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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

UF religion professor elected to American Academy of Arts and Sciences

Vasudha Narayanan joins ranks of Yo-Yo Ma, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr.

UF religion professor Vasudha Narayanan takes photos during her research work in Cambodia.
UF religion professor Vasudha Narayanan takes photos during her research work in Cambodia.

When UF religion professor Vasudha Narayanan received an email about her election into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences last week, she thought it was a hoax.

After skeptically showing a friend who is in the Academy and confirming the email was true, Narayanan joined an ongoing list of scholars and leaders who have helped shape society with new ideas and innovations.

“It’s a tremendous honor,” she said. “A garden to rest for a minute and savor for the minute before you resume your journey of learning.”

The academy invited Narayanan to the Sept. 29 inauguration at the Academy’s headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Founded in 1780, the Academy recognizes leadership and achievements across various disciplines. The election process is confidential, so Narayanan does not know why she was chosen in particular. 

She’s been teaching at UF since 1982, and she suggested her background in religious research may have gotten her the position.

“I think as [UF] has become a very vigorous research university — nationally and internationally recognized — it's been encouraging us to do our own research and transform that into good teaching,” she said.

Her background in religious studies spans her undergraduate years in India, where she studied at the University of Madras and earned her doctorate at the University of Bombay. She then earned a scholarship to join Harvard University’s comparative religion program.

“[Religion] introduces you to the cultures of the world — it is a doorway to the entire earth and our place in it,” she said. “I can't recommend it enough for undergraduates.”

A Hinduism scholar, Narayanan has written and edited seven books and more than 100 articles and chapters. She was president of the American Academy of Religion from 2001 to 2002, which is the world’s largest association of religious scholars. Her most recent research project focuses on architecture in Cambodia.

“The University of Florida has also given me the space to follow my research and encourage me to be a better teacher,” she said.

Narayanan has taught Introduction to World Religions and Death and Afterlife in World Religion. She works to make her class material relatable to students, which includes having students analyze how religion is depicted in popular culture.

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Jack Hawley, a religion professor at Barnard College, Columbia University, co-wrote “The Life of Hinduism” with Narayanan. They met at the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard. 

“One of her great gifts is that she can talk with anybody,” he said. “She has the most fabulous sense of humor and is able to pick up on the nuances of other people's points of view.”

The list of people elected to the Academy over the years includes public personalities like Yo-Yo Ma, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. 

The Academy has programs around the world that work to address disparities and representation in education. Corresponding Academy members from other countries help nominate members around the world.

“It's a mark of being recognized by people in your field — and to some extent beyond the field as being a leader,” he said. “She's really someone of whom the University of Florida should be very proud.” 

Contact Sophia at sbailly@alligator.org. Follow her on Twitter @sophia_bailly.


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Sophia Bailly

Sophia Bailly is a second-year journalism major and covers politics for the enterprise desk. Some of her favorite things include The Beatles, croissants and Agatha Christie books. When she's not writing stories she's either reading or going for a run.


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