Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Summer 2015: An UnTextbook for Indian Epics

Unlike other posts here at this blog which document my current courses, this is a forward-looking post: I have got a BIG NEW PLAN for Summer 2015. During Summer 2014 I created the UnTextbook for the Myth-Folklore class, and that was a big success I think (in addition to being the most fun summer project ever). Since there were 12 India-related units in that UnTextbook, I was able to use some of those materials in the Indian Epics course this semester, making one of the four paperbacks for the class optional and substituting UnTextbook units instead. The response from the students to that was super-positive, and when I asked at the end of the Fall semester if they would like more UnTextbook-type of readings, the response was a loud "yes!" Then, through a series of supernatural coincidences (life works that way sometimes!), I realized last night — December 2, 2014 — that I could actually ditch not just one of the books, but all four books I have traditionally used for that class. Yes, I can make an UnTextbook for Indian Epics, just like Myth-Folklore!

So, as I thought about this pretty much nonstop for the past 24 hours, I've become more and more confident that it will work, and I'm going to use this blog post to write down how things look as of right now, knowing of course that things will evolve, probably a lot, between now and August when I hope to have the UnTextbook ready for the Fall semester. SO EXCITING.

Books I Use Now. Right now in the class I use four books: three required and one optional; until this semester, they had all four been required. They are the prose versions of the Ramayana by Narayan and by Buck and the prose versions of the Mahabharata, again by Narayan and by Buck. I chose those books back in 2002 when I first designed this class, and I have not been unhappy with that choice. The books were very affordable (mass market paperbacks, available super-cheap from used booksellers online), and the readings gave the class a really nice structure: first half of the semester was Ramayana (2 weeks of Narayan, 4 weeks of Buck, whose books is much more elaborate and detailed), and second half of the semester was Mahabharata (once again 2 weeks of Narayan, 4 weeks of Buck). The students enjoyed the readings very much, and I have a good set of reading guides which have been a big help in making sure everybody was able to keep up with the readings even if there was a week or two when they were short on time.

Problems with the Books. So, overall I would rate the current reading for the class as effective, but finding a way to satisfy all the students all the time is not easy. Some students prefer Narayan and some students prefer Buck, and likewise some students prefer Ramayana and some students prefer Mahabharata, which is natural, but it was also true that sometimes students really did not like Buck very much (in which case, that was a serious chunk of the semester spent on two books they did not like), or they might really prefer the Ramayana to the Mahabharata (and that was especially difficult since the second half of the semester is when students have less time/energy to spend on the class anyway). The change I made in Fall 2014 was a very good one because it saved students from the double-whammy of not liking Buck and not liking the Mahabharata: instead of reading Buck's Mahabharata for the last four weeks of the class, they were able to choose readings from the Indian units in the UnTextbook instead, which was great. Other students also got the benefit of that because they were able to enjoy the stories from the units that those students included in their blogs.

Available Books Online. Meanwhile, the world of books online is completely different than it was back in 2002 when I first designed this class. At that time, there was nothing online I could use: Gutenberg and Sacred Texts Archive did not have the epic materials I needed, and I paid a student out of my own pocket to digitize Dowson's Hindu Mythology & Religion from my physical copy of the book so that I could provide my students with at least a basic reference work online to supplement the paperback books I asked them to buy. At the time even Wikipedia was very short on India articles (I remember starting the Nala and Damayanti article myself since there wasn't one!). Now, however, it is a new world of books online, and that is what allowed me to create the 100 units of the Myth-Folklore UnTextbook in Summer 2014. I could have easily created 100 more units if I had not run out of time.

Indian Epics Online. Admittedly, epics are more resistant to the "module" approach that I use in the UnTextbook, so at first I did not really even think it would be possible for me to replace all my Indian Epics books with these public domain materials online, but when I started exploring the possibilities last night by browsing through public domain book sources, I realized that I do have all the materials I need! Yes, it will take a huge amount of work on my part... work I am glad to do, though, because I absolutely love these materials — the Mahabharata especially, although I have really grown to love the Ramayana also as a result of teaching this class all these years. Basically what I will be doing is what Narayan and Buck themselves did, but instead of letting them do the selecting and paraphrasing, I will be doing that as I anthologize from the different sources for the epics that I find online. And, even better, I will be able to expand on the epics by looking at closely related materials in other genres: a play by Rabindranath Tagore inspired by the Mahabharata! Kalidasa's own version of the story of Nala and Damayanti! Plus, the most delightful treasure of all: Nina Paley's animated film, Sita Sings the Blues! In this way, not only can I share the epic stories with my students, I will also be able to show them how those epic tales inspired artists working on other genres both in ancient and modern times in order to create new versions of those old stories.

Books OR UnTextbook. Of course, as I mentioned above, the current books I use for the class are very satisfactory, so what I will be doing here is basically offering two different tracks in the class. People who want to do some/all of the reading with traditional paperback books can continue to do that, absolutely. There is no reason why that approach to the class reading needs to change. The reading schedule and reading guides are solid, with no reason at all to eliminate them. So, what I will be doing is offering a CHOICE, just as I did this semester where students could choose Buck's Mahabharata in the last four weeks of the class OR they could choose four week-long India units from the Myth-Folklore UnTextbook. The difference will just be that students will have these choices starting in the very beginning of the semester. It will be a little complicated to explain to the students just how that works, but I know I can do it; the UnTextbook seemed like it might be complicated to explain, but it worked out just great and the students were totally enthusiastic about the process of making their choices as well as being very curious about what the other students chose. I expect to see the same dynamic of excitement and curiosity in the new Indian Epics class too!

