THE RELATIONS OF ART AND RELIGION IN INDIA.
Ananda K. Coomaraswamy.* D. Sc., (Abstract)
[* See also A. K. Coomaraswamy, The Aims of Indian Art, Campden, 1908]
Three outstanding phases of the relation of art to religion are recognizable: art in the service of religion (religious art); art rejected by religion (asceticism); and art despised by religion (puritanism). The first two of these positions are properly characteristic of Hinduism and Buddhism, the third of Islam. The possibility of reconciling the two first is found in the fact that Hinduism does not seek to lay down for all men, or for all parts of a man’s life, the same course of action, or point to one only method of spiritual progress and means of salvation.
Indian art is essentially religious and aims at the intimation of Divinity. But the Infinite and Unconditioned cannot be expressed in finite terms; hence the religious art of India is concerned with the representation of personal divinities. For most men the love and service of a personal deity is their religion; and it is their faith that Indian religious art expresses. These are the true citizens, for whom art is an aid to and a means of spiritual progress; ‘fine art’ an intimation of the Infinite; the ‘lesser arts’ a witness that man does not live by bread alone. True asceticism, on the other hand, is a search for a reality beyond conditioned life.
Turning to the actual religious art of India, we find that it expresses in concrete imagery ideas that belong to the transcendental and mystic aspects of religion. Indian religious art contrasts thus with Greek, which corresponds only to the Olympian aspect of Greek religion. There are many Greek statues that may be either athletes or Apollos. In Indian religious art, on the contrary, the human form is used not for the sake of its own perfection, but to express transcendental conceptions, the ideal, non-human, and sometimes grotesque character of Hindu images is always deliberate and intentional. Nature is a veil, not a revelation; art is to be something more than a mere imitation of this maya.
Almost the whole philosophy of Indian art is summed up in the verse of Sukracharya’s Sukranitisara, which enjoins upon the imager the method of meditation.
‘In order that the form of an image may be brought fully and clearly before the mind, the image maker should meditate; and his success will be in proportion to his meditation. No other way – not indeed seeing the object itself – will achieve his purpose.’
The method of concentration in religious devotion upon the mental image of an Ishta Devata, or patron deity, is identical with the method of evoking and defining mental practiced by the imager or painter.
This is illustrated by the comparison of Dhyana mantrams with verses from the technical books of images (Silpa sastras).
The use of images in worship is generally misunderstood by students who belong to more or less puritanical religions. The Hindu view, not unlike the Catholic, is somewhat as follows. Except for those whose heart is set on an immediate realization of a non-mayic, unconditioned state of existence as subject without object, images are of value as a center of thought. Images obviously made with hands are often less likely to create misconceptions than purely mental concepts of divinity – they are more, or at least not less obviously symbols, and are thus less liable to be regarded as an adequate representation of the Infinite. The educated image worshipper knows that the very name of God, and the attribution of qualities to Him, are limitations imposed by his own intellect; still more that the form of the image is not really the form of the god, but only analogous with a colored glass held before the sun.
Religious symbolism in Indian art is of two kinds; the concrete symbolism of attributes, and the symbolism of gesture, sex, and physical peculiarities. The symbolism of gesture includes the various positions of the hands known as mudras; of physical peculiarities the third eye of Siva or the elephant head of Ganesa are instances. The subject of sex-symbolism is generally misinterpreted; but in fact, the imagery drawn from the deepest emotional experiences is a proof both of the power and truth of the art and the religion. India has not feared either to use sex-symbols in its religious art, or to see in sex itself an intimation of the Infinite.* [* Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, 4.3.21; also 1.4.3-4]
The lingam is not properly an instance of sex-symbolism; it is probably not of phallic origin, but derived from the stupa, and is now regarded as the highest emblem of Siva, because the least anthromorphic. True sex-symbolism in Indian art of literature assumes two main forms: the conception of the relation of the soul to God expressed in terms of the passionate adoration of a woman for her lover; and the representation of the energy power (sakti) of a divinity as a feminine divinity.
With regard to the use of sex-symbolism in Indian art there may be quoted here the words used by Sir Monier Williams in referring to the presence of words of erotic significance in his Sanskrit Dictinoary, ‘in India the relation between the sexes is regarded as a sacred mystery, and is never held to be suggestive of improper or indecent ideas.’ As much could not be said of Europe.
Indian religious art is often, but by no means always, beautiful; it may also be terrible or grotesque. Personal gods are aspects of a pantheistic Divinity, upon whom ‘all this universe is strung as gems upon a thread.’ But nature is not always smiling; she is concerned not less with death than life. As there are three gunas or qualities in nature, sattva, rajas and tamas, images are also classified into three, sattvik, rajasik and tamasic.
