by Subhash Kak
Main photo (above) is a Basohli illustration to the Bhagavad Purana, The Birth of Krishna, early 18th c.
In this six-part series, distinguished scientist, academic and Vedic scholar Subhash Kak provides a fascinating insight into traditional Indian art. Subhash shows how the art forms of ancient India are not only aesthetically sublime, but a reflection of the cosmos and indeed of the Divine itself.
Part I: Introduction
The best way to understand India is through its art and the cosmology. Textbook narratives often overlook the synthesizing principles that represent the grammar of Indian culture, and they are much like the accounts of the six blind people who encountering an elephant describe it as wall, spear, snake, tree, rope, and fan, respectively.
The three notions that underlie Indian culture are that of bandhu, paradox, and yajña.
Bandhu is the binding between the outer and the inner that makes it possible to know, and this is the basis of the pervasive spirituality in India; paradox is the recognition that the bandhu must lie outside of rational system, leading to the distinction between the ‘higher’ science of consciousness and the ‘lower’, rational objective science; yajña is transformation that the individual undergoes by participating in Vedic ‘ritual’ or any other creative process. The cosmology related to this framework is that of infinity and recursion across scale and time.
The iconic representation of the universe as the Sri Yantra (above) shows recursion most clearly. First, the tripartite division into earth, atmosphere, and the sun, which is mirrored in the individual by the body, the breath, and the inner lamp of consciousness, is represented by three triangles. Second, within each triangle are lower hierarchical levels of two other triangles, of alternating opposing polarity that represents male and female principles. All together, this adds up to 9 triangles, which through their overlaps constitute a total of 43 small triangles. Right through the middle of this is the dot, the bindu that is Shiva, the Witness, or Consciousness. Nature evolves according to law (rta in Sanskrit), but it has a paradoxical relationship with the consciousness principle.
Art associated with this conception must communicate recursion, paradox and oppositions concerning ordinary experience of the universe. Aesthetics, as a philosophy of art, is best understood from the point of view of dhvani, which communicates, by suggestion, the universals of the outer and inner worlds.
Indian thought highlights the connections between these two worlds, and its art presents visions of the cosmos. Alongside is a picture of a north Indian temple where recursion is expressed in terms of the tower drawn to different scales on the superstructure.
Within the temple, the manifestations of the Supreme Being are as the One and its many forms. There exists in them, for example, a hierarchical order of cardinal and peripheral images in relation to the centre, a balancing or pairing of polarities, and representation of the temple as Mount Meru, the centre of the universe. The polarities represented iconographically related to female and male, asura (demon) and deva (god), left and right, body and mind, and so on. Aesthetics is alamkara shastra, that is ornamentation of the central synthesizing principle by means of the particular medium. The poet, kavi, is the inspired seer who sees the underlying vision most clearly. Dance, painting, and sculpture, just like poetry, have their canonical ideals, which are the visual equivalents of meter, rhyme, alliteration and the tropes of poetry.
The ritual is organized as sacred theatre that engages the senses to facilitate an epiphany that represents an experiential ‘rebirth’. Great art has the same capacity, and often it is a part of ritual. Not only is the temple a work of art, so is the sculpture that goes into it, and the dance and music performed in its hallways, and the paintings that hang on its walls. One can contrast this with Western conceptions. The cosmology is finite, with God separate from the individual; art is best seen in the sterile atmosphere of the museum or the gallery.
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