Shopping Period: The Epics of Indian Religions

August 15, 2017
Anne E. Monius
Anne E. Monius, Professor of South Asian Religions / Photo: Justin Knight

This feature is part of an HDS Communications interview series offering students a closer look at selected upcoming courses. Below, we chat with Professor Anne Monius about her fall 2017 class “Indian Religions Through Their Narrative Literatures”—an examination of the religious traditions and communities of South Asia through the stories they tell.

HDS: In your course description, you claim the course will study Indian religions “from the poetic visions of Vyasa and Valmiki … to modern performances in urban street theaters and television serials.” Considering their incredible longevity, what do you think makes them so attractive to readers/viewers? Could you give a brief example of an epic that remains attractive to audiences?

Anne Monius: 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 Bhagavadgita, literally “Song of the Lord,” wherein the god Krishna, disguised as a charioteer, reveals himself to the human warrior, Arjuna. The Rayamana 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.

HDS: On a somewhat related note, what in or about these stories reflect the religious traditions and communities that fashioned them? Put another way: Why study Indian religions through epics as opposed to studying their sacred texts, doctrines, mythologies, etc.?

AM: For well over a century, the scholarly study of Indian religious traditions focused almost entirely on its philosophical and scriptural texts, largely ignoring the subcontinent’s wealth of narrative literatures. Given what my colleagues in South Asian studies currently cover in their course offerings, this class on the epics in their many iterations seemed to fill a lacuna in the curriculum and offer beginning students a focused introduction to Indian religious traditions and practices.

HDS: India (let alone South Asia) offers a variety of literary genres. Why did you choose to focus this class on Indian epics as opposed to other literatures, such as drama?

AM: 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. The epics, in other words, easily cross genres—both in history and today.

HDS: By the end of the course, what do you hope that students will walk away with?

AM: I hope that students 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.”

I also hope that students come to see how the epics provide a unique lens through which to understand the complex interactions among different religious communities in India, as well as the transmission of South Asian religious and cultural values abroad.

As Vyasa, the legendary compiler of the Mahabharata, claims of his text: “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.”

—by Bo Clay, HDS correspondent