December 04 2021

The Little Ice Age and Devotional Practices in the Transforming Landscape of Northern India

On a white background, text appears on the left "Conversation with Sugata Ray 2020 AAR Book Award Winner" and on the right is the image of his book's cover

Sugata Ray's 2019 book Climate Change and the Art of Devotion: Geoaesthetics in the Land of Krishna, 1550-1850 (University of Washington Press) won AAR's Religion and the Arts Book Award in 2020, the award's inaugural year. In this interview with Kristian Petersen, Ray talks about his book and explains how a landscape transformed by the Little Ice Age became part of evolving conceptualizations, rituals, and aesthetics involved in devotional practices of Northern Indian worshippers of Krishna.

Sugata Ray is associate professor of South and Southeast Asian art at the University of California, Berkeley.

Transcript

Kristian Petersen:

Welcome to Religious Studies News. I'm your host Kristian Petersen. And today I'm here with Sugata Ray, associate professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and winner of the first AAR Book Award in Religion and the Arts. He's here to speak to us about his book Climate Change and the Art of Devotion: Geoaesthetics in the Land of Krishna, 1550-1850, published with the University of Washington Press. Congratulations and thanks for joining me.

Sugata Ray:

Thank you. And thank you for inviting me.

Kristian Petersen:

Yeah. This is a really innovative and interesting topic, one that I was unfamiliar with but I really enjoyed the book. You focus on this relationship between visual practice and environmental distress. I'm not familiar with a whole lot of research in religious studies, at least, that looks at this intersection. So, can you talk a little bit about how this project began for you and what were some of the broader conceptual interventions you were hoping to make with the book?

Sugata Ray:

Absolutely. And I think in a way the question of climate change and religion or climate change and art is really something that has emerged very recently, maybe in the last 10 or 15 years. Partly because of the massive climate crisis that we are facing but also transformations in the humanities more broadly with scholarship that has taken material very seriously. And in a way religious studies or the study of religion is really a critical arena to think about how climate change can affect practices of devotion. So, that was where I was interested in trying to think about the intersections between what is now called the "Little Ice Age" and formation of vaishnavism or the worship of Krishna in Vrindaban which is, as we all know, the foundational moment in the history of Hinduism in India. So what the book was trying to do, there has been scholarship on Vrindaban Mathura Braj. This region of North India, where Krishna is believed to have spent his youth.

From the 19th century, there has been seminary work on the liturgy, on the theology, even on the visual practices but what as I was write, for my book what I really wanted to do is look at this moment where the intersection between the transformation in the environment was intersecting with the transformation in devotional practices. So that in a way was what this book tried to do and try to bring together debates in climate change with debates in devotional practices. Partly all because much of the work on the Little Ice Age has focused on certain teams, certain regions. Climatically, the focus has been political issues rather than religion, culture, or the arts. Geographically, the focus is usually on Europe and North America rather than Asia or Africa. So my focus on the climatic epoch of Little Ice Age was a strategic move to sort of challenge the Eurocentrism of scholarship of this climatic period by looking at Vrindaban Mathura Braj and how the visual culture was transformed by environmental changes.

Kristian Petersen:

One of the new categories that you bring that I think will be useful going forward is this idea of geoaesthetics. Can you tell us how you define geoaesthetics and then how can you imagine scholars of religion may be taking up this approach in their own research.

Sugata Ray:

Absolutely. So the idea of geoaesthetics in a way has a long history. If we think about, let's say work of other scholars who have turned to this idea that bringing together geography, geology, and the domain of aesthetics. But the work mostly has focused on contemporary art, but my argument is that, fundamentally, the material culture of religion, whether we talk about the worship of stones as icons or the worship of forests or the worship of rivers or the worship of land itself is a practice in that geoaesthetics.

It's a practice in trying to think about the aesthetics of the ecological, the tractions between the ecological and the aesthetics. So in that sense, I think there is much that can be done with it, not just within, let's say scholarship in Hinduism but if you think about Christianity or Islam, the way stone is imagined, the way stone is thought through. Now the intellectual genealogies of the term really takes us back to Braudel who would write about geohistory and then Deleuze and Guattari talks about geophilosophy. So from that moment, from Braudel's geohistory to geophilosophy, to what I brought in the idea for geoaesthetics, trying to think about how artistic and architectural practices was shaped through human interaction with geography, geological, botanicals, zoological, even mineralogical or climatic formations.

Kristian Petersen:

Yeah, I think it would certainly be an interesting way to, especially people that are working on material religion to think about this and especially non-Western context. So I hope they'll take it up in the future. As you kind of delve into this case study on this region of Braj, you first look at the role of water in art and architecture. So can you tell us about how water structured life in Braj and then the ways it was used to symbolize religious life for the various groups in the region?

