Meet our faculty: Elaine Fisher

Elaine Fisher joined Stanford in the 2017-18 academic year as an Assistant Professor of Religious Studies and an affiliate of the Center for South Asia. Below, she participated in an interview with the center as part of its annual newsletter:

How did you become interested in studying religion in South Asia?

I first chanced upon the field of South Asian religions, and Religious Studies as a whole, as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago. The academic study of religion, as I first discovered as an enthusiastic and impressionable first-year student, addressed many of the foundational questions that had inspired my pursuit of an academic career. For instance: how do cultures generate worldviews that give meaning to human life? I was fortunate to encounter the religions of South Asia early on in my studies through the mentorship of faculty members specializing in Hindu and Buddhist Studies, and Sanskrit. I first traveled to south India as part of my undergraduate research to read Sanskrit with a classically trained scholar in Mysore, and the rest is history.

What are your current research interests?

My research to date focuses on the history of the Śaiva traditions (worship-pers of the god Śiva) of south India, particularly in the early modern period. Compared with the intellectual and religious traditions of Europe, many chapters of the history of Hinduism remain almost completely unstudied to date. Śaivism in particular is one of those fields, having experienced something of a renaissance over the past two decades through the recovery and editing of a number of foundational scriptural and philosophical works.

In addition to the recovery of endangered Śaiva texts, issues that have proven particularly central to my recent work include the public performance and embodiment of religious identity, polemical conflict between competing Hindu communities, and multilingualism and the politics of language in South Asian intellectual history. Because much of our documentary evidence from early modern south Indian religion takes the form of religious and philosophical texts, I am interested in what these texts can tell us about the life of ideas beyond the palm leaf or printed book—how religious discourse can illuminate the tensions present in the intellectual and social world in which their authors were engaged.

What courses are you teaching at Stanford?

My current courses in include The Divine Feminine in India (Religst/Femgen 166), which looks at the practice of gendering divinity in South Asian traditions, The Hindu Epics and the Ethics of Dharma (Religst 123), which focuses on the Mahābhārata, Rāmāyaṇa, and their numerous reverberations in the classical and contemporary world; and Hindu Tantra (Religst 264/364), surveying cutting-edge research on the history of Śaivism and the idea of Tantra as a major current of South Asian religions. This year I am co-teaching Religion Around the Globe (Religst 1) in Spring 2019. I also teach the Majors Seminar (Religst 290) on theories of religion in alternate years.

How may your work inform our understanding of the region?

As with many regions of the world, religion remains a contentious category in South Asia today, bearing significant implications for our understanding of politics as well conflict based on social, regional, and religious identity. My current book project addresses the history of a religious community that has made news headlines in South India in recent months. The Vīraśaiva or Liṅgāyat tradition, which remains particularly

popular the south Indian state of Karnataka, is typically described in the academic study of Hinduism as a devo-tional or “bhakti” tradition, characterized as a sort of “Protestant Reformation” within Hinduism that militates against caste discrimination, ritualism, and the Sanskrit language. Indeed, since the summer of 2017, a certain constituency of these communities has launched a campaign to recognize Liṅgāyatism as a minority religion distinct from the umbrella of Hinduism on precisely these grounds. Nevertheless, concerning the early history of Vīraśaivism, the texts speak for themselves: the dynamics of caste, language, and religious practice among these communities were signifi-cantly more complex than research to date has shown. Beyond the sheer documentation of new historical evi-dence, I aim to shed light on how colonial-period narratives have obscured our understanding of the distinctive ways religious communities such as Vīraśaivism/Liṅgāyatism have been organized in South Asia, and how the historical and contemporary diversity of Hinduism can be erased by religious and linguistic nationalism. 

What inspires you or motivates you in your work?

Working in a field where much of the foundational historiography remains to be written, I find it inspiring, and rather astonishing, the potential that any new research on South Asian religions holds to revise our understanding of the history of the region. With literally hundreds of thousands of South Asian manuscripts unpreserved and unstudied, the preser-vation of the region’s heritage is a matter of some urgency, and I am honored to be able to contribute even a small fraction of the work that is needed over the upcoming years. Teaching religion, likewise, is a constant source of inspira-tion. I find that few other fields are quite so effective in allowing us to raise scrutiny to the questions that inform our view of the world—and this is true both for students and for seasoned teachers and researchers alike.

This article is part of a series of interviews with recently hired Stanford faculty with expertise in South Asia and Islamic studies.