Professor of Comparative Religion
NEH Distinguished Professor of Humanities
Professor of Asian and Comparative Religions
Convener of Arts & Letters in the Caspersen School of Graduate Studies
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; SW Bowne Room 110
Telephone: (973) 408-3124
Fax: (973) 408-3991
36 Madison Avenue
Madison NJ 07940 USA (zip + 4: 07940-1493)
Innovation characterizes Professor Pechilis’s research and publications, including her influential theoretical contributions to the study of bhakti (path of devotional participation); pioneering work on identification and comparative analysis of female gurus; translation and critical discussion of classical Indian devotional texts; reclaiming and restoring female voices from Indian tradition through gender and feminist interpretation; and providing transformative new insights on the development of the now global Nataraja image of Śiva as the Lord of Dance. Recent work includes reflections on the body in Indian traditions, theorizing the relationship between bhakti and Tantra, and ethnographic study of women and their perceptions and experience of work. Over the past twenty-five 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 and cultural traditions, including interpretive history, translation, cultural analysis, and feminist and gender studies.
Professor Pechilis’s courses on Asian religions explore historical processes in the development of religion and culture, including master narratives and alternatives to them. Annual core courses include History and Culture of South Asia: Tradition and Today and History and Culture of East Asia: Tradition and Today. Elective courses include Women in Asian Traditions, History of Modern India through the Novel, History of India: Medieval to Modern, and South Asia through Art and Text. Her comparative courses, such as the Construction of Good and Evil in Film, engage a central theme with which to explore similarities and differences across Asian and Abrahamic traditions. Courses in this category have included pilgrimage, marriage in world religions, transnational film studies, and eastern and western art. Several of her courses, such as South Asia through Art and Text and History of Modern India through the Novel, are also offered through Drew’s magnetic graduate Arts & Letters Program.
For four years (2004-08), Professor Pechilis directed the Humanities Program at Drew, a dynamic interdisciplinary program designed especially for college students. Her special interest was to foreground global contacts among cultures considered in Humanities Program courses, engaging the historical and present West with Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East.
Select Publications & Professional Activities
Interpreting Devotion: The Poetry and Legacy of a Female Bhakti Saint of India. The first book to provide a complete English translation of classical Tamil bhakti saint Karaikkal Ammaiyar’s poetry and the canonical biography about her, embedded within a critical academic discussion that theorizes the arc of interpretation of this fascinating woman’s devotional subjectivity through poetry, biography and present-day festival celebrations in her honor. Crucially, the study distinguishes the poet’s voice from that of her biographer, illuminating 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. Published Dec. 2011 at Routledge. A South Asian Edition paperback version of this book was published by Routledge and Manohar (Delhi) in February 2015, and published by Routledge-Taylor & Francis as a worldwide paperback on August 13, 2015.
Refiguring the Body: Embodiment in South Asian Religions. Edited by Karen Pechilis and Barbara A. Holdrege. The body is foundationally shared by all, ensuring both that every culture has its own distinctive ways of understanding and deploying it, and that our globalized world will bring these different modalities into contact. Contributing to our global understanding, Re-Figuring the Body: Embodiment in South Asian Religions introduces readers to the fascinating and distinguished history and present of South Asian religious theorizing of the body that emerges in a diversity of media, including aesthetic, medicinal, devotional and philosophical texts and practices. The richness and diversity of South Asian theories represented in this collection reveal important comparative themes that challenge and enhance knowledge of the body in Western discourses, vitalizing newly globalized inquiries into our shared, yet differently imagined human nature. Far from producing a legacy of disembodied spirituality, prominent traditions such as Buddhism and Hinduism have produced detailed reflections on the nature, meanings and practices of the body by a diversity of interpreters, including philosophers, devotees, ritualists, poets, saints, dancers, healers and storytellers. Through an array of methodologies, including literary analysis and ethnography, the eleven essays in this collection lucidly illuminate these interpreters’ distinctive ways of thinking about the body as they contribute to the broader themes of the relationship between the materiality of the body and spiritual perfection, devotional subjectivities and transformations of the body, and gendered logics that both describe and dispute social bodies.
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 Studies. Thank you to Professor Kirk Ott and New Books Network: South Asian Studies.
Special Issue: “Not Quite Divine – Co-Stars and Supporting Casts in South Asian Religions” in the Journal of Hindu Studies 9/2 (August 2016). Articles from the Conference on the Study of Religions of India, hosted at Drew University in June, 2013.
Online: Profile of Tamil poet-saint Karaikkal Ammaiyar for the Women in the World’s Religions and Spirituality Project, April 2016
“The Siva Nataraja Image: Poetic Origins,” Kalakshetra Journal Issue 4 (Feb. 2016): 1-16.
Online: “Bhakti and Tantra Intertwined: The Explorations of the Tamil Poetess Kāraikkāl Ammaiyār,” International Journal of Dharma Studies, 9 Feb. 2016. DOI: 10.1186/s40613-016-0024-x
Online: “Women Gurus and Hinduism,” Prabuddha Bharata, June 2015 (120/6): 401-409.
“Ethnography, Women and the History of Religions,” Voice of Intellectual Man 6/1 (2016): 1-10.
“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.
“Female Gurus and Ascetics” (5,500 words). Pp. 461-469 in Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism, ed.-in-chief Knut Jacobsen, Vol. 5. Leiden: Brill, Nov. 2013.
“Feminism” (8,500 words). Pp. 734-749 in Brill’s Encyclopedia of Hinduism, ed.-in-chief Knut Jacobsen, Vol. 5. Leiden: Brill, Nov. 2013.
“Gender” (10,000 words). Pp. 788-805 in 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. The first book to comparatively analyze Hindu-inspired female gurus. The Editor and contributors to the volume illuminate the history and present of a diversity of female gurus’ potently authoritative teachings and practices and their local and global significance, through the lens of academic gender theories. 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,” on female guru Ammachi/Mata Amritanandamayi/Amma (2010).
Read journalist and 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 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.
Online: “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). Reframed the much-discussed religious path of bhakti in scholarship from its static definition of `devotion’ to a multidimensional characterization of it as `devotional participation’. Pechilis’s humanistic emphasis unlocked bhakti as a history of doing – interpretive thought, literary and musical composition, performance, community – and as an active locus of distinctive constructions of identity.
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, firstname.lastname@example.org
National Editorial Board, Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion, 2009-Present. View the latest commentary on the question, `What is the importance of feminist and womanist work in religious and theological studies’, in lively and diverse video discussion from the FSR Across Generations Project (this link goes to my segment; there are plenty of fascinating reflections on the playlist – Across Generations FSR at YouTube).
Advisory Editorial Board, International Journal of Hindu Studies, 2012-Present
International Editorial Board, Religion & Gender, 2013 – Present
Editorial Board, International Journal of Dharma Studies, 2013-2016
Advisory Committee, Voice of Intellectual Man, 2015-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 biography in Interpreting Devotion (see above)