The Symbolism of Indian Art

Great minds have weighed in on the nature of Indian art. Its grandeur, the suffusion of riches, sometimes even a suffocating bewildering maze of beauty heaped pell-mell. Check the excesses of this race here.

It seems there was not the clear path, a logical progression, like say the clearly delineated phases of styles like in western art. The Indian method, if there ever was one, was like the actions of spy who had gone rogue. There are hints of a method, but its context, the conditions and its aims seem foreign to the mind of the modern viewer.

The Indian mind lived a dream world and out of it birthed forms of wonder.

To one who does not posses the key to this dream vocabulary the works of magnificence appear even as the labored efforts of a primitive race – snatches of beauty appear to gleam out from a few perspectives, we appreciate the scale, the engineering aspect of hewing rock and stone, but the piety that birthed gods from inert nature is unseen.

Yesterday I stumbled upon an instance of art so simple in its execution that it instantly yielded a clue to the nature of Indian mind.

Lord of Beginnings

A simple rock, rough and unfinished. Much like the unregenerateness that is man. With no characteristics that would distinguish if it were to lay by the street corner. Perhaps even serve as a stepping stone to span a pothole on a crowded pavement. A simple stone that patiently bears the footfalls of men, men more inert than itself perhaps.

Hosted on a frame. The shape is irregular. Almost like a triangle, or is it a parallelogram?, but one that did not yield to Greek world view.

Upon this stone were drawn three short parallel lines in white, with a red dot right in centre.

Four strokes is all it would have taken. Like the meaningless incantations of an Occultist. Gestures that made no sense to our pragmatic world-view. But that dipped into some mystic sky to gather some of its hue and splash on stone.

Lo, now we have Ganesha, the Lord of Beginnings.

In a flash the mundane is made profound. A time-born inertness stands as a monument in time to the eternal. From now, Indian society would revere this stone. Offer its devotion, oblations from its prayers and let the light from a sacred fire leap out and touch the God in time. From now this would be a symbol, a conduit for the mind of the aspirant to pass through.

And in this symbolic world-view resides the key to understanding ancient Indian art. Not to compel nature into regular forms, to suffocate her infinite variety within the confines of geometry.

No, the Indian mind allowed nature, and hence art, to course the free skies of the intuitive mind. Every object it saw- cow, dog, tree, stone, could be made profound. The temples were the artistic assertions of Kings. But the devotee did not need them, not essential to the progress of his soul. In the thickness of the jungle, or beside the banks of a stream, the pebble shaped as the form of his devotion would do. By that devotion the God will be brought down into the pebble. A temple more grand and sublime than any made by hands will be erected in the vastness of his heart. And the mantras that burn through his mind shall create the pedestal, the flowers, the offerings. Every ritualistic injunction shall be followed, no rule overruled. Here will prayer be made perfect.

This is the key. Every object could aid in the soul’s turning to the Divine. Here at last was a race that could practically live out the idea of a Divine’s Omnipresence. Every object could be God. All it took was a flash from the intuitive mind.

Ignore this symbolic thinking, and one is as a child wandering the halls of heavens wondering if the shining hosts were the legends of his comics come alive. One would still enjoy the color and flash and splendor. And in doing so walk away from doors of eternity because it did not speak the rational language of men.

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