THE RELATIONS BETWEEN RELIGION AND
Despite the secular spirit which swept over Europe at the Renaissance and has spread to the rest of the world in the present century, it would still be true to say that the greater part of the world's art and poetry has been religious in inspiration and origin. Why?
It has been suggested that the reason is simply that in past ages the churches have been the principal or only patrons; that, however, is a shallow explanation, looking at the past through modern spectacles. It does not explain why Hindu life and literature were dominated for centuries by the great religious epics (and let us remember that the Greeks also considered the Homeric poems the basis of their religion, although they show little of the profundity of the Hindu epics). It does not fit the Taoist painters, who were largely amateurs in no need of a patron, or the sculptors and painters of Buddhist cave temples, at Ajanta and elsewhere, who were world-renouncers. It would be laughed at by the Persian poet-saints who scandalised the orthodox. It does not even apply to the great temples of Mediaeval India or the gothic cathedrals of Christendom, in complying with whose intricate symbolism and shaping whose exquisite figures the builders were hammering out the lineaments of their own true nature.
Nor were lay patrons lacking-princes and feudal lords, not to mention royal courts, in India, in China, in Japan, in Christendom, in most parts of the world. Works of art were indeed created for them too and poems sung in their honour. To take but one example among many, there are the exquisite miniature-like paintings of Rajputana. But always the greatest output, greatest both in quality and quantity, was for religion. And indeed, how many of the Rajput paintings had the eternal symbolism of the love of Radha and Krishna for their theme!
Before attempting an answer, there is another question that interweaves with this. What is the attitude of religion to art? At their origin religions seem to agree in either ignoring or deprecating art. The Quran forbids representational art and speaks scornfully of poets. The Tao-Te-King declares that the five senses dull the mind and that the Sage, therefore, is not deluded by them but aims at what is of benefit. Both Christ and Buddha completely ignore art and poetry in their teaching, as do also their immediate followers. In fact all religions that have a known historical origin run the same course: from an austere, bare primitivism when art is deprecated or ignored to a gorgeous mediaevalism a few centuries later, when religion burgeons out into a luxurious glow of beauty, even though man's private life is still hard compared with the comforts and conveniences of our secular world.
Once again, the obvious answer - that the religions became untrue to their origins - is superficial and does not fit the case. The foremost purpose of a religion is to guide those who will adventure out of the apparent reality of this life to the clear-sighted bliss or ecstatic rapture of the Sage or Saint, through whom waves of Grace flow downwards and outwards to the less aspiring believers. So long as this continues to be done a religion is well rooted in its origins; so long as a tree bears good fruit it is a healthy tree. Religions which could produce a St. Francis and an Eckhart, an Abdul Qadir and an Ibn Arabi, a Shankara and a Ramanuja, an Ashvaghosha and a Hui Neng, were not untrue to their origins; the paths were still open and guides who had trodden them still available. Moreover, it was often the Masters themselves who created or encouraged art or poetry, a Dante and a Rumi, a Kabir and a Milarepa.
There is another explanation. In the incandescent white heat of the origin of a religion the energy of those who aspire, strengthened as by a springboard by their rejection of the degenerate world around them, shoots straight upwards. The sattva guna, the upward tendency, dominates. Directing the energy outwards to forms, even beautiful forms, would be a weakness, almost a betrayal, for however beautiful forms may be they limit and obscure the pure beauty of the formless. As a poet saw intuitively long after the certainty of religion had been lost, even though life be a dome of many-coloured glass, it still “Stains the white radiance of eternity.”
If you are climbing a mountain path and it is a matter of life and death to reach the summit, if all your alertness is needed to avoid pitfalls and dangers, all your strength to strive upwards, you do not stop to pick flowers by the wayside, however beautiful they may be. One who has reached safety can do that. Even after art and poetry began to be honoured, it was usually assumed in India (and to a large extent in Buddhism and Islam also) that it is those who have attained Realization who should write poems. Indeed, their greatest poets are those, like Tukaram in Marathi or Tayumanavar in Tamil, who wrote from the fullness of spiritual knowledge. The Maharshi himself, although he did not write much, composed in the 'Forty Verses' one of the most profound metaphysical statements and in the first of the 'Five Hymns to Sri Arunachala' one of the most glowing symbolical love poems of all religions and all ages.*
* See The Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi, Riders, London, and Sri Ramanasramam, Tiruvannamalai.
