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Online Program Book

In-person sessions begin with an A-prefix (i.e., A20-102), whereas Virtual sessions begin with an AV-prefix (i.e., AV20-102)
All Times are Listed in Central Standard Time (CST)


Theme: Alf Hiltebeitel's Legacy and the Literary-Critical Method

Saturday, 5:00 PM-6:30 PM (Virtual)

This session of the Seminar approaches the Mahābhārata as a literary work, inspired by the literary turn Alf Hiltebeitel’s research took some two decades ago. Our first paper surveys Hiltebeitel’s work on the Mahābhārata as a text and as the center of devotional and performative traditions. The paper focuses particularly on his most recent work, including a book currently in press that offers a new interpretation of the text emphasizing the centrality of adbhuta rasa (the motif of wonder or astonishment). Our second paper highlights ways in which the text engages in metalepsis, intentionally blurring the distinction between reality and fiction, and argues that it is precisely the unreal or fantastic aspects of the Mahābhārata ... where the greatest philosophical and literary theoretical work of the epic is being done. Our third paper focuses on the Drona Parva (Book 7), one of the books narrating the war, demonstrating that it is a narrative shaped by a theology centered on Brahman, with profound meanings embedded in the action. This session demonstrates some of the many ways scholars are deepening our understanding of the Mahābhārata.

  • Abstract

    Over the last forty years, Alf Hiltebeitel’s scholarship on the Mahābhārata epic has been shaping and reshaping the field just as he himself has changed his mind and shifted his perspective by engaging new theoretical models, doing fieldwork in India, or simply reading the text more closely. This paper will trace the development of his thought and explore the implications of his arguments, with special attention to his most recent works, Nonviolence in the Mahābhārata: Śiva’s Summa on Ṛṣidharma and the Gleaners of Kurukṣetra (2016), Freud’s India: Sigmund Freud and India's First Psychoanalyst Girindrasekhar Bose (2018), Freud’s Mahābhārata (2018), and World of Wonders: Adbhuta Rasa in the Mahābhārata (2020).

  • Abstract

    The Mahābhārata critical edition demonstrates that the epic was never a simple, oral “war narrative” taken over by Brāhmaṇas, but rather, a structured composition meant to be read as literature. However, the prejudice of the war books as central persists (see Fitzgerald 2003: xv–xvi, echoing van Buitenen 1973: xiii, xvi). In this paper, I use literary hermeneutics to investigate the epic’s presentation of the “war narrative.” Specifically, I focus on the father-son motif in Book 7, the Droṇaparvan. I argue that even the “core battle books” (Brockington 2003: 15) are closer to a literary creation than embellished reportage of a physical conflict. Thus, even violent episodes such as the killing of Droṇa reveal a complex theology. Droṇa, who identifies his son with immortality, must learn, through the confusion of his name, the lesson of singularity. This prepares him for the Mahābhārata’s ultimate teaching about Brahman. Read as literature, then, the “war narrative” is not simply about battles and bards. Closer examination reveals that battle action is embedded in a complex universe of ideas (cosmological, genealogical, sacrificial, and soteriological), which guide its narrative.

  • Abstract

    “The largest inadequacy in Mahābhārata scholarship…is simply the failure to appreciate the epic as a work of literature” (Hiltebeitel 1999: 156). Twenty years after Hiltebeitel wrote these words, despite significant new work on the epic (Sullivan 2016), we are no closer to an understanding of the Mahābhārata as literature. True, much critical work has been accomplished in the meantime, but how do we begin to think about the Mahābhārata as literature? Building on Hiltebeitel’s work (2001 and 2005), this paper argues for looking to sources outside those scholars have typically employed, specifically recent work on metalepsis (Genette 1980), representation of consciousness (Cohn 1978), fictionality (Cohn 1999), and mise en abyme (Dällenbach 1989). Specifically, I shall focus on the Mahābhārata’s use of “metalepsis,” i.e., “any intrusion by the extradiegetic narrator or narratee into the diegetic universe (or by diegetic characters into a metadiegetic universe, etc.), or the inverse” (Genette 1980: 234–35), to not merely blur the boundaries between fiction and reality, but to question the very category of and the epistemological tools by means of which we determine reality.


