Jaipur 350

Professor of Comparative Religion
NEH Distinguished Professor of Humanities
Professor of Asian and Comparative Religions
Chair of Department 2010-2013
Director of the Humanities Program, 2004-2008
Ph.D. and A.M., History of Religions, The University of Chicago, 1993
A.B., Bowdoin College


Faulkner House Room 9
Telephone: (973) 408-3124
Fax: (973) 408-3991
E-mail: kpechili@drew.edu


Professor Pechilis explores issues of interpreting the embodied self through poetry, biography, and practice in devotional traditions of Hinduism.  She understands `devotion’ to be a site for the intersection of wonder and self-expression, and for an exquisitely participatory impulse, especially in the arts and letters.  Over the past twenty years she has conducted research in Chennai (Madras), south India through grants from the American Institute of Indian Studies, the Fulbright Program, and the Asian Cultural Council.  Her published work, both independent and collaborative, engages many scholarly discussions about the making of religious tradition, including interpretive history, translation, cultural analysis, and feminist and gender studies.

Professor Pechilis’ courses on Asian religions explore historical processes in the development of religions, including master narratives and alternatives to them. Annual core courses include South Asia: Tradition and Today and East Asia: Tradition and Today. Elective courses include Women in Asian Traditions, History of Modern India through the Novel, History of India, and South Asia through Art and Text. Her comparative courses engage a central theme with which to explore similarities and differences across Asian and Abrahamic traditions. Courses include pilgrimage, marriage in world religions, and eastern and western art. Several of her courses, such as South Asia through Art and Text and History of India through the Novel, are also offered through Drew’s innovative graduate Arts & Letters Program.

For four years (2004-08), Professor Pechilis directed the Humanities Program at Drew, an innovative interdisciplinary program designed especially for college students.  Professor Pechilis’ special interest was to foreground global contacts among cultures considered in Humanities Program courses.  All courses in the program are team-taught by the Director and a professor with subject expertise; many Humanities disciplines contribute to the program.  Each semester the program offers a course on a period in Western history.  Each fall the program offers a course that recognizes contributions of cultures across the globe to world and Western history (Africa, Asia, Latin America, Middle East).  Each spring the program offers a half-semester current issues course that considers a timely topic from multi-disciplinary perspectives including Arts, Humanities, Sciences and Social Sciences.  The Humanities Program website is at:  http://depts.drew.edu/hum/.

Recent Publications & Professional Activities

Interpreting Devotion: The Poetry and Legacy of a Female Bhakti Saint of IndiaThis book theorizes bhakti as a devotional subjectivity that is created in the poetry of Karaikkal Ammaiyar and contoured in an authoritative medieval biography of her as well as present-day festival celebrations in her honor. The book illuminates her poetry and legacy through an exploration of themes such as language and mystical experience, the `non-dual’ nature of translation, the devotional subjectivity created in her poetry, the fiction of femaleness and its relationships to women’s truth-speech in her biography, and the participation of modern festival publics in the creation of memory and experience of her legacy. Includes a complete translation of all of the poet-saint’s compositions plus a translation of her biography. Published Dec. 2011 at Routledge. A South Asian Edition paperback version of this book was published by Routledge and Manohar (Delhi) in February 2015.

South Asian Religions: Tradition & Today. Edited by Karen Pechilis and Selva J. Raj. An accessible introduction to religions in South Asia, including Tribal Religions, Hinduism, Jainism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Sikhism. Each chapter is written by an established academic researcher-teacher, who discusses the identity, practices and current issues of each religion, supplemented by a map, a list of key terms, questions for discussion, and recommended resources. An introductory chapter provides an overview of the distinctive nature of South Asian religions and offers guidelines for the academic study of religion. Primarily designed for students, this book would serve as a handy scholarly reference work for those seeking accurate information on the nature and variety of religion and culture in South Asia today, including curators, diplomats, journalists, researchers, and travelers. Published Nov. 2012 at Routledge. Hear a podcast discussion of this book in Humanities expert Professor Kirk Ott’s interview of Karen Pechilis, March 2014, at New Books in South Asian StudiesThank you to Professor Kirk Ott and New Books Network: South Asian Studies.

“Devotional Subjectivity and the Fiction of Femaleness: Feminist Hermeneutics and the Articulation of Difference,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 30.2 (2014): 99-114. Special section on Comparative Feminist Hermeneutics, introduced by Professor Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza. Congratulations to JFSR on its 30th year anniversary of feminist publishing!

“Śiva as the Lord of Dance: What the Poetess Saw,” Journal of Hindu Studies 6/2 (2013): 131-153.

“The Female Guru: Guru, Gender and the Path of Personal Experience,” pp. 113-132 in Jacob Copeman and Aya Ikegame, eds., The Guru in South Asia: New Interdisciplinary Perspectives. London: Routledge, 2012.

Articles on “Female Gurus and Ascetics” (5,500 words) and “Feminism” (8,500 words). Pp. 461-469 and 734-749, respectively, in Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism, ed.-in-chief Knut Jacobsen, Vol. 5. Leiden: Brill, Nov. 2013.

