Complete works of Swami Abhedananda

by Swami Prajnanananda | 1967 | 318,120 words

Swami Abhedananda was one of the direct disciples of Sri Ramakrishna Paramhamsa and a spiritual brother of Swami Vivekananda. He deals with the subject of spiritual unfoldment purely from the yogic standpoint. These discourses represent a study of the Social, Religious, Cultural, Educational and Political aspects of India. Swami Abhedananda says t...

Appendix 2 - Indian Art in all its Phases

[Note: Appendices I & II are written and added by Swami Prajnanananda.]

“The character of a people”, says Sister Nivedita, “is their history as written in their subconscious mind and to understand that character, we have to turn on it the lime-light of their history”. Each nation creates its own symbol and out of it emerges its conception of art which is directly related to culture. The higher the fine arts of a people or a nation, the higher is its cultural level. The conception, inherent in a nation or a people, colours her creation in the realm of painting, sculpture, architecture, literature and music. Broadly speaking, art in all its phases is the response of man’s creative soul to the call of the Beautiful. The function of an artist is to make barren rocks speak, mute stones sing and dance, blank walls and canvas throb with life and spirit, and words vibrate with melody. This can be done by the artist either in realistic or spiritualistic manner. The function of art is to unveil nature and bring into light her inner beauty, and “beauty is truth and truth is beauty” to quote Keats.

Every civilized nation of the past had its own concept or idea of art. Egypt aimed at durability, Assyria and Babylonia at masculine strength and vigour, Greece at beauty of form and proportion, and India at spirituality. A comparison between the plastic art of Gandhara with that of India particularly of the Gupta period will prove the truth of this assertion, though the fundamental impulses of art are neither Eastern nor Western but universal. As has been already said, India’s outlook in the realm of art had always been spiritual, her artists be they painters, sculptors, architects or musicians, always tried to create something that would ‘tease man out of thought as doth eternity’. They roamed in the realm of light and beauty, and were instrumental in awakening in man a spirit of aesthetic exaltation and spirituality.

In the Aitareya-Brahmana of the Rig Veda (8.2.5), it has been said that “the song, which is sung, is an art—a divine art, and in imitation thereof various articles of ivory, bell metal, cotton, gold and chariot are made and shaped, again he, who is aware that this art is shaped after the divine art, truely [truly] attains art, then again art purifies and adorns the soul and makes the soul of the sacrificer rhythmic”. Such conceptions of art inspired the painters, sculptors, architects and musicians of ancient India, to paint the mural paintings at Ajanta and Bagh, to carve out marvellous stone images of Buddha and that of the gods and goddesses of Hindu pantheon, and to fashion out of solid rocks, rock-cut temples, like Ellora, Ajanta, Bagh, Bhaja and colossal stone temples and the colossuses thereon of north and south India, and to invent melody types of high order.


It must be remembered that painting in India was liked with the ceremonial of love and expressed warmest emotions through this art, as through dancing. Early mural paintings at Ajanta look very much like the logical continuation of the fresh and simplified forms of animal life in the prehistoric caverns of France and Spain. But cave No. 16 is highly decorated and cave No. 17 is a veritable salon of beauty and narrative. Here one finds secular subjects like sweet love and charm, happiness and suffering of man treated in gorgeous colours and majestic rhythms. The paintings at Ajanta are invested with fine conception, brilliant colour and admirable drawing. The graceful and fanciful decorative designs too have been executed with masterly skill. They also depict sacred objects and symbols, the figures of Buddha and the incidents of his past lives (Jataka Stories). The Bagh caves also contain some paintings of high merit. While gazing with wonder at the Ajanta paintings one finds himself in a dream universe.


Function of a sculptor is to translate into stone or bronze his aesthetic ideal and ideas. The sculptors of prehistoric India demonstrated in their artistic objects unearthed at Mohenjo-daro and Harappa a thorough comprehension of both work in round and relief. The most artistic objects at Mohenjo-daro are the seal engravings, portraying animals like the humped bull, the buffalo, the bison, etc. Regarding them, Sir John Marshall has observed: “In no sense can these objects be regarded as products of primitive or archaic art * * (they) exhibit a spontaneity and truthfulness to nature of which even Hellenic art might not have been ashamed”. The same authority has made the following remarks on two stone statues found at Harrapa: “When I first saw them I found it difficult to believe that they were prehistoric; they seemed so completely to upset all established ideas about early art. Modelling such as this was unknown in the ancient world up to Hellenistic age of Greece”.

For more than two thousand years after Harappa and Mohenjo-daro, India produced no sculptures of great merit. It was only in the historical period, particularly between the time of Asoka and the Christian era, that great Chaitya Halls and stupas were built, but they contained no images. The religious symbolism of Buddhist devotion of this period found expression in the sculptures of tree, the stupa, the rail, the horse-shoe ornament and the foot-print.

