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Coomaraswamy’s impetus to eastern spirit

By Kenneth Oldmeadow - Sunday Times Sep 10 2006

The following extracts from the book, Traditionalism, (published by The Sri Lanka Institute of Traditional Studies) the first comprehensive study of the influential 'Traditionalist School' of which Ananda Coomaraswamy was a distinguished pioneer, are presented here to mark the 59th anniversary of his death.

Ananda Coomaraswamy's life story has been told in some detail by Roger Lipsey in a model biography, sympathetic but clear-eyed and critical, painstakingly researched but not burdened with trivial detail, shunning any half-baked psychologising, narrated in elegant prose, and attuned to those aspects of the oeuvre to which Coomaraswamy himself would have wished attention to be drawn.

Here we shall concern ourselves less with biographical matter than with an introduction to Coomaraswamy's ideas and writings. We will focus on certain intellectual and spiritual contours in Coomaraswamy's development, isolate some of the landmarks, and offer a few remarks about the influence and significance of his work. It should be said plainly at the outset that nothing less than a full-length study could do justice to the scope and depth of his work nor to the manifold influences issuing from it.

Ananda Coomaraswamy with wife Stella Bloch

By the end of his life Coomaraswamy was thoroughly versed in the scriptures, mythology, doctrines and arts of many different cultures and traditions. He was an astonishingly erudite scholar, a recondite thinker and a distinguished linguist. He was a prolific writer, a full bibliography running to upwards of a thousand items on geological studies, art theory and history, linguistics and philology, social theory, psychology, mythology, folklore, religions and metaphysics. He lived in three continents and maintained many contacts, both personal and professional, with scholars, antiquarians, artists, theologians and spiritual practitioners from all over the globe.

We can discern in Coomaraswamy's life and work three focal points which shaped his ideas and writings: a concern with social and political questions connected with the conditions of daily life and work, and with the problematic relationship of the present to the past and of the 'East' to the 'West'; a fascination with traditional arts and crafts which impelled an immense and ambitious scholarly enterprise; and thirdly, an emerging preoccupation with religious and metaphysical questions which was resolved in a 'unique balance of metaphysical conviction and scholarly erudition'.

Coomaraswamy: a real culture breeds a race of men able to ask, What kind of work is worth doing?

Allowing for some over-simplification, we can distinguish three 'roles' in Coomaraswamy's intellectual life: social commentator and Indologist, historian of Indian art, perennial philosopher. Each of these roles was dominant during a certain period in his life: 1900 to 1917, 1917 to 1932 and 1932 to 1947 respectively. The three strands eventually became interwoven in Coomaraswamy's life and his work.

Born in Ceylon in 1877 of a Tamil father and an English mother, Coomaraswamy was brought up in England following the early death of his father. He was educated at Wycliffe College and at London University where he studied botany and geology. As part of his doctoral work Coomaraswamy carried out a scientific survey of the mineralogy of Ceylon and seemed poised for a distinguished academic career as a geologist. However, under pressure from his experiences while engaged in his field work, his interests took another turn. He became absorbed in a study of the traditional arts and crafts of Ceylon and of the social conditions under which they had been produced. In turn he became increasingly distressed by the corrosive effects of British colonialism.

In 1906, Coomaraswamy founded the Ceylon Social Reform Society, of which he was the inaugural president and moving force. The Society addressed itself to the preservation and revival not only of traditional arts and crafts but also of the social values and customs which had helped to shape them. The Society also dedicated itself, in the words of its manifesto, to discouraging 'the thoughtless imitation of unsuitable European habits and custom'. Coomaraswamy called for a re-awakened pride in Ceylon's past and in her cultural heritage. The fact that he was half-English in no way blinkered his view of the impoverishment of national life brought by the British presence in both Ceylon and India. In both tone and substance the following passage is characteristic of Coomaraswamy in this early period:

How different it might be if we Ceylonese were bolder and more independent, not afraid to stand on our own legs, and not ashamed of our nationalities. Why do we not meet the wave of European civilization on equal terms? Our Eastern civilization was here 2000 years ago; shall its spirit be broken utterly before the new commercialism of the West? Sometimes I think the eastern spirit is not dead, but sleeping, and may yet play a greater part in the world's spiritual life.
Prescient words indeed in 1905!

