Reading Regional Mahabharatas

An introduction to regional Mahabharatas as autonomous (knowledge) texts that are creative retellings of the Vyasa Mahabharata rather than imperfect, incomplete, or corrupt translations.

Retellings of classical texts such as Valmiki Ramayana and Vyasa Mahabharata in modern Indian languages are among the foundational features of India’s regional cultures. The retellings are, however, often viewed as imperfect, incomplete, or corrupt translations and as derivatives of the canonical versions with limited independent value. This course introduces regional Mahabharatas as autonomous texts that draw upon a wider range of classical and other sources, including regional epics in other languages.

Sarala Mahabharata will be used as the point of reference for discussions in this course. (We will also refer to Vyasa Mahabharata as the broad contours of its story are well-known.) Sarala Das’s 15th Century Odia retelling, is perhaps the first complete retelling by any one poet of Vyasa Mahabharata and also the only retelling that is longer than the latter. Like his Kannada and Telugu counterparts, who retold the Mahabharata in their respective languages, Sarala Das is celebrated as the Adi Kavi of his language. Sarala’s stories will be compared with stories from other regional Mahabharatas, wherever possible.

The course begins with an exploration of the world of Mahabharatas in the first module that also situates Sarala Mahabharata in its historical, socio-cultural, and literary contexts. The second module explores Sarala Mahabharata through different lenses by reading it as a collection of nested conversations, a prison revenge story, a dharmasastra, and a repository of stories. The third module engages with villains, women, Yudhishthira, and Bhima. The last module examines ideas such as social order and individual agency and responsibility