Ananda Coomaraswamy: A Gentle Introduction
The period that roughly began in the latter half of the 19th Century and lasted till about the 1960s in India is truly a Golden Age in many respects. It was the era that spawned both an upheaval, and a revival of the highest order. The revival was cultural and spiritual, which transformed India and helped an enormous mass of Indians rediscover their own selves. This revival formed the moral, ethical, spiritual, and philosophical foundations for the Indian freedom struggle against the British. In today’s parlance, it is what is today known as Hindu revivalism.
A galaxy of extremely accomplished people who began this process should rightly be regarded as the true progenitors of the freedom struggle. As with pretty much everything that India should rightly feel proud of, the Nehruvian state has long discarded these heroes. Perhaps a Swami Vivekananda and an Aurobindo Ghosh happen to be the exceptions to this Nehruvian phenomenon.
Ananda K Coomaraswamy happens to be one such forgotten hero, a true intellectual warrior who waged a fierce war against motivated attempts by missionaries and the West to distort and vilify Hinduism and its various facets. It is a cruel testimony to the kind of depths that we’ve plumbed because most Indians haven’t even heard the name of this giant. This is sadly surprising because even a vague estimate of his work runs into more than 15000 pages. This forgetfulness is worse because the range of subjects he has touched and his grasp over their nuances is staggering. That said, perhaps another reason he still hasn’t gained due recognition in India is because he spent most of his later years in the United States, and anybody showing interest in ancient India and Hinduism was shunned by the elite of independent India.
The difficulty in writing about Ananda Coomaraswamy lies in the fact that one doesn’t know where to begin. Most writings about him refer to him as merely an art historian but in reality, it’s impossible to slot him in a single category—he was all of them: philosopher, historian, art historian, polyglot, cultural anthropologist, metallurgist, mineralogist, geologist, archeologist, a collector of art work, and a cultural revivalist. His writings, if they are read at all are read by few. One reason for this is, in his own words, “I write for the professional.” However, that is not entirely true. While the bulk of his research articles can only be understood by experts in the field, his “popular” books can be understood by laymen.
While people like Swami Vivekananda or Dayananda Saraswati worked more “among the masses,” Ananda Coomaraswamy provided a powerful intellectual force to strengthen the battered Hindu spirit. Ananda Commaraswamy’s generation revived the much-respected intellectual rigour of Hindus in an era where the Western notion of intellectual superiority—thanks to colonial victories—was considered unquestionable. He successfully challenged this intellectual hegemony initially in the field of Indian art and later in other areas. He did this in two ways simultaneously: by quashing Western distortions of Indian art, and by dealing repeated blows to their intellectual superiority. Art criticism in those times rested on the premise that Western art was God’s gift to art and that non-Western art had to be examined using only this premise. Coomaraswamy thoroughly debunked this as we shall see. His work was so influential that in his own lifetime, his detractors not only shut up but began to take a serious interest in studying Indian art objectively. Over time, the West opened up separate academic departments dedicated to studying Indian art. This influence is still visible in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. A fine sample of his scholarship is available in an essay titled Indian Idols with Many Arms. In this tightly-woven piece of exemplary scholarship, he tears apart the Western art critics’ contempt for Indian art and sculpture, and shows how this contempt was rooted in their profound ignorance of Indian traditions.
More fundamentally, Ananda Coomaraswamy in many ways also set the tone for examining Western scholarship on Indian traditions in early 20th Century. It’s not entirely off the mark to say that Ananda Coomaraswamy was a very early pioneer of the ongoing scholarly efforts at challenging Eurocentrism in Indology.
Unlike his contemporary English-educated Hindus Coomaraswamy was never ashamed of being a Hindu. On the contrary, he exposed the hollowness of the post-Englightenment West, whose idea of civilization in his view, is rooted in mindless materialism. This soulless idea has since found wide currency and its perpetuation throughout the world has led to the disastrous consequences that we witness today. Indeed, it’s still being projected and touted as the only model of development.
Born Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy in Colombo in 1877, his father Sir Muthu Coomaraswamy a legislator in Sri Lanka, had married an aristocratic English lady named Elizabeth Beeby. Ananda lost his father in childhood. Mother and son then migrated to England. It is said that he owed his interest in ancient India to his mother who passionately loved the country and instilled that love in her son. After graduating from the University of London, he became Director of the Mineralogical Survey of Ceylon. Coomaraswamy discovered his passion for Indian art at this juncture and pursued it throughout a life that spanned 70 years in which he collected a staggering number of Indian artifacts. Most of these are displayed for public viewing at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts today. He purchased almost all of these artifacts with his own money and in the end, donated them to the museum. He died on September 9, 1947.
Most people familiar with Ananda Coomaraswamy are bound to mention The Dance of Shiva, a collection of 14 essays, widely regarded as his magnum opus. Coomaraswamy is perhaps one of the few scholars whose quality of work remains consistently high throughout. His scholarship is characterized by bountiful footnotes, references and cross-references. But what really distinguishes him is the fact that he draws directly from primary sources and never shies away from mercilessly criticizing even the most hallowed scholar. In Indian Images with Many Arms for instance, he takes apart such towering art critics as Vincent Smith, Maskell and Birdwood.
