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Mahabharata and Ramayana

Course overview

In this module we will make a broad study of the stories and characters represented in the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, and consider their religious teachings that are imparted by means of direct instruction, instructive incidents and role models.

In both works stories are told of the descent of the Deity to earth and the conflict that ensues between good and evil. And yet these accounts are never one-dimensional, for there is a subtlety to the storytelling that makes these great works as relevant today as they have ever been, both for those who believe in the divinity of Rama and Krishna and indeed for all of us who are experiencing the exigencies of the human condition.

It is said that the Mahabharata alone is the longest poem ever composed and its scale is truly daunting. Not only does it relate an extensive narrative tale, with twists, turns and numerous sub-plots, but it also contains passages of direct religious teachings that are considerably longer than all the major Upanishads put together. The best known of such passages is of course the Bhagavad Gita, which we study separately in another course.

The Ramayana is considerably shorter and is largely devoid of such overtly didactic passages, but it is nonetheless a work of vast proportions.

Our aim here is to provide a broad outline of the central narratives, an exploration of the principal themes and a consideration of the type of religion that these two works are revealing.

These are very different texts from the rather austere presentations found in the Upanishads, for they teach primarily by telling stories of great events. As we shall see, the type of Hindu dharma they reveal is also rather different, for here we will encounter a Deity who is to be worshipped and has personal features, standing in notable contrast to the philosophical idea of brahman referred to in Upanishadic doctrines. And yet, as the Bhagavad Gita reveals, this Deity who plays the dominant role in both texts is in another sense wholly identical with the brahman referred to by the Upanishads as the single absolute reality.

Course structure

The course consists of seven sessions delivered on a weekly basis.

Session One: The Structure and Story of the Mahabharata

In this session we will look at the contents of the Mahabharata, which is divided into eighteen separate books, and consider a brief outline of the central narrative.

Session Two: The Main Characters of the Mahabharata

We look at the Mahabharata's principal characters, male and female, and consider the ways in which they provide religious and ethical instruction as positive and negative role models.

Session Three: The Religious Teachings of the Mahabharata

In this session we will focus specifically on the Mahabharata's presentation of Krishna as an earthly manifestation of the Supreme Deity and consider its exploration of the concept of dharma.

Session Four: Passages of Religious Instruction in the Mahabharata

In addition to its complex narrative discourse, the Mahabharata includes extensive passages of religious instruction, the most famous of which is the Bhagavad Gita. In this session we will briefly consider a few of these passages and the religious teachings they offer.

Session Five: The Structure and Story of the Ramayana

In this session we briefly compare Valmiki's Ramayana with Tulsidas's Hindi version of the story. We will also consider the division of the Valmiki Ramayana into seven books and an outline of the central narrative.

Session Six: Religious Issues in the Ramayana

We focus on the Ramayana's presentation of Rama as an avatar of Narayana and consider its teachings on ethical conduct and adherence to the principles of dharma.

Session Seven: The Main Characters of the Ramayana

 

A look at the Ramayana's principal characters, male and female, and consider the ways in which they provide religious and ethical instruction as positive and negative role models.