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Ananda Coomaraswamy - True Art

by Ananda Coomaraswamy October, 2015



Anand Coomaraswamy (1877-1947) was a Ceylonese Tamil philosopher and metaphysician, as well as a pioneering historian and philosopher of Indian art, particularly art history and symbolism, and an early interpreter of Indian culture to the West. He was born in Colombo, Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, to the Ceylonese Tamil legislator and philosopher Sir Muthu Coomaraswamy and his English wife Elizabeth Beeby. His father – a Sri Lankan Tamil Brahmin – died when Ananda was two years old, and Ananda spent much of his childhood and education abroad. Through 1932, from his base in Boston, he produced two kinds of publications: brilliant scholarship in his curatorial field but also graceful introductions to Indian and Asian art and culture, typified by The Dance of Shiva, a collection of essays that remain in print to this day. Deeply influenced by René Guénon, he became one of the founders of the Traditionalist School.

His books and essays on art and culture, symbolism and metaphysics, scripture, folklore and myth, and still other topics, offer a remarkable education to readers who accept the challenges of his resolutely cross-cultural perspective and his insistence on tying every point he makes back to sources in multiple traditions. He once remarked, "I actually think in both Eastern and Christian terms—Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Pali, and to some extent Persian and Chinese. While serving as a curator to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in the latter part of his life, he devoted his work to the explication of traditional metaphysics and symbolism. His writings of this period are filled with references to Plato, Plotinus, Clement, Philo, Augustine, Aquinas, Shankara, Eckhart and other mystics. When asked what he was foremostly, he said that he was a "metaphysician", referring to the concept of perennial philosophy, or sophia perennis.

Along with René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon, Coomaraswamy is regarded as one of the three founders of Perennialism, also called the Traditionalist School. Several articles by Coomaraswamy on the subject of Hinduism and the perennial philosophy were published posthumously in the quarterly journal Studies in Comparative Religion alongside articles by Schuon and Guénon among others. Although born in the Hindu tradition, he had a deep knowledge of the Western tradition as well as a great expertise in, and love for, Greek metaphysics, especially that of Plotinus, the founder of Neoplatonism.

He built a bridge between East and West that was designed to be two-way: among other things, his metaphysical writings aimed at demonstrating the unity of the Vedanta and Platonism. His works also sought to rehabilitate original Buddhism, a tradition that Guénon had for a long time limited to a rebellion of the Kshatriyas against Brahmin authority.

"Alan Antliff documents ( I Am Not A Man, I Am Dynamite) how the Indian art critic and anti-imperialist Ananda Coomaraswamy combined Nietzsche's individualism and sense of spiritual renewal with both Kropotkin's economics and with Asian idealist religious thought. This combination was offered as a basis for the opposition to British colonization as well as to industrialization.

Excerpt from "The Essential Ananda K. Coomaraswamy," pp. 129-130

“Primitive man, despite the pressure of his struggle for existence, knew nothing of such merely functional arts.

The whole man is naturally a metaphysician, and only later on a philosopher and psychologist, a systematist.

His reasoning is by analogy, or in other words by means of an 'adequate symbolism'. As a person rather than an animal he knows immortal though mortal things.“

“...Primitive man made no real distinction of the sacred from the secular: his weapons, clothing, vehicles and house were all of them imitations of divine prototypes, and were to him even more what they mean than what they were in themselves; he made them this ‘more’ by incantation and by rites. Thus he fought with thunderbolts, put on celestial garments, rode in a chariot of fire, saw in his roof the starry sky, and in himself more than ‘this man’ So-and-so. All these things belonged to the ‘Lesser Mysteries’ of the crafts and to the knowledge of the ‘Companions’. Nothing of it remains to us but the transformation of the bread in sacrificial rites, and in the reference to its prototype of the honor paid to an icon.”


“The Indian actor prepares for his performance by prayer. The Indian architect is often spoken of as visiting heaven and there making notes of the prevailing forms of architecture, which he imitates here below. All traditional architecture, in fact, follows a cosmic pattern. Those who think of their house as only a ‘machine to live in’ should judge their point of view by that of Neolithic man, who also lived in a house, but a house that embodied a cosmology. We are more than sufficiently provided with overheating systems: we should have found his house uncomfortable;

but let us not forget that he identified the column of smoke that rose from his hearth to disappear from view through a hole in the roof with the Axis of the Universe, [that he] saw in this luffer [louvre – opening] an image of the Heavenly Door, and in [the] hearth the Navel of the Earth,

formulae that we at the present day are hardly capable of understanding; we, for whom ‘such knowledge as is not empirical is meaningless’. Most [of] the things that Plato called ‘ideas’ are only ‘superstitions’ to us.”

“To have seen in his artifacts nothing but the things themselves, and in the myth a mere anecdote would have been a mortal sin, for this would have been the same as to see in oneself nothing but the ‘reasoning and mortal animal’, to recognize only ‘this man’, and never the ‘form of humanity’. It is just insofar as we do now see only the things as they are in themselves, and only ourselves as we are in ourselves, that we have killed the metaphysical man and shut ourselves up in the dismal cave of functional and economic determinism. Do you begin to see now what I meant by saying that works of art consistent with the Philosophia Perennis cannot be divided into the categories of the utilitarian and the spiritual, but pertain to both worlds, functional and significant, physical and metaphysical.”

by Ananda Coomaraswamy

October, 2015

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