In the years between 1900 and 1913 Coomaraswamy moved backwards and forwards between Ceylon, India and England. In India, he formed close relationships with the Tagore family and was involved in both literary renaissance and the swadeshi movement. All the while in the subcontinent he was researching the past, investigating arts and crafts, uncovering forgotten and neglected schools of religious and court art, writing scholarly and popular works, lecturing and organizing bodies such as the Ceylon Social Reform Society and, in England, the India Society.

In England he found his own social ideas anticipated and given forceful expression in the work of William Blake, John Ruskin and William Morris, three of the foremost representatives of a fiercely eloquent and morally impassioned current of anti-industrialism. Such figures had elaborated a trenchant critique of the ugliest and most dehumanizing aspects of the industrial revolution and of the acquisitive commercialism which increasingly polluted both public and private life.

They believed the new values and patterns of urbanization and industrialization were disfiguring the human spirit. These writers and others like Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens and Matthew Arnold, had protested vehemently against the conditions in which many were forced to carry out their daily work and living. Ruskin and Morris, in particular, were appalled by the debasing of standards of craftsmanship and of public taste.

Coomaraswamy picked up a phrase of Ruskin's which he was to mobilize again and again in his own writings: 'industry without art is brutality'. This was more than a facile slogan and signals one of the key themes in Coomaraswamy's work. For many years he was to remain preoccupied with questions about the reciprocal relationships between the conditions of daily life and work, the art of a period, and the social and spiritual values which governed the civilization in question.

We can catch resonances from the work of the anti-industrialists in a passage such as this, written by Coomaraswamy in 1915:

If the advocates of compulsory education were sincere, and by education meant education, they would be well aware that the first result of any real education would be to rear a race who would refuse point-blank the greater part of the activities offered by present day civilized existence..... life under Modern Western culture is not worth living, except for those strong enough and well enough equipped to maintain a perpetual guerilla warfare against all the purposes and idols of that civilization with a view to its utter transformation.

This articulates a concern with the purposes of education which was to remain with Coomaraswamy all his life. The tone of this passage, ardent, vigorous, sharp-edged, is typical of Coomaraswamy's writings on social subjects in this period.

Later in life Coomaraswamy turned less often to explicitly social and political questions. By then he had become aware that 'politics and economics, although they cannot be ignored, are the most external and least part of our problem'. However, he never surrendered the conviction that an urbanized and highly industrialized society controlled by materialistic values was profoundly inimical to human development. He was always ready to pull a barbed shaft from his literary quiver when provoked. As late as 1943 we find him writing to The New English Weekly, again on the subject of education, in terms no less caustic than those of 1995.

We cannot pretend to culture until by the phrase 'standard of living' we come to mean a qualitative standard... Modern education is designed to fit us to take our place in the counting-house and at the chain-belt; a real culture breeds a race of men able to ask, What kind of work is worth doing?

Coomaraswamy's work on social theory has, as yet, received scant attention. It has been overshadowed by his work as an art historian and as a metaphysician. This is right and proper but it should be remembered that Coomaraswamy was profoundly concerned with social questions throughout his life. These came to be situated in a wider, and from a traditional viewpoint, more adequate perspective but his concern for a qualitative standard of living runs like a thread through his work. Here we have only touched on his social thought. However, a close inquiry into his fully developed ideas about education, literacy, social organization and government would make a fascinating study.

