Climate Change and the Art of Devotion
Geoaesthetics in the Land of Krishna, 1550–1850
- ISBN: 9780295745374
- Published By: University of Washington Press
- Published: June 2019
Sugata Ray’s Climate Change and the Art of Devotion: Geoaesthetics in the Land of Krishna, 1550-1850 is a spectacular synthesis of art history, Indian theology, geo-aesthetics, ecopoiesis, materialism, and environmental humanities, interwoven with poetic narratives and analyses of amazing religious artifacts and edifices. Reading through Ray’s eco-poetic art history of the splendid sacred places of Krishna and beyond, readers can almost tangibly feel like we’re traveling to religious places. Readers can learn the process of the materialization of Hindu religiosity and humanity into religious artifacts and edifices which seem to be beautifully harmonized with nature. Thus, there are aesthetic harmonies of gods, humans, natural elements, animals, and plants, each responding to climate changes in complementary ways.
Ray brilliantly organizes this process with four elemental themes—Water, Land, Forest, and Ether—as the main chapters of this book. As the most fundamental natural element of geo-body, water is visualized in the folio of the Isarda Bhagavata Purana. In discussing this work, the author uses the term “hydroaesthetics,” an interconnected artistic and architectural practice that can be fruitfully applied to an expanded, nonhuman, transterritorial arena of water scarcity and drought. This brings a new ecological era of art history, as Ray states, “a reciprocal relationship between climate change and acts of visualizing water” (29).
Under the concept of earth as the divine “geo-body,” land is not simply a territory. The sandstone ridge of Govardhan was introduced as “an embodied lithic form of Krishna” (22). Chapter 2 shows how humans engage with the materiality of artistic and architectural practices. In this regard, a stone is not just a material but an agential material. Thus, earth is a living divine body that bleeds if wounded. On this account, an agentive rock bleeds when injured. This extension of morality toward non-humans (or more-than-humans) suggests a provocative eco-centric ethics beyond anthropocentric exceptionalisms.
Chapter 3 introduces a geo-botanical conception of the forest, vegetal aesthetics, and floral ornamentations. Ornaments are not merely decorative but connect to people’s lived practices in visual form (23). For example, 18th-century architectures were embellished with brilliant vegetal motifs, reaffirming the efficacy of a new vegetal aesthetics in the north Indian world (23). There, we can see that the religious edifices are not separated from natural environments, but deeply embodied and well-harmonized within them. The author beautifully describes the courtyard of 18th-century temples, which allowed the articulation of an embodied liturgical practice, transforming the act of encountering the divine into “a somatic relational engagement with animated plant life” (119).
The last chapter starts with the concept of oikos (“house” in Greek) to understand earth as a living organism in which we dwell. Just like the five natural elements, our five senses are the construction blocks of the natural world. Ether is not simply air but our symbiotic space, which we cohabit with fellow creatures. The author understands ether as the entirety of the cosmic space in which all living beings dwell together as an extended family or cosmopolitan through the circle of love. The author elegantly ends this chapter by observing that “the temple opens up the possibility of locating architecture within a deep matrix that straddles political imaginaries, ecological imperatives, and aesthetic form” (169).
To call the methodology of this book transdisciplinary does not do justice to this well-constructed and beautiful masterpiece. Furthermore, with rigorous transversal research and careful observation of Hindu religious arts over multiple years, Ray elegantly shows the non-dualistic ‘heterogeneity of beauty’ and the ‘theo-anthropo-cosmic harmony’ of humans and gods, humans and non-humans, and organic things and materiality, all while tying the discussion to climate change and visual culture. Climate Change and the Art of Devotion is a must-read for all who care about religion and ecology, religion and art history, Indian philosophy and religion, Asian art, art history, and geoaesthetics.
Jea Sophia Oh is associate professor of philosophy at West Chester University of Pennsylvania.Jea Sophia OhDate Of Review:January 28, 2023