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July 12, 2003

Hindu Art

Friedrich --


I've stumbled across an excellent book on Indian art, Alistair Shearer's The Hindu Vision: Forms of the Formless (buyable here). Well-illustrated and well-produced; terrific on the effects and the principles of Indian art; inexpensive, compact and snappily written. Altogether a treat.

But I admit that if I'm enthralled it's partly because, as you know, I'm indulging in a little Hindu phase of my own. I've gotten intrigued by the meta-religion/philosophy known as Vedanta specifically, and have been curious about how to synch up what I'm reading with Indian visual art, about which I know nothing but which I've always loved. I'm seldom art-happier than I am when I'm nosing through the Indian rooms at the Metropolitan Museum.

Part of why Vedanta has me hooked is that it discusses -- easily, forthrightly, modestly -- an awful lot of what's on my mind day-to-day but which I've always had trouble finding words for. (Let alone listeners tolerant and patient enough to put up with my fumblings.) Listening to, or reading, the Vedanta crowd? Goll-lee, these people must really be onto something -- such is my (probably primitive and laughable) response. This book's author, Alistair Shearer, also has the knack for making discussable what's usually deemed impossible even to name. As far as I can tell, it's a necessary skill if you're going to make any kind of verbal sense out of Indian art.

What a book. Well, I'm enchanted, in any case, as well as learning much. So why not pass along some nice passages? Here's hoping I'm within my Fair Use rights.

... The role of the artist in this vast scheme of things is thus not to redraw the parameters of possibility in perception or expression, or to criticize the inherited tradition or society, but rather to create those time-honoured forms which reiterate, glorify and perpetuate the Cosmic Law that upholds all life ...

... The Sanskrit term used to describe creation and the journey of the soul is lila, 'the divine play,' using the word in both its joyful and its dramatic senses. In truth, the universe is nothing more or less than the Divine playing an elaborate game of hide-and-seek with itself ...

... [in the Hindu world] cultural life serves to bridge the gap between the relatively gross level of mankind, restricted within boundaries of time, space and causation, and the transcendent Divine, which is unbounded and eternally free ...

... Aesthetically, we in the West are the heirs of the European Renaissance and a Classical standard of beauty based squarely on the human figure ... However idealized the canon of beauty set by the Greeks may have been, it belonged squarely to the world of flesh and blood, faithfully recording the taut sinews of a daylight, human reality.

Hindu art, by contrast, is in no way anthropocentric. It celebrates not the perfectibility of man, but the already perfect realms of the gods; it eschews the clear certainties of daylight reality and floats in the shadowy enigmas of the dream; it pays homage not to the rationality of the world of the extroverted senses, but to the irrationality of an oneiric and invisible realm opened up by inward contemplation. Its figures are androgynously sensuous, celebrating a beauty not seen on earth ...

... It is of the irrepressible fecundity of the jungle, rather than the austerity of the desert, that so much Hindu art reminds us. Its defined spaces surge with an exuberance of polytheistic form striving to emerge, like the bursting forth of vegetation after the monsoon rains ...

... Part of the appeal of Western Classical sculpture is that it represents a moment frozen in time. Our humanity, so noble yet so frail, is granted a poignant moment of immortality, as in a photograph: ars longa, vita brevis. Indian sculpture, by contrast, exists in the timelessness of Being, simply at rest within its own fullness, surrounded by silence ...

... Exalted though his task was, there was no division between artist and craftsman in ancient India. The most usual word for art (shilpa) covered a huge range of creative and useful enceavour spread over all aspects of culture. Shilpa was divided into sixty-four branches which, in addition to the visual arts of painting, sculpture and architecture, included accomplishments ranging from dance, music and engineering to cooking, perfumery and making love. Art, in short, was the practice of all those refined skills that enrich our being in the world, bringing nourishment, fullness and delight to life. This delight is not just pleasure, which depends on the senses, but what is called in Sanskrit ananda, an inner, spiritual bliss that exists prior to, and independent of, any sensory or mental stimuli ...

Ananda? Yeah, baby!

Personally, I find this conception of art something I can get with about 100%, if not 150%. How about you?



posted by Michael at July 12, 2003


Of course I can get behind this stuff. I love this stuff!

