November 14 2018

The Dynamic Canon of the Purāṇas and the Ethnography of the Classroom

Elizabeth M. Rohlman, University of Calgary

Children dressed as Lord Krishna wait for a fancy dress competition. Credit: Ajay Verma/Reuters 

Children dressed as Lord Krishna wait for a fancy dress competition. Credit: Ajay Verma/Reuters

A few years ago, there was a panel at the Annual Meeting of the AAR entitled “Teaching Eastern Religions in Western Classrooms.” The panelists included individuals whom I respect tremendously as scholars and gifted teachers, and whom I count as friends. But the commonality of the panelists was that they taught at undergraduate institutions in small “college towns” to student bodies that were, for the most part, racially and ethnically homogenous. I struggled to relate to the framing of this panel. In Calgary, my undergraduate classes are populated by roughly sixty-to-seventy percent South Asian students. These students range from fifth- or sixth-generation Canadians, descended from the Sikh labourers who built the Canada Pacific Railway in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, to students who are, like me, “New Canadians,” the rather endearing term the Canadian government uses for immigrants. I wondered, while at this panel, should the students in my classes be considered “Western” or “Eastern”? Even more precisely, I wondered whether the Hinduism, Sikhism, and Islam my students practice in their Canadian homes should be considered “Eastern” or “Western” religions. Ultimately, I wondered: how should we define this distinction? The teaching reflections that follow represent the evolution of my own teaching since arriving in Calgary a decade ago; but more broadly, they represent an attempt to reframe our pedagogical assumptions so that we might move away from the highly racialized and unnecessarily exoticized assumption that professors of Hindu studies are necessarily teaching a homogenous group of white, largely Christian, students about the non-white, mysterious “other.”

Teaching Strategy

My corrective to this pedagogical framework is based on my own research on the purāṇas, and specifically on an observation made by Giorgio Bonazolli in his 1978 article, “The Dynamic Canon of the Purāṇas.” Bonazolli observed the purāṇas represent a “dynamic canon,” and that the dynamism of this canon is the result of two conflicting impulses within the genre: the abstract mandate to preserve the original rahasya, or secret, of the purāṇas, and the more practical need to evolve with the changing religious needs of living humans. Based on Bonazolli’s work, my corrective question became, “how can we make our Hindu studies classrooms more like the dynamic canon of the purāṇas?” The foundation of my answer to this question has been to frame all of my courses with an understanding of the value of both emic and etic perspectives in the study of religion. On a theoretical level, this framing introduces students to the variety of data scholars of religion consider in their work. It also is a useful tool in fostering a sense of mutual respect and comfort amongst all students in my classrooms. But diversity and respect alone are not necessarily interactive, and thus do not make a classroom a dynamic space in the way the purāṇic canon is dynamic. To achieve an atmosphere of interactive dynamism in the classroom, I have increasingly brought ethnographic practices into my teaching.

To be honest, I did not start out using purāṇic narratives in the classroom as a tool for interaction and classroom ethnography. In my literature-based Introduction to Hinduism course, when I would tell the stories of How Ganesh Got His Elephant Head or of Dakṣaprajāpati’s Sacrifice, students would often volunteer that they had heard a different version of these stories at home. I would give the innocuous, but ultimately banal, reply that nearly all purāṇic narratives have many versions, and thus that my differing account did not in any way make their dadi’s version of the story “wrong.” The problem with this bland reassurance was that I was issuing no invitation to students.

What changed this approach was another course I teach, an ethnographic course on the anthropology and sociology of Hindu practices. This class, with its focus on the diversity of Hindu practices, naturally lends itself to incorporating students’ own narratives and experiences through class discussion. A few years ago, I had a particularly transformative moment while lecturing on Geoffrey Oddie’s book, Popular Religion, Elites, and Reforms: Hook-swinging and its Prohibition in Colonial India, 1800–1894. Unsurprisingly, the students had loads of questions about hook-swinging, all of which essentially were asking “What does this look like?” I had to tell the students that I honestly do not know what hook-swinging looks like—the practice has been banned in India, and given the widespread orthodoxy of the regions of India where I conduct my research, I had never seen the practice myself. A quiet student in the back row enthusiastically raised her hand. As a Sri Lankan Tamil, she had seen hook-swinging in her native country, and held the class in rapt attention with her account of the sight. Watching the interaction between this student and her peers, I began to think of the possibilities that would open up if all of my classes—textual and ethnographic alike—were taught with an explicit invitation for students to participate in storytelling. In essence, what if the classroom space echoed the dynamic purāṇic canon described by Bonazolli?

