Triveni Journal

1927 | 11,233,916 words

Triveni is a journal dedicated to ancient Indian culture, history, philosophy, art, spirituality, music and all sorts of literature. Triveni was founded at Madras in 1927 and since that time various authors have donated their creativity in the form of articles, covering many aspects of public life....

Indian Classical Imagery

V. Raghavan

By V. Raghavan, M.A., Ph.D.

ONE of the remarkable facts about the history of knowledge is the enormous amount of intellectual activity and literary output of ancient India and the consequent supreme position of world-teacher that India occupied among the nations of the world. In the Vedas, particularly in the Riks, India possesses the oldest literature, most considerable in quantity and highly striking in literary quality, religious fervour and philosophical insight. Ancillary to his Vedic studies, the venerable Indian intellectual, Rishi, as we call him by the fact of intuiting things (Rishih-Darsanat), developed every imaginable science, art, and branch of knowledge, which ramified into the Vedangas, the Darsanas, and Sastras, the Itihasas and Puranas, the Vidyas and Kalas. With an extraordinary flair for scholarship, the ancient Indian savants not only gave lavishly, but took ardently from the student-nations, keeping a live contact with the intellectual centres of the West like Alexandria, Athens and Rome.

On the East and the South East, ancient India held all the countries from Japan to Java in pupillage, gave their peoples religion, moral code, literature and art. Buddhistic missionaries and Brahman teachers went forth to China, Siam, Indo-China, Burma, Malaya, Sumatra, Java and Bali; while the former took the message of the Buddha and the Dharmachakra, the latter took the Vedas and sacrifices–the Yagna-chakra, Manu, Ramayana and Mahabharata, and arts of dance, sculpture and temple-building. The Indian colonists of the Far East quietly settled down there; married locally, founded royal dynasties, and ruled with the entire cultural set-up of India taken with then and thus raised the level of the peoples of those countries. Literary and artistic life started in these countries with the advent of the Indian Pandit who gave them a script and made them literate. The cultural history of the peoples of the Far East is only a chapter of the history of India. The symbology and structure of Ankor Thom or Borobudur, the significance of the Sanskrit inscriptions of Cambodia or the technique of the Mudras of the Javanese dance-drama or of the Tantric worship still current in those places,–all these can hardly be understood adequately by anyone who is not saturated with the knowledge and spirit of Indian Culture and Sanskrit literature. In fact, Sanskrit literature which is the mother of all Indian arts holds the key to the understanding of the culture of the whole Far East.

All this oriental art and literature which may appear to the uninitiate bizarre and meaningless is to the knowing mind idealistic and mystic. In it is not to be found any realism and reproduction of nature but the expression of the out-of-the way forms bodied forth by a bold imagination stretching out to comprehend the inner, the inscrutable and the transcendent Truth. Such bold imagination forged its own symbols and media suggesting the vast divinity. Suggestion, as Anandavardhana the foremost Indian critic has said, is the soul of Indian expression, in letters or art. What the thing is in essence cannot be told in so many words; all the images that we fashion are only suggestive symbols.

Imagination which lies at the root of our artistic creation is called Pratibha in Sanskrit, signifying the fact that in that vivid state of the mind, things strike us and flash forth. It is a vision that develops as a result of a process of discipline, Tapas, and makes its possesser a Seer, a Rishi. The eminent Kashmirian critic of the 10th century, Bhatta Tota, declared that none who was not a Rishi could be a poet, Kavi; and a much younger critic, Mahima Bhatta of about the same age and of the same part of the country, to which India owes some of its outstanding achievements in the literary and cultural fields, compared this poetic imagination to a “Third Divine Eye.” In the Vedas themselves the Rishis who gave us the hymns are aptly described as the “Seers of Hymns”, (Mantra drashtarah), and when we come to the Upanishads we have the conception of Kavi or the creative artist or poet compared to the great Creator, God Himself; and Kavi is explained as one who is endowed with a lofty, wide and far-reaching vision, Kranta-darsi. When in later times, silpa or arts was developed under the aegis of agamas, spiritual discipline for the craftsman was emphasised, and the whole range of artistic activity partook of the nature of a spiritual endeavour. All art now became a Yoga, all artists, Sadhakas. Rishi, Kavi, or Silpin–all were seers and seekers of Truth pilgrimaging through the different paths of their individual medium of expression.

