The process of creating artforms requires a meditative approach where free from identifying with our mortal nature, humans try and come closer to the divine.
Manjushree is a Mechanical Engineer who decided to make a crossover to a serious study of Sanskrit and Indian culture. She has a post graduate degree in Sanskrit and is now working as a research scholar.
To the question, whether there is an absolute Beauty, Plato’s answer was unequivocal. He wrote:
“To him who has been instructed thus far in the lore of love (ta erotika), considering beautiful things one after another in their proper order, there will be suddenly revealed the marvel of the nature of Beauty, and it was for this, O Socrates, that all those former labors were undertaken. This Beauty, in the first place, is everlasting, not growing and decaying, or waxing and waning; secondly, it is not fair from one point of view and foul from another, or in one relation and in one place fair and at another time or in another relation foul, so as to be fair to some and foul to others ... but Beauty absolute, ever existent in uniformity with itself, and such that while all the multitude of beautiful things participate in it, it is never increased or diminished, but remains impassible, although they come to be and pass away.... Beauty itself, entire, pure, unmixed ... divine, and coessential with itself” (Symposium 210E-211B)
It is, of course, not the consensus of modern rhetoricians who continue to debate on the locus of beauty — does it inhere the subject or the object? For Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy — the metaphysician extraordinaire — as for Plato, Beauty is absolute: it is a glimpse of the Absolute Brahman itself. In his words, “in aesthetic contemplation as in love and knowledge, we momentarily recover the unity of our being released from individuality” (Coomaraswamy 1905:44). In order to understand beauty and beatitude according to Coomaraswamy, it’d be useful to first understand his definition of “art”.
1.What is art?
Art, Coormaraswamy writes, is simply defined as a principle of “making things” well. The Veda declares, tadātmānam svamakuruta, tasmāt tat sukṛtamuchyata iti, yadvai tat sukṛtam, raso vai saha (Taittirīya Upaniṣad, 2.7). In this view of art, therefore, there is no essential distinction of a fine and useless art from a utilitarian craftsmanship — a well-made table is not less beautiful than a well-executed rāga, and we cannot call a piece of iron a “beautiful knife” unless it does not serve well the particular end for which it was designed. Coomaraswamy writes,
“There is no distinction in principle of orator from carpenter, but only a distinction of things well and truly made from things not so made… But, you may object, do not some things serve the uses of the spirit or intellect, and others those of the body; is not a symphony nobler than a bomb, an icon than a fireplace? Let us first of all beware of confusing art with ethics. “Noble” is an ethical value, and pertain to the a priori censorship of what ought or ought not to be made at all. The judgment of works of art from this point of view is not merely legitimate, but essential to a good life and the welfare of humanity. But it is not a judgment of the work of art as such. The bomb, for example, is only bad as a work of art if it fails to destroy and kill to the required extent. It will be obvious that there can be no moral judgment of art itself, since it is not an act but a kind of knowledge or power by which things can be made well, whether for good or evil use: the art by which utilities are produced cannot be judged morally, because it is not a kind of willing but a kind a knowing.” Coomaraswamy (2004: 126)
Furthermore, he asserts that this definition of art is not specifically Indian in nature — during the greater part of the world’s history, every product of human workmanship — whether idol, embroidery, or a shirt button — has been at once beautiful and useful. For example, the Greek word poiesis originally meant a “making,” so that Plato says, “The productions of all arts are kinds of poetry and their craftsmen are all poets” (Symposium 205C)[i]. Further, “demiurge” (dēmiourgos) and “technician” (technitnēs) are the ordinary Greek words for “artist” (artifex) and under these headings Plato includes not only poets, painters, and musicians, but also archers, weavers, embroiderers, potters, carpenters, sculptors, farmers, doctors, hunters, and above all those whose art is government. So also is it that God, the Divine Artist, is thought of now as an architect, now as a painter, or as a writer, or potter or embroider; and just as none of His works is meaningless or useless, so no one makes art without an intention. “Does any painter”, Rumi asks,
“Paint a beautiful picture for the picture’s own sake, or with some good end in view? Does any potter make a pot for the sake of the pot, or with a view to the water? Does any calligrapher write with such skill for the sake of writing itself, or to be read? The external form (nakṣ) is for the sake of an unseen form, and that for the sake of another… in proportion to your maturity— meaning upon meaning, like the rungs of a ladder.” (Mathnawī, IV)
In order to understand the “making of things” as an art, then, we must turn to the operation of the artist as a contemplator.
