This semester I am teaching a course on the Hindu epics for the first time. I have got to know these delightful and intriguing texts very well in recent years, and I am excited to be able to share my enthusiasm with some students.
I am being a bit ambitious trying to cover both epics – Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa – in one eleven-week course. I couldn’t seem to decide which one I wanted to teach more – the Mahābhārata is my favourite, but the Rāmāyaṇa is a bit easier to access and there are some great teaching materials available. So, in a moment of folly, I decided to squeeze both in! The benefit, of course, is that we are able to make some comparative comment, and discuss the texts in relation to one another and in their historical and religious context. The challenge is in how to cover so much material, and the demand on the students’ time and energy is therefore high. But they are absolutely rising to the challenge: class discussions so far have been wonderfully stimulating!
I am using the two Penguin abridged translations: John Smith’s Mahābhārata and Arshia Sattar’s Rāmāyaṇa. So far so good. We have started with the Mahābhārata, and the students are doing a wonderful job navigating Smith’s text, digesting the summarised passages fine, and really engaging with the translated parts that form the set readings for class. The glossary of names and the family trees in the back of Smith’s volume are a great help too.
I did wonder about setting Carole Satyamurti’s Mahābhārata: A Modern Retelling (Norton, 2015) in future years, once the paperback version is out. I am only halfway through reading this myself, but I absolutely love it. The language is fabulously rhythmic and draws the reader into the action. There are no interruptions in the form of summarised passages, just a straightforward retelling in engaging blank verse. Such an achievement, and one that should make a whole new audience aware of this great work of literature.
But then my scholarly self cannot quite allow me to set a retelling as a set text for the course. It might make easier and more pleasant reading for the students, but it would also make it harder to cross reference the primary set text with secondary scholarship. I shall have to give this more thought.
Meanwhile I am really enjoying this course, and I am thoroughly impressed by the students’ engagement with one of my all-time favourite texts. It is such a pleasure to have a conversation about the Mahābhārata every week!