Divine Yet Human Epics | Q&A with Shubha Pathak of American University

We recently had the opportunity to connect with Associate Professor 
at the Department of Philosophy and Religion Shubha Pathak on her Hellenic Studies Series book Divine Yet Human Epics: Reflections of Poetic Rulers from Ancient Greece and India, the cross-cultural study of the epic traditions of Greece and India and the significance of a diverse classics. Her monograph, Divine Yet Human Epics: Reflections of Poetic Rulers from Ancient Greece and India (Center for Hellenic Studies, Trustees for Harvard University, 2014), available in print through Harvard University Press, reveals the similar ways in which the primary Greek and Sanskrit epics address their respective audiences’ existential needs.




CHS: In your book Divine Yet Human Epics: Reflections of Poetic Rulers from Ancient Greece and India you present the similar ways the Greek and Sanskrit epics employ to address their respective audiences’ existential needs. What are the advantages of this cross-cultural comparative approach to your research? In what ways does it differ to the view of Hellenists or Indologists alone?

9780674726758-lgS.P.: In my view, comparing across cultures offers at least three advantages.

First, acknowledging the existence of analogical developments in another culture forestalls the misconception that one culture’s advances are beyond the reach of another.  The Homeric epics, for instance, are a signal accomplishment, but are not alone in providing a foundation for ancient literary and religious traditions.  Identifying the similar role that the primary Indian epics have played in South Asia allows for an understanding of epic poetry as a widespread invention.

Furthermore, cross-cultural comparison casts into relief the differences as well as the similarities between cultures that shape their analogous creations.  So, even though epics arose both in Archaic Greece and in classical India to promote solutions to societies’ existential problems, the Greek and Indian problems—and, therefore, their solutions—were distinct.  The Iliad and Odyssey, which emerged from a culture that extolled exceptional individual achievement as the realization of godgiven talent, elevate the Greek ideal of kléos (heroic glory) as a countermeasure to anxiety about dying and being forgotten.  The Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata, however, enshrine the Indian ideal of dharma (righteousness) to allay concern over acting immorally under increasingly adverse circumstances, because these poems were produced in a culture that prized the proper fulfillment of a nexus of social obligations determined by status at birth.

Finally, simultaneously considering what two cultures have created constitutes a starting point for comprehending their human commonalities. While the parallels between the aforementioned Greek and Indian epic pairs may reflect historical interactions between the two peoples behind these couples, as well as their common descent from some earlier poetic society, such similarities may represent the outcomes of processes that all people experience.  Thus, Archaic Greece and classical India each have yielded both an epic that affirms its culture’s central religious ideal and an epic that interrogates this ideal, because human beings encounter both ease and difficulty in their lives and correspondingly—as self and social psychologists have found—are apt to identify both with heroes who achieve their aims mainly with sheer ease and with heroes who attain their goals only with stringent difficulty.

My cross-cultural comparative approach is broader in scope than the methods of Hellenists or Indologists.  A specialist such as those usually interprets her epics of interest in the context solely of the single culture that gave rise to these compositions, in an effort to illuminate their original roles therein.  Even I myself begin with isolated examinations of the primary epic pairs within their respective Greek and Indian cultures.  But, rather than relegate my studies to these separate spheres, I go on to bring them together to create literary categories that can bridge cultural divides.  Because I have interpreted the earliest extant epic dyads from Greece and India, I can assert that the existence of affirmative and interrogative epics in both areas justifies the elaboration of the epic category to comprise both types of poems.  My cross-cultural work explains in human terms why the epic genre includes not just stories of “quests for faraway rewards . . . , clashes with enemies from outside . . . , and aspirations to divine dominion,” but also tales of “consolidations of holdings at home, . . . reconnections with beloved insiders, and . . . acceptance of human impotence” (Divine Yet Human Epics, page 1).  Cross-cultural literary comparisons, then, enable more robust literary theorization—an endeavor that critics can continue in still other contexts, as I myself am doing as I research further developments of epic to characterize this genre more completely.


CHS: What does thinking cross-culturally bring to your classroom?

S.P.: Even though the courses that I teach at American University each focus on a single cultural tradition, they are wider in outlook.

