Indian Art and Aesthetics

Aesthetics of art is universal. Thing of Beauty is a joy forever, sang a western poet. The poet philosopher of the East explains it more. According to him, sukhamatyantikam yatad buddhigrahyamatindriyam i.e., the eternal joy is of intellectual perception and super-sensual. God has written each line on the brow of every nation, said the Italian nationalist-philosopher, Joseph Mazzini. The nations are born with different missions after the fulfilment of which they would recede, he believed.

Sri Aurobindo, an ardent admirer of Mazzini explains this further. He took for instance two ancient world cultures, Greece and Rome. Greece was an aesthetic culture with its tendency to glorify and enjoy everything beautiful notwithstanding whatever defect what it deemed beautiful had. Discipline, shape, size and what not, the Greeks would ignore. Only beauty they were particular about. Hence the aesthetic nature of the Greek Culture, opined Indian Seer Sri Aurobindo. Ancient Rome, Aurobindo says, ran in contrast. Beauty the Romans discarded, and zeroed in more on the ethical aspects of life than anything. Enjoyment of beauty gave way to ethics and disciplines of life. A strong and muzzled body was preferred to the beautiful. They never thought of any beauty attainable through the discipline like the Greeks who didn’t have any idea about the discipline leading to a higher beauty. Beauty and discipline thus had run parallel, never to make their rendezvous in a creative unity. But India’s culture is aesthetics and ethics combined. She harmonized both discipline and beauty, making the former a means to realize the latter. Down the millennia she was disciplining life to realize the ultimate beauty which if to quote the poet as noted earlier “is a joy forever”. Her eternal tapas or discipline leads her to the ultimate Beauty or saundarya which is another synonym for God.  She is both ethics and aesthetics perfectly mixed with superb finish as if in a music that combines sruti and laya to make its notes dulcet. It is this harmonising nature of India which perpetuated the mission of forging unity out of diversity that made her sojourn millennia even as many ancient cultures breathed their last. Hence India’s credit that made her claim the place, if to quote Arnold Toynbee, of the living civilization in history.

A good art emerges from the impulses and instincts of man directed by light and reason. Reason is related to two aspects of man’s being – the aesthetic and ethical, or his search for ‘Beauty’ and the search for ‘Good’, says Sri Aurobindo. Man may intensely search for beauty in the great creative arts like poetry, painting, sculpture, architecture or music. A complete and universal appreciation of beauty is surely a necessary character of a perfect individual and perfect society. The light of reason comes to correct and purge our aesthetic sense of its crudities and to lay down the laws of aesthetics, improved tastes and right knowledge. There the aesthetic sense becomes rationally discriminative in its work and enjoyment. But again this is true only in a restricted manner. Beauty is entirely different and cannot be made as if one from an inert plastic material. The creation of beauty in poetry and art does not fall within the sovereignty and sphere of the reason. “The intellect is not the poet, the artist, the creator within us; creation comes by a supra-rational influx of light” which works always by vision and inspiration”. Beauty is the divine manifestation in the physical. Supramental is the highest divine beauty manifesting in matter, and its principle and law is something inward and spiritua1.

