Research Project


Human Agency and Fate in the Mahābhārata

Dr. Sven Sellmer
Adam Mickiewicz University, Institute of Oriental Studies
Research stay: June – July 2011

The narrative passages of the Sanskrit epics are very valuable sources of knowledge about the implicit psychological conceptions current in the period of their composition, because they offer a perspective that is – at least partly – independent of the contemporary "scientific" psychological theories. My project aims to describe the way in which the complex mutual relationship between human agency and fate was seen by the authors of these texts. This problem plays quite a big role in this epic, where various people constantly take difficult decisions, face the consequences and often feel the need to explain their failures. In approaching the Mahābhārata with an agenda of this kind, it is important not to confine oneself to explicit discussions and statements of the epic heroes, but also to take into account the narrative function of the relevant passages and – an aspect that is overlooked or underestimated all too often – the oral composition technique of large parts of the Mahābhārata. To explore the methodological consequences of the latter fact is an important part of my habilitation thesis, in which I seek to lay the foundation for the reconstruction of what may be called the anthropology of the Sanskrit epics.

In January I will present my findings in Erlangen at a public lecture. I have also already started to organize an indological workshop under the heading "Fate, Freedom, and Prognostication", that is to take place in February. For this meeting I plan to bring together an international group of specialists from different fields – such as Indian astrology, medicine, philosophy, epic, puranic and tantric literature, Buddhist and Jain studies – with the expectation that, in this way, a wider picture will emerge that might make it possible to detect both new connections among the Indian traditions and links to neighbouring cultures.

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