Background and Theory

Since that experience, I have striven to make my literature-based courses on Hinduism function as a participatory community of storytellers. The examples of what this has led to in the classroom are endless. But I will limit my examples in this piece to a seminar I taught in fall 2017, Narrative Literatures of Hinduism. This is an upper-level undergraduate seminar, often blended with graduate students, in which I cover the genres of kathā (fable), purāṇa (myth), and itihāsa (epic), with one major example in English translation of each. To encourage self-reflective participation and provide a framework for analysis of narrative, I begin the seminar with two specific assignments. The first week, I provide the students with a selection of stories from The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, all with the titles of the tales whited out. During seminar, students are asked to do three things: (1) identify the stories, (2) discuss the differences between these stories and the Disney versions they’ve seen in film, and (3) to recount a memory of one of these stories, or any other fairy tale, from their childhoods. This is always a popular exercise, and establishes an atmosphere where students are comfortable sharing their own self-reflective analysis in class. The second assignment of the class usually covers weeks two and three, and focuses on reading Umberto Eco’s Six Walks in the Fictional Woods. This work is far more accessible to undergraduates than Eco’s other theoretical works, such as The Role of the Reader, and provides a strong framework for narrative analysis. Most importantly, it introduces students to Eco’s of interpretive approaches of “the world of the text,” “the world behind the text,” and “the world in front of the text.” Below, I’ve selected three examples of how the students in this seminar (see below for their names) approached the interpretation of Hindu narratives following these two opening assignments.

I. The Bhāgavata Purāṇa Book X, translated by Edwin Bryant:

For the first time in many years of teaching this seminar, I had students who had the courage to discuss the copious and explicit sex in the Bhagavata Purāṇa. Watching nervous twenty-somethings invite their peers to talk about the sexual responses Kṛṣṇa evokes in the Gopīs was adorable, fascinating, and enough to make a middle-aged mother of a child feel very, very old. But what was most instructive were elements of “the world in front of the text” that students brought into the discussion. Two Hindu students, both from multigenerational Canadian families, recounted that they were absolutely astonished to read this text, and to see how the Sanskrit original differed from the somewhat more sanitized stories of Kṛṣṇa’s youth that they had been taught as children. Both students had asked their parents about this, and to my astonishment found that their parents, and in one case, a grandparent, were also unaware of the explicit sex in the original stories. The ensuing discussion balanced considerations of the theological purpose of eroticism with reflections on historically evolving understandings of childhood, in particular what sort of stories are appropriate for children.

II. The Mahabhārata, translated and adapted by John D. Smith, Example A:

John D. Smith’s adaptation of the Mahabhārata is a lengthy and complex work, and yet I am always delighted to see how engaged and invested my students are in this narrative. Follow the week of discussing sex, one student in the class clearly came to revel in shocking her parents with information from our seminar. When we read the episode of the Mahabhārata in which Bhīma defeats Duṣāsana and drinks his blood, she eagerly told the class of how she had read the rather grisly poetic verse (in which Bhīma compares the blood to mother’s milk, nectar and honey, or ambrosia with which he washes his wife’s hair) out loud to her mother and asked her to guess the text and the speaker of the verse. With the word blood omitted from this particular verse, her mother naturally believed this was a love poem from Kṛṣṇa to the Gopīs. When confronted with the correct attribution, the student’s mother insisted that the heroic Bhīma could never behave so monstrously.

