[INDOLOGY] Mahābhārata and Classical Hinduism Seminar Programming at the AAR

Collins, Brian collinb1 at ohio.edu
Fri Nov 3 16:48:19 UTC 2023


I want to call your attention to the programming the Mahābhārata and Classical Hinduism Seminar will be presenting at this year’s annual meeting of the AAR. Please note that the listing of panelists at the special session dedicated to remembering Alf Hiltebeitel has changed from what appears in the program book. I hope to see you there!

Saturday, 5:00 PM - 6:30 PM (A18-443)

Theme: The Performance of Social and Religious Status in the Mahābhārata
San Antonio Convention Center-Room 210B (Meeting Room Level)
Arti Dhand, University of Toronto, Presiding

This session responds to the Presidential Theme for this year, addressing the Mahābhārata’s depictions of serving or marginalized classes – the dāsīs, the sūtas, the hunters and butchers and fisher-folk – emphasizing their roles as exemplars of wisdom and dharma.  Performance of one’s dharma is a major theme of the text and our session considers the significance of such performances of virtue.  This session also addresses the literal and figurative "handcrafting" of Mahābhārata, by authors ancient or modern who contribute in original ways to leave their mark on retellings of epic narratives.  Papers on Vidura and Ekalavya are complemented by a paper on the “Act of Truth” statements.

Vishwa Adluri, Hunter College
“Dharma Born from a Śūdrayoni: Vidura in the Mahābhārata”

The Mahābhārata presents itself as a Veda for those excluded from privilege and as a dharmaśāstra. The wisest character is the author’s biological son Vidura, who is born from a śūdra woman. Because of his birth, Vidura is systematically excluded from having a say in dharma and from questioning his standing in life, even though he is the very incarnation of Dharma. Scholars (Kantawala 1995, Goldman 1985, Hiltebeitel 2001) have focused on the episode of Dharma being cursed to be born from a śūdrayoni (MBh 1.57.80d, 81b, and adhyāya 101), but in this paper, in keeping with this year’s Presidential Theme, I focus on the plight of Vidura, the paradigmatic political outsider. I trace the epic’s argument that privilege uses dharma in a legalistic, unethical way and delegitimates those who oppose its abusive power. Vidura the outsider is a witness to how Hāstinapura insiders conducted politics, but also Justice personified.

Richard H. Davis, Bard College
“Ekalavya in the Mahābhārata and His Modern Followers”

The Ekalavya episode in the Mahabharata occupies one short chapter in the lengthy epic.  In this brief narrative, Ekalavya is the ambitious son of a Nishada chieftain, who is deeply wronged by the Brahmin Drona and the Kshatriya Arjuna.  Like many portions of the epic, it is a living story that continues to speak in modern India, but it speaks to different audiences in very different ways.  This paper explores the narrative first as it appears in the Sanskrit Mahabharata, and then how three contemporary groups of situated readers have portrayed the story: middle-class Hindus (represented by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar), Dalits, and members of the modern Nishad class.

Bruce M. Sullivan, Northern Arizona University
“The Poetics of Performative Speech Acts: Literary Expressions of Truth, Power, and Virtue”

The Act of Truth is a distinctive type of verbal expression performed in moments of crisis, and the Mahābhārata includes many instances of it. A consistent feature of the Act of Truth is the speaker’s citation of past actions performed well, and the imperative statement that based on that past performance a desired outcome must occur. The verbal formula is used to protect, to heal, to revive the dead, and even to kill. Comparison of the Act of Truth with other related speech acts (the curse, boon, and vow), and a few examples from Buddhist literature, reveals that they are all based on a shared ideology of the power of truthful speech. This paper draws on speech act theory, including its analysis of performative utterances, to examine the religious meanings and uses of the Act of Truth in the Mahābhārata as demonstrations of virtue and power.