Sugata Ray:

So in the 16th century, what the region that is now called Braj was primarily an agro-pastoral region. So water was fundamental to the very survival of the communities who lived in this sort of north Indian region, and I mean, water is fundamental to life for any community anywhere. But I think where Braj becomes an interesting case study is where the natural topography that is the river, the land, the forest were considered as embodied ecological clusters. And there are so many texts that talk about the dust of Vrindaban, they talk about the alchemic quality of stone, or even the act of seeing water can transform the devotee. So in that sense, Braj really became an exemplary case study to think about how one brings together ecological clusters with religious clusters. Now water or the worship of sacred water goes back to the very formation of Hinduism in South Asia thinking about the goddess Yamuna.

But what we saw in Braj is that it was not just about the worship of icons, that is the structure of the river goddess, but the river itself was considered sacred, the river itself was considered a living matter. And that for me, was so interesting, that it really is being articulated precisely at the moment when we start seeing the massive droughts happening. And I don't think was a coincidence that you have the droughts of the Little Ice Age and immediately at that point you have a certain riparian architecture developing that insists on seeing the running water.

And that is where I think Braj becomes an exemplary site to think about the relationship between artistic expression and drought. Now, one might say that this can be a lot of reviews of my book has said that it could have happened in the past, it could have happened in the other sites. Absolutely, I chose Braj as a case study. I think what I wanted to do is offer a method which could be used to think about the relationship between drought or climate change and ecological clusters and art in any other context. So for me, it was more of trying to think of a method to bring together these two fields that have not really been brought together until very recently.

Kristian Petersen:

You certainly succeed in this task as a reader who's not familiar with either of your disciplinary fields. As you move forward, you moved from the theme of water to the theme of land through iterations of mountains, rocks architecture. Can you talk a little bit about the theological configuration of land and the ways it's being articulated in Bruges and then how this helps us think about this relationship between climate change and temple architecture.

Sugata Ray:

So in Braj, if you think about pilgrimage practices, there are four clusters that is: Water, the river Yamuna, clear arc of Yamuna; Land, for instance, the Govardhan Hill that Krishna lifts; The forests, the sacred groves where Krishna roams with his devotees; and ether, or Akasha, that really holds together all of these components.

So the book in that sense was, and the way I structured the book was trying to have certain fidelity to this ecological cluster. So each chapter then focuses on one primary ecological competent of Braj's sacred ecosystems so water, the river Yamuna, land, the hill. Again, if you talk about land, one must remember that land is also dust, land is also rocks. So in that particular chapter, I looked at Hindu temple architecture. Now that is a very rich body of scholarship starting from Stella Kramrisch. There has been much that has been written on Hindu temples. In the 1980s sort of Marxist historiography, even feminist historiography has interjected in developing this field.

But when we talk about the physical form of a temple, we still go back to that early 20th century moment where we see the temple as a symbol or a symbol of the macrocosm of the primordial. Now that understanding of the physical form of the temple, I wanted to complicate that understanding of the physical form of a temple. It is to argue that we have to think about architecture not just as symbolic. Yes, it is symbolic but it is the very material of stone that is alchemic. And there are all these beautiful texts that talk about red sandstone that incites the love for Krishna.

So bringing together alchemy, bringing together the idea of stone as living as animate, for me, was a methodological move in trying to think of an eco-art history of Hindu temples to take the conversation about the physical form of the temple beyond just a symbolic. And I think that is one sort of a intervention that ''eco-art history,'' as I call it can do is that it argues that the forest, the tree, the river, the temple, the icon is not merely a symbolic representation of the macrocosm. But it is living, animate and that taking these elements as constitutive rather than emblematic was where I wanted to come to, with the Hindu temple that's what I wanted to talk about. The very material as being constitutive to liturgy, to devotional practices.

Kristian Petersen:

These kinds of intersections, I think comes through in the chapter on which you called forest, where you're looking at not only the physical plant ecologies that are present at the moment but also new forms of knowledge and knowledge production during these times. So can you tell us a little bit about this relationship that's happening here and how it relates to this emergence of this vegetal aesthetic of abundance that's going on despite the ecological crises that's happening.

Sugata Ray:

So if you think about forests and sacred groves, what I found so interesting about this moment, the 18th century moment is that as agriculture developed, as population increase led to the development of urban settlements, we see an emergence both in literature, in painting, and I argue in architecture and gardening practices as well, a certain imagination of the wilderness, an imagination of these conjures of groves where Krishna and Radha would wander at night. Now it has a long history. Biophilia has a long history in Vaishnavism. It goes back, let's say to texts such as Gītagovindaṃ, but the urgency with which it sort of erupts in the 18th century, I would argue it's not a coincidence, it is precisely because the region's fragile ecosystem is transforming and you have massive towns coming up. The forest, the natural vegetation is lost. 16th century accounts talk about the muggles hunting lions near Mathura. By the 18th century, it's agro-pastoral domain. So it's precisely at this moment that you have as a vegetal aesthetics in literature, in painting in architecture.

