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Harvard offers a wide array of courses on South Asia, ranging from language to history, politics, economics, religion, and much more. Check out a selection of what is offered during Fall 2023. Please refer to the Course Catalog for the most up-to-date information. We will continue to add to this list as we hear about more courses.

Courses on South Asia

Contemporary Developing Countries: Entrepreneurial Solutions to Intractable Problems

Tarun Khanna, Satchit BalsariDoris Sommer, John Macomber, Karen Reuther, Caroline Buckee Gen Ed 1011

How do you successfully design and implement solutions to intractable social and economic problems in the developing world? What problems do developing countries face, and how can individuals contribute to solutions What problems do developing countries face, and how can individuals contribute to solutions rather than awaiting the largesse of the state or other actors? Intractable problems – such as lack of access to education and healthcare, deep-seated corruption, climate vulnerability, and increased exposure to natural disasters – are part of the quotidian existence of the vast majority of five of the world’s seven billion people. Developing societies suffer from what we refer to as “institutional voids” that make organized activities of all sorts difficult; think of the mundane but important physical infrastructure that allows us to get to work or school in the developed world, as well as our access to higher-order institutions such as the availability of information at our fingertips or the security of the rule of law. This course demonstrates that reflecting upon the nature of the developing world’s intractable problems through different lenses helps characterize candidate interventions to address them: the scientist’s hypothesis-driven and iterative experimentation, the artist’s imagined counterfactuals through putting oneself in others’ shoes literally and theatrically, and the planner’s top-down articulation of boundary conditions.

Managing and Investing in a Fast-Growing Emerging Market: India

Tarun Khanna (with Vikram Gandhi and John Kim) HBS 1295

Course Objectives: Understanding and identifying the causes and consequences of entrepreneurship in one of the fastest growing large economies in the world today; Understanding India as geopolitically salient and a petri-dish for entrepreneurship for the Global South; Integrative course that brings together ideas from BGIE, FIN, EM, STRAT, LEAD.

The Modern City and its People: South Asia and Beyond

 Vishal Khandelwal FYSEMR 65I

This seminar will consider some of these meanings by analyzing architecture and urban development; artworks that represent everyday life; and films that showcase the modern city. How do people build cities in relation to their needs? How and why do specific urban spaces cater to entertainment and excitement? Where do emotions such as love, longing, or fear make themselves apparent within the textures of cities? How does urban life give rise to inclusions and exclusions? In what ways do artworks and everyday objects register urban and rural realities, fantasies, and memories? And how do we study and talk about the built and unbuilt infrastructures that shape and enable cities and subjectivities? Our core examples will draw from South Asian cities and diasporic South Asian lives, and our readings will come from disciplines including architectural history, art history, urban studies, and anthropology. At stake will be a variety of terms and concepts that we will use to think, write, and reflect about cities, the kinds of activities that take place within them, and the types of transactions that structure our urban experiences as well as the experiences of those we study. We will strive to move beyond conceptions of urban life that privilege the ideals and aspirations of only a few, and will question what has historically constituted the urban itself in relation to the non-urban. A mandatory field trip to the Rose Art Museum at Brandeis University (Waltham, MA) is included as part of this seminar. 

Art of Monsoon Asia: Interconnected Histories

Jinah Kim HAA 81

Focusing on the impact of monsoons in South and Southeast Asia, the course explores the common patterns and traits of the art of Monsoon Asia. Monsoon Asia refers to the area of the globe where climates are determined or profoundly affected by the monsoon, from the Himalayas, to the islands of Indian Ocean, all the way to the Japanese archipelago. How was the monsoon and its impact conceptualized in art? The main learning goal of the course is to understand how artistic means were harnessed to conceptualize, cope with, and tame environmental challenges posed by monsoons and long-distance travels, often facilitated by the monsoon winds, in pre-modern times. From water management to water symbolism, from impressive temples that mark auspicious arrivals to itinerant objects like ivories and amulets that moved with travelers across Monsoon Asia, we will look at diverse sites and objects that date between the fifth through the sixteenth centuries and attempt to connect the dots between ports and uncover hidden narratives of long-distance travels and travails of dealing with environmental challenges in pre-modern times. The course challenges the diffusionist model of influence in understanding trans-regional interactions and introduces ways to discuss interconnected histories using digital tools. The course will introduce basic tools of digital art history and students will be asked to contribute to a course exhibition site with annotated maps and research pages as part of their final projects.

Join a LIVE Q&A on Friday, August 25 at 2 pm! Zoom link here.

