An Introduction to Indian Art and Culture – 6

Ancient Indian literature, poetry and drama varied considerably to that of their western counterparts in that they didnot depend on physical tragedy, violence and horror to shock the being, as the Elizabethan drama (though it was useful as a form of catharsis) nor on the tragic moral problems that attracted the Greek mind, and still less on the problems of disease and neurosis that seems to be gaining popularity. The Elizabethan drama was aimed for a  mixed, not very critical, audience and very popular for its vigorous and passionate depiction of life and its characters in a realistic way. Hindu drama and poetry was written by an accomplished and elite people for an educated, courtly audience which was well versed in the finer systems of poetics. Its aim was not to portray life realistically and for its own sake (the same as in the case of the visual arts) but to lift it with a fine passion harmoniously in a way that awakens and gratifies the aesthetic sense of the viewer. The Hindu mind could not have taken any aesthetic pleasure in sufferings and tragedies, partly because of its nature which has always been noble, generous and temperate even in times of its greatest crimes and sufferings and partly because it had been saturated, at that time, with the sweet compassion, gentleness and purity flowing from the soul of the Buddha. A note which always strikes us in the Hindu play is one of sunshine and flowers; terror and pity are used in order to bring out the finer feelings but not in order to lacerate them; clouds come in only to make more beautiful the sunshine and the flowers; and the play always end in peace and harmony, never in a tragedy.

Valmiki, Vyasa and Kalidasa are the three main representatives of the three periods in the development of the human soul and their poems are picures at once minute and grandiose of the three moods of the Aryan civilisation,  the first one being predominantly moral, the second predominantly intellectual and the third predominantly material. They can be called the chief great poets because along with possessing of the highest and most varied of poetical gifts, their works are also a reflection of their times and bear comparison with the greatest world poets, with Homer, Dante and Shakespeare.

Valmiki lived in an age of approaching political turmoil and disturbance and of aristocratic violence; the Kshatriya caste in its pride of strength was asserting its morals as the one code of conduct for all; which was of a high chivalry but a little loose in sexual morality on the masculine side and a little too indulgent to violence. (It was in reaction to this state of the national life, that Buddhism ultimately began to grow in popularity) To Valmiki´s pure and sensitive moral temperament, this looseness and violence was shocking and abhorrent. His powerful imagination and idealistic vision created two great and marvellous worlds, one ideal world, which would exist if the actual materials existing in society were used to their best and purest advantage and an other non-human world where self-will, pride and lust reigned supreme and brought these two worlds to a great collision by the war between the two highest evolutions of the two worlds, Rama and Ravana and so created the grandest and most paradoxical poem in the world, the Ramayana.

While Valmiki was a soul out of harmony with his surroundings, looking back to an ideal past and who can be called as a conservative idealist, the poet of the Mahabharata, Vyasa, was a man completely of his time with a proud and strong spirit, full of its tendencies and vastly symapthetic to it, hopeful for it and looking forward to an ideal future; he can be called as a progressive realist. The tone of his poem is entirely masculine and intellectual, he subjects morality to casuistic tests which the more delicate moral spirit of Valmiki  shrank from and boldly erects a higher code of conduct above ordinary ethics. The Mahabharata is a picture of a time of gigantic creative ferment and disturbance, the Ramayana of an ideal age of equipoise, tranquility and order.

Many centuries later, after about a thousand years, when this daemonic orgy of character and intellect had fulfilled itself and culminated in Buddhism, there arose the third great embodiment of the national consciousness in Ujjayini by the name of Kalidasa. Kalidasa was a true son of this predominantly materialistic age. It was an age where all of man´s best efforts were poured into the finer things of life, into the things of the senses; the arts of jewellery-making, gardening, painting, architecture, song and dance were brought to a high degree of technical perfection even as the laws and codes for all things were being laid down. This aristocratic civilisation very nearly resembled those of Europe´s in its material luxuries, aesthetic tastes, worldly wisdom, excessive appreciation of wit and learning, religion was something that pleased the intellect or the sentiment but didnot govern the soul. The ideals of morality were lower than that of the old and purity of life was less valued but the unconquerable monogamous instinct of the upper- caste Hindu woman seems to have saved the home from ruin which was was the result of a similar state of society in ancient Rome, Italy of the Renaissance, in France under the Bourbons and in England under the later Stuarts. The old spiritual tendencies however, were latent rather than dead, and the Hindu nature finally rebelled against this life of thse senses, and Bhartrihari was the poet of this phase, the phase of the setting in of the sickness and disillusionment and dissatisfaction which always follows a long burst of materialism.

