Nell Shapiro Hawley

Postdoctoral Fellow in Religion
Woman with long black hair smiling outside with an outdoor path abd campus brick building in the background.

Nell Shapiro Hawley is a scholar of the text and performance traditions of the Mahābhārata. Broadly, she works on gender and performance, religion and fantasy, and interactions between the classical and the contemporary. She is, with Sohini Sarah Pillai, the co-editor of Many Mahābhāratas (SUNY Press, 2021; Primus Books, 2023), a collection of eighteen essays on interpretations of the Mahābhārata from an expansive range of South Asian languages, genres, and historical periods. She received her PhD in South Asian Languages and Civilizations from the University of Chicago in October 2022.

BA, Harvard University; PhD, University of Chicago
At Vassar since 2023


Blodgett Hall
Box 634

Research and Academic Interests

Dr. Hawley is currently working on two larger projects. The first, titled Veiled Narration, concerns gender, narration, and the construction of alternate realities in two performance texts: the Virāṭaparvan (the fourth and most popular book of the Mahābhārata, and one that is framed as a performance) and the Pañcarātra (Five Nights), a Sanskrit play that is based on the Virāṭaparvan and that has an ongoing presence in Kerala's Kūṭiyāṭṭam theater tradition.

The second project is a transregional cultural history of the Virāṭaparvan. It is tentatively titled The War That Wasn't: The Virāṭaparvan and the Fantasy Life of the Mahābhārata. The book traces the unique popularity of the Virāṭaparvan as the Mahābhārata spread across South and Southeast Asia, showing that the Virāṭaparvan has long played a special role in the creative life of the epic. It seems to be able to harness the dark, overwhelming power of the Mahābhārata at large and reframe it so that it may be used as an auspicious agent of creativity and transformation.

Dr. Hawley has published articles in the Journal of South Asian Intellectual History (“Literature in Layers: An Early Theory of Retelling the Sanskrit Epics,” 2021) and the International Journal of Hindu Studies (“ ‘I Was Never a Tale, but the Truth:’ Fantasy, Language, and Second-Generation American Hinduism in Roshani Chokshi’s Aru Shah and the End of Time,” forthcoming).


At Vassar, Dr. Hawley teaches classes on South Asian religions, literature, and gender. Her suite of courses includes “Superstories: The Popular Culture of the Rāmāyaṇa and the Mahābhārata,” “Imagining Gender in Hindu Literature,” “Yoga: A Twisted History,” “Trans Lives in South Asian Religions: Voices, Journeys, Communities,” and “God Goes to Comic Con: Religion and Fantasy.”

At Harvard (2019-23) Dr. Hawley taught Sanskrit classes at all levels. At the University of Chicago (2013-22) she worked as a Teaching Consultant and Fellow at the Chicago Center for Teaching, in which capacity she led workshops on teaching literature and on teaching ancient and classical languages. 

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