One of the basic beliefs found in our works is that God first created the Vedas and out of them He next created the worlds. This is true in more ways than one; for, all later unfolding of the Indian mind, in poetry and philosophy, art and science, has been from out of the Veda. The imagination of the Vedic seers produced hymns noted not merely for their religious significance, but for their high poetic quality too, hymns brilliant like the burst of dawn, splashed with the purple and gold of simile and metaphor. In fact, the poetic imagery of the Vedas was responsible for the personification and iconography of the Gods. The solar and other phenomena of the skies, the seasons, months and the year, all these get in the crucible of the imagination of the Vedic bard transformed into sacrifices, formulae for worship and divine myths. What imagery could be more grand and daring than the cosmic sacrifice of the Purushasukta in which one of the greatest poets of the Vedic age describes the animate and inanimate Nature and God in terms of a huge sacrifice? Abel Bergaigne, a distinguished Orientalist, has shown in his observations on the figures of speech in the Rigveda how rhetoric holds the key to the meaning of many of the Vedic lines, a truth which centuries ago the Indian critic Rajasekhara gave expression to in his Kavyamimamsa.

It is these Vedic imageries of the Sun, the year and the seasons, dawn, light and darkness, wind, thunder and rain, it is these that developed later into the mythologies that fill our major, and minor Puranas. The release of waters from the clouds became the legened of Indra slaying the demon Vritra. The great Vedic exegetist Kumarila observes that it is the phenomenon of dawn that has been picturised into the story of Indra and Ahalya.

Similes became metaphors, and metaphors produced synonyms, and true to the dictum of the philologist, built up the lexicography. The sky is a ‘sea’ (Samudra), a ‘desert’ (Dhanvan), a ‘huge way’ (Adhvan); the cloud is a ‘stone’ (Upala), a ‘mountam (Adri), ‘dragon’ (Ahi). In the whole of the Rigveda, the imagery of ‘Cow’, Go, reigns supreme; Gauh meant to the Vedic poet ever so many things that gave life and sustenance, the bright rays of the Sun, the heavenly water, and the Earth, above all. The Earth as a cow was milched by our ancient king Prithu after whom she took her name Prithvi; as the Matsya Purana and Kalidasa say, the bounteous Mother Earth yielded at the grand milking every imaginable resource of Hers, minerals, herbs, etc., for the good of humanity. The cow, is indeed the master-motif of Indian civilisation and culture, even as it is the corner-stone of the economy of this vast rural and agricultural country; we see it on the seals of MohenjoDado, we adore it as the all-giving mother of plenty, Kamadhenu. It is at once the symbol of Mother Earth and the bounteous heavens and the link of law that keeps the two: Dharma.

If the bards who sang the poetic hymns revelled in similes and metaphors and adored the multifarious deities created by them, the seers that speculated on the ultimate principle in the philosophical hymns studied the very idea of similarity and saw the One m the many which led to the philosophy of the primary basis of everything, the Brahman of Existence-Bliss-Consciousness (Sat-cid-ananda) underlying all the bewildereing diversities of name and form, Nama-rupa. Simile, Upama as it is called in Sanskrit, is the fundamental figure, and in its own way, a cow of plenty in language and thought: truly does the rhetorician-philosopher Appayya Diksita exalt it. C.F.E. Spurgeon observes in her studies on the imagery of Shakespeare that simile, analogy, metaphor, likeness between dissimilar things “holds within itself the very secret of the universe; it awakens something which we must call spiritual, something at the very root of our being; for as the poet knows, as does also the seer and the prophet, it is only by means of the hidden analogies that the greatest truths, otherwise inexpressible, can be given a form or shape capable of being grasped by the human mind.”