In order to form a definite idea of the Asokan art one has to turn his attention to the monolithic pillars, bearing edicts of the august emperor. They are each made of one piece of sand stone, containing lustrous polish. Marvellous engineering and technical skill has been exhibited in chiselling the stone with wonderful accuracy. But these too pale into insignificance before the high artistic merits of the figures crowning them. Of the series Sarnath Pillar is considered to be the best. Sir John Marshall has made the following observation regarding the Sarnath Capital: “It would be difficult to find in any country an example of ancient animal sculpture superior or even equal to this beautiful work of art, which successfully combines realistic modelling with ideal dignity and is finished in every detail with perfect accuracy”.

Emergence of Buddhism as an imperial cult first began under the patronage of Asoka the Great and through his efforts it became a world religion. With the introduction of the Mahayana school, Buddhism underwent a great change. Under the patronage of Kanishka, the recognition of Bodhisattva came into being. Images of Buddha appeared in Buddhist sculpture and received the devout worship of the faithful. As a result of the conquest of north-western India by the Bactrian Greeks, union of India and Greek arts was effected and as a result thereof emerged the Gandhara school of sculpture. This art represented mostly images of Buddha and relief sculptures representing scenes from Buddhist texts. Gandhara sculptors aimed at moulding human body in a realistic manner giving accurate physical details. There was a time when it was believed that Gandhara Buddha image served as a model for those executed at Mathura and other places. But there was a sea of difference between the two. The former aimed at deleneating [delineating?] anatomical details and physical beauty, while the latter at imparting a sublime and spiritual expression to the figure. Both the schools of Mathura and Gandhara flourished independently. Images executed at Mathura in red sand stone became so popular and famous that they used to be carried to the remote comers of India. The classical phase of Indian sculpture began with the Gupta period when the techniques of art were perfected and ideals of beauty were formulated with precision. The stone or bronze images of Buddha, Siva, Vishnu and other Brahmanical gods of the period exhibit charm and dignity, graceful pose and a radiant spiritual expression. The art of the Gupta period is dominated by an intellectual element. Of all the number Buddha images unearthed at Sarnath, Varanasi, one is regarded as the finest in the whole of India.

The Pala period witnessed vast improvement in the domain of literature, art and science. The epoch became memorable by the activities of the artists like Dhimana and Vitpala.


Architecture is called ‘Frozen Music’. When the rhythm and tempo of music are applied to architecture it throbs and vibrates like music, ‘when soft voices die’. Upto the year 1922, it was believed that the earliest extant example of architecture in India, was the cyclopean stone walls encircling ancient city of Rajgir in Bihar. But the discovery of Mohenjo-daro in the Larkana district of Sindh has made one to revise the above opinion. Here, some five thousand years ago a city was built containing numerous dwelling houses, some of them of elaborate structure and design. Its streets were wide and straight and was furnished with an elaborate drainage system. From the ruins of the city it is apparent that utility rather than beauty played a prominent part in its construction. The houses were mostly built with kilnburnt bricks. But in the present stage of one’s knowledge it is not known, whether the houses contained any decorative designs, as one is expected to find in a city of this dimension.

The Rigvedic Aryans mostly lived in villages though one finds mention of purs occasionally, but it is not clear whether Rigvedic Aryans had cities in the modern sense of the term, unless they were the authors of the Indus Valley cities. With the Magadhan ascendency dawned the epoch of art in ancient India. In the age of Asoka particularly, we come across monuments of high quality. But compared with sculptures the architectural remains of the Maurya period are very poor though contemporary Greek writers spoke highly of the magnificient palaces in the capital city of Pataliputra. In later years Mauryan edifices inspired awe and admiration in the heart of the Chinese traveller Fa Hien. Chandragupta’s Palace in Pataliputra was made of wood which evoked unstinted admiration in heart of Megasthenes, the Greek ambassador to the court of Chandragupta. Asoka’s Palace in Pataliputra was built in stone and the ruins of his hundred pillared hall has recently been excavated. Asoka is credited with building a large number of stupas all over India and Afganisthan, but they have almost entirely perished. The extant architectural remains of Asoka’s time consist of monolithic stone rail at Sarnath, the rock-cut Chaitya halls in the Barabar Hills and the stupa at Sanchi. The artists of Asoka were artists par excellence, having a long history of artistic tradition behind them.

It is a far cry from the end of the Maurya period to the Guptas. During the period intervening the fall of the former and the rise of the latter, a distinct form of art evolved. The period was rich in sculptures, but not so in architecture, though beautiful temples, monasteries, stupas and caves hewn out of solid rock and decorated with pillars and sculptures of high order bespeak of the high achievement of Indian architects of the period. The Chaitya caves at Nasik, Bhaja, Bedsa, Karie, Khandagiri and Udaygiri are considered to be the beautiful works of architectural art. The temples at Sanchi and Deogarh, built during the Gupta period, though small, are well designed, and the sculptured panels thereon are in full harmony with the architectural plans of the buildings. Beautiful temples considered to be marvels of temple architecture were built during the mediaeval period at Bhubaneswar, Konarak, Puri in Orissa and also at Khajuraho and Mount Abu.