III. The Mahābhārata, translated and adapted by John D. Smith, Example B:

The obvious danger of making the classroom a space of self-reflective storytelling is that it can become a platform for making Hindu students into ethnographic objects of study for their non-Hindu peers. Avoiding this trap requires encouraging all students to bring their own narrative experiences into the classroom, which is often best achieved by modelling self-reflective storytelling through my own examples. Issuing this invitation and modelling the approach consistently has resulted in all students bringing their own background experiences into class: from their own varied religious backgrounds and, most of all, from popular culture examples. (In fall 2017, The Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones, and Harry Potter were frequent reference points.) The most surprising example I had in class occurred when we discussed the Mahābhārata’s concluding narrative of Yudhiṣṭhira’s final dharmic test, in which he is invited to forsake his canine companion in exchange for entrance to heaven. One student volunteered that she had heard the story before: her Catholic grandmother had told this story as a child, with different names involved, and conveyed it as a story from the Christian Gospels. I had to admit to the class that though I was raised in a very Catholic family in which I was regularly taught liberation theology at the dinner table, I had never heard any version Yudhiṣṭhira and his dog as being “in the Bible.” As a class, we spent a great deal of time pondering the question of where the student’s now-deceased grandmother had come across the story and her ideas on its provenance. Eventually, outside-of-class research lead us to the parable in the Gospel of Luke of Lazarus and the Rich Man, in which a distinct and lesser-known Lazarus is shown a great deal of compassion by a group of dogs. While this discovery was perhaps less exciting than the possibility of the Mahābhārata infiltrating communities of Canadian Catholics, it was a strong example of how students from a wide variety of backgrounds can participate in the ethnographic classroom through storytelling.

Conclusions and Extensions

What has happened to my classroom since adopting this approach? At times during my fall 2017 seminar I worried that I may have merely created intergenerational strife in the homes of my Indo-Canadian students. But in actuality, since striving to make my classroom space a place in which students are invited to actively participate in storytelling, the transformation in my classroom atmosphere and students’ level of engagement has been astounding. Most inspiring to me, as an instructor, are the ways in which a single narrative can now span many classes. Students—those who are of South Asian descent as well as those who are not—take stories from class home to their parents and grandparents, and they report to the class the variations of and correlations to those stories that they hear back at home. I like to think of the result as my own “classroom purāṇa”: a living, oral text that both preserves traditional content and evolves over time, what Bonazoli observed about the purāṇas themselves. I have found that the approach works across courses of different topics and levels, and I propose that it would work across the teaching of various religious traditions as well. All it requires is issuing to students an invitation; an invitation to be self-reflective and to tell their own stories.

*special thanks are due to the students in my fall 2017 section of RELS 451/603/703: Amandeep Bhatti, Kevin Brunnen, Neha Chand, Marcus Ferguson, Durga Kale, Erin Knight, Kathleen McKenzie, Katherine-Ann Piedalue, and Anusha Sudindra Rao.


Elizabeth RohlmanElizabeth Rohlman is an associate professor in the Department of Classics and Religion, University of Calgary, Canada. She is an historian of religion whose research examines the role of narrative literature in articulating and constructing religious identity in premodern South Asia. Her research examines the regional purāṇas of Gujarat, including the Sarasvatī Purāṇa, as well as the purāṇic genre more generally, especially with respect to the Mārkaṇḍeya Purāṇa.


Further Reading

Bonazzoli, Giorgio. “The Dynamic Canon of the Purāṇas.” Purana 21, no. 2 (July 1979): 116–66.

Bryant, Edwin F., translator. Krishna: The Beautiful Legend of God (Srimad Bhagavata Purana Book X). New York: Penguin Classics, 2004.

Eco, Umberto. Six Walks in the Fictional Woods. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.

Oddie Geoffrey A. Popular Religion, Elites, and Reforms: Hook-swinging and its Prohibition in Colonial India, 1800–1894. New Delhi: Manohar Publishers & Distributors, 1995. 

Olivelle, Patrick, translator. Pañcatantra: The Book of India’s Folk Wisdom. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Narayan, R. K. The Ramayana: A Shortened Modern Prose Version of the Indian Epic. New York: Penguin, 2006.

Smith, John D., translator. The Mahabhārata. New York: Penguin, 2009.

Zipes, Jack, translator. The Complete Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm. New York: Bantam Books, 1992.

Next article >