As for the analysis from the book, I must admit to being a bit wary of it. (Perhaps for the same reason you're wary of over-analyzing psychological suspense movies.) As soon as I read the author's contrast between Greek and Hindu art, my art-historical brain went click: "But Indian sculpture was clearly influenced, and quite profoundly, by Hellenistic Greek art." Which may not invalidate the author's point (he's speaking generally, I know), but one of the things I like about Indian art, particularly its monumental sculpture (I'm not as crazy about the painting yet, but give me time) is that I don't feel obliged to argue such issues internally.

Nonetheless, I'm sure I'd love to browse through the book and look at the pictures! Thanks for the tip!

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 13, 2003 12:22 AM

You didn't say it was only $11 for the book. Ah, now I gotta buy it.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on July 13, 2003 12:29 AM

I was thinking of posting a topic to another forum (arstechnica/lounge) & was wondering if that's OK with you guys and/or the gestapo

Posted by: AJPlayrink on July 13, 2003 7:22 AM

Art in the Vedic/Hindu tradition, in its purest form, is trying for a paradox: to express, in form, metaphysical truths and states of mind that are formless. Using art to reveal psychological states is not unknown in the West, of course: Jacob van Ruysdael, in his 17th century landscapes of Holland, portrayed in gray clouds, deep shadows and feeble beams of light a bleak, existential mood. Fantin-Latour painted still lives of flowers that seem to exist, not in three dimensional space, but in some more real world of Platonic Ideas. Such artists were the exception, though. For the most part, the artists of Europe and America have been captivated by forms, surfaces, the light of day or the color symphonies of Romantic-era sunsets.

The Indian mind is much more attuned to psychological states than to appearances, spirit rather than flesh. (I'm afraid that might have to be put in the past tense these days -- I get the impression that the young generation of India is more in sympathy with computer programming than spiritual pathways.) But traditional Vedic art, while psychologically oriented, was not concerned with an individual's moods; it was about states of higher consciousness. It saw this world as one of appearances, of transience -- in Poe's words, "a dream within a dream." By creating, for example, sculpture that is "unreal" to the eye that sees only created forms, it tried to suggest other, greater realities.

Purity in art rarely lasts long. Much ancient Hindu are does betray a sensuality, a fascination with beads and bangles that I think is contrary (or at least irrelevant) to the inner meaning. At no time, even in eras saturated with spiritual aspiration, is every artist going to "get it." So there is certainly plenty of Hindu art where the richness of texture trumps inwardness.

Actually, I think the most authentic metaphysical art comes from Buddhism. I am constantly amazed when I see representations of the Buddha and Bodhisattvas (enlightened beings who choose to return to the world to inspire benighted mankind), at how perfectly the artists captured the visage and body language of absolute serenity. Though we cannot see directly into the ultimate peace of Nirvana, we can see it reflected in the beneficent smile and gestures of the Enlightened one, who knows the truth of perfection that we will all finally attain, though the seas grow tired and the stars join the darkness.

Posted by: Rick Darby on July 13, 2003 11:25 AM

See...I have nothing so important to say as Mr. Darby. I just wanted to say that "ananda" sounds terrific!

Posted by: cindyincidentally on July 13, 2003 2:37 PM

FvB -- You write "one of the things I like about Indian art, particularly its monumental sculpture ... is that I don't feel obliged to argue such issues internally. " Yeah, exactly -- that reaction seems to be a property of the art itself, doesn't it? Not dialectic but oneness. Cool, huh. I wonder how they do it/did it.

AJ -- Thanks for asking, but I'm not quite sure I understand what you're asking. Please feel free to do as you please -- a link is always appreciated, if you lift anything for us. But it's great to see the ideas get out there. In any case, thanks for dropping by and please let us know what and where you're thinking and writing about this stuff.

Rick -- Excellent, thanks for the info and ideas. I'm confused about something. One of the things I like best about Vedic (better to call it Vedic than Hindu?) art, even by comparison to Buddhist, is exactly the incense-y, bejeweled sensuality that goes side by side with the metaphysical. Granted that, misused, this can become garish and vulgar in a bad way, even so, my (very limited) understanding of Indian art suggests that the combo of perfume-y, almost druggy eroticism and matters of spirit and intellect -- that that's the central quality of it. (If it isn't, I'm a little disappointed. OK, very disappointed.) The sexy goddesses and dancing babes, the cute gods with their soft tummies -- they're of and from the Other World, but it's a (forgive me for scrambling things here) perfumed-garden, long-slow-French-kissin' kind of other world. What do I know, but the emphasis on lovemaking as an art of refinement would seem to confirm my hunch here. But I may be A) mistaken, or B) misunderstanding you. Your thoughts?

