India is home to one of the earliest records of human wisdom, meticulously preserved and passed down orally for thousands of years before being committed to writing. The Vedas, meaning “knowledge,” document the insight of the ancient ṛṣis, those who could directly see reality for what it is. The Vedic corpus has long been venerated for the probing vision of these ancient seers, and yet the exposition of Indian wisdom has evolved over time in response to changing historical and cultural conditions as well as human receptivity. As a result, Indian classical texts present a rich compendium of approaches to the age-old questions of what it means to be human and to live a fulfilled life in society.
In India, philosophy is called darśana [seeing] because it is the distinct product of the seeing or understanding of the ancient sages who dedicated their lives to observing the world and how their minds formed an understanding of it. Classical Indian thinkers expounded elaborate theories of an unconscious, causal basis of the mind, a cyclical process of time and history, as well as a unitary, limitless source for all life. The diverse schools of thought—from the Upaniṣads and Sāṃkhya to the contemporary social philosophy of Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi—offer students compelling descriptions of the human condition, not to mention vestiges of the stirring debates that ensued between philosophical schools. Learning Indian classics will contextualize Indian Buddhist thought and the classic literature comprising religiously varying themes.
Through close reading of primary texts, students will consider issues fundamental to Indian systems of thought. For example, what is the influence of past karmic tendencies [saṃskāras] on the experience of the present moment? What is the relationship between language and reality? What kind of behavior is socially responsible? Students will read Indian insights into causation, human nature, and the goals of human life [puruṣārtha]. They will explore South Asian perspectives on religious thought and practice, the structure of the human mind and perception, paths to liberation, and limitations to infinite freedom. Through their engagement with the texts, students will grapple with the perennial riddles of existence and human potential.
The Indian Classics strand enables students to develop a sincere appreciation for texts while at the same time encouraging them to critically evaluate the ideas presented. Following Indian tradition, no views are to be accepted unless the students’ direct experience corroborates what they read. By understanding the texts in the spirit of transformation intended by their authors, students will develop the capacity to see the world through a traditional Indian perspective.
In the course of a year, the Indian Classics strand aims to lead students not only in discovering the content of particular knowledges spanning the history of Indian literature, but also in generating the confidence to apply their skills to contemporary discourses. Through their encounter with Indian philosophical systems, students will explore the concept of self, the process of knowing and experiencing the world, and the nature and function of knowledge. Reading classical Indian literature will contribute to the students’ ability to live responsibly, think critically, value diverse perspectives, and troubleshoot from multiple vantage points.
In the first semester, sophomores will read selections from Vedic literature, including the Vedas, Brāhmaṇas, and Upaniṣads, focusing on creation myths, unity and multiplicity, religious practice, self-realization, and concepts of the absolute, death, and desire. Students will then read from different schools of Vedic exegesis, including Mīmāṃsā and Vedānta. Here students will encounter the diversity of traditional interpretations. Students will then read Jaina, Sāṃkhya, and Yoga philosophies, and the epic Mahābhārata and its Bhagavad Gītā, taking up questions of the goals of human life, nonviolence, social duty, devotion, concentration, and nonattachment.
In the second semester, students will read classical Indian poetry, drama, and prose literature, which build on the philosophies studied in the previous semester. In addition to reading Vālmīki’s epic Rāmāyaṇa and the Purāṇas, students will read other Hindu and Buddhist literary works that investigate the psychological influences of past karmic impressions, enslavement to desire, human relationships, and the social conduct of an exemplary human. Students will read such masterpieces as Aśvagoṣa’s Handsome Nanda, Kālidāsa’s Kumārasambhava, Harṣa’s How the Nāgas Were Pleased, and Bhavabhūti’s Rāma’s Last Act.
Students will read the texts in this strand in thematic groups. Beginning with selections of Vedic literature, students will proceed to read a sampling of philosophical schools that interpret theVedas. Vedic literature was composed during the last few millennia b.c.e., whereas the Mīmāṃsā and Vedānta schools developed later as exegetical responses. Students will read the texts in this order because the later texts assume prior familiarity with earlier ones.
The second grouping of texts concerns the epic Mahābhārata, of which the Bhagavad Gītā forms a part, and its philosophical underpinnings, including Sāṃkhya and Yoga. The first two groupings will conclude with modern Indian texts by Swami Vivekananda and Mahatma Gandhi in order to show that the classical texts, adapted for modern times, are still living traditions in Indian society.
The final grouping of literary texts will be taken up in the second semester, since this set builds on the cultural understanding of previous texts. Classical poetry, prose, and drama will be read to survey the development of ideas over time for the sake of the transformation of the student. This approach effectively conveys the traditional knowledge of South Asia and orients students to learn through sincere inquiry and self-reflection.
Selection of authors and works explored in the Indian Classics strand
Indian Classics 1
- Swami Vivekananda
- Sāṃkhyakārikā by Īśvarakṛṣṇa
- The Mahābhārata
- M.K. Gandhi
- Upadeśasāhasrī by Śrī Śaṅkarācārya
- Yogasūtra by Patañjali
- Bhagavad Gita
Indian Classics 2
- The Rāmāyaṇa by Vālmīki
- Rāma’s Last Act by Bhavabhūti
- The Mahābhārata
- The Recognition of Śakuntala by Kālidāsa
- Handsome Nanda by Aśvaghoṣa
Indian Classics 3
- Devī Māhātmya
- Shivastotravali by Utpaladeva
- Paramārthasāra by Abhinavagupta
- The Enclosed Garden of the Truth by Hakim Sanai
- Muhammad Iqbal
- Hazrat Inayat Khan