Coomaraswamy's significance as a social commentator is not fully revealed until his later work when the political and social insights from the early period in his life found their proper place within an all-embracing traditional framework which allows him to elaborate what Juan Adolpho Vasquez has called 'a metaphysics of culture'. The seeds sown by Coomaraswamy in India and Ceylon, at first with his early writings and later through his mature work, have been a long time germinating. The harvest, if it does come, could be none the less rich for that. We should not imagine that because he at first received a lukewarm or even unfavourable response from his compatriots (an attitude which in some measure persists to this day) that this betokened any kind of failure but rather that his ideas were then, just as his later writings are now, from one point of view, 'ahead of their time'

Ultimately Coomaraswamy's most important function as a social commentator lay in his insistence on relating social and political questions back to underlying religious and metaphysical principles. In this respect he anticipates some of the more percipient of present day social critics who realize that our most fundamental problems derive from a progressive etiolation of authentic moral and spiritual values. This period of Coomaraswamy's life is important for the ways in which some of his ideas and attitudes, later to be assimilated into a traditionalist vision, took shape. Coomaraswamy was impelled by the contrast between the traditional and the modern industrial cultures of the two countries to which he belonged by birth.

The second refrain which sounds through Coomaraswamy's life is closely related to his interest in social questions and became the dominant theme of his public career - his work as an art historian. From the outset Coomaraswamy's interest in art was controlled by much more than either antiquarian or 'aesthetic' considerations. For him the most humble folk art and the loftiest religious creations alike were an outward expression not only of the sensibilities of those who created them but of the whole civilization in which they were nurtured. There was nothing of the art nouveau slogan of 'art for art's sake' in Coomaraswamy's outlook. His interest in traditional arts and crafts, from a humble pot to a medieval cathedral, was always governed by the conviction that something immeasurably precious and vitally important was disappearing under the onslaught of modernism in its many different guises.

As his biographer remarks,'… history of art was never for him either a light question -one that had only to do with pleasures - or a question of scholarship for its own sake, but rather a question of setting right what had gone amiss partly through ignorance of the past.'

Coomaraswamy's achievement as an art historian can perhaps best be understood in respect of three of the major tasks which he undertook: the 'rehabilitation' of Asian art in the eyes of Europeans and Asians alike; the massive work of scholarship which he pursued as curator of the Indian Section of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts; the penetration and explanation of traditional views of art and their relationship to philosophy, religion and metaphysics. Again, for purposes of convenience we can loosely associate each of these tasks with the three main phases in his adult life whilst remembering that it was in the middle years (1917-1932) that he devoted himself almost exclusively to art scholarship.

In assessing Coomaraswamy's achievement it needs to be remembered that the conventional attitude of the Edwardian era towards the art of Asia was, at best, condescending, and at worst, frankly contemptuous. Such an artistic illiteracy was coupled with a similar incomprehension of traditional philosophy and religion, and buttressed by all manner of Eurocentric assumptions. Worse still was the fact that such attitudes had infected the Indian intelligentsia, exposed as it was to Western education and influences.

From the early days of his fieldwork in Ceylon Coomaraswamy set about dismantling these prejudices through an affirmation of the beauty, integrity and spiritual density of traditional art in Ceylon and India and, later, in other parts of Asia. His work on Sinhalese arts and crafts and on Rajput painting, though they can now be seen as formative in the light of his later work on Buddhist iconography and on Indian, Platonic and Christian theories of art, were nevertheless early signs of a prodigious scholarship.

As a Curator at the Boston Museum Coomaraswamy performed a mighty labour in classifying, cataloguing and explaining thousands of items of oriental art. Through his professional work, his writings, lectures and personal associations Coomaraswamy left an indelible imprint on the work of many American galleries and museums and influenced a wide range of curators, art historians, orientalists and critics - Stella Kramrisch, Walter Andrae, and Heinrich Zimmer to name a few of the more well-known.

Here we shall not rehearse Coomaraswamy's complex vision of traditional art but will only stress a few of the cardinal ideas. Traditional art, in Coomaraswamy's view, was always directed towards a twin purpose: a daily utility, towards what he was fond of calling 'the satisfaction of present needs', and towards the preservation and transmission of moral values and spiritual teachings derived from the tradition in which it appeared. A Tibetan tanka, a medieval cathedral, a Red Indian utensil, a Javanese puppet, a Hindu deity image, a piece of Shaker furniture - in such artifacts and creations Coomaraswamy sought a symbolic vocabulary. The intelligibility of traditional arts and crafts, he insisted, does not depend on a more or less precarious 'recognition', as does modern art, but on 'legibility'. Traditional art does not deal in the private vision of the artist but in a symbolic language.