To some extent this is anticipating. Coming now to the mediaeval epoch, we find that the incandescent white heat has cooled to a mellow golden glow. Sattva is combined now with rajas, the upward-tending with the outward-tending urge. Indirect paths to Realization begin to be followed: Tantrism in Hindu and Buddhist India, Hermetism in Christendom and indeed, with surprising similarity, in China and Islam also. It is found necessary first to harmonise a man, redirecting his lower tendencies and developing his finer qualities, before launching him on the final quest. Such rectification no longer happens automatically, as a by-product of the quest, as in the earlier stage, but needs to be planned and organised. Art is now deliberately encouraged and developed, it is not merely allowed as a concession to those who are not one- pointed enough to strive without it, still less is it indulged in as a luxury; it is used as a technique of discipline and development. A poem acquires the qualities of a mantra, a sacred incantation whose vibrations harmonise the mind; a drawing or architectural plan becomes a development of a mantra or a mandala, a shape of inherent power.*
* See The Theory and Practice of the Mandala by Prof. Giuseppe Tucci, Riders, London.
In mediaeval religious art, whether poetry or the plastic arts, whether in Japan or Europe or anywhere between, gorgeous exuberance is combined with strict discipline of form and precise symbolism. The adaptation of art to symbolism in order to use it as a mode of worship or a technique of training does not in any way impair its value as art. Rather it enhances it, for art is form-giving and, even though one had the expertise of a Swinburne, the form-giving will remain trivial if there is nothing great to give form to. Therefore what might be termed in a broad generic sense 'mediaeval' religious art is on the one hand rigorously formal and on the other superbly sumptuous.
Exact form does not destroy freedom in art; it gives it wings. Poetry being formal and disciplined language as compared with prose, which is comparatively informal and undisciplined, there is no sense in making it formless; if it is not going to conform to the rules of poetry let it be prose. So-called 'free' or formless poetry is in fact half baked poetry. Either the impulse behind it had not a high enough temperature to melt the words and make them flow into its mould, or the creative power flagged when the work was half done - that is when the idea was half-baked into a poem.
I know this from experience and I consider it important enough to justify an autobiographical
aside. As a young man I aspired to be a poet - in fact I believed I was one. However, nothing
came of it. Then came the time when neither prose nor verse had any value except as a vehicle
for spiritual wisdom and a signpost on the way (which, indeed, is what poetry should be).
Then, quite suddenly, poems began to come almost ready-made.
See how Grace is fallen on me!
Had this power come in youthful years,
To turn my rhymes to worldly things
The first four poems were almost formless (actually, one was a lyric though with only vaguely
formed verses and one in blank verse, though I did not realize this at the time); it had not yet
occurred to me that I was professional enough to attempt rhyme and metre. Then a poem
came which, in intricacy and regularity of metre, was more like 17th than 20th Century verse,
and I discovered that if the impulse is sufficient the words will flow to the pattern. If not,
better keep quiet. This was the poem
Disconsolate, to Him in grief I cried,
All pageants pass; whatever comes must go.
He shed the jewelled robe for my delight,
According to Hindu doctrine there are three gunas: sattva, the upward tendency whose colour is white, rajas, the outward, whose colour is red, and tamas, the downward, whose colour is black. All things are held in being by their combined stress. After the epoch of rajas in the relations between religion and art comes that of tamas. That is when art has broken away from religion and sunk to utilitarian and ornamental patterns, worldly and human themes. Occasional flashes of intuition may still inspire the poet, but no steady glow of knowledge, no true understanding. Religion is again devoid of art and poetry, but below it now, not above it. Bad poetry wedded to bad music forms hymns that can have only a sentimental value. Holy pictures that cannot be dignified with the name of art are used to foster emotion. Except for rebels against the epoch, people no longer aspire. The paths are overgrown with weeds and blocked by rockfalls and there are no guides. The cycle comes round to where it started but in an inverted likeness. In the pure aspiration of the beginning men had no time for intricate techniques and paths; now again they have no time, but now because they have no aspiration at all.
Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita:
“Whenever harmony (dharma) is obscured and disharmony (adharma) triumphs, I appear.”* Now, in this modern age, when circumstances make the elaborate disciplines of an indirect path once more unsuitable, if not impossible, God has appeared on earth incarnate as Ramana Maharshi and opened once more a direct path which, by his Grace, is accessible to those who turn to him and on which art and poetry, yantra and mantra, are again unnecessary. He did not encourage those who trod the direct path under his guidance to divert their energies to poetry or any of the arts. “All this is only activity of the mind. The more you exercise the mind and the more success you have in composing verses, the less peace you have. And what use is it to acquire such accomplishments if you don't acquire peace. But if you tell such people this it doesn't appeal to them; they can't keep quiet. They must be composing songs.”
* Ch. IV, v. 7.
It is significant that when someone asked him about a technique for developing the various virtues, and combating the vices in oneself he replied that such techniques may be useful on an indirect path but on the direct path of Self-enquiry all this happens automatically. The two go together: encouragement of art and indirect methods of training. Conditions in the world today are suitable for neither.