BA Politics and Modern History / Course details

Year of entry: 2020

Course unit details:
Goddesses, Demons and Stories in South Asian History: From Early Epics to the Present Day

Unit code RELT21222
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 2
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by Religions & Theology
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


Visit South Asia, and stories are everywhere. This course considers how history, story and religion inform one another in South Asia.

We focus on why stories are a significant part of South Asia, and why history and story is often narrated using religious or cosmological terms. Students will also explore what these narratives reveal about power, devotion, gender, storytellers and society.

Material and case studies on this unit includes authoritative and countercultural texts; women’s songs; folk performances and blockbuster television; sacred spaces; and ideas of sex and sensuality within and across different religious traditions. 

As well as exploring these issues theoretically, students will also have the opportunity to engage first-hand with primary texts, including literature; animation; images; dance and oral performances.

You will also develop practical skills of teamwork and peer assessment.


  • To introduce students to the wonderfully varied forms of storytelling in Indian religious and philosophical traditions, and the ways in which they relate to different historical, social and ethical contexts.
  • To analyse oral, written and visual forms of story-telling texts.
  • To develop skills in: reading, hearing, analysing and reworking primary sources; working in groups and setting goals; making creative presentations, drawing on web-based materials where appropriate.
  • To acquire a critical foundation that will enable the study of Indian traditions at more advanced levels.

Learning outcomes

By the end of this course students will be able to:


The unit explores the interrelationship between stories, religion and society in South Asian history to the present day. It introduces students to some of the most famous epic religious/ethical texts, and also brings to the stage stories of marginal actors (like women, lower-castes, those from other cultures), in order to examine how much they develop, challenge and contribute toward religious and ethical traditions in India.

To do this, we begin by introducing you to scholarly ways of thinking about the Sanskrit term Itihasa, that is, stories which bring together myth, legend and history, and how this relates to some storytellers, saints and scoundrels.

Building upon this, we will then bring to life moral dilemmas in the Mahabharata; women’s voices in the Ramakatha; power struggles in Rajput Queen stories; Indo-Islamic and Sikh love stories that challenge boundaries; and iconographies of Gods in epic TV dramas and folk performances. Our focuses wherever possible will be on:

  1. Stories whose narratives include vernacular, female and lower-class voices  
  2. Stories concerning ethical dilemmas, including (non)violence, tolerance, sensuality and sexuality
  3. Stories told across religious boundaries and that help you think critically about the ways in which we construct separate -isms (Hinduism, Jainism, Islam) and understand ‘religion’

In searching for these narratives of and about alternative people, you will have the opportunity to critically study social histories, literary texts, epics and ethnographies.

You will be supported to use storytelling in Indian traditions to think about who we are, how we can relate to others, and what stories can teach us about the challenges that we face today.

Teaching and learning methods

All sessions work on an interactive basis, interspersing mini-lectures, group work and full group discussion. In addition, time is built into the unit for experientially-based learning linked with the presentation and students learn to assess their own work and that of others through feedback on the presentation. There will be the opportunity for basing the presentations on work with e.g. a school or a community group (to be negotiated by the students with support from lecturer).

The unit is supported by a detailed Blackboard site, which includes weblinks to visual and film material, as well as group discussion boards linked with the presentations. The unit allows you to develop your abilities to assess web-based material critically, encouraging you to use material posted by contemporary Indian organisations and bloggers.

The unit also includes one dedicated consultation hour per week.

Knowledge and understanding

  • Understand ways in which stories are told and retold both within and across Indian religious traditions
  • Analyse ways in which narratives are used to explore ethical and social issues in Indian traditions

Intellectual skills

  • Ask critical questions about ways in which story-telling can be used to construct and criticise group identifications, social, political and religious
  • Evaluate the ethical implications of an Indian narrative

Practical skills

  • Critically employ a range of hard copy and online resources including those produced by and for Indian groups
  • Undertake self and peer review (formative only)

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • Show an ability to work in a group, to formulate a problem, devise a solution, using a creative medium and tackle issues which arise from this
  • Organise their own time and priorities

Employability skills

¿ Understand the importance of working to deadlines, and integrate this into successfully balancing individual initiative and collegial collaboration ¿ Develop and demonstrate their communication skills, including written and oral presentation ¿ Analyse and appraise large amount of complex information ¿ Reflect upon their experience of working on a problem and their skills in peer-support, including solving issues which arise in a team and where people have different expertise and ideas, and where conflict may arise ¿ Apply research skills and evaluate the success of a project

Assessment methods

Assessment task

Formative or Summative


Weighting within unit (if summative)

Essay 1


2000 words max


Essay 2


2000 words max




2 hours



Feedback methods

Feedback method

Formative or Summative

Written feedback on essays 1 and 2

Formative (1), Summative (2)

Additional one-to-one feedback (during consultation hour or by making an appointment)



Recommended reading

Suthren Hirst, Jacqueline  Sita’s Story (Norwich: RMEP, 1997);

Abbott, H. Porter, The Cambridge Introduction to Narrative (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, second ed. 2008)

Behl, Aditya  Love’s Subtle Magic: an Indian Islamic Literary tradition 1379-1545 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012)

Bose, Mandakranta  A Woman’s Ramayana: Candravati’s Bengali Epic (London: Routledge, 2013)

Manjhan, Madhumalati: an Indian Sufi Romance, tr. Aditya Behl and Simon Weightman (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000)

Narayan, Kirin Storytellers, Saints and Scoundrels: Folk Narrative in Hindu ReligiousTeaching (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1989)

Prasad, Leela  Poetics of Conduct: Oral Narrative and Moral Being in a South Indian Town (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007)

Suthren Hirst, Jacqueline and John Zavos  Religious Traditions in Modern South Asia  (London: Routledge, 2011), especially chapters 4, 7b and 9  (whole book esp ch.1 will be useful if you did not do RELT 1022)

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 22
Seminars 11
Independent study hours
Independent study 152

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Ketan Alder Unit coordinator

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