“Symbolism and imagery (pratīka, pratibima, etc.), the purest form of art, is the proper language of metaphysics.” Says A. K. Coomaraswamy in ‘A New Approach to the Vedas.’ Sacred art of any kind is art attached to and dependent on a metaphysical doctrine, from which it receives not only its subject-matter, but also rules for the composition of images and the treatment of form. Such art does not exist for the sake of its own achievements, but for the sake of realization of transcendent Truth. It has no other purpose than to be the exponent of a doctrine and a support to religious and spiritual aspiration. It will not therefore deal with the varied aspects of phenomenal life for the sake of their own emotional and pictorial interest, but only in the sense in which they are mirros of divine Reality. It will not dwell on the transient, accidental, elusive aspect of things, but on their essential being. The material world of forms it will strive to transfigure and to transpose into the world of “Ideas”, from which it is derived.
Since sacred art, then, will never attempt to give a sensory illusion of the material texture of this world, it will never use the naturalistic, realistic form-language of profane art. In order to seize upon the spiritual aspect of things it is bound to ignore all that is material, accidental, irrelevant in appearances so as to fall back upon their archetypal configuration. This involves transfiguration of phenomenal entities into essential qualities, in the sense of Platonic “Ideas” or the Tantric “Tattvas”. Form thus qualified may retain only an analogical resemblance to factual appearance, but since it is truer metaphysically, it will acquire potential symbol-value.
For the purpose of analysis, Hindu art gives the clearest and most substantial evidence of the working principles of such a symbolic form language. Hindu art has always been governed by transcendental vision and has achieved the rare miracle of integrating all living form into geometrical and architectural patterns, without depriving it of movement, organic vitality and intense expressiveness-rather, on the contrary, enhancing them. The sculptures inside and outside Indian temples are, with all their plastic exuberance, no more decorations, but integral structural parts of the architecture. Their meaning as well as their position and form are governed by the same laws that govern the metaphysical plan of the temple.
If the most adequate medium for the transcription of metaphysical conceptions is found in mathematics and geometry, conversely the ultimate archetypes of all living form are found in geometrical figures and bodies, as the final terms to which form can be reduced. Geometry thus provides a plane of refraction, as it were, between the world of essential being and the world of formal manifestation, where each contacts the other as a ray of light touches its reflection on the surface of a sheet of water. It is not surprising, therefore, that geometrical figures play so important a part in every system of sacred symbolism, and that they determine the symbolic character of form as the natural language for sacred imagery.
Geometrical forms are essentially functional—not in a mechanical, material sense, but transcendentally. They are not abstractions, but living images of cosmic forces. They are the graph of definite processes, of laws and energies, that act alike on the sensible and on supersensible levels. Quite apart from mathematical definitions, it is this specific morphology of geometrical figures which is the basis of all symbolic form, whether it be pure, or qualifying and circumscribing natural form.
It may be helpful to make a rough analysis of the essential properties of the fundamental geometrical forms and their basic symbolism in order to show, how in traditional art they take the place of naturalistic form in the figuration of divinity or of any transcendental conception.
The sphere is a body of perfect cohesion, fullness and unity, determined by a centre equidistant from every point of its circumference. Its energy is centripetal when it is indrawn towards the centre, and centrifugal when it expands towards the circumference. In Greek metaphysics the sphere represents universal manifestation, the totality of Existence, emanating from the One, the immanent central Principle and finally reabsorbed into It. It is the form of God: Sphoera cujus centrum omnibus, circumferentia nillibi
The circle is a line recoiling upon itself and devouring, as it were, its own beginning, eternally revolving around its centre. In Vaiṣṇavism and in Buddhism the circle in the form of Cakra (wheel) represents the revolution of the Year, of Time, the cycle of existence, cosmic or human the Eternal Law, according to which everything proceeds into manifestation and is again withdrawn from it.
The spheroid can be considered as a sphere in the process of pulling itself asunder into two separate units, each with its own centre. It represents disruption of unity, division of wholeness for the sake of multiplicity. Therefore the spheroid stands for the World-egg, the incipient duality of Puruṣa and Prakṛti which leads to manifestation.