Article on “Gender” (10,000 words). Pp. 788-805in Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism, ed.-in-chief Knut Jacobsen, Vol. 4. Leiden: Brill, Oct. 2012.

“Current Approaches to Bhakti,” pp. 107-121 in Jessica Frazier, ed., The Continuum Companion to Hinduism. London: Continuum Publishing, 2011.

“Spreading Śakti” (article on female gurus), pp. 97-120 in Tracy Pintchman and Rita D. Sherma, eds., Woman and Goddess in Hinduism: Reinterpretations and Re-envisionings. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011.

Special Section on “Encounters in Ethnography Today” in Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 21:1 (2009). Convener and Contributor of Introduction and Article, “Experiencing the Mango Festival as a Ritual Dramatization of Hagiography” (pp. 1-2, 50-65).

Special Section on “Feminist Theory and the Study of South Asian Religions” in the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 24:1 (Sp 2008): 5-71 (also available through Project MUSE). Convener and Contributor of Introduction and Article, “Chosen Moments: Mediation and Direct Experience in the Life of the Classical Tamil Saint, Karaikkal Ammaiyar” (pp. 5-11, 11-31); these two articles were reprinted in Pamela Klaussen, ed., Women and Religion (Routledge, 2009).

Special Issue on “Bodily Transformations Across Indian Religions.” International Journal of Hindu Studies 10:2 (August 2006).  Guest Editor and Contributor of Introduction and Article, “The Story of the Classical Tamil Woman Saint, Karaikkal Ammaiyar: A Translation of Her Story from Cekkilar’s Periya Puranam” (pp. 173-86).

The Graceful Guru: Hindu Female Gurus in India and the United States. Oxford University Press, 2004.  Editor and Contributor of Introduction (“Hindu Female Gurus in Historical and Philosophical Context” pp. 3-49) and Article on “Gurumayi: The Play of Shakti and Guru” (pp. 219-243).

Read prizewinning journalist Kurt Streeter’s Los Angeles Times article, “Embracing the Love of Amma, the Hugging Saint,” on female guru Ammachi/Mata Amritanandamayi/Amma  (2010).

Read journalist and recent Fulbright Scholar to India Jake Halpern’s New York Times article, “Amma’s Multifaceted Empire, Built on Hugs,” on Ammachi (2013). His article in The New Yorker, “The Secret of the Temple” (2012), on the recent discovery of a billion-dollar gold treasure trove at the famous Sri Padmanabaswamy Temple in Kerala, India, is also fascinating.

The Sensuous and the Sacred: Chola Bronzes from South India. Vidya Dehejia with essays by Richard H. Davis, R. Nagaswamy and Karen Pechilis Prentiss.  American Federation of Arts and University of Washington Press, 2002.  Contributor of Article “Joyous Encounters: Tamil Bhakti Poets and Images of the Divine” (pp. 65-79). Produced as a catalogue for the exhibition of the same name held at the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of the Smithsonian Museum, Nov. 10, 2002 – March 9, 2003; see the online exhibition


“The Pattern of Hinduism and Hindu Temple Building in the U.S.” (2000) Author (Karen Pechilis Prentiss). Read online at Harvard University’s Pluralism Project, also cited on the website of Bob Abernethy’s Religion & Ethics Newsweekly program.

The Embodiment of Bhakti. Oxford University Press, 1999.  Author (Karen Pechilis Prentiss)

Steering Committee, Conference on the Study of Religions of India, 2010-Present

Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession, American Academy of Religion 2003-2008. As part of its work, this group sponsors the valuable resource Ask Academic Abby for AAR members (archive sample here).

Book Review Editor, International Journal of Hindu Studies, June 2006-2012. The current BRE is Dr. Michael Baltutis, baltutim@uwosh.edu

National Editorial Board, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 2009-Present

Advisory Editorial Board, International Journal of Hindu Studies, 2012-Present

International Editorial Board, Religion & Gender, 2013 – Present

Editorial Board, International Journal of Dharma Studies, 2013-Present

Translations of Classical Tamil Language Texts into English:

Tevaram (devotional poetry), in The Embodiment of Bhakti (OUP 1999): 157-188

Tiruvarutpayan (couplets on divine grace), in The Embodiment of Bhakti: 189-209

Tirumuraikantapuranam (story of the making of a canon), in International Journal of Hindu Studies 5:1 (April 2001): 1-44

Periya Puranam-Story of Nantanar (hagiography), in Eleanor Zelliot and Rohini Mokashi-Punekar, eds., Untouchable Saints: An Indian Phenomenon (New Delhi: Manohar, 2005): 95-107

Periya Puranam-Story of Karaikkal Ammaiyar (hagiography), in International Journal of Hindu Studies 10:2 (September 2006)

The poetry of female saint and author Karaikkal Ammaiyar and new translation of her hagiography in Interpreting Devotion (see above)