Rough Outline. So, just brainstorming in a very preliminary way, here is how things might work in this new scheme for DIY reading plans. The basic division of the class into two halves will still hold true: Ramayana for six weeks in Weeks 2-7 and Mahabharata for six weeks in Weeks 9-14. Then, I would break those six-week units up into three two-week units that would work like this:

Weeks 2-3. For the first two weeks of the Ramayana, I will make sure people choose from specifically Ramayana-related units to get an idea of how the epic works: that would mean EITHER Narayan's book (as now in the class) or some UnTextbook units that are Ramayana-related — I already have Nina Paley's film and Mackenzie's retelling of the Ramayana, which would actually work just fine like that since Nina's film and the Mackenzie reading would make a great two-week experience. But I can review that decision as I look through the available materials; it might be better to find a two-week online equivalent to Narayan's two-week book experience for example, just to make sure people do have a solid grounding in the overall flow of the epic plot (although the Ramayana really is not very complicated, very unlike the Mahabharata in that regard).

Weeks 4-5. Then, for the next two weeks I would ask people to do more Ramayana-related materials. For people who want a book, they could read Buck (and they could actually read Buck for four weeks, just as now), but I would arrange for more free-choice Ramayana-related materials. That could include units I prepare from Griffith's verse translation of Valmiki's Ramayana (with audio at LibriVox!!!), a retelling by John Campbell Oman, the retelling by F. J. Gould, the Romesh Dutt version, the version by Sister Nivedita, etc. Some of those would be multi-week versions; for Griffith, for example, I would prepare a whole bunch of units so people could choose their favorite episodes... and with audio, too!

Weeks 6-7. Then, in the final two weeks of the first half of the semester, people could keep on doing Ramayana-related units (since obviously there would be lots they did not read for Weeks 4-5 already) OR I could offer a selection of other India units about heroes and heroines: that would mean units about Krishna's adventures, the life of the Buddha, the legends of Raja Rasalu, etc., and also heroine stories like Shakuntala, Savitri, and Damayanti.

Weeks 9-10. Moving into the Mahabharata, students could choose to do Narayan's book OR a two-week long presentation of the Mahabharata from one of the public domain sources. I would need to find one that is just the right length for two weeks; it might be Mackenzie again, but I sure found a lot of other great alternatives that I need to read and ponder. For example, I am really intrigued by this book I found by Wallace Gandy, The Pandav Princes.

Weeks 11-12. Then, just like for the second two weeks of the Ramayana, I would offer here a whole range of readings that are Mahabharata-related. If they like Buck and/or want a book, they can read Buck's book, but I could offer plenty of options from the public domain for free online. For example, I could prepare a whole bunch of units excerpted from the Ganguli translation — oh my gosh, think how fun that will be, choosing my own favorite episodes from the epic to focus on, annotating Ganguli to make it more comprehensible... and there's even a digitized version of that at Sacred Texts now, so I am not wrestling with OCR. For audio, there is Dutt's version at LibriVox. For the Bhagavad-Gita, I could use Arnold's English version (the first version that Gandhi himself read!). And I could give people a second chance at Savitri and Damayanti this time around if they did not choose them before, of course!

Weeks 13-14. Then, just like with the Ramayana, people could choose to carry on with two more weeks of Mahabharata materials (finishing Buck's book if they prefer a book OR carrying on with the choices they had in Weeks 11-12) OR I could totally open up with wisdom and folktale literature here with all the Panchatantra-derived texts and the Buddhist jatakas.

Doesn't that sound AMAZING??? Seriously, I am so excited about this that I can barely slow my thoughts down enough to try to write them here. This is how I felt at the beginning of the Myth-Folklore UnTextbook, but even better really because this will allow me to revisit the stories of India and learn so much new, more even than I learned when preparing the UnTextbook last summer. I discovered Sanskrit far too late in my academic career to become the Sanskrit scholar I probably should have been (my Sanskrit classes with Sally Goldman at Berkeley were the single most satisfying experience of my language-learning life)... but this way I will get to share my total passion for the Indian epic tradition in a richer, more varied way with my students. Going all-public-domain here will not only save them money (which is good too course): it is going to give them a far better learning experience than I could offer with traditional books or textbooks.

(pause) I really did have to get up out of my chair and dance around the room for this one.


I love you, Public Domain!!!!!!!

Below is a screenshot of Sister Nivedita's
Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists
at Internet Archive:


  1. Reading this makes me so excited!!! I have to figure out a way to energize my summer course with some of your general ideas....what I will really need are multiple case/studies examples that help illustrate IT management in different types of organizations....libraries/non-profits, tech companies, traditional corporations - so much work but such great rewards!!!

  2. For something like that, you would find a really wide audience, Stacy! I'm lucky in having these amazing public domain resources, but at the same time it is kind of inherently self-limiting because of the obscure subject. But that's okay: if my students are reading these things every semester, that is a good readership for me! :-)


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