The Global South Asian Diaspora

Vikrant Dadawala HIST-LIT 90EZ

The course is divided into two units. We will begin by analyzing the “old” South Asian diaspora in countries in Africa, the Caribbean, and Southeast Asia. Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, people of South Asian heritage emigrated out of their ancestral homelands in vast numbers, giving rise to one of the world’s largest and most geographically scattered diasporas. An estimated thirty million people of South Asian heritage live outside the Indian subcontinent today, with significant communities in the United Kingdom, the United States, the Caribbean, Southeast Asia, East Africa, and the Middle East. How and why did South Asians choose to settle in new countries? In what ways did the act of emigration transform their sense of religious, ethnic, caste, and racial identity? How did their lives become bound up with those of other displaced or colonized people – in Africa, the Caribbean, and in the AmericasConsulting a mix of primary sources from the colonial archives, historical scholarship, memoirs, and recent fiction, we will reconstruct the life-worlds of indentured laborers, sailors, soldiers, and migrant traders in the nineteenth century. The second unit shifts focus to more recent history: postcolonial migration from South Asian countries to the United States, United Kingdom and the Middle East. Reconstructing the history of immigration law in these countries, we will analyze memoirs, films, and literary texts that explore the ambiguous place of desis in the ‘First world’. Besides celebrated contemporary writers like Salman Rushdie, Jhumpa Lahiri, and Mohsin Hamid, we will also engage with the work of lesser-known figures like Gaiutra Bahadur, Peggy Mohan, and M.G. Vassanji. 

The Body in Indian Medicine

 Martha Selby SAS 104

What does it mean to inhabit a body in India? This is the primary question that we will attempt to answer during the course of the semester in this seminar. The readings and discussion over the course of the term will parallel the development of the human being from conception, infancy and childhood, adulthood and sexuality, and will end with aging and death. We will take an interdisciplinary approach, and will examine textual materials from an extensive range of sources and time periods. Sources will include selections in translation from medical literature from India’s Āyurvedic traditions as well as readings from religious narratives that deal directly with issues of embodiment and provide powerful metaphors for it. We will also be drawing largely on sociological and anthropological studies of the different forms that embodiment takes, from metaphysical issues on what it means to be “alive” or “dead” and the human body’s connection to land and landscape to careful explorations of the body’s outer surfaces in terms of ritual, ascetic, and strictly sartorial concerns with adornment and fashion. We will also explore the fascinating interfaces between bodybuilding and nation building in India.

Ethics and Animal Life in South Asian Texts and Cultures

Martha Selby SAS 105

This course will provide the student with an overview of the multiple ways in which animals — and animal life — have interacted with humans over the centuries in the Indian context. We will begin with literary texts from the Sanskrit and Tamil traditions, including readings from the Sanskrit Pancatantra and Hitopadesa (collections of fable-like tales used to instruct humans in proper political behavior and how to be a friend), coupled with the Jataka stories of early Buddhism. We will then move on to explorations of the ways in which animals have been used in ritual, how their lives are understood by India’s religious traditions, and how their byproducts have been used to compound drugs in Indian medical systems. We will examine the ways in which certain animals were employed as symbols and as substance in the royal courts of early and medieval India, with special attention paid to the ways in which elephants and horses in particular were used in warfare. We will also look at ways in which animals were harnessed into the agendas of the East India Company and the British Raj, as beasts of burden and in military campaigns, as objects of hunting, and as domestic pets. The course will end with ethical considerations that have arisen in the past several decades over animal rights in India through an exploration of the Tamil jallikkattu (the South Indian version of the bullfight) and what it is like to live with animals ethically.

An Introduction to the Cultural History of the Tibetan Region

 Leonard van der Kuijp SAS 140

This course introduces the student to a magnificent, ancient culture that is still alive and well today. We will discuss its history, political history, and its literary history in great detail, primarily from the 9th to 17th centuries.

Introduction to Islamic Philosophy and Theology: The Classical and Medieval period

 Khaled El-Rouayheb ISLAMCIV 145

The course is an introduction to some of the key problems and figures in medieval Islamic theology and philosophy. The main topics covered will be:  The rise of theological controversies in early Islam and the crystallization of theological factions; the rise of an Arabic tradition of Neo-Platonized Aristotelianism with such figures as Farabi (d. 950) and Avicenna (d.1037); the confrontation between the theological and Aristotelian traditions in such works as The Incoherence of the Philosophers by the theologian al-Ghazali (d.1111) and the response by Averroes (d.1198); the powerful influence of philosophy on later Islamic theology; the anti-Aristotelian, Platonist philosophy of “Illumination” of Suhrawardi (d.1191), and the mystical monism of Ibn Arabi (d.1240) and his followers.

Any student is welcome who would like to know more about the vigorous and long-lived Islamic traditions of theology and philosophy. No prior knowledge of Islam is presupposed, and all readings will be in English. Assigned readings, additional handouts and announcements for the course will be available through the course web site.