Cindy -- The bunch of us should get together and have Ananda parties from time to time, no?

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 13, 2003 2:48 PM

Michel --

To take the minor issue first: the terms Vedic and Vedanta were, I think, coined in the 1940s by a group of expat Brits living in California, who became enamored of the spiritual traditions of India and wanted to familiarize Westerners with them. They called it Vedanta rather than Hinduism because they wanted to distinguish the core spiritual discipline and insights from the honky-tonk ornaments and superstitions that Hinduism took aboard over the centuries to keep the uneducated villagers interested. The Vedanta movement was a generation or two too early to catch on with large numbers of people, although there are still Vedanta Society meeting houses here and there (one is in Manhattan).

Now, for the bigger question. Is the undoubted sensuousness of Hindu representations of their gods (gods understood, it is said, by those in the know to mean aspects of Brahman, the Supreme Reality) in line with, or a contradiction of, the essence of Hindu spirituality? It would take someone more learned in the subject than I am to give you a firm answer, but for what it's worth, I'll throw in my tuppence-worth. It seems to me that the basis of the tradition -- what the California Vedantists were on about -- is a very introverted, austere spiritual path; and although there are accepted variations for people of differing temperaments, I just cannot see copulating figures and luxuriant decor, glimpsed through a haze of incense, as representing the ideal of union with Brahman in a samadhi that is an experience of absolute perfection, and perfection can have no qualities because it can have no limitation.

Like you, I find the Hindu iconography and ambience generally quite alluring and stimulating; I just can't see it as a path to God. But maybe not coming from that culture blinds me to its spiritual aspect. A Gothic cathedral, with its fan vaulting and stained glass and window tracery, in which masses are said accompanied by -- yes -- incense, does induce some kind of subliminal spiritual message through the senses. So I won't get too dogmatic about this!

Posted by: Rick Darby on July 14, 2003 1:56 PM

Sorry, I meant Michael, not Michel. Maybe I Frenchified you unconsciously because this is Bastille Day.

Posted by: Rick Darby on July 14, 2003 1:57 PM

Mmm, alluring and stimulating -- maybe for me, if the bliss of union with Brahman doesn't include "alluring" and "stimulating," then who needs it. There's no way for me to back this up except by saying it's true for me, but I've found that that those scattered moments of bliss or merging or whatever that we all seem to stumble into from time to time that I've experienced have all had a kind of pearly, incensey, somewhat erotic glow. Ie., it hasn't seemed to involve a dematerialization of anything, but instead a funny (and entrancing) crossbreeding of the spiritual and the material. It's led me to think that aesthetics and religion and art blend and mingle in fascinating ways. But I may be talking about nothing more significant than myself and my own experience here.

I've rooted around Vedanta some -- big Isherwood fan, attended a couple of services (gorgeous little temple out in Santa Barbara!). And I was under the impression that it grew out of what's his name's visit to the States in the late 1800s. But you're obviously much more knowledgeable and tuned into the lore than I am. Was it really semi-created (or distilled or whatever) by the Isherwood gang? Fascinating. It's a lovely thing, in any case. But you sound like you're more drawn to Buddhist approaches yourself.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on July 15, 2003 10:36 AM

I love that sculpture, but while the face may represent enlightenment/eternity/something beyond ordinary material experience, the drapery is the result of looking at cloth. Lots of cloth, cloth made of threads and subject to gravity and very literally presented. (And the hands are merely klutzy--better to just look at the face and the fabric.)

Posted by: Nancy Lebovitz on July 15, 2003 11:21 AM


Actually you're right -- I was oversimplifying to keep my post from getting too long and pedantic. Aldous Huxley, Christopher Isherwood, Gerald Heard et al. were drawn to the teachings of Swami Vivekananda, who came to the United States and was a delegate to the Parliament of Religions at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. He was actually the first popularizer here of the Hindu spiritual methods, including some of the various styles of yoga. But my impression is that Swami Vivekananda's teachings were really obscure in the U.S. until the aforesaid group of transplanted Brits began to add their own interpretations.

A good introduction to the background and ideas of the Vedanta movement is Vedanta for the Western World, published in 1945 and edited by Isherwood. It's probably out of print but copies still turn up in used-book stores, or you can try the Web.

I am curious about how long these dialogues keep going. Do you check for new posts in response to articles that are getting old (by Web standards, i.e., several days)? I guess if you don't reply to this, my question will be answered, but I hope you're still on the channel.

Posted by: Rick Darby on July 15, 2003 7:55 PM

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