Hence saints and seers delight in similes and parables. To drive the One from which the many appear the Upanishadic seer employs a number of effective illustrations: the one fire or air considered different in different places, the many sparks from the same fire, the one
Sky which is not touched by anything that moves in it, the spider which itself throws out and spins the cobweb, and above all the sea from which all waters go forth and to which all waters return. The last, especially, is one of the leading similes in the whole field of Indian literature. Like the floods of the Ganges that finally reach the one sea, says Kalidasa. You are the one goal of all the diverse paths, even as the sea is of all the waters that flow along straight, crooked and manifold routes,’ says pushpadanta in a prayer. Thrice every day our Sandhya is not complete till we recite, “As all waters falling from above reach finally the ocean, so do the obeisances to all deities reach the one God.” This one Truth, this unity in diversity, is the central strand of Indian thought, the tonic, the Adharasruti, of the rich Indian symphony. This ultimate monism underlying all our manifold, diversified life is also the great message that our Upanishadic seers of yore hold forth to modern India, torn by differences of language, dissensions of community and discords of ideology; in it lies the salvation of India.

This one Absolute then becomes the Perfect Personality possessing infinite excellences, (Ananta Kcityana Guna), drawing unto itself the devotion, adoration and love of man. In the epic stage that now follows, the Indian mind revels in the One Personal God, and in His attractive Personality. He is the abode of all sublimity, grace and auspiciousness, (Santa, Siva, Sundara), and man offers up his entire emotional being to Him. Whatever form his feeling may take, in the image of that feeling, God comes to man; all known images of attachment familiar to man have made God respond suitably: pupil and teacher, son and father, son and mother, servant and master, friend and friend, and above all the beloved and the lover. The last called Madhurabhava or Nayika-nayaka bhava has given rise not only to many schools of Bhakti, but forms the basis of much artistic creation in music and dance.

The Puranas that popularised this Personal God and His periodical manifestations, expatiated also on the exploits of Devas and Asuras and their periodical conflicts. As Przyluski has so well explained, the Greater Indian artist handled the imagery of these conflicts with high philosophical suggestion in the sculptures of the grand Ankorvat. These Devas and Asuras are the symbols of our good and bad impulses and their wars are only pictures of our own daily inner struggles of the pure and impure impulses in us. Innumerable are the legends of such conflicts, but the most glorious of all is the churning of the ocean. The ocean is our own deep being; though the initial outcome is poison, patient churning brings forth the hidden treasures of our heart, the last and greatest of which is Amrita or immortality. In this is to be found not only the image of the inner life and evolution of every man, but the image, as Prince Dara Shikoh, the second pioneer of Hindu-Muslim Unity after Akbar, expressly said in his treatise on the fundamental unity of Hinduism and Islam, of the emergence of the most precious gem of communal concord in this country.

In the same epic age developed also the Itihasa which gave us a race of God-men who were either descents of God, Avataras or partial manifestations of divinity. The Rajarshis of the solar and lunar lines who ruled this country, those high souls, Mahanubhavas, heroic and sublime, Dhirodatta, knights of Dharma who became fit subjects of sagas, epics, and dramas, personalities like Rama and Yudhisthira, they became the archetypes and the standards which man in this country should aspire to reach. The sagas of Rama the Dharmatman, and Yudhisthira the Dharmaputra, hold forth before the nation not only the high moral stature of their heroes; they are the first poems that draw before us portraits of the perfect human form, with all its anatomical details: Ajanubahu, arms dangling to the knees, Visalavakshas, broad chest, Vrishaskandha, high hump-shoulders, Visalanetra, eyes long up to the ear, Prasannamukha, pleasant face, Gaja-Simha-Gati, gait of an elephant and a lion, and so on. Valmiki’s Rama was the image of the ideal beauty of man, Smithabhashi, captivating with a smile even men: pumsam drishti chittapaharinam, the finest of men from whom no man could bear take away his eyes (No cha saknoti apakrashtum chakshusi va narottamat). Similarly, in his Sita, Valmiki drew the lines of the perfection of womanly beauty, as much as of womanly virtue. This first poet, Adikavi, created also the world of demons with all the minute details of the fantastic anatomy that characterised the many perversities of these beings. It is these heroes, heroines and anti-heroes, the gods and demons that we see peopling the painted and sculptured walls of our caves and temples.

