Why a Berkeley Scholar Thinks Climate Change Has an Impact on Religion

Nihalchand (attr.), Flirtation on the Riverbank, Kishangarh, ca. 1750. Repository: The Walters Art Museum, Gift of John and Berthe Ford, 2002, W.860

Undoubtedly, artists and patrons, before and after the sixteenth century and in and beyond South Asia, have experimented with visual and architectural forms in response to climate change; this book is by no means a survey of such artistic engagements across a longue durée. Rather, it uses Braj as a case study to explore intersections between visual practices and large-scale transformations in the natural environment.” -- Sugata Ray, Introduction, Climate Change and the Art of Devotion: Geoaesthetics in the Land of Krishna, 1550-1850 

Enchanted worlds, bleeding stones, sacred rivers, and trees – for scholar Sugata Ray, these are more than metaphors. They’re central to his argument that religion plays an important role in the climate change conversation. Ray's book, “Climate Change and the Art of Devotion,” winner of the American Academy of Religion’s 2020 Religion and the Arts Book Award, is a groundbreaking contribution to the emerging field of "eco-art history’” -- examining architectures, paintings, photography, and prints alongside theological treatises and devotional poetry to explore the intersection of the natural ecosystem and cultural production. 

Ray, who serves as the Associate Professor of South and Southeast Asian art and architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, focuses his res on cultural transformations brought about by climate change. He spoke with Silma Suba of Interfaith America about his work. The conversation has been edited for clarity.

Interfaith America: Tell us about your research.

Sugata Ray: My research focuses on climate change in the early modern period, that is, the period approximately between 1500 and 1800s, and how religious practices, art and architecture, and philosophical systems—in fact, the very notion of faith—were affected by global climatic transformations. 

We usually do not consider climate change as a catalyst for transformations in religious practices. In Climate Change and the Art of Devotion, I show how droughts, deforestation, and alterations in the environment affected the development of religious practices in early modern South Asia. 

The other aspect is that scholarship on climate change typically focuses on political, social, and economic transformations—but what I argue in the book is that even culture was radically transformed because of environmental variabilities.  

IA: What are some key highlights from your book? 

SR: The question that I wanted to bring to the table is: “Did climate change transform the development of art, culture, and architecture?” For example, Hindu temple architecture has been studied using diverse methodologies—Marxist art history, feminist art history, and social art history—in the past. In my book, I proposed a new method: eco art history, that is, an art history that looks at transformations in art and architecture in relation to environmental transformations. 

When we think about scholarship on climate change in the field of art history, much of the focus is on the present, that is, the 21st century. There is an assumption that we are exceptional in our awareness of climate change, and this exceptionalism is pushed back, at the most, to the beginning of the Anthropocene—the geological epoch of human-induced climate change that began with the invention of the steam engine in the late 18th century. 

But climate change has always affected human civilizations. The difference is that in the past, for instance, in the 1st century, or in the 5th century, or in the 10th century, climate change was not human-induced on a global scale. Of course, at a micro or local scale, we have seen the effects of deforestation in ancient civilizations. The scale is vaster today. We thus assume that there is something exceptional about our period. My book argues that even if the climatic variability of the Little Ice Age was not human-induced, we see equally interesting solutions and ideas of resilience in the pre-colonial period in terms of artistic or cultural responses to environmental change. It is important to recover this history to understand our present, to understand how we came here, and what we lost in the way. 

What we lost was a very different idea of nature. Colonialism and modernity created a cleavage between the natural world from the world of culture. Going back to pre-colonial histories then offers ways of thinking about the environment as not merely an extractive resource to be used by the human species. Studying earlier examples of climatic variability and artistic responses to it thus allows us to move beyond the Eurocentrism of modernity. Put differently, colonial modernity demarcated religious practices in Asia, Africa, and the Americas as “primitive.” People in these parts of the world believed in the animacy of stones, trees, and rivers; nature and culture were closely intertwined. Colonial administrators and European scholars of religion saw such practices as superstitious and backward. My book recovers such histories of the intersections between nature and culture to show how modernity, capitalism, and colonialism marginalized non-Western world views in the name of progress. 

