Sacred Commodities: Fragrant Materials and Religious Consumerism across Asia and the World

AHA Session 241
Sunday, January 9, 2011: 8:30 AM-10:30 AM
Grand Ballroom Salon B (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Elly Truitt, Bryn Mawr College
The Audience

Session Abstract

For at least the last two millennia religious observances across Asia have been intimately tied to acts of consumerism. Religious practitioners are often unavoidably entangled, through their use of sacred objects, with the world of merchants, marketplaces, and the exchanges of capital and commodities. As the papers on this panel demonstrate, relationships between religious practices and marketplace consumerism both date back to before the Common Era, as well as continue today, supporting industries, exploiting resources, and raising questions about the role of commodities and consumption in religion that challenge our assumptions about the relationship between the religious and the material. Each of the papers on this panel presents a case study in the historic relationships between religion and consumerism. Gregory Rosenthal, in “Boundless China: Incense Consumption and the Fate of Hawaiian Environmental Sovereignty, 1811-1830,” examines the role of Chinese incense consumption in the early nineteenth century and how American transpacific merchants, excited by this consumer demand, engendered widespread social and environmental change across Oceania, particularly in Hawaiʻi, in their no-holds-barred effort to get fragrant Pacific sandalwood into the hands of Chinese consumers. Secondly, James McHugh, in “The Disputed Civets and the Complexion of the God in South India,” relates the history not of a tree, but of an animal, the civet cat, tracing how the cat's meaning in medieval South Asia interacted with Hindu religious thought and practices concerning the aromatic secretions of this animal. Civet is still used by religious practitioners today, though now the animal is protected by wildlife laws. McHugh highlights the way that one particular temple in contemporary India, in defending its right to use this aromatic, has articulated a new ‘sacred history' of civet based on scriptures and tradition. Finally, Anya King, in “Earth of Musk: Musk, the Garden, and Perfectibility in Medieval Islamic Civilization,” brings forth the history of yet another animal, a sacred commodity that was prized in the Islamic Near East and yet was only available in its natural habitat thousands of miles away: the musk deer of Central Eurasia. King seeks to examine why early Islamic thought elevated the fragrance of this foreign musk to such a level that it was believed that in the future paradise the Earth itself, as well as our own bodily liquids, just to take two examples, would be made of musk. How did Islamic consumption of musk make sense of (or make sacredness out of) this relationship with the foreign musk deer and its distant Central Eurasian habitat? From Buddhism to Hinduism to Islam; and from Hawaiʻi to China, to South India, and from the Tibetan plateau to the Near East, this panel seeks to place fragrant materials – understood both as sacred commodities and as natural resources and endangered species – into history. We argue that any discussion of “History, Society, and the Sacred” must include the plants and animals that have both been revered and exploited within humanity's ever-evolving frameworks for making sense of the planet on which we live.

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