Her research has taken her to Bengal, India twice and she has published three books based on her experiences. She stayed in Bengal for a year on each trip. "I had to avoid the monsoons" which poured five feet of flood waters on the streets and roads, she said. "People's homes are completely destroyed and disease is spread through the floods."
Back here in the U.S., McDaniel received her Ph. D. in History of Religions from the Divinity School at the University of Chicago, specializing in South Asian devotional religions. "Hinduism is one of the most complex and beautiful religions," she says. "Every other religion's philosophy known to man exists in the Hindu tradition. You name it, it's there."
She received her Master of Theological Studies from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, where she focused on Christianity and the psychology of religion. "I wanted to do my graduate work in one religion from each hemisphere," McDaniel said. "Christianity is one of the most influential religions in the Western Hemisphere." She focused her studies on the patristic period which consists of the first four century's of Christianity.
In her first book, "The Madness of the Saints: Ecstatic Religion in Bengal" (University of Chicago Press, 1989) McDaniel explores the various understandings of divine madness. "If someone sees God, Do they really see him? Or are they crazy? In the West a person claiming this would most likely be viewed as crazy. In India, the people are more liberal in determining the validity of a religious experience," she says, adding, "This book is a study of religious ecstasy in the Bengali devotional or bhakti traditions. These traditions are dedicated to religious experience, and the texts of Bengali bhakti give some of the most detailed accounts of ecstatic states in world religions."
Her second book, "Making Virtuous Daughters and Wives: An Introduction to the Brata Rituals of Bengal" (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003) explores the rituals for young women becoming adults in the Brata tradition. Bratas are performed in order for women to "gain such goals as a healthy family, a good husband, and a happy life," she says. McDaniel also compares the difference between the rituals that take place in low-caste village life and in high-caste Hindu Tradition. "Bratas emphasize the power of women, whose virtues can save their husbands from hell worlds and their families from disasters," she said.
McDaniel's most recent book, "Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls: Popular Goddess Worship in West Bengal." (NY: Oxford University Press, 2004) offers an overview of goddess worship in West Bengal called Shaktism. The year's largest celebrations are devoted to the goddesses Durga and Kali, with extravagant rituals, decorated statues, fireworks, and parades. McDaniel also discusses how Shaktism practices have been reinterpreted in the West. While most emphasis on traditional practices of goddess worship is lost, it serves the purpose of sexual freedom and psychological healing.
McDaniel drew on years of fieldwork in Bengal in order to write these books. Her extensive knowledge of various religions and practices helps her in the classroom because she can draw upon her own personal experiences in order to relate to the students.
"Professor McDaniel is brilliant, she seems to know pretty much everything about every religion," says Eric Fries, a McDaniel student.
In the Fall, 2006 semester Professor McDaniel will be teaching Women and Religion and Approaches to Religion. Women and Religion focuses on the different roles that females play in various religions. Approaches to Religion explores how people understand death and what they think will happen when they die.