ganga drowns her newborn babies to free the Vasus from a curse. Vishnu incarnates ten times as an avatar to free the earth of evil rakshasas but those rakshasas were actually incarnations of his guards Jaya and Vijaya who had been cursed by a sage to be born on Earth. The list goes on.
The gods seem to be working in tandem with each other to make sure that every single word spoken by their friends comes true. This is not something specific to Hindu mythology of course — the Bible is full of alleged prophecies as well.
But when looked upon from a materialist perspective, a much simpler explanation emerges. Magical explanations in the myths are a way to assuage the pain that emerges from situations such as this.
A dark lord is terrorising the world? Don’t worry. Everything is going to be alright. This is all part of a plan. In fact, all this was exactly what the gods planned and there is a point to all of it that will become clear in retrospective. The gods sent evil to this world so that they could come defeat it. It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it?
A woman got turned to stone because her husband could not handle the fact that she got violated by someone disguised as him? Oh don’t worry. It’s only so that the next avatar of Vishnu may touch her back into human form and fill her with gratitude for having met him. That is not at all an ass-backwards way of doing things now, is it?
It is not as if the logical error in these situations is lost on everyone who reads these stories. But at the end of the day, stories have one purpose — they make life worth living by communicating the idea of order. This is why even in superhero comics there exists an idea known as “saving the day”. The hero’s efforts bring things back to “normal”. Yet, normal is never anything more than the social mores of the day. Once the supernatural threat has been abolished, we simply return to a world with shocking terrorism, runaway capitalism, and rampant sexism.
We accept the magical explanations of our mythological stories for the same reason. Though there is a disconcerting trend towards literalism among many modern Indians, most people do understand that these are just stories.
When we hear of the death of an infant, the rape of a woman, or the murder of an innocent person, we wonder why these things happen. Our need to find meaning in meaninglessness gives birth to impossible reasons. These reasons take the form of stories so that they may gain currency and remain in circulation — the more people believe a story, the more believable it becomes to others. These stories — not always but often — turn into mythological stories over generations. It’s not much more complicated than that really.
Religion does serve a purpose. And that purpose involves holding society together with a narrative and providing answers to questions that we cannot answer yet. But it is not a purpose that can only be served by religion. We now know a little more about the human condition than we did a few centuries ago. New definitions are available and new stories can be told with them as the foundation.