The highest form of art is always related to the idea of aesthetics and has always been symbolic irrespective of time and place. How to conceive the infinite was a problem to man and he designed it in the finite form in easy means to express it to the spectator. The artist looked into the infinite, the sky above and the sea around which looked from afar stood in their blueish hue. He reduced that vastness into an abstract for the worshipers of the invisible and intangible, coloured it in blue, and hence the blue image of Lord Ram or Lord Krishna which generations of Indians down the millennia continued to worship till date. Art, was no dancing courtesan of the mind, but a priestess in the God’s house commissioned to image the secret realities and hidden truths deriving from a high mystic vision. India’s art was fully symbolic. But this may appear to ordinary connoisseurs dull and boring. The ordinary one fails to understand Indian art’s real connotation because he reads always his own mentality into that of the ancient artists. Therefore one finds in them only imaginative barbarians. It is interesting to have a scientific psychic study of the sculptor’s art generally described as erotic expressions. Erotic expression of whom or what? Was it the erotic feeling of the one who executed a piece of art in perfection and superb finish? The art definitely dazzles the brain of a connoisseur, makes him dumbfounded. Definitely it is no erotic feeling that surfaces in him, but the same as the artist had when he executed into the rough granite the many intricacies of his imaginations which belong more to the fairy land of dreams than to the real. Conception and execution require the highest intelligence and skill. In fact what is called for is a balanced cognitive and executive intelligence which requires the highest level of concentration. Balanced intelligence brings in concentration. According to Indian aesthetics which is purely spiritual both are the same. Hence the word Samadhi which means the dhi or intelligence which is balanced or made sama. (samadhiyate iti samadhi). The best art is the one intelligently and scientifically executed. It is the admirable admixture of scientific accuracy and artistic creation. It is the concentration of the artist that makes his artistic creation the perfect expression of beauty. Croce refers to “the artist, who never makes a stroke with his brush without having previously seen it with his imagination” and opines that artistic expression implies a vigilant will, which persists in not allowing certain, intuitions or representations to be lost. “Artistic intuition” says Croce, is “lyrical intuition”, and every art piece perfectly executed and springing from the intuitive feeling is the real art. According to him “… art is perfectly defined when simply defined as intuition”. It is interesting that King Agnimitra pointed out sith/ilasamadhi or impaired concentration as the reason for the portrait of Malavika lacking in fidelity to the original.

                   Chitragatayamasyam kantivisamvadasanki me hrudayam

                   samprati sidhilasamadhim manye yeneyamalikhita 

In fact, it is samadhi or balanced intellect and mind that an artist calls for and only in such a state one could perceive the transcendental ‘beauty’. The artist in the heights of his samadhi, shedding his ego, finds himself in communion with the impersonal (apaurusheya). Having been in union with the inner and informing spirit (rather than the mere outward semblance) the artist naturally must have forgotten himself. The ‘personal’ finds itself identified with the ‘impersonal’. Lost in aesthetic contemplation, nothing personal was left even to scribble the by-line under his artistic creation. Lost in the aesthetic enjoyment or rasa the artist or the seeker of ‘beauty’ forgot himself, leave alone his claiming the authorship of the ‘beauty’ he brought out in colours or on a rough granite block. Hence the anonymity of the artists who did wonders in stones and graceful frescoes which lack in by-lines.

If this is the mind-set of the artist, it requires an intelligent connoisseur or the asvadaka to understand and enjoy a real aristocratic art. The connoisseur must have equally high standard and mind-set as the artist does. The theory of rasa or aesthetics while dealing with process of enjoyment elaborates its three aspects, the rasika or the enjoyer, rasavant or the object of enjoyment and rasasvadana or the process of enjoyment. This is the triputi or three putas (petals) of art and in the ongoing process of enjoyment all these three petals wither away with the enjoyer and the object of enjoyment merging together into an unbound ecstasy. There is no more enjoyment and what remains is the ultimate rasa or bliss, the bliss born of the ultimate unity which in Indian literature is advaita. One may notice how this state of tadatmya is compared by Sri Ramakrishna Paramahamsa with a salt doll diving down the sea to fathom its depth. The doll and the sea become one. Just like is the triputi of art of which the whole aim is asvadana or experience. The rasika (connoisseur) rasavant (object of enjoyment) and rasasvadana (process of experience) combine to result in the withering away of the three petals of asvadana and what remains would be the ultimate rasa or ananda.  What is thus left is bliss born of the undifferentiated state or advaita which is the basis of or conditional to all enjoyments. Advaita or oneness, the science of aesthetics says, is the basis of all kinds of enjoyment, and in the experience of Beauty this is more profound. Picture someone amidst a garden lost in himself enjoying the myriad colours and scent of flowers. Getting one with the entirety of Beauty, the rasika, having shed his personal identity, finds himself lost in the totality of rasa. The ‘personal’ becomes part of the ‘impersonal’. But the very moment the rasika or the enjoyer retracts from the impersonal to the personal, thinking that the beautiful garden belongs to somebody else, the process of enjoyment or rasasvadana ceases. Feeling of difference or dvaita does away with the enjoyment or asvadana which the connoisseur so far had in union with the entirety of Beauty. Hence the conclusion that advaita is the basis of asvadana.

