Art, Cosmology and the Divine | Part VI

Main photo (alongside) is a Basohli illustration to the Bhagavata Purana, Krishna Lifting the Mountain Govardhana, Tira-Sujanpur, early 18th c.

The final part of this six-part series (Read earlier parts: Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV and Part V) in which distinguished scientist, academic and Vedic scholar Subhash Kak shows how traditional Indian art is not only aesthetically sublime, but is a reflection of the cosmos and of the Divine itself. In this Part VI, Subhash Kak discusses how the Indian way, with its focus on transcendence can help modern society find a harmony of body and soul. A story from the Puranas serves as an apt metaphor.

Part VI: The Indian aesthetic in an age of war

We live in an age of war fueled by conflicting visions of reality. The mainstream cultural view is of materialism in which consciousness is an emergent process and we are primarily nothing but our bodies. Perhaps because it belittles the spirit, it is leaving many young with a sense of hopelessness. If there in nothing transcendent about life, then life may not be worth living. While some are choosing drugs or hedonism, others are rejecting rationality and joining cults. Religious leaders are stepping in with their own recipes to save the world from a soul-less hell. But their conceptions contradict each other, and although they rightly critique the materialistic paradigm for its disconnect with the spirit, they themselves remain focused on the body when they speak of everlasting life in paradise.

Because of the mechanization of life and the expectations raised by images with which we are bombarded by the media, many are choosing not to have a family, leading to a demographic crisis in the developed world at a time when the post-industrial service economy needs more workers and consumers, requiring vast numbers of immigrants from poorer countries. These are some of the elements leading to a clash of civilizations.

The Indian way offers a different perspective. Indian cosmology is not in conflict with science, although it does speak of the domain of spirit that lies beyond language and rational science. It makes claims regarding the nature of consciousness and transcendent states of awareness that are so extraordinary that if they should be validated by science, they would change the way we conceive of reality.

Our collective history in recent decades has tilted too much to material prosperity. The Indian way is not to reject the body, but to find a harmony between body and soul. To deal with the inevitable march of the machine and the dangers of totalitarianism of one sort or another, it provides intimations of other layers of being that lead to compassion and self-control. It opens up new vistas that shift the focus from being to becoming.

Illustration (c. 1700-25, Jammu & Kashmir, India) depicting scene from the Bhagavad Purana in which Shukra, as advisor to the demon kind Bali, warns him about Vamana’s true identity which he has recognised as Vishnu. Read more: Wikimedia

The Puranas have a charming story about how the gods came to become invincible, even though they started out as the weaker party. Shukra, the priest to the asuras, discovered, through science, the secret of reviving persons who had been killed in battle, and with this knowledge the asuras were able to subdue the gods. Brihaspati, who is the priest to the gods, recruited his son, Kacha, for obtaining this knowledge. Kacha presented himself to Shukra asking to be taken in as student. Even though he sensed danger in this, Shukra was helpless because one cannot turn away anyone who is seeking instruction.

Before long, Shukra’s daughter Devayani fell in love with Kacha. The asuras were alarmed and they killed him on two occasions, but on his daughter’s pleadings Shukra revived him. The third time the asuras not only killed him, but ground his body into powder and mixed it with the wine that they offered to Shukra. When Devayani found that Kacha was missing, she pleaded with her father for help and with his powers he found what had really happened. But this time he could not just revive Kacha within his belly because that would cause his own death. He had to first teach him what the secret of restoring life was so that when revived, he would bring back the dead Shukra to life. This done, Kacha returned with the secret knowledge to the gods, who again became ascendant.

The coming together of spiritual India and mechanical modernity is like the coming together of Kacha and Shukra that can only be good for all mankind. With wisdom, it should be possible for people, irrespective of their cultural and social background, to live together with compassion and harmony in pursuit of a way of life that values freedom and personal creativity.

Read Part I: Introduction
Read part II: General equivalences
Read Part III: Temples and Gods
Read Part IV: churning of the ocean
Read Part V: Krishna’s dance

References:  Kak, S., 2000. The Astronomical Code of the Rgveda. Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi.
Kak, S., 2002. The Gods Within. Munshiram Manoharlal, New Delhi.
Kak, S., 2002. The Asvamedha: The Rite and its Logic. Motilal Banarsidass, New Delhi.
Kak, S., 2003. The Prajna Sutra: Aphorisms of Intuition. LSU, Baton Rouge.
Kak, S., 2004. The Architecture of Knowledge. CRC/Motilal Banarsidass, New Delhi.
Kak, S., 2005.  Early Indian art and architecture. Migration and Diffusion, vol 6, 2005, pp. 6-27.
Kak, S. 2006. The axis and the perimeter of the Hindu temple. Mankind Quarterly, 2006.

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Subhash Kak
Scientist, Professor, Vedic Scholar
Subhash Kak is Regents professor at Oklahoma State University where his work has focused on artificial intelligence, quantum information, and history of science. He is also a Vedic scholar with contributions to the fields of Indian astronomy, architecture, and philosophy and he has written over a dozen books and several hundred research articles on these subjects. His two most recent books are Arrival and Exile: Selected Poems and The Circle of Memory: an Autobiography.

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