The Pallavas ushered in the South India a new era in architecture and sculpture. Rock-cut temples or Rathas of Mahabalipuram bear evidence of this. Cholas too of South India, were mighty builders. The best example of Chola style is the great Saiva temple of Tanjore. Rashtrakutas too were great builders. Their architectural triumph is discernable in the famous Kailasa temple at Ellora, executed by their second King Krishna I, which is a splendid achievement of architectural art and is considered unequalled in the history of the world. The Hoysalas of Mysore evolved a new style of architecture. Their famous Hoysaleswara temple at Holebid is the best known example of the Hoysala style.

From the history of architecture we come to know that different cave-temples were designed and exavated all over India by the Buddhist, Jain and Hindu sects. The cavetemples were excavated in different times in different places but, yet there was a big interval between the early Buddhist and Jain cave-temples and those of other sects. Again from the point of view of the architect mediaeval cave-temples are less interesting than the earlier one. Well has it been said by the renowned historian and archaeologist Mr. Rakhaldas Banerjee that the “earliest Jain caves are those on the Khandagiri and Udaygiri hills near Bhubaneswara in the Puri District of Orissa. Here there are two classes of caves: (a) temples or shrines and (b) dormitories. The dormitories are exactly similar in arrangement to the great Buddhist dormitories at Karie and Bhaja in the Poona district, Pandulena in the Nasik district, Kanheri in the Thana district of the Bombay Presidency and those at Ellora and Ajanta in the Nizam’s dominions. In the dormitories in the Khandagiri and Udaygiri caves, there is a stone bench running along the back and the side walls of the verandah, benches for sleeping with one end raised in the cells and arrangements for other creature comforts. It is the absence of such arrangements in certain caves which enable us to recognise the shrines”.

“The cave-temples excavated by the great Maurya Emperor Asoka and his grandson Dasaratha on the Barabar and Nagarjuni Hills in the Gaya district were intended for the occupation of monks of the Ajivaka sect. The Ajivakas were a sect which flourished in the 5th or the 4th century b.c.. They are known to us from the inscriptions in these caves and Jain and Buddhist literature”. Further he has said that there are Jain caves at Badami in the Bijapur district, at Maungya Tungya in the Nasik district and at Ellora in the Nizam’s dominions, but they are eight or more centuries later than the earliest Jain caves on the Khandagiri and Udaygiri hills of Orissa. Even the later group of Jain caves on the Khandagiri are at least eleven hundred years later in date than the great double-storied Rani Nur Gumpha made by Kharvela, king of Kalinga. According to Mr. R. D. Banerjee “like Hindu temples Hindu caves are much later in date than Buddhist ones. The oldest Hindu cave is cave No. 1 at Elephanta. There may be older Hindu caves in existence, but either we have no data to indentify them as such or date them as precisely as we can date the Kailasa cave at Ellora or Mangalesa’s cave No. IV at Badami”.

Regarding the great Kailasa temple at Ellora Mr. Banerjee has said: “The Kailasa is partly constructed, but for the greater part excavated. It is now known to be a monument of the time of the early Rashtrakuta king Krishna I and, therefore, belongs to the last decades of the eighth century a.d. In plan, it is an excavation open towards the sky, consisting of a temple, surrounded by an open courtyard on all sides. The fourth side has been enclosed with a porch constructed afterwards. Surrounding the courtyard on three sides, there are galleries along the rock surface, partly single storied, and partly double storied. The rear of side walls of these galleries are covered with bas-reliefs. The main temple, though excavated out of the rock, rises free in the centre of the courtyard in the same fashion as any other mediaeval temple. In this particular respect, the Kailasa is different from all other Hindu temples except the cave-temple of Dharmanatha at Dhamnar in the Rampura Bhanpura district of Indore State and the Kholvi temple in the Jhalawar State.* * At Kailasa the sanctum or the main shrine is not on the ground level, but at the height of the second storey. It follows the general principle laid down by early Chalukyan architects in having a central mandapa where the chala-murti or movable image could be placed. On three sides of the central mandapa, there are three open porches or ardha-mandapas, the fourth being occupied by the sanctum. In another respect, the Kailasa differs from most of the Hindu cave-temples of Northern and Southern India; it possesses a spire of the south-western or Chalukyan type, but of this also we shall have to speak at a later stage. In the Kailasa therefore we see the termination of the evolution of a rock-cut Hindu temple the first stage of which we can see in the Central Hall and the left wing of Cave No. 1 at Elephanta”.

