It is not necessary that every man should be an artist. It is necessary that every man should have his artistic faculty developed, his taste trained, his sense of beauty and insight into form and colour and that which is expressed in form and colour, made habitually active, correct and sensitive.
More often than not, when I have mentioned art to someone, they have always replied with, "Oh, I don't understand art." I've always struggled with this response, though I've accepted it. When the same people buy a new mobile phone, I've never heard them say, "Oh, I don't understand this new interface." They've experimented, asked friends, Googled for information and how-to videos, and have become comfortable, if not experts, in using it. Perhaps, this is a weak analogy, but I am sure I've made my point.
I may have an advantage that my best friend is an artist, and my understanding of art has been shallow at times, and cynical, when not shallow. Yet, I've taken time to refine my own understanding of art. I've been careful not to borrow an opinion and make it my own, and that is what's taking so much time. Roland Barthes' Death of An Author has been an all-time favourite, partly because it is excellent, but more so because it resonates with what I have always felt about art. Our understanding of art has to be our own, we can always refine, define, or deduct by what others have to say.
And then I read this very small 27-page book about the National Value of Art, by Sri Aurobindo. The title is misleading, to an extent, I must say - only two-and-a-half pages discuss the context of the national value of art. And, that, somehow is what's most fascinating about the book. Because before understanding the national value of art, it is important to know the value of art, the meaning of art, and the sense of art. And that, is what this book is really about. For example, this felt like a description of the purposeful nature of the art aesthetic:
But the aesthetic faculties entering into the enjoyment of the world and the satisfaction of the vital instincts, the love of the beautiful in men and women, in food, in things, in articles of use and articles of pleasure, have done more than anything else to raise man from the beast, to refine and purge his passions, to ennoble his emotions and to lead him up through the heart and the imagination to the state of the intellectual man.
This is the first time I've read any of Sri Aurobindo's works, and while I'll admit it has been difficult reading, I am excited and looking forward to reading much more of what he has said. The difficulty of course, is not about the written word or the construction itself, it is the sad habit of over-simplifying things that matter. We are keen to make meaning in an instant and when something that was written about ninety years ago prods you into mulling over every word, you are out of your comfort zone. That's how a small, 27-page book can beat you. But if you choose well, it can enrich you.
Mankind is apt to bind itself by attachment to the means of its past progress forgetful of the aim. The bondage to formulas has to be outgrown, and in this again it is the sense of a higher beauty and fitness which will be most powerful to correct the lower. The art of life must be understood in more magnificent terms and must subordinate its more formal elements to the service of the master civilisers, Love and Thought.
It is one thing not to understand art. It is another not to want to understand art. It is yet another not to care. But if you do care, I strongly recommend this book.
Finally, I ask that you buy the book, so that you can support the work of the Ashram, however, The National Value of Art is also available as a part of "Early Cultural Writings" (starting at page 433) which is available a free download [PDF 3.9MB]
It's a very small book; few essays that are indicative of this man's legacy. Yet there is so much more to this man, who is not mentioned enough when w...moreIt's a very small book; few essays that are indicative of this man's legacy. Yet there is so much more to this man, who is not mentioned enough when we speak of India's freedom struggle, which I think is a shame. The book is not so much an introduction to the man himself, as much as it is an introduction to his legacy.
A good book, perhaps, to get you curious about this tall leader.(less)
On the day after the ban (or perhaps the correct word isrecall?) of a book on Hindusin India, I read the very small book —A Letter to a Hindu, by Leo...moreOn the day after the ban (or perhaps the correct word is recall?) of a book on Hindus in India, I read the very small book — A Letter to a Hindu, by Leo Tolstoy. This is the first book by Leo Tolstoy I’ve ever read. I emphasise the word book because 20-odd pages doesn’t a book make; further, it is actually a letter, that was published as a book. Well, if Goodreads is willing to call it a book, I have no qualms. [You can download a PDF version of the book from here]
The letter was written over a hundred years ago, by Leo Tolstoy to Tarak Nath Das, in 1908, “in response to two letters sent by Das, seeking support from the famous Russian author and thinker, for India's independence from British colonial rule. The letter was published in the Indian newspaper Free Hindustan." [Link] Mahatma Gandhi, who later published this letter, and wrote the foreword, warns that:
One need not accept all that Tolstoy says—some of his facts are not accurately stated […]
[…] his presentation of the old truth is refreshingly forceful. His logic is unassailable. And above all he endeavours to practise what he preaches. He preaches to convince. He is sincere and in earnest. He commands attention.
And while it is easy to assume that there is some form of treatise of Hinduism in the book; there isn’t. The letter is addressed to a Hindu; but talks of a world that has just recovered from religious superstition and plunged itself into scientific superstition. This is 1908. I checked and double checked. It is uncanny that a letter is as relevant to today as it was a hundred years ago; makes you believe nothing has changed. The letter explores the nature of enslavement - the context was the British rule:
A commercial company enslaved a nation comprising two hundred millions. Tell this to a man free from superstition and he will fail to grasp what these words mean. What does it mean that thirty thousand people, not athletes, but rather weak and ordinary people, have enslaved two hundred millions of vigorous, clever, capable, freedom-loving people? Do not the figures make it clear that not the English, but the Indians, have enslaved themselves?
