Asian Studies Faculty Spotlight – Anusha Sudindra Rao

Meet our newest faculty members in Asian Studies and learn more about their background and passions! Anusha Sudindra Rao is our newest Sessional Lecturer in Sanskrit.

Tell us a little about yourself, your background and how you became interested in Asian languages and cultures?

I always loved stories—who doesn’t? But with me, it was a bit of an obsession. And I have never read a story as fascinating as the Mahabharata, one of the two great Indian epics. I was born and brought up in India, and it’s a cliché, as AK Ramanujan said, that no Indian ever hears the Mahabharata for the first time. I devoured every comic book, adaptation, and translation I could lay my hands on. I did not realize at that time that it was something I could work on.

Once, when I was doing my undergrad (in English), a friend asked me for some context on a Mahabharata story she was reading. I started telling her the story she asked for, but realized that in order to understand it, she needed to know another story from the epic, and another in order to understand that. This went on for about an hour. That was when I looked back on all the stories I had been reading since childhood, and marvelled at the depth of the Mahabharata, its ambitious scope, its complex characters, and the skill with which it has been woven together.

Luckily, I studied Sanskrit right from high school, so I had the basic language skills I needed to explore the epic and other Sanskrit literature. It was difficult applying for graduate studies without the relevant theoretical background in South Asian studies, but I was fortunate to find some amazing scholars who helped me every step of the way, especially Prof. Ajay Rao, my current supervisor at University of Toronto.

As I began reading more, my questions evolved further too—I got more interested in theological interpretations of the Mahabharata. I did my MA in Religious Studies from the University of Calgary, under Prof. Elizabeth Rohlman and Prof. Christopher Framarin, who are interested in narrative and philosophy respectively, which gave me wonderful perspective as I worked on the intersection of the two in a re-narration of the Mahabharata by the thirteenth century Vedanta thinker and founder of dualist Vedanta—Madhva. Currently, I am pursuing my PhD from the University of Toronto, and looking at doctrinal development in Dvaita Vedānta, but more on that in the next question.

Could you explain to a non-expert what you are researching and why it is significant?

Vedanta is a set of theological and philosophical systems from India that centered themselves around the sacred texts of the Upanisads. While all schools of Vedanta regard the Upanisads as authoritative, they all disagree on what the message of the Upanisads is—Is the world ultimately real? What is the relationship between the self and Brahman? Vedanta has been so influential that it has been regarded as the touchstone for scholarship, in and outside India, for a century and a half. But traditional studies of Vedanta have mostly treated it as a monolithic system, disregarding the history of debate and disagreement within various schools of Vedanta, as well as the intellectual and social contexts of Vedanta thinkers.

Recent scholarship has been working on remedying this—both by taking a closer look at theistic systems of Vedanta, which were earlier dismissed for not being philosophical enough, and by looking at genres of writing other than philosophical commentaries to understand the contexts of these thinkers. This is what I am trying to do in my research too.

I work on dualist Vedanta (Dvaita) in early modern South India and the links forged in this system between narrative, theology, and philosophy. Dvaita Vedanta, founded by Madhva in the thirteenth century, is one of the three important Vedanta schools of South India, and argues for an unchanging difference between God and individual selves. Dvaita Vedanta is understudied, partly because of the radical interpretations of scriptural passages by Madhva, and partly because of the long-held misconception that Advaita or monist Vedanta is synonymous with all Vedanta.

I look at doctrinal developments in Dvaita Vedanta in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries—when important thinkers from the tradition made a concerted attempt to extend the influence and appeal of their school through their polemical writings, but also through genres such as poetry, narratives, and hymns, both in Sanskrit and in Kannada, their regional language. I am particularly interested in the figure of Vadirajatirtha, an important saint from the tradition, who was unapologetically theistic even in all his work, and who had a “common-sense” approach to philosophy that distinguished him from his predecessors. I am exploring how his approach was informed by his context, and how it led to doctrinal and institutional change in Dvaita Vedanta.

Is this your first time teaching? Have you enjoyed your first foray into teaching being done via online learning, or would you have preferred it being in-person?

This is my first time teaching synchronously, and I am absolutely enjoying the experience. In-person teaching has so many advantages that I am missing out on. But I admire and appreciate how engaged and enthusiastic students have been despite the many challenges that the pandemic and online instruction have caused. Online teaching has been a sheer joy.

What are some other interests you enjoy pursuing outside of your work?

I like to read stories and poetry when I am not trying to make sense of difficult texts—so I end up reading Sanskrit as work as well as leisure! I enjoy translating from Sanskrit into English—I’m currently working on a book of translations from Sanskrit love poetry. I also really enjoy cooking; it relaxes me. I am a columnist for the Deccan Herald, a popular daily newspaper in India. My column is called Sans the Sacred— it is a satirical take on current affairs with a dose of Sanskrit thrown in.

What are you teaching in UBC’s Asian Studies Department/ Why learn Sanskrit?

I am teaching Intro to Sanskrit. Knowing Sanskrit gives you access to a whole treasure of things to read: from enriching philosophical debates on the exact meaning of a word in the Bhagavad Gita or the Yoga Sutras, all the way to the most unabashedly romantic poetry. Learning a language is really difficult, but the joys of Sanskrit make it more than worth it. It’s called the language of the Gods for a reason (or many)!