Modern art, which from a traditionalist perspective includes Renaissance and all post- Renaissance art, is by contrast, divorced from higher values, tyrannized by the mania for 'originality', controlled by 'aesthetic' (sentimental) considerations, and drawn from the subjective resources of the individual artist rather than from the well-springs of tradition. The comparison, needless to say, does not reflect well on modern art! An example:

Our artists are 'emancipated' from any obligation to eternal verities, and have abandoned to tradesmen the satisfaction of present needs. Our abstract art is not an iconography of transcendental forms but the realistic picture of a disintegrated mentality.

During the late 1920s Coomaraswamy's life and work somewhat altered their trajectory. He became more austere in his personal lifestyle, partially withdrew from the academic and social worlds in which he had moved freely over the last decade, and addressed himself to the understanding and explication of traditional metaphysics, especially those of classical India and pre-Renaissance Europe.

His later work is densely textured with references to Plato and Plotinus, Augustine and Aquinas, Elkhart and the Rhinish mystics, to Shankara and Lao-Tse and Nagarjuna. He also immersed himself in folklore and mythology since these too carried profound teachings. Coomaraswamy remained the consummate scholar but his work took on a more urgent nature after 1932.

The vintage Coomaraswamy of the later years is to be found in his masterly works on Vedanta and on the Catholic scholastics and mystics. Some of his work is labyrinthine and not easy of access. It is often laden with a mass of technical detail and with linguistic and philological subtleties which test the patience of some readers. Of his own methodology as an exponent of metaphysics Coomaraswamy wrote,

We write from a strictly orthodox point of view… endeavouring to speak with mathematical precision, but never employing words of our own, or making any affirmation for which authority could not be cited by chapter and verse; in this way making our technique characteristically Indian.

However formidable some of Coomaraswamy's later writings may be they demand close attention from anyone seriously interested in the subjects about which he wrote. There is no finer exegesis of traditional Indian metaphysics than is to be found in Coomaraswamy's later works. His work on the Platonic, Christian and Indian conceptions of sacred art is also unrivalled. It hardly matters what one picks up from the later period: all his mature work is stamped with rale scholarship, elegant expression and a depth of understanding which makes most of the other scholarly work on the same subjects look vapid and superficial. We can unhesitatingly ratify Coomaraswamy's own words: 'I have little doubt that my later work, developed out of and necessitated by my earlier works on the arts and dealing with Indian philosophy and Vedic exegesis, is really the most mature and most important part of my work

125th Birth Anniversary : Ananda Coomaraswamy - Apostle of culture

by Andrew Scott
'Where ever there is                                             
knowledge,
Where ever there is virtue,
Where ever there is beauty,
He will find a home'.

Ananda Coomaraswamy was born 125 years ago on August 22, 1877 at Kollupitiya. His mother was English and his distinguished father, Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy, was a devoted Hindu and the first Hindu to be called to the English Bar. Ananda Coomaraswamy's father died while Ananda was very young and as a result young Coomaraswamy was brought up in England from where he ultimately graduated in geology from the University of London. He served in Sri Lanka as an active geologist and mineralogist and achieved recognition as a renowned scientist by a series of very impressive discoveries.

Later he became the curator of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and died in 1947 at the age of 70. As an energetic young man Ananda Coomaraswamy played a dominant role in the regeneration of the Sri Lankan culture at the turn of this century. He was an ardent nationalist who sometimes directed his attacks on the materialism of the West. Ananda Coomaraswamy had an utter contempt for both europeanised Indians as well as europeanised Sri Lankans. He once remarked that these europeanised Indians and Sri Lankans were Indian or Sri Lankan only by name.

What he said about India and the decadent Indian culture at that time is rightly applicable to present Sri Lanka. He always pointed out that schools and churches hastened the decay of eastern culture and remarked: "If you teach a man that what he has thought right is wrong, he will be apt to think that what he has thought wrong is right".