In my two General Education courses, I connect classical literary works with creative expressions of other cultures to give my students additional access points for understanding our focal texts.  In “Meaning and Purpose in the Arts: Classical Myths and Their Modern Retellings,” my students and I study the ancient Roman poet Ovid’s epic Metamorphoses and connect its Greco-Roman myths to similarly themed modern artworks dating from 1500 CE on, making sure to situate whatever we examine in its sociohistorical context.  Along the way—with Ovid as our guide, followed by his artistic successors—we witness worldmaking, the differentiation of humanity from divinity, and the eternalization of empire.  In “Stories of South Asia: Sovereignty, Strategy, and Satire,” I orient my students to our ancient and medieval Indian texts by comparing them with Western counterparts before we see how the tenets of the Indian classics inform ethical decision making in South Asia today.  To apprehend and appreciate the normative Rāmāyaṇa, the expedient Pañcatantra and Hitopadeśa fable collections, and the parodic epic Raghuvaṃśa of the playwright and poet Kālidāsa, we discuss how these writings resemble and vary from the Iliad, the allegories of Aesop and Machiavelli, and the comedies and tragedies of Shakespeare, respectively.

My two upper-level courses afford opportunities for examining how cultures interact and develop conceptually as a consequence.  “Hinduism” treats the transformation of India’s oldest existing religious tradition through its practitioners’ encounters with ancient Iranians in the Vedic period, Buddhists in the classical period, and Muslims and Christians in the medieval and modern periods.  As my students and I trace the history and movement of the dynamic Hindu tradition, we track its evolution in response to countervailing ideologies, noting shifts in the religion’s emphases on yajña (sacrifice), dharma, bhakti (devotion), and varṇa (class).  My newest course, “The Mythographer’s Craft,” explores the efforts of Hellenistic Greek and early imperial Roman mythographers retelling earlier epic narratives to create enduring repositories of stories for their respective cultures.  By inquiring into how Pseudo-Apollodorus and Pseudo-Hyginus rework in their Library and Fabulae tales from Hesiod’s Theogony, Apollonius Rhodius’s Argonautica, and Vergil’s Aeneid, my students and I will distinguish the Greek and Roman mythographers’ aims and creations, which will allow us to discern the compound complexity of the Greco-Roman tradition often seen as of a single piece.

In all of my classrooms, cross-cultural comparison enables me to underscore the ongoing relevance of classical works to the concerns of moderns.  Making these cross-temporal and -cultural connections is critical to convincing my students—who concentrate primarily on preparing themselves for careers that will improve their local, national, and global communities—that they can benefit from becoming better versed in the teachings of these storied texts.


CHS: We at CHS are so excited to share the news of your participance in next year’s SCS meeting at a panel organized by the Committee on Classical Tradition and Reception. The title of the panel is “Theorizing Ideologies of the Classical: Turning Corners on the Textual, the Masculine, the Imperial, and the Western.” Could you share more and describe your attitude towards this process?

S.P.: Sure—Professor Andrea Kouklanakis of Bard High School and Early College and I have co-organized this panel in culminating our terms on the Society for Classical Studies’ Committee on the Classical Tradition and Reception, our panel’s sponsor.  The purpose of our panel is to broaden the boundaries that demarcate classics, which usually limits itself to the study of ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, as our panel illuminates the ongoing reciprocal influence between classics and the wider world.

As the respondent to “Theorizing Ideologies of the Classical,” I will discuss with my fellow panelists and our audience the need to expand the traditional view of classics as founded upon texts authored by men aspiring to empires in the West.  To reform these four corners, our panel, which Andrea will introduce, will feature presentations that will show how these fundaments have been shaken over time and across space.

Noting that texts extend into their contexts, our panel’s first presenter, Professor Luke Roman of Memorial University of Newfoundland, will treat the Italian Renaissance writer Pietro Bembo’s composition of De Aetna—a dialogue about volcanic Mount Etna that evokes simultaneously the arboreal villa where the author and his father fictionally trace the transmission of classical Greek culture to Italy, the Venetian printing house in which this humanist text initially was produced, and the larger world across which the text traveled thanks to its mass publication.  Presenting next on our panel, Professor Lillian Doherty of the University of Maryland, College Park, will venture still further forward in time and yet farther from ancient Greece, focusing instead on the turn-of-the-twentieth-century American poet H.D., a bisexual woman who, after living through two world wars, retells in her lyric/epic poem Helen in Egypt the Homeric story of Troy’s fall from the perspective of Helen to highlight women’s experience of war among men, as well as her own ambivalence about the gender constructs of her day.  Our panel’s following presenter, Professor Grant Parker of Stanford University, on the basis of fieldwork in contemporary South Africa, will assert that, in addition to bolstering colonial authority at the outreaches of empires, Greco-Roman classical works since have been re-imagined to express indigenous postcolonial identities.  The final panelist to whom I will respond, Professor Carolina López-Ruiz of Ohio State University, will present archaeological and other evidence from the eighth through seventh centuries BCE that attests that the West—as traditionally epitomized by the seemingly impermeable Indo-European civilization of Archaic Greece—actually was influenced deeply by its intercultural interactions with the Semitic Phoenician communities of the Near East.

