Fall 2005

HUMS 642
Love, Rivalry, and Transgression in Sanskrit Literature


09/12/2005 - 12/17/2005
Thursday -

Sanskrit literature offers a stunningly rich body of stories. Love, rivalry, family conflict, vengeance, cataclysm, and redemption are brought to life by charismatic kings, enigmatic queens, volatile priests, lovesick princes, and a host of compelling characters whose poignancy has been honed by generations of storytellers. Studying some of the most celebrated episodes from epic, drama, and "story" (katha) genres of the period between approximately 300 BCE and 1300 CE, we will explore how these texts use the transgression of social norms as narrative catalyst.

Sanskrit doctrine portrays the ideal society as neatly segregated by caste and gender, and in court literature, the contravention of this social hierarchy is a common source of narrative tension. In the epic Mahabharata, for example, the central drama traces back to a king who fell in love with a fisherwoman; he married her, but at the price of disinheriting his eldest son. The encyclopedic Ocean of the Streams of Story credits the text's genesis to be an episode in which a queen's command of Sanskrit grammar is superior to the king's; does this suggest that women's education included Sanskrit, despite Brahminic doctrine's prohibition of this? Princes, in tales by Dandin and Budhasvamin, travel incognito by impersonating Brahmins, and faithful wives escape dire circumstances by traveling in disguise as men. Are these narratives subversive? Does their very existence suggest that class and gender roles in Indic society were less stable than proclaimed by Brahminic doctrine? Or do they, ultimately, reaffirm social mores? By what interpretive methods can we analyze these questions? Our explorations of these issues will focus on the fine details of everyday life--mundane family conversations and the minutiae of everyday life--shirts, jewels, meals, horses, houses, and hairstyles--to grasp the nuance of the social world of our narratives.

Readings include classic stories from the Mahabharata, Ramayana, Ocean of the Streams of Story, Dandin's tale of ten princes, Budhasvamin's tale of magical adventures; all texts will be read in English translation. We will study how contemporary scholars analyze our specific texts, reading essays by Bruce Lincoln, Sheldon Pollock, Alf Hiltebeitel, Wendy Doniger, and others. To analyze questions of social change, we will study brief selections from social theorists including Pierre Bourdieu and Judith Butler.

Students will be responsible for posting a weekly response journal to the course's Blackboard site (an easy to use courseware program within student e-portfolios), will submit three short essays, and a final 10-12 page research essay.

A syllabus for this course is available at:

Karen Anderson (B.A. Hunter College; M.A., Ph.D. University of Chicago) is associate dean of Continuing Studies and director of the Graduate Liberal Studies Program at Wesleyan University.


Consent of Instructor Required: No

Format: Seminar

Level: GLSP Credits: 3 Enrollment Limit: 18

Texts to purchase for this course:
Budhasvamin, EMPORER OF THE SORCERERS (New York University Press/Clay Sanskrit Library), Hardcover

Dandin, WHAT TEN YOUNG MEN DID (New York University Press/Clay Sanskrit Library), Hardcover

Sheldon Pollock, RAMAYANA OF VALMIKI: AYODHYAKHANDA (New York University Press/Clay Sanskrit Library), Hardcover

J.A.B. van Buitenen, MAHABHARATA, BOOK 1: THE BOOK OF THE BEGINNING (University of Chicago Press), Paperback

J.A.B. van Buitenen, MAHABHARATA, BOOK 2 (University of Chicago Press), Paperback


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