IA: How can religion or religious practices play a role in shaping people’s perspectives on climate change?

SR: One would have to begin with the question: what is religion? While there are top-down prescriptive “religions of the book,” practices are often, however, very different on the ground. As we know, Islam, as it is practiced on the ground, is very different from the Islam of the Quran. The same could be argued for Hinduism or Christianity. We have to keep that in mind as prescriptive notions of religion do not really cohere with everyday lived practices that are far more complex.

Keeping that in mind, I see two questions here. One is, of course, the question of what can religious practices offer in debates on climate change? I am especially interested in pre-colonial practices that emphasized stewardship of the environment—that is, caring about plants, animals, water systems, and the land—that are now all but lost. I think it is important is to recover these minor practices that now barely exist on the margins of the so-called great religions. And it is here that we might find other modes of thinking about human and non-human relationships that could possibly offer us ways of negotiating the massive climate crisis that we face today.

That is why archival research or research on the ground is very important. For instance, devotees in Braj, the pilgrimage site that the book focused on, saw mountains as living, rocks were beloved, and plants were seen as sentient. This ethics of loving the nonhuman is perhaps one way to think about what religion can offer in shaping perspectives on climate change.

Then, there is another aspect: greenwashing in the name of religion. Let us take the example of the current Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, who began his electoral campaign in 2014 standing by the river Ganga in Varanasi and describing the river as a goddess. This was a carefully orchestrated visual spectacle to emphasize the Bharatiya Janata Party’s purported custodianship of India’s ecology and natural resources. Modi’s deceptive pro-environmentalism, notwithstanding policies and practices that indicate otherwise, could be designated as a form of greenwashing, a term that had emerged in ecological discourses in the 1980s to describe attempts by corporations to make misleading claims about the environmental benefits of products, services, and technology. Then, of course, there is the greenwashing that we have seen in Israel, with the Jewish National Fund under Yosef Weitz planting millions of conifers, particularly pine trees, from the 1940s. While it might seem like that such a move was pro-environmental, scholars have noted that the aim was to stop the return of Palestinians to villages destroyed in 1948. So, what we see is pro-environmental rhetoric being used as a virulent form of greenwashing.  Thus, while there are innumerable examples of religious practices playing a positive role in shaping perspectives on climate change, it is equally important to remember that religious practices have been appropriated by 20th- and 21st-first-century nationalist political groups to flatten histories of both the environment and environmentalism into singular narratives of majoritarian ecological custodianship.

IA: Your book explores the term “geoaesthetics.” Can you tell us more about that, and how it connects with religion?

SR: My book shows how artistic and architectural practices are shaped through human interaction with geographical, geological, zoological, mineralogical, and even climatic formations. What does it mean to talk about aesthetics through such paradigms? Aesthetics, we assume, is a human-centric concept. But what sort of new aesthetic practices can emerge when we think about the relationship between the natural world and the world of religion? We all know that water—the substance that cleanses us—is fundamental to the ritual practices of being a Muslim. So what does the aesthetics of water mean in Islam?  How do we talk about stone? How do we talk about Hindu temple architecture or sacred gardens? Geoaesthetics, I argue, is precisely that intersection between the ecological and the aesthetic; it is the coming together of the geological and the aesthetic. 

We have to remember that an eco-critical or a geoaesthetics approach to religion necessitates that we see the environment as not merely a symbolic representation or a metaphor; we have to think about the actual environment. There is much written on the idea of the Islamic garden as a symbolic space, a paradise on earth. But the garden is not just a symbolic space; real plants grow in the garden and the garden is shaped by real irrigation systems that allow water to flow and life to flourish. It is thus important to move beyond the metaphoric. Of course, water is very important as a symbol across religions. But water is not merely a metaphor; without water, we die. We discussed how religion can play a role in the debate on climate change. One way would be to take seriously the corporeal bodily presence of plants, stones, and non-human animals as co-actors and co-inhabitants of this planet. But if imagine the environment solely as a metaphor, we will never actually engage questions of environmental transformation or climate change as a tangible problem.




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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.