Certain writers, speaking of the many-armed images of Indian art, have [stated] this . as an unpardonable defect …. enough has been given to show that for a certain class of critics there exists the underlying assumption that in Indian art the multiplication of limbs or heads, or addition of any animal attributes, is in itself a very grave defect, and fatal to any claim for merit in the works concerned […] a work of art is great in so far as it expresses its own theme in a form at once rhythmic and impassioned: through a definite pattern it must express a motif deeply felt. From this point of view…we must take each work of art upon its own merits… an image with many arms or heads maybe called an inferior work of art…if it lacks any one of the four qualities demanded by Mr. Holmes…. But if it has such qualities, if it is felt, need we further concern ourselves with arithmetic?
His Introduction to Indian Art is a masterpiece and must be made mandatory reading for anybody interested in the subject. Among others, he rubbishes the famous “art for art’s sake” dictum as meaningless. According to Coomaraswamy, art should both delight and be of practical use. He uses the example of commonplace furniture to illustrate this: an item of furniture can and should delight the mind with its intricate design, carving, etc and still be of practical use. A measure of how far we’ve fallen can be seen today: hundreds of upmarket antique shops sell pieces of exquisite furniture which were perhaps commonplace in every Indian home hundreds of years ago. The typical buyer today will purchase them not for their practical utility but for their “antique” or “artistic” or “prestige” value. In simpler terms, Coomarswamy condemned any art that was divorced from life.
Indeed, this principle applies equally to music, dance, drama, literature, and philosophy. Stated another way, it means keeping the Part intact without losing the consciousness that it belongs to the Whole. Indeed, philosophy in India was never a separate branch of learning; it was never divorced from life but was intermixed in all aspects of life unlike the West where it is simply a glorified intellectual quest. Few people have equalled Ananda Coomaraswamy in extolling this in such a nuanced fashion and with such brilliant clarity. His seminal Dance of Shiva is but one of the numerous expositions on the subject—13 pages of unparalleled exposition of the symbolism of Nataraja.
Coomaraswamy also never shied away from discussing politics or contemporary society. He was perhaps one of the first to recognize and condemn the far-reaching disastrous consequences of the Macaulayite education system. In Education in India, he writes:
I cannot think that European teachers and educationists quite realize how far “English” education as it is given in the East is crushing all originality…in the unfortunate individuals who pass through the mill. Yet the “Babu” and the “failed B.A.” upon whom the Englishman looks down so contemptuously are the fruit of his own handiwork, the inevitable result of the methods of education which he himself has introduced. Broadly speaking, you take a people, and educate its children in foreign subjects, and do so in a foreign language…ignoring their own culture–and then are surprised at their stupidity! Suppose that England was governed by Chinamen, and a premium set on Chinese culture; English children taught Chinese subjects in the Chinese language, and left to pick up the English language and . traditions anyhow at home–would there not be some “failed mandarins?”
Pretty prophetic and starkly accurate especially when we note that the most successful failed B.A was Jawaharlal Nehru who spawned an ecosystem which is dominated by the likes of the anchors of today’s English news channels. The price India has paid for perpetuating the Macaulayite education system is staggering. It has resulted in a continuing erosion of national and cultural identity. Most of urban India today has been reduced to a Wasteland inhabited by fabulous imitators of imported Western ideologies. A classic example is feminism, which Coomaraswamy condemns roundly in his classic Status of Indian Women:
The Asiatic theory of marriage, which would have been . comprehensible in the Middle Ages, before the European woman had become an economic parasite … is not readily intelligible to the industrial democratic consciousness of Europe and America, which is so much more concerned for rights than for duties, and desires more than anything else to be released from responsibilities–regarding such release as freedom. It is thus that Western reformers would awaken a divine discontent in the hearts of Oriental women, forgetting that the way of ego-assertion cannot be a royal road to realisation of the Self….
Current Western theory seeks to establish marriage on a basis of romantic love and free choice; marriage thus depends on the accident of “falling in love.” …. This individualistic position … is only logically defensible if at the same time it is recognized that to fall out of love must end the marriage. … But do not let us deceive ourselves that because the Western marriage is nominally founded upon free choice, it therefore secures a permanent unity of spiritual and physical passion. On the contrary… it holds together those who are no longer ‘in love’ ; habit, considerations of prudence, or, if there are children, a sense of duty often compel the passionless continuance of a marriage for the initiation of which romantic love was felt to be a sine qua non. Those who now live side by side upon a basis of affection and common interest would not have entered upon marriage on this basis alone. […] Criticism of the position of the Indian woman from the ground of assertive feminism . leaves us entirely unmoved: precisely as the patriot must be unmoved by an appeal to self-interest… We do not object to dying for an idea as … patriots have died; but we see that there may be other and greater ideas we can better serve by living for them.
Prophetic again. Every other news item today is about this or that aggrieved group demanding rights simply because of a real or imagined sense of victimhood. The most aggrieved group still happens to be the feminists who despite 50 years of feminist action, reform, and legislation continue to remain aggrieved.
This is the kind of insight, forthrightness, and honesty that characterizes everything he’s written, and that which today’s scholarship lacks. Indeed, to call Ananda Coomaraswamy a mere scholar is doing disservice to him. He was a seer and a clairvoyant because his approach was fearless, truthful, discerning, and emanated from a genuine understanding of the pulse of Indian traditions and way of life. In the highest tradition of Hinduism, Ananda Coomaraswamy is a Rishi.
(Image Courtest- Wiki)
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