The cube is the only entirely inert form,—without dynamic stress inherently or spatially—firm, rigid and motionless. The cube and the square, its correlate, represent, among the tattvas, pṛthvī (Earth), the grossest and densest element, the stable and solid support of all life,
The cylinder, an eminently dynamic form, is a compact sheaf of parallel energies, pushing in both directions along its longitudinal axis into limitless extension. In Buddhism the vertical cylinder, either in the form of the Dharma-stamba, the Pillar of the Law supporting the Wheel of Existence, or as the stem of the Lotus that supports the Buddha in glory, stands for the central axis of the universe. This very conception is expressed in Śaivism by the same form, but under a different connotation. Here it is the erect Liṅgam of unlimited extension which supports the universe. Brahmā as a swan flying up into heaven and Viṣṇu as a boar digging down to the centre of the earth try in vain to find its end. The axis of the universe is also symbolised as the flagstaff before the central shrine of a temple, as the sannyasī’s staff, and in man, the microcosmos, as the spinal column, the Meru-daṇḍa.
The spiral, when it coils inward in narrowing circles suggests a gathering up of forces,—recoil, concentration, involution. When it coils outward in widening circles it suggests procession, expansion, evolution. The spiral in the form of the Śaṅkha (Conch), the Śālagrāma (fossilized shell) and the Seśanāga or Ananta (serpent of eternity) always refers to Viṣṇu-Nārāyaṇa, the all-pervading, creative Principle from which universes are put forth and into which they are re-absorbed.
The triangle, the first of rectilinear figures to define dimension, has also the strongest inner cohesion, for each of its sides is connected with both the others, each is in opposition to and complementary with the other: their balanced tension is one of unassailable unity in plurality. Leaving aside all the complex and subtle symbolism implied in Trinity, the three in one, we shall only point out its purely plastic symbolism. The equilateral triangle standing on its base, dominated by the vertex represents Puruṣa, the immanent Principle. The triangle standing on its base is also a symbol of Fire (Agni), as an upward tending, involuting force, returning to the Centre. Standing on its apex, with extension dominating it represents Śakti, Māyā, the power of manifestation. Similarly, when the triangle has one of its sides raised into the third dimension and from a plane figure becomes a body, a tetrahedron, it stands for Kriyā Śakti, the power of operative manifestation in space and time.
Not only have geometrical figures and bodies their morphology and meaning, but so have lines. A line is either straight or curved, but when it is curved, it presents an indefinite variety of characteristics.
The straight line, the shortest possible movement from one point to another, is direct, rigid, insensitive, dividing space, but never forming it, itself spaceless and limitless. In Tantric symbolism the straight line represents Jñāna-Śakti, direct perception of pure Consciousness (Cit). Jñāna-Śakti is also figured in the form of a sword, the sword of pure Knowledge, Discrimination, which cuts across the veil of illusion. To express this conception it is essential that the sword should be straight, not curved. The same symbolism is implied in the spear or lance, the attribute of Kārttikeya, as a combined power of Yoga and Jñāna.
The curved line, whatever the degree of its curvature, is always creative, formative, it always delimits or encloses a portion of space and thus originates shape. A curve can be flat or full, relaxed or full of tension. A double curve, bending first in one direction and then in the other, suggests a restless forward drive, progressing by alternation from one opposite to another, like the movement of a snake. In the Tantras the double curve in the form of the aṅkuśa (elephant-goad) is the symbol of Iccha-Śakti, pregnant with the desire for manifestation—the movement that leads from pure, transcendent being to embodiment in matter.
Surfaces, being only portions of geometrical bodies, have no symbolical meaning in themselves, but they necessarily partake of the character of the body to which they belong. A convex surface, partaking of the nature of a sphere, expresses growth, progression, fullness, expansion, radiation of energy from within. A concave surface, on the contrary suggests an in-drawing of energy, regression, re-absorption and collapse. In a flat surface these tendencies balance each other, so it is neutral like a straight line.
