Starting from the idea that form is in a way necessarily opposed to essence, the latter being universal inwardness and the former “accidental” outwardness, we can explain certain deformations practiced in sacred art as a reduction to the essence or as a “scorching by the essence,” so to speak. The essence will then appear as an inner fire which disfigures, or as an “abyss” in which proportions are shattered, so that what is sacred and “formless” (in the spiritual, not in the chaotic sense) is like an irruption of essence into form.
Again, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the human spirit cannot be simultaneously deployed in all directions. Since traditional symbolism by no means implies by definition an observation of physical forms carried to extreme lengths, there is no reason for a sacerdotal art to tend towards such observation; it will be content with what the natural genius of the race requires, and this explains that mixture of “deforming” symbolism and refined observation which characterizes sacred art in general. At times the qualitative aspect does violence to the quantitative reality: Hindu art marks femininity by the breasts and hips and gives them the importance of ideograms; it transforms into symbols characteristics which would otherwise simply be accepted as natural facts, and this is related to the “deforming essence” mentioned above.
In classical Greece, the sense of clarity, of measure, of finite perfection, completely obliterated the sense of the transcendent, of mystery, and of the infinite. Sensible beauty became an end in itself; it was no longer man who resembled God, it was God who resembled man [see ill. 146]; whereas in Egyptian and Hindu art, which express the substantial and not the accidental, one feels that the human form is nothing without a mystery which on the one hand fashions it and on the other hand transcends it, and which calls both to Love and to Deliverance.
The sacred and the sacral mentality is manifested in Hinduism most characteristically by the ritual gestures of the hands, the mudras, which are found in Mahayana Buddhism as well; for the Hindus, there is also an essentializing relationship between the sacred and nudity, which Buddhism did not retain except for the images of celestial beings.
Of Hindu figurative art it can be said that it is derived from the postures and gestures of yoga and of the mythological dance. Dancing, the divine art of Shiva Nataraja, the Lord of the Dance, was revealed to the sage Bharatamuni by Shiva and his spouse Parvati themselves and was codified by the sage in the Bharata Natya Shastra. Hindu music, closely connected as it is with dancing, is founded on the Sama Veda, its rhythms being derived from the Sanskrit meters. It is dancing which provides the determining note of the whole of Hindu art: sacred images translate this figurative mythology—or figurative metaphysic—into the language of inert matter.1 Let us add that this art is neither moral nor immoral, for the Hindu sees in sexual matters their essential cosmic or divine aspect and not their accidental physical aspect.2 Hindu architecture also has a foundation in the Scriptures, which describe its celestial origin; its profound connection with Hindu dancing results from the form of the Vedic sacrifice.3 The whole of Hindu architecture is essentially a coordination of the circle and the square in accord with the Vedic fire altar, Agni; in other words the architecture is derived from the primordial altar.4
There is something vegetative, and thus alive, about the Hindu temple because of this sort of spiritualized sensuality characterizing the Hindu soul—a sensuality always close to asceticism and death and opening on to the Infinite.
Hindu art has in both architecture and sculpture something of the heavy motion of the sea and at the same time something of the exuberance of virgin forest; it is sumptuous, sensual, and rhythmical; intimately linked with dancing, it seems to originate in the cosmic dance of the Gods.
The Hindu, or more particularly the Vishnuite miniature, is one of the most perfect extra-liturgical arts there is, and we do not hesitate to say that some of its productions are at the summit of all painting. Descended from the sacred painting of which the Ajanta frescoes afford us a final trace, the Hindu miniature has undergone Persian influences, but it remains essentially Hindu and is in no wise syncretistic;5 it has in any event achieved a nobility of draughtsmanship, of coloring, and of stylization in general, and over and above this, a climate of candor and holiness, which are unsurpassable and which, in the best of its examples, transport the viewer into an almost paradisiac atmosphere, a sort of earthly prolongation of heavenly childhood.
The Hindu miniature, whether centered on Krishna or on Rama, renders visible those spiritual gardens which are the Mahabharata, the Bhagavata Purana, and the Ramayana, but it also conveys musical motifs with rich inventiveness, as well as the contradictory sentiments to which love may give rise in diverse situations; most of these subjects hold us, willingly or not, under the spell of Krishna’s flute. Some of these paintings, in which a maximum of rigor and musicality is combined with a vivid spiritual expressiveness, unquestionably pertain to sacred art.6
1 “Without knowledge of the science of dancing it is hard to understand the rules of painting” (Vishnu Dharma Uttara). “Only those sculptures or paintings should be judged beautiful which conform to canonical prescriptions, not those which please a personal taste of fantasy” (Shukracharya). “The particular form suitable to each image is described in the Shilpa Shastras, the canonical texts followed by the image-makers.” These texts supply the data needed for the mental representation which serves as the sculptor’s model. According to his vision, says Shukracharya, he will fashion in temples the image of the divinities he adores. It is thus, and not by some other means, in truth and not by direct observation, that he will be able to attain his goal.
2 The average Westerner is always ready to reproach Hindus for what he believes to be “impurity”; for a true Hindu it is this very reproach that shows an impure attitude.
3 “It is hardly necessary to point out that the Vedic sacrifice, which is always described as the imitation of ‘what was at the beginning,’ is, in all its forms and in the full meaning of the terms, a work of art and at the same time a synthesis of the arts of liturgy and architecture, and one can say the same of the Christian Mass (which is also a sacrifice in mime) where the dramatic and architectural elements are inseparably united” (Ananda Coomaraswamy, “The Nature of ‘Folklore’ and ‘Popular Art,’” in Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art)
4 Hindu cosmology concerning the cardinal points and architecture coincides remarkably with that of the North American Indians, and also to some extent with that of the peoples of Siberia, so that it is easy to see in this fact a same heritage from the Hyperborean tradition. The circle appears again in the form of the Red Indian’s camp surrounding the central fire, as also in the form of their tents or huts, while the symbolism of the square is actualized in the rite of the Sacred Pipe.
5 Whether it be a case of art, doctrine, or anything else, there is syncretism when there is an assemblage of disparate elements, but not when there is a unity which has assimilated elements of diverse provenance.
6 All these remarks likewise apply to that other summit of painting attained in the Japanese screen; apart from the fact that this genre, in many of its productions, consciously prolongs the Zen or more or less Taoist painting of the kakemonos, with its content of landscape or plants, as well as other subjects which do not have to be taken into consideration here, it often attains a degree of perfection and profundity which renders it inseparable from Buddhist or Shintoist contemplativity.
Another type of extra-liturgical art that captivates by its powerful and candid originality is Balinese art, in which Hindu motifs combine with forms proper to the Malay genius; the fact that this genius—apart from the Hindu influence—has expressed itself principally in the sphere of craftsmanship and in that of architecture in wood, bamboo, and straw, does not prevent one from seeing in it qualities which sometimes become great art; there can be no doubt that from the point of view of intrinsic values, and not merely from that of a particular taste, a fine barn in Borneo or Sumatra has much more to offer than has the plaster-nightmare of a baroque church. One can say the same of Shinto sanctuaries, which have been described as “barns,” especially those at Ise.