Kalidasa was a true son of this vital and materialistic age, born in an aristrocratic family, used to and fond of the luxuries in life, passionately attached to the arts, well-versed in all the learning of his age, the sciences, philosophies and law. He was a Vedantist and perhaps a Siva worshipper, but more from convention than from a deep need in his soul. He accepted the elaborate morals of the society but seemed to have been destitute himself of the finer elements of morality. He has a proud and vigorous spirit and his writings show a keen appreciation for the lofty thought but he applies the same aesthetic standard to the things of the mind and the soul as to the things of the senses. His poetic genius is wide and varied – from lyric poems to dramas to epics and his greatest achievement is to have taken all great poetical forms and to have set them in a harmony of artistic perfection in the key of sensuous beauty. He is the supreme poet of the senses, of the emotions and of aesthetic beauty. He is keenly alert to all the senses, the delight of the eye, ear, smell, touch and palate and greatly observant and appreciative of all the moods of nature; the cycle of her seasons, the majesty of her mountains and seas, the wildness of her forests, the sacredness of her rivers, the simple life of the bird and beast, the life of the ascetic, the life of the householder, her villages, palaces and her courts, the sensuous passion and longing of lovers, the celestial nymphs and gods and goddesses of her myths and fables of yore. In his descriptive power, he stands unequaled by any in literature, he has a peculiar evocative ability to constantly make appear living, animated pictures before the eye. His poems are a paradise of beautiful things, each word chiseled like a sculpture, sparing in phrase but rich in depth and meaning. But for all this, his work does not dissolve itself in a a sensuous weakness, it does not swim in languor nor is it cloyed by its own sweetness like most poetry of the senses usually is. Kalidasa is saved from this by the chastity of his style, the energy in his phrase and his ever unsleeping artistic vigilance.

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An Introduction to Indian Art and Culture – 5

Even before the gospel preached by Sri Krishna as written in the Bhagavad Gita, by the great poet Vyasa, had had time to be assimilated and influence the nation, the high creed of Buddhism siezed hold of the peoples. Buddhism, with its extreme emphasis on the ascetic ideal, reduced the classes into two – the layman and the monk (with a very large gap between the two), erased the transition between the former four classes and upset the balance in society. It gave much too importance to the virtues of self-abnegation and to that of calm,peace and repose (opposite to the gospel of action that Sri Krishna preached) with the result that half of the nation moved towards a spiritual passivity and the other half towards a splendid (but ultimately weakening) materialism. The nation began to lose its heroic manhood, its vitalising force, its grasp on the world; the Kshatriya caste (the man of action and power) has practically disappeared in society. Buddism was ultimately overpowered by Shankaracharya with his monistic illusionism and there had been an ever-increasing bias towards ascetic spirituality to such an extent that spirituality was seen as an escape from life, which was not at all the original meaning of the Vedanta.

But even this austere exaggeration had its necessity and value for the human mind. The mind cannot in one all-embracing effort reach the lofty heights and understand the eternal truths. It formulates one side of the truth, lives it and for a time even believes it to be the one Truth, then takes its opposite view and believes that to be the only Truth and in this way, by making many adjustments and compromises, gropingly and ardously begins to arrive at the true relations. This great culture, with a sheer audacity, allowed for any spiritual liberties, every line was taken to the extreme possibility, even towards atheism(rejection of belief in God) and agnosticism (belief that the existence of God cannot be proved). From the heights of every such extreme possibility, life was looked back on to see what new power and value such a view could give back to life. From all such spiritual adventures, the culture assimiled whatever of the truths that it could, forming the rich, synthetic Hindu mind of today. Hinduism is not so much of a religion as a vast, complex and greatly diversified mass consisting of the spiritual thought, spiritual aspiration and spiritual experiences of the peoples. Spirituality is single term describing three different lines of human aspiration – 1. Human aspiration towards Divine love, beauty and joy, 2. Human aspiration towards Divine knowledge and 3. Human aspiration towards Divine strength.

