MLA Proseminar: Reading the Sanskrit Epics in a Turbulent World

Course Number
SAST 631 640
Course Code
Course Key
Primary Program
Course Description
Ancient India's two epic poems, composed in Sanskrit and received in dozens of languages over the span of two thousand years, continue to shape the psychic, social, and emotional worlds of millions of people around the world.  The epic Mahabharata, which roughly translates to The Great Story of the Descendants of the Legendary King Bharata, is the longest single poem in the world (100,000 lines of Sanskrit verse) and tells the mythic history of dynastic power struggles in ancient India.  While it presents us with an apocalyptic meditation on time, death, and the utter devastation brought upon the individual and the family unit through social disintegration, the epic also houses one of the great religious works of the world, The Bhagavad Gita (translation: The Song of God), which offers a buoy of hope and possibility in the dark ocean of the epic's violent narrative.  The other great epic, The Ramayana (Rama’s Journey), though essentially tragic, offers a brighter vision of human life, how it might be possible to live happily in an otherwise hopeless situation.  It too is about struggles for power in ancient India but it offers characters -- especially Rama -- that serve as ideals for how human beings might successfully negotiate life's great challenges.   It also provides a model of human social order that contrasts with dystopic polities governed by animals and demons.  Our course will engage in close reading of selections from both of these epic poems (in English translation, of course) and thus learn about the epic genre, its oral and textual forms in South Asia, and the numerous modes for interpreting the epic.  We will also look at the reception of these ancient works in modern forms of media, such as the novel, television, theater, cinema and the comic book/anime.  In the process, through selected essays and reflections, we will pay special attention to the ways in which the ancient epics remain deeply relevant in the modern world, reflecting on topics such as: the aesthetics of war, the psychic life of social ideals, and creative responses to ethical conflicts.      
Subject Area Vocab