Indic Varta

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In this concluding part of this series, Coomaraswamy explains how the purpose of art in India was never just to imitate Nature, but also to transcend it and that is why Indian art is famously ‘not realistic’. This article is an excerpt from the book “The Transformation of Nature in Art” by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy.

The Origin and the Use of Image in India – Part 3

Let us consider now the processes actually involved in the making of images. Long anterior to the oldest surviving images of the supreme deities we meet with descriptions of the gods as having limbs, garments, weapons or other attributes; such descriptions are to be found even in the Vedic lauds and myths. Now in theistic Hinduism, where the method of Yoga is employed, that is, focused attention leading to the realization of identity of consciousness with the object considered, whether or not this object be God, these descriptions, now called dhyana mantrams or trance formulae, or alternatively sadhanas, means, provide the germ from which the form of the deity is to be visualized.

For example, “I worship our gentle lady Bhuvanesvari, like the risen sun, lovely, victorious, destroying defects in prayer, with a shining crown on her head, three eyed and with swinging earrings adorned with diverse gems, as a lotus-lady, abounding in treasure, making the gestures of charity and giving assurance. Such is the dhyanam of Bhuvanesvari” (a form of Devi).

To the form thus conceived imagined flowers and other offerings are to be made. Such interior worship of mantra-body or correspondingly imagined form is called subtle (suksma), in contradistinction to the exterior worship of a material image, which is termed gross (sthula), though merely in a descriptive, not a deprecatory, sense.

A K Coomaraswamy

Further contrasted with both these modes of worship is that called pararupa, “trans-form,” in which the worship is paid directly to the deity as he is in himself. This last mode no doubt corresponds to the ambition of the iconoclast, but such gnosis is in fact only possible, and therefore only permissible, to the perfected Yogin and veritable jivanmukta, who is so far as he himself is concerned set free from all name and aspect, whatever may be the outward appearance he presents. Had the iconoclast in fact attained to such perfection as this, he could not have been an iconoclast.

In any case it must be realized, in connection with the gross or subtle modes of worship, that the end is only to be attained by an identification of the worshiper’s consciousness with the form under which the deity is conceived: nadevo devam yajet, “only as the angel can one worship the angel,” and so devo bhutva devam yajet, “to worship the Angel become the Angel.” Only when the Dhyanam is thus realized in full samadhi (the consummation of Yoga, which commences with focused attention) is the worship achieved. Thus, for example, with regard to the form of Nataraja, representing Siva’s cosmic dance, in the words of Tirumular,

The dancing foot, the sound of the tinkling bells,
The songs that are sung, and the various steps,
The forms assumed by our Master as He dances,
Discover these in your own heart, so shall your bonds be broken.

When on the other hand, a material image is to be produced for purposes of worship in a temple or elsewhere, this as a technical procedure must be undertaken by a professional craftsman, who may be variously designated Silpin, “craftsman,” Yogin, “yogi,” Sadhaka, “adept,” or simply Rupa kara or pratimakara, “imager.” Such a craftsman goes through the whole process of self-purification and worship, mental visualization and identification of consciousness with the form evoked, and then only translates the form into stone or metal. Thus the trance formulae become the prescriptions by which the craftsman works, and as such they are commonly included in the Silpa Sastras, the technical literature of craftsmanship. These books in turn provide invaluable data for the modern student of iconography.

Technical production is thus bound up with the psychological method known as yoga. In other words, the artist does not resort to models but uses a mental construction, and this condition sufficiently explains the cerebral character of the art, which everyone will have remarked for himself. In the words of the encyclopaedist Sukracarya, “One should set up in temples the images of angels who are the objects of his devotion, by mental vision of their attributes; it is for the full achievement of this yoga-vision that the proper lineaments of images are prescribed; therefore, the mortal imager should resort to trance-vision, for thus and no otherwise, and surely not by direct perception, is the end to be attained” (translated also above, p. 114, in slightly different words).

The proper characteristics of images are further elucidated in the Silpa Sastras by a series of canons known as talamana or Pramana, in which are prescribed the ideal proportions proper to the various deities, whether conceived as Kings of the World, or otherwise. These proportions are expressed in terms of a basic unit, just as we speak of a figure having so many “heads”; but the corresponding Indian measure is that of the “face” from the hair on the forehead to the chin, and the different canons are therefore designated Ten-face, Nine-face, and so on down to the Five-face canon suitable for minor deities of dwarfish character.

These ideal proportions correspond to the character of the aspect of the angel to be represented, and complete the exposition of this character otherwise set forth by means of facial expression, attributes, costume, or gesture. And as Sukracarya says further, “Only an image made in accordance with the canon can be called beautiful; some may think that beautiful which corresponds to their own fancy, but that not in accordance with the canon is unlovely to the discerning eye.”

And again, “Even the misshapen image of an angel is to be preferred to that of a man, however attractive the latter may be”; because the representations of the angels are means to spiritual ends, not so those which are only likenesses of human individuals. “When the consciousness is brought to rest in the form (nama, “name,” “idea”), and sees only the form, then, inasmuch as it rests in the form, aspectual perception is dispensed with and only the reference remains; one reaches then the world-without-aspectual-perception, and with further practice attains to liberation from all hindrances, becoming adept.”

Here, in another language than our own, are contrasted ideal and realistic art: the one a means to the attainment of fuller consciousness, the other merely a means to pleasure. So too might the anatomical limitations of Giotto be defended as against the human charm of Raphael.

It should be further understood that images differ greatly in the degree of their anthropomorphism. Some are merely symbols, as when the Bodhi tree is used to represent the Buddha at the time of the Enlightenment, or when only the feet of the Lord are represented as objects of worship. A very important iconographic type is that of the yantra, used especially in the Sakta system; here we have to do with a purely geometrical form, often for instance composed of interlocking triangles, representing the male and female, static and kinetic aspects of the Two-in-one. Further, images in the round may be avyakta, non-manifest, like a lingam; or vyaktavyakta, partially manifest in “anthromorphic” or partly theriomorphic types. In the last analysis all these are equally ideal, symbolic forms.

In the actual use of a material image, it should always be remembered that it must be prepared for worship by a ceremony of invocation (avahana); and if intended only for temporary use, subsequently desecrated by a formula of dismissal (visarjana). When not in puja, that is before consecration or after desecration, the image has no more sacrosanct character than any other material object. It should not be supposed that the deity, by invocation and dismissal, is made to come or go, for omnipresence does not move; these ceremonies are really projections of the worshipper’s own mental attitude toward the image. By invocation he announces to himself his intention of using the image as a means of communion with the Angel; by dismissal he announces that his service has been completed, and that he no longer regards the image as a link between himself and the deity.

It is only by a change of viewpoint, psychologically equivalent to such a formal desecration, that the worshipper, who naturally regards the icon as a devotional utility, comes to regard it as a mere work of art to be sensationally regarded as such. Conversely, the modern aesthetician and Kunsthistoriker, who is interested only in aesthetic surfaces and sensations, fails to conceive of the work as the necessary product of a given determination, that is, as having purpose and utility. Of these two, the worshipers, for whom the object was made, is nearer to the root of the matter than the aesthetician who endeavors to isolate beauty from function.