For the European mind, it is baffling to figure out what Hinduism is, because the religion sets no sectarian beliefs, it has no rigid dogma, no single discipline to be followed, no single narrow gate to salvation and it permits all kinds of belief, even in the belief of the non-existence of God! The only thing that is clear and fixed is the social law and this has led many to believe that it is more of a social system than a religion, but nothing can be farther to the truth. Hinduism is foremost a spiritual, not a social discipline. In fact, we see that, Sikhism which had broken down the social traditions to build new ones, is still considered to be within the religious fold because it adheres to the earlier Vedic truths; while Jainism which has the same social rules as Hinduism is considered to be outside its religious fold, since it deviates from the Vedic truths.

Even though Buddhism was the first religion to really cast doubt on the value of life, it did so only in its intellectual parts, in its dynamic parts, it was immensely creative in its arts, ethics and social life. It gave a gentle idealism and a great and powerful discipline for the life of man, for even to achieve the state of Nirvana, man has to develop and perfect his nature. If such an extreme philosophy of denial (which siezed only on one part of the Vedic tradition) had such a positive impact on the nation, then this positive turn can only be more largely and strongly found in the totality of the culture.

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An Introduction to Indian Art and Culture – 4

                  Indian culture recognized with a remarkable depth that one code of conduct or a credo or Dharma cannot be applied to all types of men. Man is different in his intellectual capacity, emotional nature, spiritual temperament, in his capacity for development and perfection, in his role and function in life, in his dreams and aspirations. The same standard of ethics or rules cannot be applied to a poet, an artist, a social worker, a saint, a business man, a labourer. The ancient Chaturvarnya system has degenerated into the present caste system which is solely determined by birth and which was not its original meaning. Its idea was that the nature of man falls into four main types – 1. the man of knowledge and learning (Brahmin) – thinkers, priests, scholars, religious leaders 2. the man of power and action (Kshatriya) – warriors, kings, rulers 3. the economic man (Vaishya) – merchants, artisans, agriculturists 4. Labourer (Shudra) – the man uncapable of meaningful creation, fit only for the menial tasks. This division into four classes is not uncommon in other cultures, that into priesthood, nobility, merchant class and the serfs (though here the priest has the most power and not the man of knowledge as in India); the difference lies not so much in the outward form as in its spiritual motive. The social status of man (Varna) was fixed, not solely by birth but by man´s inner nature and capacities. Though it does not serve its original purpose now, it was necessary in its time, and it has given the culture a stability that can hardly be seen in any other culture.

                 Each profession, even the meanest, had its own law, Dharma and measure of success and dignity of a fixed standard of perfection (for man needs inspiration in his everyday life) , so that it was a means of self-finding and also a self-satisfaction for every individual. Each pursuit had its own standard of ethics and there is no rigid rule for everyone like that found in many other religions. The rule of non-violence cannot be applied to a warrior, though in him too the qualities of mercy and respect for the wounded, the down-trodden, the weak are stressed. Daily reading of the scriptures can only be a form of punishment to a man who lives entirely in his lower nature i.e. lives only for the satisfaction of his desires. He is not condemned to eternal hell and damnation for being true to his nature.  [The temple worship, the constant festival, ceremony and the activities surrounding it were intended as an aid to this kind of person. (he is right in asking the gods for the satisfaction of his desires, for now he is turning to something higher than himself instead of relying on and turning around on himself, the ego)] Man must be allowed to flower into his divine nature and cannot be forced to do so. His claims and demands were given their due importance but not allowed to run unbridled. And at the same time he was not allowed to forget that there was something else waiting for him, and that what he is now is not all what he can be, that there was a greater life to be lived and a greater truth to be discovered – the discovery of the soul and its joys.

