Preceptorial Spotlights #4 and 5: Sima Qian and the Mahābhārata

[If you’re wondering what a “preceptorial” is, please visit this post first.]

The history of the world has already been written. Finishing what his father began, Sima Qian didn’t simply chronicle the events and event-makers from China’s first emperor down to the present Han Dynasty: he gave order to Chinese culture as a whole. In prose still recited to this day for its elegance, Qian’s Records of the Grand Historian (or Shiji) described rituals as well as dynasties; music and astronomy as well as genealogy; biographies of merchants, actors, and courtesans as well as of lords and empresses. The result is a foundational text of his own civilization.

Candidates for the Master of Arts in Eastern Classics degree spent their first eight weeks this fall discussing and probing the monumental work, asking questions like: How does history begin? Are we to learn more from paragons of virtue or epitomes of vice? Is certainty more important than narrative?


But if after eight weeks, MAEC students have already read through the history of the world, what could be left over to read? Try the longest epic poem ever written, the Mahābhārata, a work ten times longer than the combined length of the West’s Iliad and Odyssey, and like those epics, concerned with battle, bloodlines, and, most importantly perhaps, how to live.

Students read the first five books of the Mahābhārata over the second half of the fall semester, which recounts the creation of the universe, the founding of the ruling factions, and the current preparations (and failure to prevent) warfare. Besides arousing questions of how to order society, how to forgive, and whether or not war can be just, the juxtaposition of this with Sima Qian’s work offers the chance to compare Indian and Chinese responses to the the problems of society, of past and future, and of the good for one and all.

Problems, surely, as expansive and all-pervading as the scope of both these very works, but ones that Johnnies crave to discuss like none other. Perhaps the character Upamanyu expresses our sentiment best when he cries out: “I desire to obtain you by the help of the knowledge derived from hearing, and of meditation, for ye are Infinite!”


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