South Asian Religions

Although students have different interests and backgrounds, the general pattern of study for students entering upon the study of South Asian religions is something as follows:

Year 1: Complete departmental course requirements in "theory and method" and a “zone of inquiry;” pursue language study; take additional courses to develop area and theoretical expertise, including gaining broad familiarity with the world’s major religious traditions. If “Issues in the Study of South Asian Religions” is being taught in the first or second year, take it.

Summer after year 1:  Intensive language study in South Asia.

Year 2: Round out course work in South Asian religions; take topical courses relevant to the student’s individual research interests both within the department and in related disciplines. Begin to develop reading lists for the M. Phil. Exam. Begin to develop dissertation proposal. (Serve as teaching assistant in fall and spring semesters, experiences which may also give you the opportunity to gain familiarity with another religious tradition as well deepening your knowledge of South Asian religions.)

Summer after year 2: Preliminary dissertation research in South Asia. (AIIS grant proposal for dissertation research is due July 1 of second year for research to be carried out in fourth year.)

Year 3: Most grant proposals to fund dissertation research have early fall deadlines.  Prepare for the M. Phil exam, which is to be taken in the middle of the spring semester.  Complete dissertation prospectus by the end of spring semester. (Serve as teaching assistant in fall and spring semesters.)

Year 4: Engage in dissertation research in South Asia. Some students spend more than a year in South Asia.

Year 5: Write the dissertation. (Serve as teaching assistant in fall and spring semesters.) Most students require more than a year to complete the dissertation. For students who receive external funding for their fourth-year research in South Asia, the five years of GSAS funding can extend through the sixth year.

Language capability in the South Asia Field

By the time they begin their dissertation research abroad, all students are expected to have achieved at least a fourth-year level of competency in one South Asian language and a third-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 the Guru Granth) will be the principal language, and three years of additional competence will normally be contributed by Urdu and/or Braj Bhasa. Some dissertation topics may require an additional (third) language, in which the student should acquire at least intermediate competency. The designations “Hinduism” and “Sikhism” are not meant to exhaust the realm of potential field concentrations, some of which may be hard to capture within the framework of an “ism.”

It is optimal that this "four/three" (or, when necessary for the individual student’s project, four/three/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 or two summers. The minimum expectation, however, is that the student will have achieved a "three/two" competency by the end of the third year.

The M. Phil Exam

Part 1: Written exam (9-11 double spaced pages) on the state of the Field of South Asian Religions, focused on problems of method and perspective/theory.  This exam is intended to set a broad context for dissertation research and teaching in the student’s primary area of scholarship (up to 50 titles).

Part 2: Written exam (9-11 double spaced pages) focused on one aspect of the student’s broad field of concentration—a band, period, or stream within South Asian religions. (30 titles).

Part 3: Written exam (9-11 double spaced pages), focused on a second aspect of the student’s field of concentration. (30 titles). Alternatively, this exam could explore a complementary field of interest within the span of South Asian religions.  In either case, Parts 2 and 3 should draw upon different titles and address different themes or methodologies.

Additional material to be submitted before the oral exam:

A design for a course (syllabus) that would either be comparative or fall within the South Asian realm. The syllabus should include an annotative essay of five pages double-spaced explaining the rationale of the course and should include all the trappings of a regular syllabus, as if it were to be submitted to some institution’s Committee on Instruction for approval as a regular course.  Students should specify at what level the course is proposed to be taught, and in what sort of educational setting.


The Dissertation prospectus and oral defense:

Within 6 weeks of completing the M Phil exam (or over the following summer), in preparation for the dissertation prospectus oral defense, the student should submit to their committee members the following:


  1. The dissertation prospectus.  The prospectus should be approximately 25 double-spaced pages long and should include a chapter outline with brief chapter summaries, as well as a detailed bibliography of relevant sources.


  1. A portfolio of seminar papers written during the student’s coursework in the program.  The portfolio is intended to give committee members an overall sense of the student’s intellectual trajectory and to encourage students to think about papers they may eventually want to develop further for publication.  Students are not expected to revise these papers for inclusion in the portfolio.