The completey unique framework of the four Asramas was a further aid to him in this respect. Life was divided into four natural periods – 1. that of the student 2. that of the householder 3. that of the ascetic or forest dweller and 4. that of the free man, parivrajaka. The period of the student was for learning, in all branches of knowledge, arts and sciences, ethical and spiritual discipline; the householder stage was where he lived out this knowledge gained, lived for himself and paid his debt to society; in the third stage, he lived in social freedom as a recluse seeking his own inner truth and the fourth, greatest stage of all was where he severed all ties with society and lived in spiritual detachment. The third stage was not reached by a majority of people and a rare few only ever reached the final stage. But this provided an ideal scheme for man and thus there was always a constant insistence and pressure in his life, to perfect himself and grow beyond himself .

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An Introduction to Indian Art and Culture – 3

There was a super-abundant vitality and vigour in her richness of creation in this age. Kingdoms and empires flourish, trade, systems of politics and administration, communities and social orders, laws and codes for every area of life, medicine, astronomy, mathematics and the sciences, poetry, drama and the arts thrive, palaces, monuments and  temples built…..she creates and creates and is not satisfied with her creation, there was hardly any period of inertia or rest in her history of more than three thousand millenia. [Indeed, if she was deficient in anything, it was in the recording of her history! A very large part of what she had discovered was never written down and a large part of what was written has since been lost.] She is not confined to her borders, she expands too outside, her ships cross the oceans and her wealth brims over to Egypt and Rome, the traces of her arts and epics are found in the sands of  Mesopotamia, her religions conquer China and Japan, the sayings of the Upanishads and Buddhists are reechoed on the lips of Christ.

In this classical age, her chief impulse was that of order and arrangement, but an order and arrangement based on the inner law and truth of each activity and always with the possibility of faithful practice on a practical level. It was (predominantly) an age of the Dharma and Shastra.

Indian culture placed an extraordinary importance on the Spirit but this does not mean that it did not care for the human life or its hopes, aspirations and satisfactions. Matter, mind, life are valuable not for their own sakes but because they are powers of the spirit. This does not mean that it did not concede any reality to life or to human existence. On the contrary, this view is much more inspiring and enobling to the effort of man, since it increases its significance a thousand-fold. The life of the body has an immense significance if it is felt to be instinct with the workings of the Spirit. Human life is no unworthy existence; it is said in the Puranas, that even the gods in heaven desire it. It it because of the vast potentials that exist in human beings. He is seen as an eternal, inextinguishable, dynamic spark and portion of the Divine, capable of developing his nature and powers of the mind (through its thought and illuminations), heart (through its power of unlimited love), ethical nature (through its hunger for the universal Good), aesthetic nature (through its seeking after beauty and delights), will and drive, and soul (through its capacity for unendless calm, peace, wideness and joy)  to become a power greater than what he is now, to become consciously one with the Supreme, to become one with others, one with all beings. Immortality, freedom and Divinity are within his grasp. This then has been the high aim of this culture and to this end, the thinkers of the society, built a double system, unique in its kind, to base the life of the individual in a social frame – four Varnas and the four Asramas – four graded classes of society and four successive stages of a developing human life. The system took the natural life of man, and while allowing it sufficient variety and freedom of movement and allowing for its satisfactions also subjected it to a law, a Dharma, a code of conduct.

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An Introduction to Indian Art and Culture -2

 

                 This first epoch ended with the Upanishads, also called the Vedanta (ending of the Veda), which is a large, crowning outcome of the Vedic discipline and experience. Its cryptic symbols were removed and the language cast into a language of intuition, (intuition belongs to a plane higher than that of the intellect) not quite that of the intellect, but it wore a form of the intellect and was the starting point of the great number of philosophic speculations, debates and inquiries that were to originate in India later.           

