Faculty Spotlight: Elizabeth Cecil
Elizabeth Cecil is an assistant professor of religion in the Department of Religion, part of Florida State University’s College of Arts and Sciences. She earned her doctorate in 2016 from Brown University, and her research focuses on the history of Hinduism in early South and Southeast Asia, with Sanskrit and Hindi as her primary research languages. Cecil was awarded the 2021-22 Stephen Risley Family Fellowship, which will support research and writing for her second book project, provisionally titled “Natural Wonders: Indigenous Landscapes and the Building of Hinduism in Early Southeast Asia.”
Tell us a little about your background and what brought you to FSU.
I grew up on my family’s farm in Roseland, Nebraska. Before coming to FSU in 2018, I was a researcher and lecturer at Leiden University in the Netherlands, and before that, I worked on a research project called Asia Beyond Boundaries at the British Museum in London. As an academic, you're always moving around. I immediately felt drawn to FSU after coming here for my interview. FSU has a well-respected Department of Religion, and the faculty is fairly large with a real breadth and diversity of areas and methods of study.
Can you break down your areas of interest for us?
My research focuses on Hinduism, particularly in the early medieval period (seventh-10th century CE). One of my main areas of study is Sanskrit language, and I work with a particular genre of Sanskrit literature called Puranas, which are sacred texts that record Hinduism’s history through stories about deities, pilgrimage, rituals and more. Puranas also praise particular temple sites and features of the natural landscape (mountains, rivers, etc.), and they discuss the benefits that can accrue to a person who visits those places on pilgrimage. In addition to these literary sources, I work closely with inscriptions, which are texts engraved on temple walls, monuments, image pedestals and copperplates.
I also study Hindu material culture and the ways Hindu deities are represented in material form. Additionally, I'm interested in the formation of temple landscapes and how they use the natural terrain and architectural forms, to create spaces for ritual practices.
What inspired you to choose these fields of study?
It was almost by accident. I first went to India as an exchange student after graduating from high school in 1999. Initially, I wanted to go to France, because I had studied French, and I thought I might pursue French literature in graduate school. But France wasn't an option the year I was selected to go, and so I went to India — a place I knew nothing about. I lived with a host family in a town called Nasik in the state of Maharashtra for a year, and I had such a wonderful experience. I was completely fascinated with the religious life in Nasik, which is a pilgrimage town on the river Godavari. I learned about Hinduism by participating in domestic rituals and local festivals with my host family. My experience in India cultivated a deep appreciation of Hinduism and inspired my continued study.
What can you tell us about your upcoming book?
The book looks at the reception and adaptations of Hindu traditions as they moved from India to different regions of Southeast Asia. It's been an exciting and challenging project, because it's moved me out of geographic areas and traditions I know well from the work I did for my dissertation and my first book. It's also exciting because I've been able to conduct research at temple sites in Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos and gain a new perspective on Hinduism as a transregional religious phenomenon. I also plan to visit Indonesia (East Java and Bali) this summer to continue my fieldwork. Additionally, it's an opportunity to use my skills in the Sanskrit language outside of India, since many of the inscriptions I'm studying in Southeast Asia are also composed in Sanskrit.
Tell us about your first book project, “Mapping the Pāśupata Landscape: Narrative, Place, and the Śaiva Imaginary in Early North India.”
My first book, published in 2020, looks at the earliest religious community devoted to the god Shiva in early medieval India through the study of Puranic manuscripts and inscriptions in Sanskrit along with iconography and temple architecture. I looked for voices I thought were marginalized in earlier scholarship, which focused primarily on kings, religious specialists and elites. I wanted to study what rural people, women, merchants, and others who are not typically part of elite society were doing. This took me to many places off the beaten track like rural Rajasthan. I found evidence of women donating to and commissioning the building of temples — something we typically associate with kings or wealthy people. There were also local groups pooling together money to build temples and monasteries or to support their religious community. For me, this discovery was pretty exciting.
What do you want the public to know about your research? Why are your topics important?
We tend to think about religion in a Western context as something that is grounded in belief and a private and personal relationship with a deity. But what we see in premodern South and Southeast Asia is that religion was also a profoundly spatial and material practice. It allows people to make homes in the world, to feel part of a community, and to express belonging through materiality like building temples, supporting ritual practices, or creating images and art. It’s important to have a historical understanding of how religion can animate the world in ways that don’t rely primarily on texts, beliefs or doctrine.
Do you have any goals or projects that you’re working on aside from your upcoming book?
I'm working on a collaborative research project with colleagues from Leiden University and Kyoto University related to study of Puranas. We've applied for funding from the European Research Council to pursue an expansive project that would not only study early texts and traditions, but also consider the modern political uses of Puranas in India.
I’m also working on articles, one of which analyzes images of Hindu gurus from temples in Java. The article focuses on how these figures were viewed as ecological agents with the power to control land and water and how temple imagery expresses these associations visually.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I really enjoy teaching; it's been so nice to be back in the classroom after teaching remotely. It’s always exciting to see how students engage with premodern sources. I find they always generate new questions, perspectives, or ways to interpret the sources we are working with, some of which are thousands of years old. Students are able to make the texts’ characters or situations relevant to their lives and interpret them through their own experiences.
What is the most challenging part of your job?
Trying to be an excellent researcher and an excellent teacher can be a difficult balancing act, but that's also where I find the greatest fulfillment — it’s when everything comes together in such a productive and exciting way.
If your students only learned one thing from you (of course, hopefully they learn much more than that), what would you hope it to be?
To think independently. I aim to help students develop the tools, skills and competencies to engage with premodern sources and to bring them to life through their own experiences.