So again, ornament, that is the temple facades that were elaborately ornamented with floral imagery. Ornament was not merely allegorical but epistema, I would argue but connected lived practices with visual form. And this 18th century architectural paradigm that mimics the kunjas or the sacred groves again, allows us to think about this whole debate that has happened again, not just in South Asia, but on sacred groves in the America, in Africa, in Japan. Scholarship has always thought about sacred groves as this sort of near virgin forest, but I think that's a very problematic way of understanding how groves were manipulated, groves were transformed in this point. I've tried to think of an approach to sacred forest that does not merely romanticize the premodern as the "other,' as this sort of a culture that is close to nature. But to see that it's precisely at the moment of massive agricultural chain and pastoral chain that a mythic imagination of wilderness is emerging across media, across genres.

Kristian Petersen:

Now, in this chapter on ether, I'll allow you to describe how that fits in that concept, but you look at a temple that blends British colonial style elements with Hindu themes and people might even kind of dismiss it for those kind of configurations but can you tell us why you focused on this temple and then how mediums of sound and music help establish a sacred ecosystem in the architecture.

Sugata Ray:

Absolutely. So and, you're absolutely right. I mean, the temple has been dismissed by scholarship. In fact, in the 19th century, a Frederic Growse, a district administrator who actually wrote a very important book on Braj and collected manuscripts described the temple as a casino in London or others have talked about the bastard architecture. This idea of a bastard architectural style. And again, James Fergusson describes the style of the bastard style because it brings together British architecture. For me, again, what is also important, but it also brings in what we would call Islamic architecture. So it's not just citing British neo-classical architecture. It's also citing Islamic form, the idea of Rum, for instance, which was so fundamental to Indian imaginations of a cosmopolitanism is being cited here. So in that sense, the citations that are, that are taking that can take us from Bernini to the idea of Rum, really urged me to think about what, what does it mean?

What does it mean for a temple in Vrindavan to cite these disperse elements from across the world, within the space of one temple? And for me, that was really trying to think about a certain idea of a globality, as an idea of certain cosmopolitanism in the period of colonialism. Now, by the 19th century, when this temple is being built, this is a moment of high colonialism. Mathura And Vrindavan, when has been brought under British rule, it is precisely at that moment that the patron is drawing elements from diverse parts of, of the world to create this very cosmopolitan architecture. For me, it's really what I would argue. It's an ecocosmopolitan architecture because it's working with the notion of Akasha, or ether, as a way of thinking about connectiveness. We are thinking about a certain visualization of this practice of sound, but this is also a point where middle-class Hinduism is developing.

And as a critique of these libidinous practices of love that were central to Vaishnavism in Braj. So there are, so the patron, for instance, I would argue, I argue in my chapter is that it's, it's about the critique of that sort of a middle-class Hinduism that has cleaned the religion and reframed it within a certain Judaeo-Christian tradition. There's a lot of scholarship on that and that this insistence on working with pre-19th century religious practices, but also pre-19th century imaginations of a connectivity was what I thought I wanted to bring in. And ether, in that sense, was the element—the fifth element in Vaishnava philosophy—Akasha is a natural element in Vaishnava philosophy, really connects the local with that sort of a multi-vector fluidity of the globe, a lot of planetary, so as to speak through sound of course.

Kristian Petersen:

It's a really exciting book. And you do, you set up these kinds of creative and unique ways of rethinking our material subjects that I think will be very productive for the study of religion. Of course, there's a lot more to the book, so I hope people will check it out, but is there anything perhaps that you you'd like to to say before I let you go, that we didn't get to cover?

Sugata Ray:

I think for me what is, what I really am interested in is trying to bring together a sort of understanding of religious practices in diverse parts of the world. And, and how can it change sort of provides a way of de-centering the anthropomorphism that is so fundamental to history of art. I mean, if you think about art history, whether we focus on religious material or even nonreligious material, it's about the artists, it's about the patron, it's about the audience. Art history, like other forms of humanities is fundamentally anthropocentric. So for me, given the crisis that we have lived through and we are living through, it really is about de-centering the human, and de-centering the conceit of the human and what sort of religious studies can emerge if we take seriously stone, water, rocks, plants as co-actors are co-makers of religion. And that for me, is what I am invested in the book really wanted to put forward a method or a way of thinking about these nonanthropocentric histories.

Kristian Petersen:

Well, congratulations again on the award, and thanks for taking time to talk about it.

Sugata Ray:

No, thank you for inviting me. And it was just wonderful to chat.