It should not be forgotten, that the directions in space also, have their own symbolical meaning, which greatly qualifies the properties of geometrical form. Verticality makes for dynamism, aspiration, growth and firmness, while horizontality makes for heaviness, quietness and inertness. An upward diagonal slant has sway, action, aggressiveness, while a downward slant suggests fall, defeat, submission, relinquishment. A vertical column is an eminently active form, where as a column lying horizontally looses all stress and becomes inert. A truncated cone standing on its broad end weighs downward and expresses gravitation, stability, earthbound immobility. Standing on its narrow end it becomes light and appears to be soaring upward. All things rooted in the earth, all plants and trees, stand on their broad ends, while creatures that walk about, stand on the narrow end of their legs. Compare the difference in the feeling given by an Egyptian temple, where massive pillars taper from their broad bases to their lotus-capitals and that given by a Gothic cathedral, where the columns expand above into ornamented capitals and the flying arches of the vault.
These examples may make clear what is the nature of the elements that go to the making of sacred imagery. Though in figurative art these fundamental geometrical principles cannot be applied pure, but onl in an approximation, still they determine from within the composition and the shape of images. The operation of the artist who works on esoteric lines is never psychological, emotional or anecdotal, but purely formal. He feels form in its purest essence, not for what it represents, but for what it signifies. The intrinsic character of the geometrical pattern imprints its meaning on the sculpture:
Viṣṇu as the supporter of the universe is not represented as an athlete with bulging muscle carrying a heavy globe on his shoulders, but simply in the form of a vertical column, standing rigidly erect, with straightened legs and arms close to the body, holding his four attributes symmetrically on either side and vertically above each other.
Viṣṇu in Yoganidrā, when he is at rest between the withdrawal of one universe and the emanation of the next, is represented lying horizontally on the coils of Śeśanāga floating on the Ocean of Pralaya. His horizontality is combined with a spiral movement of the Naga: he is inactive between involution and evolution.
The Buddha after his enlightenment—after he has become one with supreme Truth—is not represented with rapturous expression or gestures, but seated crosslegged in supreme calm, all senses withdrawn, his entire figure inscribed into thee upright triangle, the symbol of Prakāsa, the Principle of Light. Similarly the victory of the spirit over matter in the Buddha’s head is not expressed by any psychological device, but by the predominance of the forehead and by the complete relaxation expressed in the prefect oval of the face.
The principles laid down for the Indian image-maker in his study of anatomy show very clearly how the traditional artist studied form, not in its material likeness, but in its functional expression. Since all objects in this world partake, in their whole frame or in their several parts, in this system of fundamental form, and since the lower living organisms are necessarily nearer to these archetypes, they are considered in their turn as symbols and similes for the more highly organized and complex forms. Their analogies and comparisons give a striking image of the living action of every part of the body: The head is described in the likeness of an egg, with the skull as its broad and the chin as its smaller end, for the egg, like the skull, is a shell containing soft matter of indefinite potentiality. The neck with its circular folds is likened to a conch, not only in its form, but as the seat of the voice. The torso of a man is compared with the head of a cow, the upper part broad and hard, the lower part soft and narrow, with folds above the snout as above the belly. The arms are likened to the trunk of an elephant, because of their downward tapering form, their flexibility and their power of grasping. The legs are compared with the inverted trunk of the banana tree, with which they share their shape and their supporting power. The eyes are described in various ways according to thri cut, their motion and their expression—a safarī fish when they are restless and agile, as a khaṅjana bird when they are half closed in bashfulness ( See A.N.Tagore, Indian Iconography, Modern Review, Vol. XV,No.3).
