“Once one has heard this story so worthy of being heard, no other story will please him: it will sound harsh as the crow sounds to one after hearing the cuckoo sing. From this supreme epic arise the inspirations of the poets … No story is found on earth that does not rest on this epic—nobody endures without living off its food” – words of Vyasa
India’s two great epics – the Mahabharata and the Ramayana will soon be taught in Harvard University. The course has been named, “Indian Religions through Their Narrative Literatures” – an examination of the religious traditions and communities of South Asia through the stories they tell. Furthermore, the course will be taught by Anne E. Monius, the Professor of South Asian Religions at the University from this academic session onward.
What makes the poetic visions of Vyasa and Valmiki so attractive to readers/viewers? The Indian epics are long and complex narratives that speak to virtually every aspect of human experience. While the Mahabharata is a sobering tale of cataclysmic war and loss, the Ramayana is one of India’s great love stories. Scholarly interest in the Mahabharata has recently focused on the complexities of dharma or ethics in the text.
Clear passages about what one should and shouldn’t do are so often followed by other passages that undermine those ethical messages completely. The Mahabharata also remains powerfully relevant for the devotional or bhakti traditions of India, as it contains the Bhagavad Gita, literally “Song of the Lord”, wherein the god Krishna, disguised as a charioteer, reveals himself to the human warrior, Arjuna. The Ramayana is also important to the development of particularly northern India’s devotional traditions, and today Rama is worshipped as a fully divine being in many Hindu communities.
India is home to a variety of genres, why the focus has been laid on Indian epics as opposed to other literatures, such as drama. The course will cut across multiple genres, considering not only the Sanskrit textual epic traditions, but also dance performances, shadow puppet plays, modern fictional retellings, and televised renditions of the stories. In other words, the epics will easily cross genres – both in history and today.
By the end of the course, the students will walk away with a sense of the epic narratives as rich and varied lenses through which to examine the many different practices, commitments, and traditions that make up what scholars have called ‘Hinduism’.