2. Art Creation - a Yoga
"In making a thing the very innermost Self of a man comes into outwardness."
— Meister Eckhart
Traditionally, Coomaraswamy writes, the “making” of a thing by art is two-fold i.e., it implicates two faculties — one, creative, and the other, operative. In the first operation, an idea/image is “seen” by the artist in the antar-hṛdayākāṣa (inner-space), and then, this image is embodied in a material. If the former operation is yoga, the latter is technical.
Yoga is a form of mental concentration that is practiced very intensely so as to remove all distinction between the subject and the object of contemplation — in other words, it is a means of achieving unity of consciousness. It is in yoga that the artist “sees” the image of what he wishes to make — Coomaraswamy writes,
“The arising of the image is not by an act of will whether human or divine, but of attention (dhāraṇa) when the will is at rest” (Coomaraswamy 1934:76).
In scholastic terms, this phase is called actus primus – intuition, act of imagination, or act of contemplative vision. The Śukranītisāra (IV 70-71) defines the initial procedure of the artist thus:
“the characteristic of an image is its power of helping forward contemplation and yoga. The human maker of images should therefore be meditative. Besides meditation, there is no other way of knowing the character of an image — even direct observation (is of no use)”.
In Abhilaṣitārthacintāmaṇi, Someśvara says,
“when the model has been conceived, set down on the wall what was visualized” (cintayet pramāṇam; tad-dhyātam bhittau niveśayet)” (1.3.158).
In other words, the artist must be whatever he is to represent. If the artist does not concentrate his attention in an intense focus clear of irrelevancies and free from awareness of himself, he will only partially “be” that which he proposes to represent by his art— and this will reflect in his work In the Mālavikāgnimitra, for example, a lack of correspondence between the beauty of the model and that represented in the painting is spoken of as kānti-visaṁvāda, and ascribed to imperfect concentration (śithila samādhi) on the part of the painter (II, 2). Plotinus also gave a concise description of the yogic state characteristic of the first phase of the creative process:
“(In contemplative vision) there will not even be memory of the personality; no thought that the contemplator is the self… especially when it is vivid, we are not at the time aware of our own personality; we are in possession of ourselves, but the activity is towards the object of vision with which the thinker becomes identified; he has made himself over as matter to be shaped; he takes ideal form under the action of the vision, while remaining potentially himself…” (Enneads, IV.4.2)
Before he begins his work, then, Coomaraswamy insists that the artist must clear the mirror of his intellect and gather his scattered powers for the act of creation— so, he must practice such disciplines as fasting, prayer, and meditation. According to one of the Silpa Sastras
“The śilpan (artist) should understand the Atharva Veda, the thirty-two Śilpa śāstras, and the Vedic mantras by which the deities are invoked. He should be one who wears a sacred thread, a necklace of holy beads, and a ring of kusa grass on his finger; delighting in the worship of God, faithful to his wife, avoiding strange women, piously acquiring a knowledge of various sciences, such a one is indeed a craftsman.”
Elsewhere it is said “the painter must be a good man, no sluggard, not given to anger; holy, learned, self-controlled, devout and charitable, such should be his character.” Frithjof Schuon notes,
“The icon painters were monks who, before setting to work, prepared themselves by fasting, prayer, confession and communion”.