Ananda Coomaraswamy's views on politics too were much varied as his noble ideas about art. He was a nationalist in outlook and he always pointed out the great danger to which nationalism may eventually lead. He elaborated on his warnings in one of his early essays of genius, 'Young India' and advocated that nationalism should positively contribute to resolve problems that face the whole wide world, and no longer merely those of a single race or continent.

His clear intellect ranged over many varieties of subjects such as petrology, philosophy, metaphysics, music, iconography, philology and art. His knowledge of the indigenous arts and crafts was unexcelled and he was even called 'the greatest orientalist of all time'.

In Ananda Coomaraswamy was harmoniously blended both Eastern and Western culture and whether he wrote on politics or poetry, on myths or on metaphysics he wrote with erudition. Whether it was Plato or the Upanishads, the Bible or the Baghavad Gita, the Koran or the Tripitaka, Ananda Coomaraswamy was imbibed with the true spirit of their noble teachings. Taken in the broadest sense he was a truly cultured man. Ananda Coomaraswamy who, as mentioned earlier, began life as a scientist and attained its giddy heights was also keenly interested and equally competent to stress the importance of literacy. He was one of the rare Sri Lankans who emphasised that literacy is an essential commodity for the cultural resurgence of a nation. One of his essays, 'Borrowed Plumes' first published in Kandy in 1905 was his maiden literary effort. It reflects the deep thoughts of a youthful genius.

In this essay he describes very movingly the destruction of native life under foreign domination. This is an interesting essay which should be read and re-read how especially in view of the serious efforts being presently made to reactivate this country's cultural heritage. Those who have not yet read Borrowed Plumes have missed a glorious piece of literature which spurs national enthusiasm too. It rings with choice sentences such as "Sometimes I think the eastern spirit is not dead, but sleeping, and may yet play a great part in the world's spiritual life".

Ananda Coomaraswamy's writings have a vital message for men and nations everywhere who are interested to preserve their moral and cultural integrity. He placed a high value both on his dignity and freedom as well as on the dignity and freedom of others and his independence of spirit and thought continues to inspire us even today. He is very much alive today as he was in the past and his spirit continues to speak to all those who believe that their future rests on the preservation of the individual regardless of race, religion, nationality or social status.

His greatly absorbing and colossal work Medieval Sinhalese Art, for which he collected material when on his long circuits remains a monumental volume in this sphere while from rocks and stones to art and culture, from culture to man and society itself he was an authority as well as a dynamic source of inspiration. There is no doubt that his simple and noble life will continue to inspire the Sri Lankans for many more years.

As a young man of 23 he saw his fist paper on 'Ceylon Rocks and Graphite' in print in the quarterly journal of the Geological Society and by the time he died he had completed writing more than 500 publications including the bulky monuments like Medieval Sinhalese Art and History of Indian and Indonesian Art. For the 14th edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica he contributed 8 articles and edited the English words of Indian origin in Webster's New International Dictionary. His books and memoirs, articles and monographs, were published in India, Sri Lanka, England America, France, Germany and Holland.

On his 125th birth anniversary let us remember him as a Sri Lankan who attained international eminence as a philosopher of art and art historian, as an expositor of oriental art and philosophy, as a traditionalist thinker, as sociologist, educationist, a knowledgeable commentator of comparative religion, erudite writer and above all as an essayist with the touch of a prophet. To us who are living in the modern world sundered by broken harmonies Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy's life serves well as a model that should be emulated.

Ananda Coomaraswamy: portrait of a scholar and Orientalist

by Andrew Scott - DN Fri Aug 22 2003

Ananda Coomaraswamy was born in Kollupitiya 126 years ago on 22nd August, 1877 to an English mother and a distinguished Hindu father, Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy who was the first Hindu to be called to the English Bar.

Ananda Coomaraswamy's father died while Ananda was very young and he was brought up in England from where he ultimately graduated in Geology from the University of London. He served in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) as an active geologist and mineralogist and achieved recognition as a renowned scientist by a series of very impressible discoveries. Later he served as the Curator of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and died in 1947 at the age of 70.

As an energetic young man he played a dominant role in the regeneration of Sri Lanka's culture at the turn of this century. He was also an ardent nationalist who directed his attacks at the materialism of the West. Ananda Coomaraswamy had an utter contempt for both Europeanised, Indians and Europeanised Sri Lankans.