Poets like Kalidasa and aesthetes like Bharata followed in the Kavya and Natya age, and they elaborated and perfected the entire field of artistic imagery and anatomy. Every part of the human form, every grace of the mood and movement had found its standard of comparison and excellence in flower, bird and animal. This rich field contains inexhaustible material for the student of art; it has not been covered fully even by the work of Abanindranath on the subject. Of this age of classic poetry, the two foremost images are the Moon above, Chandra, shining brightest in the clear skies and cool nights of a tropical country, and the Lotus, Padma, down below filling the waters with its bloom.

If Chandra or the Moon, as Kalidasa etymologises, is the pleasing image par excellence, Padma or the Lotus is the image par excellence of quiet grace and beauty. The Lotus is a master-image; it was thought of for the beauty of face, eyes, palms, feet,–nay the best type of woman designated the Padmini. In fact, if one symbol should suffice to bring to our mind the entire charm of our culture, it is the Lotus. It is not insignificant that when the Lotus decayed in our tanks and roses began to fill our gardens, the peculiar Indianesque went off from our culture. The Lotus, the home of Goddess Lakshmi, is not only our symbol of external richness and beauty, it is of great inner significance as well. It is fragrant with esoteric and mystic meaning; the Vedas call our heart, where the Supreme Being abides, a Lotus; the Yogins see in our heads the thousand-petalled Lotus, Sahasrava-Padma, that spreads out in realisation and whose nectar flows into us and makes us immortal. In fact, it is out of a Lotus that the Creator and His world are born.

Comparable to the Lotus is its companion on the lake, the Swan, as also the Deer, two images of feminine beauty. The quiet timid grace  of our woman and the inspiration of their spotless nature vanished with the disappearance of the Swan and the Deer as constant sights from our parks and gardens. Like the Lotus, the Swan too is an image of esoteric significance. Pure white and fabled discriminator of the true and the false, of reality and adulteration, the Swan is verily our saint, the Paramahamsa. Esoterism went far enough to invest its very name with deep mysticism when it said that Hamsa is really ‘Aham-Sa,’ ‘So ham-hamsah,’ ‘I am He, He is I’–the essence of the teachings of the Upanishads.

The Lotus, we said, symbolized the finest woman so much that she was called Padmini; not only that, but along with the Swan, became so widespread as to be adopted as a frequent decorative design motif. The Swan, the symbol of womanly charm, became the design on the bridal dress that a lady wore during her marriageVadhu-dukulam Kalahamsa-lakshanam, says Kalidasa.

The Elephant is the other important image, signifying the majesty of man. Like the Lotus, it is also an auspicious symbol; like the Lotus and Swan, its wide vogue extends to decorative designs.

The moralists and story-tellers did not lag behind the poets and philosophers. Trees, birds, and beasts were taken by didactic poets to offer criticism or praise of the failings or merits of man. From the position of the figure of speech of restricted scope, Anyokti, Vyajokti, or Anyapadesa developed into a category of belles lettres, exemplifying the truth that all messages are delivered by the imaginative only through the service of telling imagery. More interesting and important than Anyapadesa poetry is the fables of birds and animals for which India is justly famous. It is from India that animal fables went all over the world; to India belongs the credit of having, with its game of chess and story of animals, taught the world how to spend its leisure hours with pleasure and profit.

To the imaginative mind of the Indian no conception of an object, no enthusiasm for a thing, is possible without seeing in it what is more than apparent. The expressed words of his poetry must carry world of suggestion far beyond them; the notes of his music must be rich in subtle overtones. Things must have a halo; in them, he must see the symbol and image of something higher, something deeper, something which converts his physical activity into a spiritual process. To him, whether he was singing as Bankim in Bengal or as Bharati in Tamilnad, the very land he lived in is Mother, Mother Goddess Herself, Mata, Shakti; and even in his political emancipation, he sees a spiritual deliverance, Moksha.

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