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Spiritual Truths of Hinduism and the Aesthetics of Mythological Iconography

There is, it seems to me, an aesthetic problem with the communication of the spiritual truths of “Hinduism”, and not just in the west, but also, for example, in China, and indeed in the whole non-Indian world.

The concept of Hinduism is problematic since it is so exceptionally comprehensive and vague. There is much in Hinduism that I have problems with, and that I don’t count among the spiritual truths. For me, the latter are primarily found in vedanta, including its primary interpretive explications in more general metaphysical terms, and the way in which yoga – as one of the six classical darshanas – and samkhya are, as it were, sublated in vedanta (and here I have in mind not just the theoretical side of vedanta, but also the way in which, in combination with the modified affirmation of yoga, it also produces its own supplementary practice, jnana yoga).

partially affirmed and modified by vedanta (and here I have in mind not just the theoretical side of vedanta, but also the way in which, in combination with this affirmation and modification, it also produces its own supplementary practice, jnana yoga).

Many non-Indians, and primarily westerners, their minds formed for millennia by Greek philosophy (of which science is one of many products) and Abrahamitic religion, i.e. the process of the west’s defining differentiation from the “compact” oriental civilizations, still instinctively react against Hinduism as simply the survival of a fantastic mythological belief in “thousands of gods”.

But even as Hinduism explains that it teaches a unifying reality above this plurality, indeed even when this unity is not conceived in teistic but strictly monistic and impersonal terms, the stories and images of the enormous vedic legacy of mythology seem still for the most part to be taken literally, and shape the presentation of the spiritual truths. Hindu art relies entirely on its iconography.

Needless to say, there are artistically advanced expressions of this throughout the history of India. The iconography of mythology is of course not necessarily in itself a problem for the communication of spiritual truths. The motifs of Hindu mythology have also been rendered by western Hindus in the formal terms of the tradition of Western painting and sculpture, which is itself historically often dominated by the iconography of Greek mythology. Problems arise for much of the non-Indian or non-Hindu-Indian world on the one hand when the mythological content of the tradition is insisted upon as literally true, and on the other when this world perceives that its artistic depiction is not on what it regards as a high artistic level.

The former problem causes immediate philosophical or more general intellectual and cultural obstacles to the assimilation of the spiritual truths. The latter produces a distinctive aesthetic obstacle, which is often connected with the former but could also be considered separately. Hindu mythological imagery abounds, and depictions of scenes from puranic and other stories often reach the world in what many perceive to be the particular modality of what could perhaps be called bazaar art, art with a characteristic quality of kitsch about it. And this particular aesthetic is seen by many to dominate also some of the temples and their decoration.

My point here is not to pass judgement on the aesthetic qualities of these expressions of Hinduism (there are certainly equivalents of bazaar art all over the world). This is not a matter of evaluative assessment, but of the historically conditioned facticity of different aesthetic sensibilities. And my motivation for addressing this is simply my long experience of the equally factual difficulties this produces for the reception of the decisively important truths of the Vedic tradition broadly conceived. My endeavour is similar to that of members of ISKCON like Cyril Wohrer (Chandrashekhara das), who argues that it is not necessary for western devotees to wear traditional Indian clothes, and also similar to the more general cultural bridge-building efforts, such as Hridayananda Swami’s “Krishna West” project.

My purpose is only to supplement my argumentation regarding the communicative problem of literalist mythologism with one focusing on the common, specifically aesthetic problem caused by many representations Hindu mythological iconography. It is a problem that is specific to the non-Indian world. A general cultural adaptation of the Indian aesthetic modalities, and indeed of much of the teachings and practices themselves, is, as I have suggested, needed for the core spiritual truths to be successfully transmitted to the west. And it is, I think, quite as necessary also in the rest of the world. The literalism problem is compounded by the bazaar problem.

The truths need to be presented in a manner that is properly adjusted not only to the general intellectual culture of long globalized differentiated civilization, but also attuned to the specific aesthetic sensibilities of the different parts of the world. This notion has long been at least indirectly questioned in the light of postcolonial and narrow, identity-political currents of thought. But these currents are themselves being questioned today, not least with regard to their problematic ideological and political assumptions, aims, and consequences.

I would keep to what modern Indian vedantic teachers have themselves always used to insist, namely that it should be possible for the world to assimilate the universal spiritual truths without becoming Indian, or indeed Hindu – just as so much of western civilization has been appropriated by other cultures, and just as any important ideas and values from any particular culture are in a certain manner universalizable in accordance with the principles of a higher cosmopolitanism based on a philosophy of value-centered historicism and what I call a “soft” traditionalism.

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