Such extreme preparations are undertaken in order tune one’s will and intellect with that of God, to prepare the artist to execute well the work. In his essay, The Theory of Art in Asia, Coomaraswamy demonstrates the formal steps of making of an artifact:
“The formal element in art represents a purely mental activity, citta-sañña. From this point of view, it will appear natural enough that India should have developed a highly specialized technique of vision. The maker of an icon, having by various means proper to the practice of Yoga eliminated the distracting influences of fugitive emotions and creature images, self-willing and self-thinking, proceeds to visualize the form of the devata (aspect of God) described in a given canonical prescription, sādhana, mantram, dhyāna. The mind “produces” or “draws” (ākarṣati) this form to itself, as though from a great distance. Ultimately, that is, from Heaven, where the types of art exist in formal operation; immediately, from the “immanent space in the heart” (antar-hṛdaya-ākāṣa), the common focus (samstāva, “concord”) of seer and seen, at which place the only possible experience of reality takes place. The true-knowledge-purity-aspect (jnana-sattvarūpa) thus conceived and inwardly known (antar-jneya) reveals itself against the ideal space (ākāṣa) like a reflection (pratibimbavat) or as if seen in a dream (svapnavat). The imager must realize a complete self-identification with it (ātmānam… dhyāyāt, bhāvayet), whatever its peculiarities, even in the case of the opposite sex or when the divinity is provided with terrible supernatural characteristics; the form thus known in an act of non-differentiation, being held in view as long as may be necessary (evam rūpam yāvad ichchati tāvad bhāvayet), is the model from which he proceeds to execution in stone, pigment, or other material.” (Cooomaraswamy 1934: 5)
Giles gives an excellent account in his Chuang Tzu:
“And the prince of Lu asked him (a carpenter), saying, “What mystery is there in your art?” “No mystery, your Highness,” replied Ch'ing ; “ and yet there is something. ''When I am about to make such a stand, I guard against any diminution of my vital power. I first reduce my mind to absolute quiescence. Three days in this condition, and I become oblivious of any reward to be gained. Five days, and I become oblivious of any fame to be acquired. Seven days, and I become unconscious of my four limbs and my physical frame. Then, with no thought of the Court present to my mind, my skill becomes concentrated, and all disturbing elements from without are gone. I enter some mountain forest. I search for a suitable tree. It contains the form required, which is afterwards elaborated. I see the stand in my mind's eye, and then set to work. Otherwise, there is nothing. I bring my own natural capacity into relation with that of the wood.” Giles (1889:240)
It is suffice to say that this doctrine of creation of art emerges clearly and convincingly, especially when the analogues from the world around are studied.
3. Purpose of Art
"Even the best of writings are but a reminiscence of what we know."
What emerges from this is that Indian art is, according to Comaraswamy, spiritual in nature — in its creation, in its existence, and in its purpose. All art in Indian aesthetics is considered as a path for realization of the Ultimate Reality. In the beginning of the Citrasūtra (Viṣṇudharmottarapurāṇa), for example, a standard text of an Indian artist, it is stated that the purpose of art is to show the grace that underlies all of creation, to help one on the path towards reintegration with That which pervades the universe. So, it opens with King Vajra asking sage Mārkaṇḍeya,
“How could one make a representation, in painting or image, of the Supreme Being who is devoid of form, smell and emotion, destitute of sound and touch?”
To this, Mārkaṇḍeya explains,
“The entire universe should be understood as the modification (vikṛti) of the formless (prakṛti). The worship and meditation of the supreme is possible for an ordinary being only when the formless is endowed with a form; and that form is full of significance.”
So, the artisan tries to see the material world around him as a manifestation of the Universal Spirit, and tries capture the intrinsic unity and harmony of the whole of creation. In E. B. Havell’s words,
“Indian art, soaring into the highest empyrean, is ever trying to bring down to earth something of the beauty of the things above.”
Imitation of nature, then, — which, to a Hindu, is māyā/illusion— is not an aim at all. In the words of Burne-Jones,
“(art) is the power of bringing God into the world — of making God manifest”.
The function of an artifact (a thing made by art) is, then, three-fold.
- First & foremost it must “always and only to supply a real or imagined need or deficiency on the part of the human patron, for whom as the collective ‘consumer’ the artist works”.