Art leads to unity with the Ultimate which is Truth-Bliss-Beauty (satyam-sivam-sundaram) where one sees all in oneself and feels or experiences as the split consciousness of the undifferentiated consciousness (akhandabodhasatta). There everything feels itself as a ‘whole’ of the kind explained in modern scientific theory of ‘holon’. Unity of all is the mission of art, especially of India because in unity lies harmony, happiness and all enjoyments.

There is identity of subject and object, cause and effect in aesthetic contemplation. This experience is, says Viswanatha Kaviraja in his Sahithya Darpana, “pure, indivisible, self-manifested, compounded equally of joy and consciousness, free of admixture with any other perception, the very twin brother of mystic experience (brahmasvadana sahodara), and the very life of it is super-sensuous (lokottara) wonder”. This enjoyment is super-sensual and hyperphysical (alaukika) and the only proof of its reality is to be found in experience. The connoisseur is as significant as the artist because without him the art becomes meaningless and hence irrelevant. Only a real connoisseur can make out and interpret a real art and the value of an art piece depends on how the former reflects on it. Each and every motif, for instance, is noted for a particular dominant mood, i.e. one of the permanent rasas like raudra (ferocious), santa (quietude) or sringara (erotic). The artist of Khajurahu, for instance selected erotics as the dominant mood while writing his poetry in stone. The scene is with erotics as the main theme, but what the artist tried to express had never animated his mindset while executing his theme on stone. A disturbed mind, no doubt, cannot do it with such superb beauty and fine finish as seen at Khajurahu. It was again concentration or the balanced intelligence (samadhi) of the artist that brought the artistic creation to the summit of perfection. An ordinary spectator may of course disparage it as a cluster of pornographic images. But that again depends on the mindset of the viewer. An ass looking into the mirror cannot expect an angel to look back. Eroticism or sringara is one of the permanent moods of human being and as such has found a place of significance among the different rasas classified by many Indian aestheticians including Bharata. Indeed no other rasa than rati ensures the principle of regeneration that makes the evolution (utkranti) a reality. It would be a travesty of fact to judge that the Khajurahu art is erotic and was the expression eroticism. Artistic expression, whatever be the theme, is the product of concentration or Samadhi.

Religion and art thus become names for the same experience, intuition of reality and identity. This as Ananda Coomaraswamy, the famous philosopher and art critic, says, is “not, of course, exclusively a Hindu view” of art but has been “expounded by many others like Neo-Platonists, Hsieh Ho, Goethe, Blake, Schopenhauer and Schiller”. Aristotle had long ago realized the importance of Catharsis or the state of mental refinement (chittasuddhi in Sanskrit) as the source of all creative arts. Chittasuddhi, the purification of the heart, is the appointed road by which man arrives at the higher fulfilment. It can refine individual as well as collective minds. It can ennoble a national culture. Hence the national value of art, opines Sri Aurobindo.

The real art thus sources off only from the Himalayan heights of spiritual refinement and realization. The idea regarding art that it is the expression of the supreme realization has thus been universally accepted and the only difference is that India down the centuries took it to the pinnacle of philosophical perfection and explanation. India’s research and involvement in the fine arts always stood far in advance of other cultural zones.