But it is best to study the relation between religion and art from actual examples. The seated Buddha may be selected as an example of one of the traditional conceptions of Indian religious art. Here conventionality and tradition are commonly held to fetter artistic imagination. But it is a modern error to associate imaginative intensity only with novelty. For, to the nameless artists who wrought the religious sculptures of India, the aim was not to prove their own cleverness, but to retell the great thing itself, which means so much to them, and which it was given to them continually to re-express. As regards the Buddha, it is not true, as is sometimes said, that there is no development, in the sense that the work of different epochs is quite uncharacterized. But it is true that the conception remains throughout almost identical. This is an expression of the fact that the Indian ideal has not changed. What is this ideal so passionately desired? It is one-pointedness, same-sightedness, control: little by little to rein in, not merely the sense, but the mind. Only by constant labor and passionlessness is this peace to be attained. What is the attitude of mind and body of one that seeks it? He shall be seated like the image; for that posture once acquire, is one of perfect bodily equipoise: ‘so shall he sit that is under the rule, given ever unto Me. In this wise the yogi … comes to the peace that ends in nirvana and that abides in Me.’ How then should the greatest of India’s teachers be represented otherwise than in this posture that is in India associated with every striving after the great Ideal?
One other point connected with statues of the Buddha may be referred to. It relates to the statues of Dhyani Buddhas. The earthly mortal Buddha is sometimes regarded as merely a projection or partial incarnation (amsah) of a pure and glorious being functioning on some finer, more ideal plane. A statue of a Dhyani Buddha stands for this pure being, not merely for the man as he appeared on earth. Such conceptions were not unknown to the founders of the great traditions of Indian art! and it is this fact which gives so much depth and seriousness not merely to their work, but even to the last monuments of the tradition. For if it is true that the conception of the seated Buddha is one into which the genius of the greatest artist may be poured without any lack of room for its complete expansion, it is also true that this motif even in a shapeless or grotesque form remains for those whose spiritual heritage it is, a well understood symbol of eternal things. In the same way, by a study of other typical examples of Indian religious art, the relation of art and religion in India may be understood.
This paper is thus an elementary study of the religious psychology of Indian art. Certain conclusions may be drawn. In the first place, the proper study of Indian art has hardly yet begun. By a proper study is meant not merely a close study of the weak and relatively unimportant semi-classic style of North-west India in the first few century after Christ, but a study of the development of the Indian ideal and its emancipation from foreign formulae unsuited to its expression. True Indian art is as little understood in the today, as Indian philosophy and literature a hundred years ago. This is illustrated by a recent pronouncement of no less eminent an archaeologist than Mr. Vincent Smith: ‘After A.D. 300 Indian sculpture properly so called hardly deserves to be reckoned as art. Such a statement is only to be paralleled with Lord Macaulay’s famous dictum upon the value of Oriental literature.
It remains to be seen what value will be set upon Indian art in the West, and what influence it will have upon Western art, when it is as well known to artists as Japanese art is even at the present day. That influence should result in some real application of psychological principles in the consideration of the aims and purpose of art, and in the education of artists.
At present the education of Western artists is an education merely in technique; the imagination is left to take care of itself, so long as the imitative powers are fully developed. Now if there is one thing which distinguishes the true artist from other men, it is not a knowledge of anatomy or a capacity for the meticulous imitation of nature, but it is the power of mental vision, of visualization, literally ‘imagination.’ Instead of being taught by meditation and concentration to cultivate this power, the Western student’s whole time is taken up with copying things that are set before his physical eyes. The true Indian artist on the other hand, who does not regard the reproduction of still life as the aim of art, is taught by memory work and practice in visualization to form a definite and perfect mental picture before he begins to draw or crave at all; his whole endeavor is to cultivate the power of mind-seeing. It is in this respect that Western art has most to learn from India.
Further, the distinction between naturalism and idealism in art is one that is fundamentally religious. Religion, for India, is much more a metaphysic than a dogma; and it is the lack of a metaphysic in modern Western materialistic culture, and in the surviving realism of Semitic theology, that makes it possible for the Western artist now to find sufficient satisfaction in the imitation of beautiful appearances, and a sufficient aim for art in the giving of pleasure.
It is not, however, possible for the greatest art to flourish, if men can believe in nothing more real and more eternal than the external face of nature. The true world of art is not the phenomenal world about us, but an ideal world of the imagination.Finally, as regards the future of art in India, two tendencies are apparent today, one inspired by the technical achievements of the modern West, the other a reaction towards the spiritual idealism of the East. If the greatest art is always both National and Religious – and how empty any other art must be! – it is in the latter tendency alone that we can trace the germ of a new and greatest Indian art, that shall fulfill and not destroy the past