- In the process, a true work of art fulfills another need — as a support of contemplation: for the last end of the work of art is the same as its beginning — the experience of rasa: In Coomaraswamy’s words, “art criticism ‘recreates’ the process of art-creation”. So, yoga from a connoisseurs’ point of view is rasa.
- Vyutpatti — didactic education — is the unconscious phala (fruit) of a true work of art.
Of primary importance here is the concept of rasa. Coomaraswamy illustrates that this word is traditionally used, (a) relatively, in the plural, with reference to the various, usually eight or nine, distilled emotional conditions which may constitute the theme of a given literary work (b) absolutely, in the singular, with reference to the interior act of tasting flavor un-particularized. We are here concerned only with the second usage of the word, or the experience of rasa. In his words:
“The sthāyi-bhāva is brought to life as rasa because of the spectator’s own capacity for tasting, “not by the character or actions of the hero to be imitated (anukārya), nor by the deliberate ordering of the work to that end (tatparatvataḥ). Competence depends on purity or singleness (sattva) of heart and on an inner character (antara-dharma) or habit of obedience (anuśīla) tending to aversion of attention from external phenomena; this character and habit, not to be acquired by mere learning, but either innate or cultivated, depends on an ideal sensibility (vāsanā) and the faculty of self-identification (yogyatā) with the forms (bhavana) depicted (varṇanīya). Just as the original intuition arose from a self-identification of the artist with the appointed theme, so aesthetic experience, reproduction, arises from a self-identification of the spectator with the presented matter; criticism repeats the process of creation.” Coomaraswamy (1934:51)
In other words, he writes, the aesthetic experience is
“an inscrutable and uncaused spiritual activity, that is virtually ever-present and potentially realizable, but not possible to be realized unless and until all affective and mental barriers have been resolved, all knots of the heart undone, and it is necessarily admitted that the experience arises in relation to some specific representation” (Coomaraswamy 1934:51)
It is characterized by a state of lysis (viśrānti), an immersion in the aesthetic-object to the exclusion of every other thing (vigalitavedyāntaratayā), without, that is, having any mental movement, any extraneous desire (in other words, no obstacle, vighna) [ii]. In other words, rasāsvādana is yoga, also called nivṛtti, laya, samāpti, samādhī, etc — and this is said to be equal to tasting of God (brahmānanda sahodara) (Brahman— Bhartṛhari said, is nothing but the overcoming of the knots of “I” and “mine”— mamāham iti ahamkāra-granthi-samatikramaṇamātram brahmaṇaḥ prāptiḥ). It is for this reason that Bhatta Nayaka (quoted in the Abhinavabhārati) commenting on the Nāṭya Śāstra’s statement, “brahmaṇā yad udāhṛtam”, opines that these words do not mean “the Nāṭya Śāstra as has been told by Brahmā”, but that, “the art of dance or drama has been cited as an apt illustration for the Brahman.” In Abhinavagupta’s words, rasa is deśakālapramā-tṛbhedānirantrito (A. Bh. I, 291). So, a “beautiful” work of art can serve as the stimulus to the release of the spirit from all inhibitions of vision. Abhinavagupta states the rasādvaita in the clearest terms:
tata eva nirvighna-svasamvedanātmaka (harṣa) viśrānti-lakṣaṇena rasanāparapryāyeṇa vyāpāreṇa gṛhyamāṇatvād rasaśabdenābhidīyate | tena rasa eva nāṭyam | yasya vyutpattiḥ phalamityucyate | tathā ca rasādṛta ityatraika-vacanopapattiḥ | tataśca mukhyabhūtāt sphoṭa-dṛśīvāsatyāni vā anvitābhidānadṛśīvopāyātmakāni satyāni vā abhihitānvayadṛśīva tat samudāya-rūpāṇi vā rasāntarāṇi bhāgā(vā)bhiniveśadṛṣṭāni rūpyante | … pūrvatra bahuvacanamatra caikavacanam prayuṅjānasyāyamāśayaḥ - eka eva tāvat paramārthato rasaḥ sūtrasthānīyatvena rūpake pratibhāti | tasyaiva +*-punarbhāgadṛśā vibhāgaḥ |
(Abhinavabhārati Vol 1, pp 267, 271)
In other words,
“the conception of the work of art as determined outwardly to use and inwardly to a delight of the reason; the view of its operation as not intelligibly causal, but by way of a destruction of the mental and affective barriers behind which the natural manifestation of the spirit is concealed; the necessity that the soul should be already prepared for this emancipation by an inborn or acquired sensibility, the requirement of self-identification with the ultimate theme, on the part of both artist and spectator as prerequisite to visualization in the first instance and reproduction in the second; finally, the conception of ideal beauty as unconditioned by natural affectations, indivisible, super-sensual and indistinguishable from the Gnosis of God— all these characteristics of the theory demonstrate its logical connection with the predominant trends of Indian thought, and its natural place in the whole body of Indian philosophy.”
