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Great Books

Studying books from different cultures, time periods and languages, the Great Books course introduces students to multiple ways of thinking and being in the world. Complex questions about sexuality, conflict, self, identity and science are navigated with reference to books, and fragments of books, from across geographies and chronologies These books and questions form the core of the course and its explorations.

Department: English | Semester: Monsoon 2022

In this course, we will address the question “What is sexuality” by reading some of the many books that have shaped our current ideas of the subject. These books will range across chronologies, cultures, and disciplines, starting with classical and medieval Indic texts — the Kamasutra, Sufi poetry — to ancient Greek and Roman classics — the Symposium, the Metamorphoses. We will also read philosophical texts like the Discourse on Method, biological texts like The Origin of Species, psychoanalytical texts like The Interpretation of Dreams, and literary texts like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Together, these “great books” will allow us to trace threads that have gone into our current ways of thinking about sexuality.

Department: History | Semester: Monsoon 2022 and Spring 2023

In this course, through certain texts, and in some cases, parts of texts students are invited to explore a series of complex and variegated themes and issues.  Some of these are the relationship between knowledge and ignorance, darkness and truth; the relationship between identity and destiny; narratological techniques; understanding of the historical processes and ideology; and the quest to discover the self to emancipate it from the restrictions that society imposes on the self. The books through which these issues are pursued are:

  1. Isa Upanishad
  2. King Oedipus By Sophocles
  3. Mahabharata (Selected Themes)
  4. Vindication of The Rights Of Women By Mary Wollstonecraft
  5. Tuhfat Al Muwahhidin By Rammohun Roy
  6. The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx
  7. A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

 

Department: History | Semester: Monsoon 2022

It is a truism that words mean something, and that they count for a great deal in life. However, the relation between thought, reality, and time has always been a matter of debate. The Greek word theoria meant contemplation, the act of looking, which later acquired the sense of an intelligible explanation based on observation and reasoning.
Historia meant inquiry, the search for knowledge; and it evolved over time to mean investigations and accounts of past events. Philosophia meant the love of wisdom. These
words, which relate to human experience in its deepest sense, prompt my choice of great books. As to why this is so should become clear in due course. The books are:

  1. Simon Leys; The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays, (2011)
  2. Tibor Szamuely; The Russian Tradition; (1974)
  3. Margaret Chatterjee; Gandhi and the Challenge of Religious Diversity; (2005)
  4. Albert Camus; The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt; (1956)
  5. Mark Lilla; The Reckless Mind: Intellectuals in Politics; (2001)
  6. Stanley Rosen; Nihilism: A Philosophical Essay (1969)

The first three books deal (in part) with history; with what is called tradition; and the treatment of these themes in political writing and fiction. The latter three deal with philosophical issues directly. I will introduce students to these books and specify certain chapters for required reading. Their scholarship will educate us and prompt us toward further study. Some will illuminate important historical events; others will raise issues common to human experience regardless of time and place.

Department: Undergraduate Writing Program | Semester: Monsoon 2022

In Quest Of

Who goes on quests? And what kinds of quests are they? Epics across mythologies have followed courageous (and controversial) men and women on long, unforgettable journeys. Novels host protagonists seeking all kinds of things: the ship captain vowing revenge against a whale; the little prince leaving his asteroid home in search of wisdom. A play reveals a quest that is absurd, even circular — what if you are waiting for someone who never arrives? — and one poet describes the spiritual quest of pilgrimage as an “urgent, unreasonable sojourn into uncertainty.” People have wondered and wandered into adventure long before they began writing about it, and this course will attempt to catch up with some of them and follow along. We will go in quest of them, just as they did before us. And we will also question them, just as they did before us.

Department: Sanskrit | Semester: Spring 2023

Rock, paper, palm leaf – Making sense of texts and textual traditions

In this course, we will examine texts from the subcontinent, with an eye to mapping their natural history. That is, we will read selections from stories, poems, inscriptions, and other, more conventional ‘texts’ in Sanskrit, Prakrit, and Tamil, and try to understand the larger literary and intellectual projects that they are part of. We will learn to attend to the authors’ discursive and figural techniques, while also gathering a sense of the transmission and reception of their works and ideas.

What is the connection between story and ritual? What does an inscription say? Who reads it? Who wrote the grammars of ritual, poetry, politics, and ethics? Were they read? And were these protocols followed? These are some of the questions we will pose in this course.

Texts we will read from include: 

  1. Veda (verse, prose), early sutra texts
  2. Mahābhārata, Yājñavalkya-smṛti
  3. Ṭherīgāthā, Aśvaghoṣa
  4. Kāmasūtra, Piṅgala (Prosody)
  5. Arthaśāstra (Politics), Aśokan, Nāneghāṭ Inscriptions
  6. Mahābhāṣya, Tolkāppiyam (Grammar)
  7. Carakasaṃhitā (Medicine), Nāṭyaśāstra (Theatre)
  8. Eṭṭutokai, Gāhā sattasa’ī (Anthologies of poetry)
  9. Yogasūtra, Varāhamihira
  10. Meghadūta, Setubandha (Kāvya), Mehrauli and Mandasaur inscriptions
  11. Tamil bhakti poems
  12. Vāsudevahiṇḍi and the Dhuttākkhāṇa

Semester : Spring 2023

This course will look at books that negotiate the relationship between bodies and words. Books are both textual and performative in nature, and we will pay attention to both these aspects over the course of the semester. Beginning with classical texts from the subcontinent (Samkhyakarika and Yoga Sutras) that are reliant on body or matter, the course will examine the 16th century Protestant drive to vest ultimate authority in the text, establishing the word’s primacy over both body and lived experience. Great Books will critically examine this idealism through readings of Spinoza, Weber, Bauman, Vivekananda and Tagore; focus on modern Indic writings that articulate the tension between tradition and modernity, theory and experience particularly in relation to body and caste (Ambedkar/Gandhi, Sundar Sarrukai/Gopal Guru, Ramachandran Guha); and conclude with readings of poetic texts from across the world, Kalidas, Ikkyu, Hafiz, Annamachrya, Akka Mahadevi, Whitman, Neruda and others that go beyond the word, transgress the norm, and reinstate the body, its sensuality and eroticism, at the centre of the self.

 

Study at Ashoka

Study at Ashoka

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