Art is thus the highest realm where imagination and reality, becoming one, leads to creativity. An art piece is not a mere exactly reproduced replica of a model. It is original and creative. It is for our delight and this delight is something more than pleasure, it is the godlike ecstasy of liberation from the restless activity of mind and the senses, which are the veils of all reality, transparent only when we are at peace with ourselves.  It was this cultural and national value of art many of the Indian artists imbibed and expressed in their creations. Artist or the painter was more than a yogi, for while the latter’s mission ends with his or her soul’s final union with the ultimate Beauty the artist even while in communion with Beauty brings it out in stone or on the canvas in multifarious forms for the connoisseurs to enjoy the ultimate rasa. Artist is the real bodhisattva who applies the chisel on stone or strokes with the brush to bring out the omnipresent Beauty for all to enjoy its ambrosia. Truly speaking, the seeker who sheds the ego alone could be a real artist who attains the state of sivam or bliss. Art is thus the faithful interpreter of philosophical idea.

Beauty is ‘Bliss’ (Ananda) taking form, and is the way towards the ultimate joy. Beyond manifestation beauty loses itself in ‘joy’ or beauty and ‘bliss’ become indistinguishably one.9 It is the stage where the artist who seeks beauty becomes one with it. This beauty can never be measured “for it does not exist apart from the artist himself, and the rasika (devotee) who enters into his experience”.102 When the beauty recedes to the ‘joy’ and the forms are resolved the artist attains to the unity of the ‘person’ and is released from the meshes of ‘ego’. Thus the artist or the adorer breaks out from his ego when the ego either disappears in impersonality or fuses into a larger ‘I’ or the wider cosmic ‘I’ which comprehends all smaller selves. This is why the anonymity of the artist belongs to a type of culture dominated by the longing to be liberated from oneself. In the words of Coomaraswamy:

All the force – of this philosophy is directed against the delusion ‘I am the door’. ‘I’ am not in fact the door but the instrument; human individuality is not an end but only a means. The supreme achievement of individual consciousness is to lose or find (both words mean the same) itself in what is both its first beginning and its last end.

According to Bhagavad Gita:

“That person who is giving up all sense objects goes about unattached, devoid of the idea of ownership and free from egoism – he attains peace.”

Here the path of devotion reaches its goal where the artist and the object he seeks are unified and difference is abolished in the ecstasy of a divine oneness. Lifted into this highest state of the supra-mental light, everything of human life, pain, pleasure and indifference become converted into joy of the one self-existent delight. Interestingly enough John Keats had sung: thing of beauty is a joy forever”. The joy is the outcome of the detachment from self and lives in freedom of spirit. Beauty is that profound expression of reality which satisfies our hearts with its own ultimate value. The artist is thus a high priest to search out this beauty, and poetry a priestess appointed in the god’s house to image the hard and secret realities deriving from a higher and transcendental vision.

The Spirit of the real, the great classical art and poetry is therefore to bring out what is universal and subordinate individual expression to the universal truth and beauty. All artistic and cultural works in order to be perfect must indeed have in the very act of creation the guidance of an inner power, corrected and purified by the divine light or the supra-rational beauty. According to Aurobindo there have been nations, civilizations and ages in which the expression of beauty reached its climax. The earliest creative works of India were philosophical and religious, Vedic and Upanishadic, and the miracle of these ancient writings is their perfect union of beauty, power and truth, the revealed utterance of that universal spirit. The expression of the spiritual through the aesthetic sense is the constant sense of Indian art. One could take for instance the great Buddha statues which are of the superb finish in conception and execution and with their greatness increased by the spiritualised aesthetic vision. The figure of the Buddha achieves the expression of the infinite in a finite image to embody the illimitable calm of Nirvana in a human form on visage.19 The image of the Kalasamhara Siva is noted for its majesty, power, calmly forceful control, dignity and the idea of harmony behind the existence which the whole spirit and pose of the figure visibly incarnate. It is much more elegant by the concentrated divine passion of the spiritual overcoming of time and existence which the artist has successfully initiated and put into its every feature. Much more marvellous is the genius and skill in the treatment of the cosmic movement and delight in the dance of Siva, the success with which the posture of every limb is executed to bring out the rhythm, the rapturous intensity and abandon of the movement itself and yet the just restraint in the intensity of the motion, the subtle variation of each element of the single theme in the seizing idea of a master sculptor. The expression of this divine beauty and grace is often the aim of Indian art whether it is in the ‘Descent of the Ganga’ at Mamallapuram, or the sculptures of the ‘Dasavatara’ at Deogarh, or the image of the multi-armed goddess, ‘Mahishammardini Durga’ or the Dryad of Sanchi. Japan and China, more especially perhaps the southern China, had in a different way perfected this fusion of spiritual and aesthetic mind and is a distinguishing feature of their art and culture.