Theme: Multifarious Mahābhārata Methods

Sunday, 5:00 PM-6:30 PM (Virtual)

This session of the Seminar approaches the Mahābhārata in a variety of ways. Our first paper finds a coherent philosophical theme of monism in the text, explaining the manifestation of the world from Brahman through the concept of vyakti, or emergence. Our second paper examines versions of the Mahābhārata created in the Jain religious tradion, beginning with the 8th century Harivaṃśapurāṇa and its depiction of the repentance of Kīcaka, who becomes a Jain monk. Later Jain reinterpretaons of the text take varying approaches to this character whose depiction in Vyāsa’s text is entirely evil. Our third paper explores the geography of the Mahābhārata, its mundane landscape, the sacred sites visited by its heroes, and the religious geography of the text’s audience who seek to visit sites made sacred by the events in the narrative. The diversity of methods on display in this session demonstrates some of the many ways scholars are deepening our understanding of the Mahābhārata. The Seminar invites and encourages methodological and interpretive creativity.

  • Abstract

    In their voluminous yet underexplored adaptations of Mahābhārata, Jains reimagined the narrative and the characters of Mahābhārata in surprising ways. One such an unusual transformation is found in the Harivaṃśapurāṇa (783 CE) by the Digambara Jain Jinasena Punnāṭa, in which the character of Kīcaka, almost exclusively depicted as an irredeemable sexual predator, is redeemed. In the Virāṭaparvan of the Mahābhārata attributed to Vyāsa, Kīcaka, besotted with the disguised Draupadī, tries to molest her and meets a horrifying end at the hands of Bhīma for his transgression. As a Jain author, Jinasena radically transforms the episode’s denouement: instead of dying for his attempted sexual assault, Kīcaka repents, becomes a Jain monk and achieves final enlightenment. While later Jain Mahābhāratas often based themselves on Jinasena’s Harivaṃśapurāṇa, their adaptations of the Kīcaka-episode depict Kīcaka’s redemption as well as his death. This paper will explore the possible motivations behind the narrative choices of Jain authors.

  • Abstract

    The aim of my paper is to discuss the interdependence of the three geographies connected with the Mahābhārata (MBh): sacred geography depicting the world in which the epic heroes operate, mundane geography, in which India is depicted and religious geography inspired by the epic. I will present maps and diagrams based on the MBh descriptions. I will show how the epic authors imagined the universe and try to reconstruct location of the Indian provinces mentioned in the text. I will look at popular pilgrimage sites (Mathurā, Kurukṣetra, Dvārakā) and at places related to the MBh (Barnava, Bairat, Kampil) which do not attract crowds. Taking Bodhgaya as the example I will discuss the mechanisms of imposing and coexistence of Buddhist and Hindu traditions. In Pakistan, I will try to see how the pilgrimage sites function outside the Indian border. The presentation will be enriched with films and photographs collected during my trips to Pakistan (2018) and India (2019-2020). I will also show interactive maps related to the three geographies, which were created as part of the translation project of MBh 6-11 into Polish in which I participate.

  • Abstract

    Advaita philosophers before Śaṅkara explained world and Brahman as a continuum, as one expressed form and the other as its foundation. A closer examination of the dialogue of Sulabhā and Janaka (Śāntiparvan, Ch. 320) reveals a monistic philosophy that contrasts Śaṅkara’s Advaita. Addressed primarily with the terminology of vyakti, the monism defended here is not the physicalist monism but is closer to property dualism or panpsychism. The questions, what is consciousness and how does it relate to matter are what modern day scientists and philosophers have identified as a “hard problem.” Following the abhivyakti model as discussed in the Mahābhārata, matter and consciousness are comparable to wood and fire: we cannot see the fire in the wood but once we create friction, fire “emerges” (abhivyakta). In my paper, I explore throughout the Śāntiparvan to reconstitute this philosophy.