But the Muslim invasion in India and their iconalistic zeal snapped further development of Indian art and gradually choked its perennial flow of inspiration. Because art in all phases thrives only in peace and security.


The moods and temperaments of people are reflected in their music which is called the ‘magic of sound’. Music gives expression of joy and grief, pleasure and pain, love and hatred, and it has always been an important element of culture of the people of all nations. Music is an art, and it is included in the category of the fine arts like sculpture, painting and architecture. In primitive culture, music formed an integral part of its rites and ceremonies. Subjective impulse for the art of music manifested as objective forms of singing and dancing among the primitive men. Indian music, which had its origin in the remote past, grew rich in contents through the gradual process of evolution, when microtones, tones, scales, ragas, gitis, murcchanas, alamkaras, angas, visual forms of the ragas, rhythm and tempo, musical instruments, dances hand-poses, gestures and postures, emotional moods and sentiments etc. came into being. “The science of music”, says Swami Abhedananda, “was first developed by the Hindus from the chanting of the vedic hymns. The Sama Veda was specially meant for music, and it is the source of all types of music that evolved in the post-vedic times. And the scale with seven notes and three octaves was known in India centuries before the Greeks had it. Probably the Greeks learned it from the Hindus. It will be interesting to you to know that Wagner was indebted to the Hindu science of music, specially for his principal idea of the ‘leading motive’, and this is perhaps the reason why it is so difficult for many Western people to understand Wagner’s music. He became familiar with Eastern music through Latin translations, and his conversation on this subject with Schopenhauer is already familiar to you”.

During the vedic age, the chanters and common people were content with purely sacred hymnal type of songs, possessing different numbers of tones, registers, meters and literary compositions. The samans were replaced during the beginning of the classical period (600-500 b.c.) by the new and novel type of gandharva music, the materials of which were collected from the vedic music. In the 2nd century a.d., Bharata systematised the classical type of gandharva music with a scientific outlook. Genuine type of ragas came into being with ten determining characteristics (dasha lakshanas) at that time. In the 3rd-7th century a.d., eminent musicologists like Kohala, Yastika. Durgashakti, Matanga and others began to blend and systematise aboriginal and regional tunes (ragas). By the fusion of nonAryan, Aryan and foreign tunes, Indian music became rich, deep and Sensitive. During this period, hundreds of ragas evolved with new names and novel forms.

Musical instruments in ancient India were divided into four heads, (1) tata or stringed instruments, (2) vitata or instruments covered with skin, (3) ghana or instruments giving resonance by the concussion of two solid bodies, and (4) susira or wind instruments. Veena, a musical instrument of the tata class was very popular in the vedic time, and veena like vana, kacchapi, kshauni, audamvari, picchora or picchola, etc. were the prominent ones. Mention of different kinds of veena is to be found even in the Ramayana, Mahabharata, Harivamsha, different Puranas and other books of ancient India. Veena and bamboo flutes (venu) used to be played by both men and women before the vedic sacrifices in vedic time. The wives of the priests and the yajamanas used to dance, keeping time with the dapping of their palms.

From the early vedic age down to the Muslim period, the culture of Indian music flowed freely and uninterruptedly. During Maurya period, dancing, singing and instrumental music formed an important part of all festivities. From the sculptures, engraved on the railings and one of the gateways of the Stupa of Bharut, built during the reign of the Sungas, one finds representations of musical concert and dancing, which testify that music was also cultured during the Sunga period. In the Gupta period, there was an upsurge of musical culture. Samudragupta was a great patron of classical music and dance, and himself a lyre player. Chandragupta II was reputed to be an adept in music. So were the Pala and Sena Rulers.

Some scholars are of opinion that Indian system of music owed much to the Mohammedan period, because it produced many stalwart musicians throughout the time. But with the advent of the Mohammedans, the theory of music and the Shastras were neglected, and decline of the true spirit of music was speedy, though music contributed to the entertainment of the princes and nobles. Thus the progress and development of Indian art in all its phases, as have been attempted above, go to show the high culture and refinement the ancient Indians attained. It also exhibits that Indian art could reach the realm of Truth and Beauty.

FAQ (frequently asked questions):

Which keywords occur in this article of Volume 2?

The most relevant definitions are: India, Asoka, Kailasa, Buddha, Ellora, Gupta; since these occur the most in “indian art in all its phases” of volume 2. There are a total of 125 unique keywords found in this section mentioned 251 times.

Can I buy a print edition of this article as contained in Volume 2?

Yes! The print edition of the Complete works of Swami Abhedananda contains the English discourse “Indian Art in all its Phases” of Volume 2 and can be bought on the main page. The author is Swami Prajnanananda and the latest edition is from 1994.

Like what you read? Consider supporting this website: