Rachel McDermott

Professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures

Rachel Fell McDermott is Professor of Asian and Middle Eastern Cultures and specializes in South Asia, especially India and Bangladesh. She received her B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania in 1981, her M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School in 1984, and her Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1993. Her research interests focus on Bengal, in eastern India and Bangladesh; she has published extensively on the Hindu-goddess-centered religious traditions from that part of the subcontinent and is now involved in a research project on Kazi Nazrul Islam, both the “Rebel Poet” of India and the National Poet of Bangladesh. She is also committed to the study of comparative religion, and teaches comparative courses in which important religious themes are traced across cultures.

Selected Publications


Vol. 2 of The Sources of Indian Traditions, managing editor for the 3rd edition, 2 vols. (first two editions 1958 and 1988) (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).

Revelry, Rivalry, and Longing for the Goddesses of Bengal: The Fortunes of Hindu Festivals (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

Breaking Boundaries with the Goddess: New Directions in the Study of Saktism.  Essays in Honor of Narendra Nath Bhattacharyya, edited with Cynthia Ann Humes (New Delhi: Manohar, 2009).

Encountering Kali: In the Margins, At the Center, In the West, edited with Jeffrey Kripal (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003).

Mother of My Heart, Daughter of My Dreams: Kali and Uma in the Devotional Poetry of Bengal (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Singing to the Goddess: Poems to Kali and Uma from Bengal (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

Selected Journal Articles and Book Chapters

With Daniel Polish, “Image Worship and Sacrifice: Legitimacy, Illegitimacy, and Theological Debate." Chapter submitted in March 2014 for a book called Dharma and Halacha: Comparative Studies in Hindu-Jewish Philosophy, Culture and Religion, edited by Ithamar Theodor and Yudit Greenberg (Lexington Books).

“Bangladesh,” chapter 10 of The Sources of Indian Traditions, edited by Rachel Fell McDermott et al, 2 vols., 3rd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).

“Playing with Durga: Ritual Levity in Bengali Goddess Religion,” in Sacred Play: Ritual Levity and Humor in South Asian Religions, edited by Selva J. Raj and Corinne Dempsey (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2010), pp. 143-159.

“The Pujas in Historical and Political Controversy: Colonial and Post-Colonial Goddesses,” Religions of South Asia 2, no. 2 (2009).

“From Hinduism to Christianity, from India to New York: Bondage and Exodus Experiences in the Lives of Indian Dalit Christians in the American Diaspora,” in South Asian Christian Diaspora: Invisible Diaspora in Europe and North America, edited by Knut Axel Jacobsen and Selva J. Raj (Hampshire, UK: Ashgate Press, 2009), pp. 223-248.

“Introduction” and “A Festival for Jagaddhatri and the Power of Localized Religion in Bengal,” in Breaking Boundaries with the Goddess: New Directions in the Study of Saktism.  Essays in Honor of Narendra Nath Bhattacharyya, edited by Cynthia Ann Humes and Rachel Fell McDermott (New Delhi: Manohar, 2009), pp. xvii-xxxiv and 201-222.

“Evil, Motherhood, and the Hindu Goddess Kali,” in Deliver Us from Evil, ed. M. David Eckel and Bradley L. Herling (New York: Continuum, 2008), pp. 44-56.

“Gifts to an Anglican from Krishna’s Council,” in Song Divine: Christian Commentaries on the Bhagavad Gita, edited by Catherine Cornille (Leuven: Peeters Press, and Grand Rapids:W.B. Eerdmans, 2006), pp. 131-144.

“The Vedanta Society,” in Religion and American Cultures: An Encyclopedia of Traditions, Diversity, and Popular Expressions, ed. Gary Laderman & Luis Leon, editors, 3 vols. (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC CLIO, 2003), 1: 120-122.

“Kali's New Frontiers: A Hindu Goddess on the Internet,” in Encountering Kali: At the Margins, At the Center, In the West, ed. Jeffrey Kripal and Rachel Fell McDermott (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), pp. 273-295.

“Meeting ‘the Mother Who Takes Across’: Christian Encounters with the Fierce Goddesses of Hinduism,” The Journal of Hindu-Christian Studies 16 (2003): 48-57.

“Raising Snakes in Bengal: The Use of Tantric Imagery in Sakta Poetry Contexts,” in Tantra in Practice, ed. David G. White (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2000), pp. 167-183.

“New Age Hinduism, New Age Orientalism, and the Second-generation South Asian,” in an issue devoted to “Who Speaks for Hinduism?” The Journal of the American Academy of Religion 68, no. 4 (December 2000): 721-731.

“Popular Attitudes towards Kali and Her Poetry Tradition: Interviewing Saktas in Bengal,” in Wild Goddesses in India and Nepal, Studia Religiosa Helvetica, ed. Axel Michaels, Cornelia Vogelsanger, and Annette Wilke, vol. 2 (1996): 383-415.

“The Western Kali,” in Devi: Goddess in India, ed. John Stratton Hawley and Donna M. Wulff (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), pp. 281-313.

Works in Progress

The Sources of Indian Traditions, managing editor for the 3rd edition, vol. 1 (first two editions 1958 and 1988). Under contract with Columbia University Press.

A volume of translations from the Bengali of the work of Kazi Nazrul Islam; and a monograph on his legacy, as contested by West Bengal and Bangladesh.

Conference Presentations / Invited Lectures

“Translation and the Euphonic: The Afterlives of New Musical Genres in Contemporary Bengal.”  Paper presented at the Society for Comparative Research on Iconic and Performative Texts, Montreal, May 2, 2015.

“Goddesses of Clay: Materialism and Iconic Forms in Bengal Durga Puja Ceremonies.”  Talk presented at Princeton University, April 23, 2015.

“Christian Ecumenism and Inter-faith Dialogue: Thoughts on the Complex Case of India”  Paper presented at the Tantur Institute, Jerusalem, January 10, 2015.

“When a National Poet is a Heretic: The Collision of Literary and Religious Canons.”  Talk presented at the annual conference of the Society for the History of Authorship, Reading, and Publishing, Antwerp, Belgium, September 19, 2014.

“Pascimbange o Bangladeshe Najrul: Tulanamulak Alocana.” Talk presented in Bengali at the Bangla Academy, Dhaka, May 13, 2014.

“Najruler Anusandhane.” Talk presented in Bengali at the Antarjatik Najrul Carca Kendra, Kolkata, February 12, 2014.

“The Detective and the Poet: Why was Kazi Nazrul Islam Willing to Court Controversy?”  Invited keynote speaker at California State University, Northridge, September 12, 2013.

“What Motivates a Poet?  Kazi Nazrul Islam (1899-1976) on Religious Tolerance and Human Dignity.” Invited keynote speaker at the University of Connecticut, April 11, 2013.

“Understanding Blood Sacrifice in Hindu Goddess Worship.” Invited lecture at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, February 21, 2013.


Academic Focus

Comparative religion
Human rights studies


321B Milbank
(212) 854-5416


Ph.D. - 1993 - Harvard University, Study of Religion

A.M. - 1986 - Harvard University, Study of Religion

M.Div. - 1984 - Harvard Divinity School

A.B. - 1981 - University of Pennsylvania, Religious Studies