Through these efforts, my five fellow panelists and I will give the lie to a classics that can remain isolated from developments of technologies, genders, nations, and geopolitics.  Andrea and I are delighted to have this chance to bring our vision of an inclusive classics to fruition in Toronto this January, and we eagerly anticipate doing so.


CHS: If the discipline of philosophy diversifies, does this also lead to a more diverse audience? Do you believe that inclusivity in philosophy has an impact on inclusivity in societies and religions?

S.P.: Yes, I think that, if philosophy and other humanistic disciplines promote the study of many cultures’ products, then the audiences whom these disciplines will attract in classrooms and via print and online media will be more diverse.  The cultural particularities that characterize works from different places appeal together to people from myriad backgrounds.

For the humanities to realize their full potential as illuminators of peoples’ experiences, then, the disciplines that compose the humanities each need to devote themselves to diverse groups of works and to be practiced by diverse groups of scholars.

Cross-cultural and -temporal comparative studies should be included even in disciplines defined primarily as examining particular areas of the world and eras of civilization, in order to highlight these disciplines’ characteristic intellectual contributions, as well as what these disciplines share with their allied fields of inquiry.  Interdisciplinary inquiry is required to realize the richness of human thought and activity in any place and time.

At any level, the scholarly enterprise is perspectival.  A person’s outlook on life informs her choice of what to study and how to do so.  Therefore, learning as much as possible about a certain topic demands seeing it from a number of different perspectives.  Scholarly disciplines, which are constituted by teaching encounters in person and through print, are enriched when different kinds of people can teach and learn from one another.

Engaging in humanistic studies also has a paradigmatic effect.  Becoming aware of a variety of views by learning about the cultural creations of distinct peoples and by seeing such study modeled by myriad types of readers leads learners to value and to seek perspectival variety in their wider societies and worldviews.  Even if these larger entities do not demonstrate diversity at present, their members and adherents who prize variety likely will invite it over time.  As a result, the currently uniform collectivities and faith traditions of these open-minded interpreters eventually will become multicultural even as they retain their unique corporate identities.


CHS: Has your experience with CHS contributed to your approaches and work? 

S.P.: Absolutely—the Center for Hellenic Studies reaches across cultures and eras in ways that gel well with my own cross-cultural and -temporal approaches.  With enthusiasm and expertise that are both welcome and welcoming, the Center, in its publication and outreach endeavors, recognizes the importance of comparison and reception.

Exemplary in this regard have been two parts of the Center’s publication program in which I have had the good fortune to take part.  The Hellenic Studies Series, to which my book Divine Yet Human Epics belongs, includes titles that cover classics from ancient Turkey, India, and Iran, as well as Greece and Rome; and explores a panoply of cultural forms (literature, music, ritual, history, architecture, rhetoric, philosophy, geography, and visual art).  Likewise pathbreaking is Classics@, an online journal that brings the latest breakthroughs in classical studies to a broad audience.  In this journal’s twelfth issue, three other scholars of the classics of Greece and India—namely, Professor Gregory Nagy of Harvard University (who also is the Center’s Director), Dr. Douglas Frame (formerly Associate Director of and now a Senior Researcher and Fellow at the Center), and Dr. Arti Mehta of Howard University—and I offer articles on rituals, epics, and fables that continue to resonate within their own cultures and across others today.

This Classics@ issue on comparative approaches to Indian and Greek classics originated in a spirited symposium hosted by the Center in association with the Embassy of India last year, a gathering that permitted my comparativist colleagues and me to share and discuss our work with area scholars and professionals.  I also have enjoyed discussing Divine Yet Human Epics with members of the Hour 25 online community, whose members bring a wealth of academic interests and experiences to bear on issues introduced in ancient Greek heroic literature.  Even closer to home, the Center’s onsite outreach activities, which grant public access to cultural artifacts from Greece and to their influences on later works in other loci, make a vibrant classical addition to the capital’s thriving cultural scene.

I am very grateful to have had the opportunities that the Center has made possible, and I hope to continue the cross-cultural conversations that I have been having with colleagues there as I proceed with my next epic project, which is well under way.  In this second monograph, Love as the New Divine: Reconceiving the Epic in Ancient Rome and India, I am investigating the similarly innovative ways in which the epic poets Ovid and Kālidāsa re-imagine their most powerful, societal-norm-enforcing gods as loving beings open to individual devotion in the disparate imperial capitals of Augustan Rome and Guptan Ujjain.  So far, I am finding that my conception of epic needs to expand still further to encompass and account for the literary and theological advances that these individual authors have made beyond the patterns set by the groups of poets who made the earliest epics of the Greco-Roman and Indian traditions.  I look forward to learning more . . .