And just as anatomy is expressed in simile, Divinity itself is expressed in an analogy of form, character and movement. Such transfigured form-language cannot be approached either discursively or sentimentally, for it directly touches our inner awareness of cosmic correspondences. Like notes and intervals in music, it awakens a response in us from the irrational depths of our being. Like music, it uses form in rhythmic sequences, in a subtle interplay of parallel and opposite movements, resulting in a closely knit harmony, which instead of evolving in time, spreads itself out in space. In these free rhythms is echoed the rhythm of the universe. In “The Transformation of Nature in Art” p. 179 note, A. K. Coomaraswamy says: “In these passages the spiritual significance of rhythm in art is plainly asserted. Conversely they are also of interest in connection with the problem of the origin of art, all rhythm corresponding in the last analysis to cosmic rhythms.”
When such inner knowledge of from was still alive, it must have been a language in the truest sense of the word, and understood by all. It was a transcription of the doctrine into visual images, and at the same time a commentary which would in many ways be more clear, direct, and impressive than the written word. The fact that figurative art can show simultaneously elements which in transcendental Reality are co-existent but which words can only explain in a sequence, makes it often more powerful and comprehensive than verbal exposition. On the battlefield of Kurukṣetra, Lord Kṛṛna Himself, having failed to move Arjuna to action by His words, resorted to an image in order to convey the fullness of His meaning and showed him His Cosmic Form. In his “Elements of Buddhist Iconography”, p.35, A.K. Coomaraswamy quotes the words of Kobo Daishi: “The Reverend Divine informed me that the secrets of the Shingon sect could not be conveyed without the aid of pictorial representation.”
This language of image addressed itself to a people whose vision was not dulled by a one-sided bookish education, but whose senses were alert and whose minds were capable of grasping the message of form. They did not live divorced from contact with nature, shut up in factories and cheerless prison-houses of cement and steel. They lived with their bare feet on the bare ground, their heads bare under the open firmament. They lived in constant touch, physically and emotionally, with all the elements of nature, with the poers of earth and heaven. To their eyes and minds infinite cosmic backgrounds were ever present. Their feeling was nourished and their imagination kindled by the subtle harmony of forms in nature, and they knew the laws that produced such harmony. These people handled the raw materials of the earth, not machines and machine-made articles, and in obedience to the natural laws of harmony created objects of beauty for their gods and for themselves. Their knowledge of form was thus born of experience, renewed every day and gathered up through generation, and it gave truth, substance and plasticity to their thinking and feeling. It endowed them with creative imagination, which was capable of translating any natural form into an analogy, into a symbol of deeper significance. Out of such unity with the forces of the cosmos “ pratīka” was created and understood.
From all this it will be readily inferred that sacred art in any tradition, as long as it was alive, could never have amounted, as it is so often gratuitously assumed, to a mechanical repetition of pre-established patterns. Even if sacred imagery had necessarily to adopt certain formulae with respect to the lineaments, proportions, colours and attributes of divine figures, these formulae were never arbitrary. They rested on the transmitted experience of transcendent vision, a source from which flow innumerable rivers of realization. Artistic realization can no more result from thoughtless acceptance of patterns, than spiritual realization can follow from merely conventional worship. No valid or vital work can be accomplished unless the worker plunges himself into that primary source and there visualizes the object of his desire. Only when he has integrated himself emotionally, intellectually and spiritually with his object, will it assume visible form in his inner self. From the depth of his consciousness he may then bring forth that will best express the aspect of divinity he was seeking.
Sanskrit texts that deal with the making of images always emphasise the necessity of inner visualization. In “The Hindu View of Art” A.K. Coomaraswamy quotes from the Agni-Purāṇa: “The imager, on the night before beginning his work, and after ceremonial purification, is instructed to pray: Oh thou Lord of all the Gods, teach me in dreams how to carry out the work I have in my mind,” and from Śukrācārya: “The lineaments of images are determined by the relation which subsists between the adorer and the adored.” He adds that the practice of visualization, referred to by Śukrācārya is identical in worship and art.
If such inner visualization of divine aspects was at all possible, it was because these craftsmen knew, through meditation and experience, the exact relationship between concept and form, between a principle and its visible expression. Through intellectual and emotional awareness of these correspondences they were able to compose the various elements of an image into that particular harmony, which would, most comprehensively, mirror the chosen aspect of the Divine.