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Yelle biographical page

Robert Yelle

Assistant Professor


Robert Yelle


Office: 143 Mitchell
Telephone: 901.678.2540
Fax: 901.678.2720
Education: Ph.D., University of Chicago, 2002
CV: (pdf)


[Dr Yelle is on leave for the entire academic year 2013-2014.]


Fields of interest

Classical and colonial South Asian history; history of religions; Hinduism and Buddhism; the British Reformation and secularization; legal history; philosophy of history

Most of my work as an historian of religions has focused on three topics: religious ritual as a mode of communication or rhetoric; the historical and structural relations between law and religion; and secularization or “disenchantment” as an historical process in the evolution of religion and society. My first book, Explaining Mantras, considered the question of what makes ritual language efficacious through a reading of the Hindu ritual texts known as the Tantras. My current book project, The Disenchantment of Language, examines the impact of the British Reformation, both at home and in colonial India, on theories of language and language practices. Protestant iconoclasm, in coordination with print culture, inspired attacks on oral custom, myth, and poetic ritual language, contributing to the opening of secular modernity as a space opposed to these traditional religious forms.

Courses taught

Classical Indian History (University of Toronto); Law and Religion in India and the West (University of Toronto); Theories of Religion (University of Illinois); Asian Philosophy (Southern Illinois University); Philosophy of Language (Southern Illinois University)

Representative publications

  • The Language of Disenchantment: Protestant Literalism and Colonial Discourse in British India (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013).
  • Semiotics of Religion: Signs of the Sacred in History (London: Bloomsbury, 2013).
  • After Secular Law, ed. Winnifred F. Sullivan, Robert A. Yelle, and Mateo Taussig-Rubbo (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011).
  • Explaining Mantras: Ritual, Rhetoric, and the Dream of a Natural Language in Hindu Tantra (London and New York: Routledge, 2003).
  • Review Article on Brad Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, in Church History 81 (2012): 918-24.
  • “Comparative Religion as Cultural Combat: Occidentalism and Relativism in Rajiv Malhotra's Being Different.” Review Article on Rajiv Malhotra, Being Different: An Indian Challenge to Western Universalism, in International Journal of Hindu Studies (December 2012).
  • “What Did Religious Freedom Mean in Ancient India?: Spiritual Economies beyond the Sacred/Secular Paradigm.” In Varieties of Religious Establishments, ed. Lori Beaman and Winnifred Sullivan (Farnham, Surrey, UK: Ashgate, forthcoming).
  • “Semiotics.” In Handbook of Research Methods in Religious Studies, ed. Michael Stausberg and Steven Engler (London and New York: Routledge, 2011), 355-65.
  • “Introduction” (with Winnifred Fallers Sullivan and Mateo Taussig-Rubbo). In After Secular Law, 1-19.
  • “Moses' Veil: Secularization as Christian Myth.” In After Secular Law, 23-42.
  • “The End(s) of Sacrifice: Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto as a Christian Defense of Colonialism.” Journal of Religion and Popular Culture 23 (2011): 82-89.
  • “Punishing Puns: Etymology as Linguistic Ideology in Hindu and British Traditions.” In Religion and Identity in South Asia and Beyond: Essays in Honor of Patrick Olivelle, ed. Steven Lindquist (New York, London, Delhi: Anthem Press, 2010), 129-46.
  • “Hindu Law as Performance: Ritual and Poetic Elements in Dharmashastra.” In Hinduism and Law: An Introduction, ed. Timothy Lubin, Donald Davis, Jr., and Jayanth Krishnan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 183-192.
  • “The Trouble with Transcendence: Carl Schmitt’s ‘Exception’ as a Challenge for Religious Studies,” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 22 (2010): 189-206.
  • “The Hindu Moses: Christian Polemics against Jewish Ritual and the Secularization of Hindu Law under Colonialism,” History of Religions 49 (2009): 141-71.
  • “The Rhetoric of Gesture in Cross-Cultural Perspective.” In Paul Bouissac, ed., “Gesture, Ritual and Memory,” Gesture 6 (2006): 223-40.
  • “Law’s Trouble with Images: Fetishism and Seduction from Athens and Jerusalem to Madison Avenue.” In Images in Law, ed. Anne Wagner and William Pencak (Aldershot, UK: Ashgate, 2006), 267-79.
  • Editor, “The Spaces and Places of Law,” special issue of International Journal for the Semiotics of Law 19, no. 3 (2006).
  • “To Perform or Not to Perform?: A Theory of Ritual Performance versus Cognitive Theories of Religious Transmission.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 18 (2006): 372-91.
  • “Bentham’s Fictions: Canon and Idolatry in the Genealogy of Law.” Yale Journal of Law & the Humanities 17 (2005): 151-79.
  • “Images of Law and its Others: Canon and Idolatry in the Discourses of British India.” Culture and Religion 6 (2005): 181-99.
  • “Ritual and Religious Language.” In Encyclopedia of Language and Linguistics, second revised edition (Elsevier, 2005).
  • (With Winnifred Fallers Sullivan.) “Law and Religion: An Overview.” In Encyclopedia of Religion, second edition (New York: Macmillan Reference USA, 2005), 5325-5332.
  • “Poetic Justice: Rhetoric in Hindu Ordeals and Legal Formulas.” Religion 32 (2002): 259-72.
  • “Rhetorics of Law and Ritual: A Semiotic Comparison of the Law of Talion and Sympathetic Magic.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 69 (2001): 627-47.
  • “The Rebirth of Myth?: Nietzsche’s Eternal Recurrence and its Romantic Antecedents.” Numen 47 (2000): 175-202.
  • “Discord and Concord in Buddhist Perspective,” with Frank Reynolds and Jason A. Carbine. In Research in Human Social Conflict, ed. Joseph B. Gittler. Vol. 2, Ideas of Concord and Discord in Selected World Religions (Stamford, CT: JAI Press, 2000), 21-58.
  • “Mantrasamskara: Tantric Rites for Making Mantras Effective.” Journal of the Sanskrit Department of Rabindra Bharati University 9 (2000): 10-25.
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