June 13 2024

On Progeny: A Tribute to Anne Monius

by Deonnie Moodie, University of Oklahoma

Anne Monius, professor of South Asian religions at Harvard Divinity School, died on August 3, 2019. Anne was a member of the AAR for nearly thirty years where she served as editor of the Religion in Translation book series (2005–2014); associate editor of the Journal of the American Academy of Religion (2006–2010); chair of the Jain Studies program unit (2009–2011); and presider, panelist, and respondent in dozens of Annual Meeting sessions throughout her distinguished career. Colleagues and friends will remember her work and contributions to the field during this year's AAR Annual Meeting in San Diego. The details for that session appear below this remembrance, written by one of Anne's students, Deonnie Moodie, who is now assistant professor of South Asian religions at the University of Oklahoma.

Anne’s wedding present to me was a wall hanging, a colorful tapestry featuring Ganesh, Lakshmi, and an array of beautiful pastoral images. Her card indicated that I was to hang it over my marital bed to ensure the birth of sons. After a lengthy bout of laughter with my partner about the very intimate nature of this gift from my PhD advisor—a woman widely admired and even feared for her intellectual prowess—I had two thoughts. The first was, “And she’s funny too!” and the second, “She can’t seriously want me to have a baby, right? Does she have any idea how long that would delay my dissertation?”

Since her passing, the notion of progeny has taken on new meaning. Anne was like a parent to me—an intellectual parent. I didn’t know anything about academia when I became her student at Harvard Divinity School in the fall of 2005. It was under Anne’s guidance and with her eternal encouragement that I grew into the world of academia—a world that (under the best of circumstances) allows one to make a career out of curiosity and, ultimately, to advance human knowledge.

As a master’s student, I remember being in awe of the level of detail Anne provided on my seminar papers. Her feedback was incisive and often quite critical. It always made my work better. When I started my doctoral program, I began to conduct research on colonial and contemporary Kolkata—a setting quite removed from her central area of expertise in pre-modern Tamil literature. Yet Anne led an independent study with me every semester until I graduated. Together we read all of the books that I wanted to read. I met with her weekly throughout the years I was writing my prospectus, studying for my exams, and writing my dissertation. All the while, she assured me that she loved spending time learning about modern Bengal and reminding me that she began her work on India learning Bengali. We must have spent hundreds of hours together sitting in those canvas chairs across the blonde wood table in her office at the Center for the Study of World Religions discussing texts and refining arguments. She read every word I ever wrote. Through her patient and careful attention, she made me a better thinker, a better scholar, and, ultimately, a better me.

During my PhD program, I was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, the same autoimmune disease that Anne had dealt with since she was a child. Anne, who was quite private and never spoke about her health, opened up to me in a new way. She told me how she organized her class schedule according to when she would likely need to eat, where she put her insulin pump so that it was accessible but not visible, and how she dealt with blood sugar lows in academic settings. I don’t know how to convey in words how inspiring and reassuring it was to see her deal with this chronic illness with such confidence and skill. It made me believe that I would be alright.

After completing my PhD, I decided that I needed to make it on my own—to begin my new career and write my book as a scholar in my own right, and not simply as Anne’s student. I did not reach out to her for two years. I felt I needed that separation to create a sense of intellectual independence. When I finally realized how foolish that notion was, I wrote to her and asked if she’d like to grab a drink at the next conference we were both attending. She accepted my invitation, and we resumed our relationship as if nothing had ever happened. The last time I saw her was over lunch at the American Academy of Religion conference in Denver last year. We talked university politics and continuous glucose monitors, and we celebrated the publication of my first book. In her Anne way, she told me she was proud of me. With tears in my eyes, we embraced. I did not know then that it would be for the last time.

Given the closeness of our relationship, I felt the urge in the days following the official announcement of her passing to do something for Anne, to write or speak or organize an event to commemorate her. But I couldn’t bring myself to do any of it. My pain was too deep, and my grief too raw. It would not be long before I learned that there were others to share the load. Within hours, students of Anne’s from far and wide at various stages of their careers and whom I had never met or even heard of began to do all of the things I didn’t have the strength to do. They wrote tributes on professional listservs and in online publications, and they organized memorials at the conferences she regularly attended. I had known that Anne was important to many other people. She would often mention advising dissertations by students at universities in other parts of the United States. I had also known that she committed to more independent studies each semester than I even thought possible—sometimes ten per semester —and on topics that had nothing to do with Tamil literature. I had heard rumors of the hundreds of recommendation letters she composed each year. What I didn’t know is that she impacted their lives as profoundly as she did mine, and that they felt the pain of her loss as viscerally as I did. I felt like I was part of a new community. As a friend put it, it was like learning about siblings I never knew I had.

Anne raised a generation of scholars. While she left this world with a treasure chest of scholarship that gives us access us to some part of her knowledge and wisdom, it is perhaps that progeny more than anything else that was her contribution to the field.

In Memoriam: Anne Monius

AAR Annual Meeting
Sunday, November 24, 2019
7:30–9:00 PM
San Diego Convention Center, 4 (Upper Level West)

Hosted by the Religions in South Asia Unit

This session is dedicated to the memory of Anne Monius, professor of South Asian religions at Harvard Divinity School. Panelists will speak to different facets of Anne's life and celebrate her impact as a friend, colleague, and teacher both at the University of Virginia and Harvard University. The session will also include an opportunity for members of the audience to share their memories of Anne.

Sarah Pierce Taylor, University of Chicago, presiding
Hamsa Stainton, McGill University, presiding
Rebecca Manring, Indiana University, panelist
Gregory Clines, Trinity University, panelist
John Nemec, University of Virginia, panelist
Sophia Nasti, Harvard University, panelist
Elizabeth Mary Rohlman, University of Calgary, panelist
Charles Hallisey, Harvard University, panelist


Photo credit: Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard University file photo