Story of Man and art (part III): Art as Philosophy

Parallel to the western civilizations (mind you we are referring to Europe since United States of America was not as it is today), the eastern, Asian countries had a completely different way of looking at art. Art was intrinsic part of culture for them, for us and still is to a large extent. Unlike west which looked at art as an individual entity and human creation in a holistic way, east looked at human creativity as the most natural activity like procreation. Thus neither was the artist celebrated for his creation as an individual, neither was the artwork a piece on high pedestal that could be sold or purchased. A large scale art activity in India almost till the 17th century has thus been in and for public domain, although patronised by a ruler or economic strong-holder. This difference in culture has certainly seeped in because of the philosophies that emerged and developed in ancient India. Art in India can thus certainly be said as a physical expression of philosophy. What was really happening in Indian sub-continent then?


Firstly it is significant to understand that Hinduism is a way of life, not a religion. Secondly it has many, a lot many gods, which makes it quite different from prophetic religions having singular idea of good and evil. Hinduism itself is a name given to the way of living, a living culture to the people living beyond the Indus river (Sindhu or Raabi of today) by travellers from other lands. So this sense a Vedic believer, an Islamic believer and a Christianity believer in India were all Hindus in a certain period in time. So some 5000-4000 years before today, Indian sub-continent comprised of a large part of central Asia, islands of Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka and may be some more or less geographical area that was connected directly with each other and had similar looking people dwelling together. In here were the Indus valley people occupying the north western region, most probably the Dravidians in the southern region and the small groups of cultures in the central and eastern part which we call as the tribes of India today. Sometime 4000 years ago, the so-called Aryans came in this geographical region from the north and settled in the north west. They are supposed to have come from Central Asia in search of greener pastures and settled in the area that was fertile yet hot and close to desert, an environment that was native to them. These are the people that we call as the Indians combined with the Dravidians of south whose philosophies combined and have come to us as our culture. These are known to us through the texts of Vedas and the Sangamas. A good idea of the geographical connections of the Indian sub-regions is known to us through the epics of Ramayana and Mahabharata, who mention travels and people from all the above mentioned geographical regions of the Indian sub-continent. Whether these texts are true stories of fractions of someone’s mind, the fact remains that these regions were active and known. So what was the philosophy that developed in these times?


We are not much aware of the Indus Valley ideas, because we have no written records in known deciphered language as yet. Fortunately for us, the Vedic Aryans have been very explicit in their story-telling and have written down hymns which express their ideas poetically. These hymns were an oral tradition and were passed on from one generation to another and have thus been known in the Sanskrit, spoken language of people. The same can be said about the Sangama Texts, which were written in  early Tamil and were also oral and written tradition. These texts have used metaphors to express and explain every natural and man-made phenomenon, and have done so quite creatively. In order to create drama and poetic climax, the factors from nature were personified and given names and characteristics. Thus were explained ideas of weathers, calamities, life and death. Vedic people were creative enough to also have the god of time, the Yama; who is unfortunately associated with death today. None if these were gods, they were the world around us and were made more and more interesting by giving them human traits, so that everyone could understand science in a philosophical manner. For a long time now, we have been portraying the images of these fictional characters and praying to them, whereas they we just means to realise the ultimate reality of universe, how life is created and destroyed and yet never ceases to exist! Vedic philosophy was created around the idea of Brahman and Atman, names given to the life energy; Brahman denoting the energy in universe and Atman denoting the energy in individual being. Energy that was understood by the man then as responsible for life on earth was thus praised and explored and also protected and feared.

Since everything was ultimately energy, every creation of man was manifestation of this cosmic energy! Thus creation of a new human being, creation of crops in fields, creation of music, painting sculpture were all manifestations of energy and we all mere mediums. For a whole culture which believed that we all were the same, understood nature as a process and the greatness of cosmic processes in evolution of living kind, art was more of looking at the world in different ways than science. For such a culture, creation and creator were significant but experiencing the same was much more important! Rasaswadam, tasting the juices of beauties around was what gained standing. But more about how all this, and especially the rasa getting transformed into living sculptures, paintings and grand architecture in the next part…..     

Leave A Comment