(Coomaraswamy 1934: 55)
So it is that Coomaraswamy asserts that beatitude and art are names for one and the same experience — an intuition of reality and of identity. This is, again, a universal view propounded by others such as the Neo-platonists, Hsieh Ho, Goethe, Blake, Schopenhauer and Schiller. Plato, in his Timaeus, notes,
“… thus from shrill and deep they blend one single sensation, furnishing pleasure thereby to the unintelligent, and to the intelligent that intellectual delight which is caused by the imitation of the divine harmony manifested in mortal motions…” (Timaeus 80B).
Dante writes of his Commedia:
“The end of the whole and of the part may be manifold, to wit, the proximate and the ultimate, but dropping all subtle investigation, we may say briefly that the end of the whole and of the part is to remove those living in this life from the state of misery and lead them to the state of felicity.” (Letter to Can Grande (15))
This state of blessedness is a state of union, a beatific vision described in the last canto of the Paradiso, Divine Comedy (when St. Bernard offers a Prayer to the Virgin so that Dante is permitted the Beatific Vision of God. The vision passes and Dante is once more mortal and fallible. Yet the truth is stamped upon his soul, which he now knows will return to be one with God's love.). We can conclude with a verse from our own tradition:
“yā yā prakṛtirudāra yo yo’pyānandasundaro bhavaḥ yatkiṁchit ramanīyam vastu śivastattaākaraḥ” (Commentary on Atharvaśiropaniṣad)
“yad yad vibhūtimat sattvaḿ śrīmad ūrjitam eva vā tat tad evāvagaccha tvaḿ mama tejo-’ḿśa-sambhavam” (Gītā 10. 41)
[i] Cf. Ṛgveda (X.106.1) vitanvātha dhiyo vastrāpaseva “Ye weave your songs as men weave garments.”
[ii] Vighnaḥ is itself defined thus: vighnanti vilumpanti kartavyam iti vighnaḥ ādhyātikādayo anavadhānadośādayastrividhopaghātataḥ tadadiṣṭhātāraśca devatāviśeṣāḥ i.e. primarily as a lack of attention (anavadhāna).
- Coomaraswamy, A. K. (1909). Essays in National Idealism. G. A. Natesan & co. Madras.
- Coomaraswamy, A.K. (1934). Transformation of nature in art. Dover Publications. New York.
- Coomaraswamy, A.K. (1940). East and West and Other Essays. Ola Books Ltd. Colombo.
- Coomaraswamy, A.K. (1977). “The Bugbear of Democracy, Freedom, and Equality”. Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 11, No. 3. (Summer, 1977).
- Coomaraswamy, A.K. (2004). The Essential Ananda. K. Coomaraswamy. World Wisdom. Indiana.
- Coomaraswamy, A.K. (2007). Figures of speech or figures of thought? World Wisdom. Indiana.
- Giles, Herbert Allen. (1889). Chuang Tzu, mystic, moralist, and social reformer. Bernard Quaritch. London.