Business Meeting
Arti Dhand, University of Toronto, Presiding
Bruce M. Sullivan, Northern Arizona University, Presiding

Sunday, 3:00 PM - 4:30 PM (A19-317)

Special Session: Celebrating the Life and Work of Alf Hiltebeitel (1942-2023)
San Antonio Convention Center-Room 212B (Meeting Room Level)
Arti Dhand, University of Toronto, Presiding
Bruce M. Sullivan, Northern Arizona University, Presiding

Brian Collins, Ohio University
Perundevi Srinivasan, Siena College
Brian Black, Lancaster University
Veena Howard, CSU Fresno
Shubha Pathak, American University

Sunday, 5:00 PM - 6:30 PM (A19-445)

Theme: Royalty and Divinity in Regional, Vernacular, and Performative Mahābhārata Traditions
Grand Hyatt-Republic A (4th Floor)
Bruce M. Sullivan, Northern Arizona University, Presiding

This session is devoted to texts and traditions of Mahābhārata performances such as theater, film, and vernacular language textual traditions, with a focus on the religious uses of these traditions.  Papers in this session include Tamil performative and religious traditions and Tamil films that reimagine Mahābhārata characters from the Kaurava side of the conflict, and articulate the cultural significance of such retellings.  In addition, Kālidāsa’s retelling of the story of Śakuntalā and the king in drama reveals changing social practices and audience expectations over time.

Perundevi Srinivasan, Siena College, Loudonville
“Transformation of the Kaurava Queen Peruntiruvāḷ into the Goddess: Periyāṇṭacchi Worship in Tamilnadu”

This paper explores the narratives and practices associated with Periyāṇṭacchi ("She, of the big universe") in the Dharmapuri region of Tamilnadu, India, based on ethnographic fieldwork and Tamil chapbooks. Periyāṇṭacchi is the clan deity of numerous families belonging to the Vanniya Kavundar caste group and is identified with both the goddess Pārvatī and Duryodhana's wife Peruntiruvāḷ (also known as Bhānumatī) from different yugas or cosmic ages. The story of "Arjuna's Tapas," which is part of the “Draupadī cult Mahābhārata” (Hiltebeitel 1988) and has been passed down through various oral and performance traditions, has played a crucial role in the identification of Periyāṇṭavar and Periyāṇṭacchi as Śiva and Pārvatī, respectively. Specifically, the encounter between Arjuna and two hunter couples during his journey has contributed to the deification of the Kaurava queen in the Tamil milieu, which I analyze in detail.

Sowparnika Balaswaminathan, Concordia University, Montreal
“Ethics, Affect, and the Mahabharata: Karna as the Hero in Tamil Political Mass Movie”

This paper examines the character of Karna in two Tamil films: Thalapathi (1991; Dir. Mani Ratnam) and Karnan (2021; Dir. Mari Selvaraj), and explores how vernacular cinematic conventions and Tamil understandings of morality contribute towards a Dravidian rendering of the epic narrative. In Thalapathi, Surya is a henchman of a local don and a man of the masses. Confronted by Arjun, an agent of the state about their illegal activities, Surya must choose between his comrade and as he finds out later, his half-brother. Karnan draws inspiration from a historical event of caste violence against a Dalit community in Tamilnadu, and maps characters from the Mahabharata onto a regional narrative about oppression, resistance, and liberation. In this paper, I analyze how Tamil understandings of ethics and love vernacularize the epic and situate Karna as heroic, allowing for a radical reinterpretation of what can be called a just society.

Mukti Patel, University of Chicago
“Kālidāsa’s Writing a Romantic History: Aesthetic Love in the Story of Śakuntalā”

Kālidāsa tells a story from the Mahābhārata that arguably had a further reach than the original verses. He rewrites the story of Bharata’s birth from Śakuntalā and Duḥṣanta in his drama, Abhijñānaśākuntalam. This paper will examine how Kālidāsa represents the love between these two characters though an analysis of the drama’s aesthetic features in the first act. Kālidāsa’s protagonists, accompanied by a cast of characters, develop a shy romance that is largely communicated through glances, thoughts to themselves, and hushed jokes amongst friends. He departs in many ways from the Mahābhārata’s story, most notably making the King and Śakuntalā into characters that are more amenable to his audience’s contemporary sensibilities. Kālidāsa thereby dramatically transforms, by virtue of his retelling, the social imagination of history through his literary work.



Prof. Brian Collins
Department Chair and Drs. Ram and Sushila Gawande Chair in Indian Religion and Philosophy
Department of Classics and Religious Studies
234 Ellis Hall
Ohio University
Athens, Ohio
740-597-2103 (office)

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