Summer 2003

HUMS 643
The Mahabharata: India's Classical Epic


06/23/2003 - 08/05/2003
Tuesday & Thursday 06:00 PM - 08:30 PM

Fisk Hall 413

The Mahabharata is a stunningly rich body of literature. With its collections of epic narratives, legends, romances, cosmologies, battles, religious doctrines, and theories of social order, it is the foundation for much of classical and contemporary culture in India. The whole Mahabharata is an 18-book epic composed of more than 100,000 Sanskrit verses redacted over approximately 650 years, circa 300 BCE through circa 350 CE, when it came to be recognized as one body of literature. The core story describes the royal rivalry, between two sets of paternal cousins, which escalates into cataclysmic war. The overall frame is composed of stories explaining the lives and deaths of multiple generations within this family, and these frame stories are linked together by a massive array of inter-connected stories, sub-stories, and heroic tales.

This course will focus on the first two books, The Book of the Beginning and The Book of Assembly, exploring the intricate and deeply complex stories of the origins of the lineage, the unusual performance of a snake sacrifice, the strange births of all the heroic characters, the curses and boons on which the plot hangs, the politics of royal loyalty, treachery between the cousins, the polyandrous marriage of the five Pandava brothers to the princess Draupadi, and the dice game in which the oldest Pandava brother bets and loses Draupadi to his rival cousin, setting the stage for the brothers' 13-year exile and the war that followed. This text represents a pivotal transition in Indic culture, wrestling with dilemmas over differing visions of dharma, social and religious propriety. Through this course, students will explore themes of literary and social importance to classical India, and will learn about transformations of religious practice in Indian history.

No previous study of India is expected, but enthusiasm for critical analysis and informed appreciation is. As our primary text, we will read J.A.B. van Buitenen's prose translation of the first two books of the Mahabharata (University of Chicago Press, 1973, 1975); additional reading will include: selections from John Brockington, The Sanskrit Epics (Brill, 1998); essays by Alf Hiltebeitel including "Draupadi's Hair," "Purity and Auspiciousness in the Sanskrit Epics," and parts of Rethinking the Mahabharata: A Reader's Guide to the Education of the Dharma King (University of Chicago Press, 2001); David Gitomer, "King Duryodhana: The Mahabharata Discourse of Sinning and Virtue in Epic and Drama;" Ariel Glucklich, "The Royal Scepter (danda) as Legal Punishment and Sacred Symbol;" and Sally Sutherland, "Sita and Draupadi: Aggressive Behavior and Female Role-models in the Sanskrit Epics." Students will write two 3-page response papers, one 10-12-page final paper, and will participate actively in class discussion.

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:

Register for Courses

Contact to submit comments or suggestions. 
Copyright Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, 06459