He remarked that europeanised Indians or Sri Lankans were Indian or Sri Lankan only by name, and said: "A single generation of English education suffices to break the threads of tradition and to create a nondescript and superficial being deprived of all roots - a sort of intellectual pariahs who does not belong to the East or the West, the past or the future". What he said about India and the decadent Indian culture is rightly applicable to present Sri Lanka.

He always pointed out that schools and churches hastened the decay of Eastern culture and noted: "If you teach a man that what he has thought right is wrong, he will be apt to think that what he has thought wrong is right".

Ananda Coomaraswamy's views on politics too were as much varied as his noble ideas about art. Though a nationalist in outlook he always pointed out the great danger to which nationalism may eventually lead. He elaborated on these warnings in one of his early essays of genius - "Young India" and advocated that nationalism should positively contribute to the solution of problems that face the whole world.

His clear intellect ranged over many varieties of subjects such as petrology, philosophy, metaphysics, music, iconography, philology and art.

His knowledge of the indigenous arts and crafts was unexcelled and he was even called 'The greatest orientalist of all time'. In Ananda Coomaraswamy was harmoniously blended both Eastern and Western culture and whether he wrote on politics or pottery, on myths or metaphysics, he wrote with erudition. And whether it was Plato or the Upanishads, the Bible or the Baghavad Gita, the Koran or the Tripitaka, Ananda Coomaraswamy was imbued with the true spirit of their noble teachings. This great son of Lanka, who began life as a scientist and attained its giddy heights, was also highly interested in and equally competent to stress the importance of literacy and in all his studies he was greatly inspired by philosophers such as Plato. He was one of the rare Sri Lankans who consistently emphasised that literacy is an essential commodity for the cultural resurgence of a nation. One of his essays, "Borrowed Plumes", first printed in Kandy in 1905 was his maiden literary effort.

It reflects the deep thoughts of a youthful genius. In this essay Ananda Coomaraswamy describes very movingly the destruction of native life under foreign domination.

As a young man of 23 years he saw his first paper 'Ceylon Rocks and Graphite' in print in the Journal of the Geological Society and by the time he died, he had completed writing more than 500 publications including the bulky monumental work such as "Medieval Sinhalese Art' and 'A History of Indian and Indonesian Art'.

For the 14th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica he wrote eight articles and edited the English words of Indian origin in Webster's New International Dictionary. His books and memoirs, articles and monographs were published in many countries. All his writings have a vital message for men and nations everywhere who are interested to preserve their moral and cultural integrity.

Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy revealed to the Sri Lankans that art is nothing more, nothing less, than a mere skill. He had a contempt for those who had built up a magical aura around art and spoke of some vague appreciation of art. His greatest lament was that the modern mind has separated art from work and that art as a leisure time activity was completely unknown. He remarked: "It is the man who, while at work, is doing what he likes best that can be called cultured".

He was individualist during his time and he placed a high value both on his dignity and freedom as well as on the dignity and freedom of others. Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy is very much alive today as he was in the past and his spirit continues to speak to all those who believe that their future rests on the preservation of the individual regardless of race, religion, nationality or social status.

He was ever active and at the same time critical of his fellowmen too. From rocks and stones to art and culture, from culture to man and society itself he was an authority and a dynamic source of inspiration. There is no doubt that his simple and noble life will continue to inspire Sri Lankans for many more years.

We would also remember him as a great Sri Lankan who attained international eminence, as a philosopher of art and art historian, as an expositor of oriental art and philosophy, as a traditionalist thinker, as a sociologist, an educationist, a knowledgeable commentator on comparative religion, an erudite writer and above all as an essayist with the touch of a prophet.

Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy, with the freshness of his thoughts and the warm sympathy for his less fortunate countrymen, flung himself to the society for a long and dedicated service. In modern Lanka, faced with hard realities of economics and culture, it is always good for us to emulate his worthy qualities of the idealistic values of integrity, justice, courage and the purity of thought for which Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy nobly stood.