                 And so the first great age was a spiritual age, but spirituality itself does not live and flourish on this earth in a void, even as the lofty mountaintops donot rise out of the clouds in the skies without a base on the earth. Spirituality doesnot only shoot upwards towards the abstract, hidden and intangible, it also casts its rays downwards to embrace the richness and plentitudes of life. Therefore the second age was that of a stupendously-prolific creative age filled with an intellectual, ethical and dynamic will in life. Something in man had been awakened and he was ready to grasp more firmly the truths that were hidden behind the vedic symbols. These Truths held by the initiates broke its barriers and swept over the higher mind of man. Everywhere in India as well as the west, there was an intellectual outburst, a will to discover the reason and right way for all things of the mind. But in India, unlike the west, this seeking was always guided by the original spiritual impulse and never lost the touch of the religious sense. Philosophies worked out with the intellect and logic the same truths which had earlier been worked out by a more direct and luminous soul experience. The intensely beautiful, many-sided and many-thoughted epic literatures (Ramayana and Mahabharata) are full of an ethical thinking but always with an assent to the spiritual truths. Arts flourished, which dwelt much on life but their highest expression was that of a religious nature.   

                 There was a gradual fading of the old Vedic symbols and a subtitution with novel forms. The house of fire was replaced by the temple, the Vedic godheads were replaced by the holy trinity, Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva, their vague forms with the more precise forms of Vishnu and Shiva and the ritual of sacrifice replaced with the beautiful temple worship. Though the outward forms are now completely different as that of a new religion, the principle and seed which it contains is still the same. The outward forms have to continually adapt and grow or even destroy themselves to give way to new forces, for the outward form, by its very nature, can never fully capture the essence of an idea; in the same way that the idea must continually adapt or change as no idea can ever completely formulate the spirit. Man could now understand the idea of the various personalities of these Gods, Brahma, Vishnu, shiva and a multitude of others, while all the time knowing that each god at the same time also contains the other gods within himself and also extends beyond them into the Infinite. Such was the suppleness and plasticity of the religion´s teaching.  

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Sources of inspiration and reference:

Sri Aurobindo´s  Early cultural writings

Sri Aurobindo´s Renaissance in India 

An Introduction to Indian Art and Culture – 1

 

              The ancient Indian art is of such a different character to that of European art, that if we approach it with the same critical eye and with the same standards of formal beauty, there arises the danger that we miss its deep significance altogether. For, it is not enough to look at the outward form, but we  must also be able to look through and beyond the form to sieze at the inspiration that has created it.  To understand this great art, we must first also understand something of its culture, its aims and aspirations in producing this kind of art.

               The first epoch of Indian civilisation dating more than two mellinia back was the luminous period of the Vedas when she sought passionately for the ultimate meaning of life through the intuitive mind. What she found, the eternal source, is so living that even till now all her religions and philosophies spring back to the same root. Nothing new since has been found that has not been written in the Veda (Book of Knowledge). The achievements she made in this period put such a stamp on her culture, that the civilisation of India took a completely different turn, to that of other great civilisations. The Vedic seers, in this period, discovered three great, fundamental truths – 1. the reality of the one Infinite Existence (which is referred to as “That One” or “That Truth”  tat satyam, tad ekam), 2. an ascending stair of planes of being in the universe (extending upto this reality) and a corresponding ascending stair of planes in man, 3. that man by an ardous yoga or self-discipline can turn more and more into this light and spiritual freedom through ascending of these planes. She also recognised by a fine spiritual tact that it is not possible for the lower nature of man to reach, in one violent leap, these high heavens. It takes millions of lives for man to be ready for taking on yoga. Hence, the ancient rishis hid the inner, spiritual meaning of the Veda in symbols understood only by a few initiates. (The sacred hymns are full of secret words that reveal their inner meaning only to the seer, kavaye nivacan¯a nin.ya¯ vaca¯m˙ si.) The early, primitive man could only conceive of the Divine as a power behind the most external, physical aspects of the cosmos, the lights – sun, moon, the stars; wind and storms, fire, water, oceans..  in these things he has a natural and simple faith though he knows not the inner meaning, he feels the mysterious forces working behind them. The Godheads of the Vedic religion are the godheads of the cosmos – the Sun god (Surya), the rain god(Varuna) ….. He approaches these deities as something greater than himself and offers them worship through the rituals described and in this way this profound religion took the natural sense and feeling of man and sought to lead him (through this constant communion and interchange between the individual and the greater powers) to the deeper truths of his being and that of the cosmos.  

Contd..