Physical and social slavery are but weaker manifestations of the slavery archetype — of the belief system. The contradictory belief system, according to Tolstoy, that humans around the world have employed in different forms needs to be re-evaluated:
[…] the very people who recognize love as a virtue accept as lawful at the same time an order of life based on violence and allowing men not merely to torture but even to kill one another.
As the Mahatma says in the foreword, the logic is unassailable and he commands attention. This letter is time-proof, as is evidenced by current affairs. Slavery is rampant, the nature of superstition has changed.(less)
Dense with embellishments, full of decorative adjectives, meaty metaphors, exploration of complex philosophical constructs, and a slow, repetitive sto...moreDense with embellishments, full of decorative adjectives, meaty metaphors, exploration of complex philosophical constructs, and a slow, repetitive storytelling format, for effecting reinforcements, is what this book is all about. The translation - I strongly suspect - is utterly faithful to the original, else the meat in this story is hardly twenty pages. The book is an extract of a small episode in the Rāmāyan; the period of exile and the abduction of Sitā and ends, with the army of monkeys setting off, in search of Sitā to the four corners of the world.
I was a bit surprised that there was no mention of the Lakshman-rekha; the line that Sitā crossed which allowed Rāvan to abduct her. Perhaps I have my versions mixed up, which is good; means some more research-based reading.
I do recommend the book for the stylistic aspects; some insight into the art of the exaggerated storytelling that I believe is peculiar to Indian mythology(less)
The Matrix meets Reiki meets Law of Attraction meets The Secret. Or something like that. I was expecting a Richard Bach-ish book, but this one isn't s...moreThe Matrix meets Reiki meets Law of Attraction meets The Secret. Or something like that. I was expecting a Richard Bach-ish book, but this one isn't so. The language is very different, the construction is often weird, and the punctuation is sparse; almost unlike Richard Bach. Perhaps he was trying something new; it didn't work for me. There's fair warning that it is a "teaching fable"(less)
It is not easy to write about the saints. All good things are rare and difficult; but because of the rarity and difficulty one ought not to turn away from seeking the good.
Those are the first lines of Ten Saints of India, a Bharatiya Vidya bhavan publication by T.M.P. Mahadevan, edited by KM Munshi and RR Diwakar. These opening lines somehow set the stage for me to read through the entire book, which isn't a very large book. It has very simple biographies of ten saints:
There isn't much in the book by way of understanding the deeper philosophies of these saints - but serves as a good introduction to the life of the saints and perhaps a good account of how they achieved sainthood. There's no pontification of religion or philosophy; just an objective view of how these saints' lives came into being. That perhaps is the hallmark of a good book that talks of the lives of great persons. By virtue of the original writer, 9 of the 10 saints are from south India, and are essentially of the Śhaiva or the Vaiṣṇava cults (some may take objection to the use of the word 'cult'; I am just using what's written in the book.) In between however, strewn along the reading path, are certain gems.
The saint's approach to reality is said to be more emotional, whereas that of a sage is regarded as more intellectual. [...] In India, the saints have been known for their sagely qualities and the sages for their saintly qualities.
I even discovered a new word: Thaumaturgy. The language of the book is very simple, however, and reads like a hot knife through butter. In the beginning of the chapter on Tirunāvukkaraśu, the author starts with:
Genuine conversion does not consist in a formal change from one religion to another, but in an inner transformation involving spiritual exaltation; in fact, it is that which effects a change over from unsaintly ways of life to saintliness.
To read about the life of these saints comes as a breath of fresh air, as we are surrounded by an overtly cynical and skeptical society that reflectively feeds on outrage. To peek into the life that is undisturbed by the things that consume our waking moment is almost wondrous. The book will not make you want to go right into Saṁnyāsa. It's not a guidebook to living your life; just short biographies of ten mortals who touched divinity. The corruption of ideas caused by excessive literalism,finds mention in the chapter for Mānikkavācakar:
Bridal mysticism has its unique value as well as its peculiar dangers. The devotee who is an expert in this type of mysticism considers himself or herself to be the bride of God. This is an attitude adopted not only by women-saints but also by men-saints. In fact, according to the philosophy behind this attitude, God is the only Male, and all the souls are His consorts. This is what the allegory of Kṛṣṇa and the gopīs implies. Nārada in his Bhakti-sūtra commends the bhakti of the milkmaids of Brindāvan as the highest type of devotion. In the Hindu scriptures the bliss of the divine communion is likened to conjugal happiness.
The danger the lurks in all such imagery is literalness in understanding it. In some of the Hindu sects, the interpretation became so literal that it led to mal-practices. But bridal mysticism in its pure form is as lofty as loftiness can be. It stands for an undivided loyalty and exclusive devotion to the Lord, and an intense longing for union with Him.
Further chapters expound the evolution of Advaita, how it came to be experienced by saints, to a small extent. As I have mentioned before, this is not the book that explores any ideas in great detail, but is a wonderful place to stoke curiosity, and seek other scripts to satisfy the curiosity.
On a separate note, I believe this book is out of print, so if you want to get your hands on it, you will have to reach out to your parents or grandparents - or BVB although I could not find this book in their catalogue either. I fortunately inherited this book, which unfortunately is in quite a bad shape.
But knowledge doesn't limit itself to a few places, does it?(less)