The Persians had a sort of sensuous magic of the transforming aesthesis born of psychic delight and vision. “Ancient Greece did all its work of founding European civilization by a union of a subtle and active intelligence with a fine aesthetic spirit and worship of beauty. The Celtic nations again seem always to have had by nature a psychic delicacy and subtlety united with an instinctive turn for the imaginative beauty to which we surely owe much of the fine strain in English literature”. But there end these spontaneous miracles of fusion, Aurobindo laments. The modern mind, though inheritor of all these past experiences is a divided and complex mind that suffers under a mechanical and utilitarian civilization from which it cannot be free. Only the day we get back to the worship of delight and beauty will be our day of salvation. “For without these things there can be neither an assured nobility and sweetness in poetry and art nor a satisfied dignity and fullness of life nor a harmonious perfection of the spirit”.

Like the supra-rational beauty there is the supra-rational good or the supra-rational ethics. As already noticed ethics or the good is the highest law that arranges and orders the activities of life and has the same value like the aesthetic elements. The highest ethics or the supra-rational ethics of life also leads man towards the highest or the ultimate reality. It is to be noticed that almost all original thinkers, eastern as well as western, have laid equal emphasis on the ethical aspect and have believed alike in the divine nature of the ethical ideal. Mathew Arnold pleads that men should follow not their ordinary but their best self. Like Arnold many English philosophers were deeply influenced by the idealism of the early German thought. Thomas Hill Green, for instance, wholeheartedly believed in the existence of Hegel’s ‘Divine spirit’ or ‘Reason’ which constantly pushes forward to its goal which was perfect realization. History, for Green as for Hegel, was a constant progress embodying the “eternal consciousness”. To him ideal is more real than the actual life. According to Green man is a spiritual being and as such not a member of the phenomenal series of the natural events. In man there is a principle which cannot be seen in other creations of nature and whose specific function is to render knowledge possible. “This spiritual principle underlying knowledge also has an ethical function, the consciousness of a moral ideal, and the determination of human “action thereby”. This ethical ideal is also the true good of a man’s life and an end in which the effort of a moral agent can find satisfaction. The main ethical insight, therefore, is that the purpose of all social reform is the perfection of man on spiritual side, the development of man of character and ideals. Green brings out the relation between civilization and ethics and determines that all the achievements of human activity, especially the political and social perfecting of the society, are nothing in themselves, and have a real meaning only so far as they render attainable by individuals a more thorough perfection of heart. A spiritualized conception of civilization, Green believes, is therefore most desirable in historical studies. The ultimate form of moral endeavour is spiritual act whereby the heart is lifted up to God or in which the entire self aspires to an ideal of personal holiness. The practical expression of this good or ethical ideal will have an additional value. It results in the amelioration of human society. But this is only secondary; the primary aim is the spiritual refinement of human soul. Indeed the finest expression of this ideal can be seen in the oriental philosophy where the Gita declares that “the end of all actions is the attainment of the divine knowledge”. (Sarvakarmakhilam partha jnane parisamapyathe).

  • Associate Professor (Retired), Sanatana Dharma College, Alappuzha, Kerala & Supervising teacher for PhD, School of Gandhian Thought and Development Studies, Mahatma Gandhi Univrsity, Kerala.








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