Addressing the Global Climate Crisis: Challenges for Both Developed and Developing Economies

 Michael McElroy ESPP 90N

The seminar will discuss the nature of the climate challenge and the implications it poses for different communities and different parts of the world. Mitigating negative impacts of human induced climate change will require an urgent transition from the current global fossil fuel-based energy economy to one based on renewable alternatives. Possibilities include wind, solar, hydro, biomass and potentially nuclear. The seminar will review options with specific attention to differences in the challenges faced by developed economies such as the US and Europe and large developing economies such as China, India and parts of Africa. Can we chart a feasible path to net zero global carbon emissions by 2050?

Migration, Refugees, and Human Rights

Jacqueline Bhabha IGA 355

The course will address the legal frameworks governing migration, and the ethical and pragmatic considerations that influence policies. It will explore the viability of a range of solutions to current migration challenges, including unequal access to protection, the failure of equitable resettlement and the erosion of host empathy/solidarity.  The extent to which pandemic-related measures conform to or violate legal and ethical obligations will also be considered.  A key goal is to enable students to analyze current migration situations with clarity and rigor concerning the obligations of states and the rights of migrants. Using examples of large-scale contemporary population movements – the Ukrainian war and its human impact, the ongoing Tigrayan emergency, the Rohingya exodus, the Venezuelan context, the Mediterranean migration situation, extensive intra-regional mobility within the African continent, US/Mexico/Central American movements, unaccompanied child migration in many regions – the course will examine migration drivers, policy responses and rights challenges such as exclusion and denial of protection, persistent racism in border control, detention, prolonged confinement within refugee camps and forced repatriation. It will also engage with the multiple risks, including statelessness, trafficking, drowning, sexual violence, that migrants face before, during and after their journeys. The course will cover key current policy developments, at the municipal, national, regional and international level, including the impact of Global Compacts on Refugees and on Migration. The course will discuss seasonal migration, child migration, undocumented and irregular status, gender factors in migration and the role of xenophobia in driving policy. Students will be required to make in class presentations, to prepare questions for guest lecturers, and encouraged to participate in class discussion, including by to considering a range of strategies for increasing access to safe mobility as a key redistributive global good.

Democracy: The Long View and the Bumpy History

Alex Keyssar HIST 1390

This course will explore key episodes and turning points in the history of democracy from ancient Athens to the present. It is shaped by two overarching and compelling questions: What circumstances, conditions, and forces are conducive to the development, deepening, and preservation of democratic ideas, values, and institutions? And conversely, what are the conditions or forces that tend to inhibit or threaten the emergence, strengthening, or even survival of democracy? Among the historical episodes to be examined are: ancient Greece and the Near East; the American Revolution; Europe during industrialization; Latin America in the 19th and 20th centuries; India and Pakistan; the “third wave” of democratization; and the challenges facing democratization in the last thirty years

Buddhist Enlightenment: Visions, Words, and Practice

Ryuichi Abe FYSEMR 62Z

How do you get enlightened?  Is the Buddha a god or human? How many Buddhas are there in the world? How many celebrated enlightened women do we find in Buddhism? How do you know if someone is enlightened? And why does Enlightenment matter? These are basic questions that even most recondite books of Buddhism often fail to answer. This seminar looks at famous visual images of Buddhist enlightenment—not only iconographies of Buddhist divinities, but also architecture, gardens, ritual instruments, and maps of the world—and using them as our gateways, studies narratives, parables, metaphors, and theories that explain what enlightenment is, how to attain enlightenment, and how to retain it in one’s everyday life. The seminar encourages students to apply their understanding of Buddhist enlightenment as a way to better appreciate their own religious traditions and/or spiritual identities for the sake of enriching their inner selves as well as their social interactions.

Inter-religious Dynamics of South Asia

Swayam Bagaria HDS 3423

This course will explore the multiple determinants of inter-religious dynamics in modern South Asia. Focus will be on how several factors including social segregation, theological polemics, economic interdependencies, and electoral cycles interact to broadly produce the terms of identification and interaction between different religious communities in South Asia. Topics include communalism, conversion, religious riots, inter-religious marriage, neighborly coexistence. Scholarship from multiple disciplines including anthropology, economics, political science, and history will be read as part of the course.

Hinduism and Comparative Law

Swayam Bagaria HDS 3180

This course will look at some of the longstanding issues in comparative constitutional law by looking at the place of Hinduism in the legal architecture of India. While it will briefly look at the archive of classical Hindu law and subsequent colonial codification of it in highly limited forms, its focus will be on a range of issues of religious jurisprudence that arise in modern India. You will read case law as well as secondary scholarship on a range of topics including separation of powers, judicial reform, state neutrality and secularity, constitutional design, constitutional interpretation, and religious exemption. A preliminary course on Hinduism recommended.


Harvard offers courses in many languages related to South Asia, including, Hindi-Urdu, Kashmiri, Punjabi, Nepali, Sanskrit, Tibetan (Classical), Tibetan (Colloquial), and Tamil. Please check the  course pages to see the levels and courses available for Fall 2023.

Are you a Harvard faculty member with a course you’d like included in our list? Tell us about it! Email