South Asian Religions

Because students enter upon the study of Indian religion with different interests and backgrounds, one cannot specify any one calendar or trajectory for graduate study in the area. The general pattern, however, is something as follows:

Year 1: Complete departmental requirements in the history of religion worldwide, and in "theory and method."

Year 2: Round out course work in Indian religion; achieve sufficient clarity about the focus of the dissertation to complete applications for study in South Asia in Year 4.

Year 3: Complete the thematic comparative course required of all students; prepare for field examinations (usually in the spring).

Year 4: Engage in dissertation research in South Asia

Year 5: Write the dissertation.

Two variants are frequently introduced into this program. First, students may wish to avail themselves of the chance to do a course of language study in South Asia after their first or second year at Columbia, or to participate in intensive language programs in the United States. Second, they may find that it takes more than one year to write the dissertation. If two years are planned, a student could reasonably expect to act as a teaching assistant in one or both years of these final years in the program.

Language capability

By the time they begin their dissertation research abroad, all students are expected to have achieved (in addition to the departmentally required reading knowledge of French or German) at least a fourth-year level of competency in one South Asian language and a second-year level competency in a second. For students of Hinduism, one of these languages will almost invariably be Sanskrit. The second will be a regional, "mother-tongue" language. For students of South Asian Islam, the languages will normally be distributed between Urdu, Persian, and Arabic. For students of Sikhism, Punjabi (including the language of Guru Granth Sahib ) will be the principal language, and two years of additional competence will normally be contributed by Urdu and/or Braj Bhasa.

It is optimal that this "four/two" requirement be met by the end of the student's third year in the program--if necessary, by doing language work in a structured program either in the United States or elsewhere during one summer. The minimum expectation, however, is that the student will have achieved a "three/two" competency by the end of the third year, with a portion of the fourth year--in South Asia--devoted to achieving the fourth-year level in the language of specialization.

First Field examination

This examination comprises three written exercises. Parts a and b are to be completed within the span of a single five-day week. Part c is an essay packet, to be prepared before the week in which exams a and b are taken and submitted along with them. The three parts of Exam I are:

  1. a four-hour closed-book exam on a single band or stream within South Asian religion, for example, Hindu bhakti or Vedic religion;
  2. a similar four-hour exam on the state of scholarship about South Asian religion, which is intended to get at problems of method and perspective;
  3. a design for a course that would either be comparative or fall within the South Asian realm, with the ancillary information that would be required to submit it to the Committee on Instruction at Columbia or Barnard, i.e., an annotative essay of no more than five pages explaining its rationale.

Students prepare bibliographies for the first and second of these exercises in consultation with the three (or sometimes four) faculty members who will serve as their oral examiners (see below). The core bibliography for part A should normally not exceed 30 books and articles. The core bibliography for part B should be restricted to some 15 books or articles.  The examination committee may decide on one of three courses of action: (a) pass a student, (b) terminate a student from the program, or (c) allow the student to retake the exams.


Second Field Examination

The second examination, which follows the first by no more than six weeks, is oral, but is based on written materials as well. These include the three exercises submitted for the first field examination and two further documents that relate to the candidate's area of specialization:

  1. a seminar paper or draft dissertation chapter; and
  2. a draft prospectus for the dissertation.

While the dissertation prospectus is not submitted formally until the oral examination is complete, students working in the South Asian area will already have a working draft in hand, since they will have had to submit proposals for fellowships that would fund research in South Asia in Year 4. Once updated to reflect the candidate's current thinking, these typically serve as the draft prospectus mentioned above.

The purpose of the oral examination is to serve as an overall assessment of a candidate's general progress in the study of South Asian religion--both with respect to the field as a whole, as measured in the first field examination, and in regard to his or her own specific area of interest, as suggested in the additional documents presented to serve as the basis for the oral examination.