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by Ana Pániker

November 14, 2006

(click on the small image for full screen image with captions.)

The path followed by the West in the field of art and aesthetics has been interesting and complex, though very different from the one taken by the Eastern cultures that concern us here. Nevertheless, it paved the way for the two worlds to meet; on many occasions such encounters were productive, and other times devastating.

One such encounter was in the world of art collectors. There are many kinds of collectors and many reasons that induce people to collect objects: the compulsion to accumulate things, ostentation, emulation (usually the middle classes who wish to imitate the aristocracy and royalty - to whom, incidentally, we owe the first private art collections and hence the first museums), the irrational fascination for a specific kind of object, the pleasure of owning and contemplating, and, lastly, the interest in collecting and classifying objects to obtain an explanation of the culture they represent. Or perhaps, to a greater or lesser degree, all collectors have a measure of all these characteristics at the same time.

Let's consider a hypothetical collector. A person who decides to own a small or large collection of Oriental works of religious art. I will focus on the latter two of the above-mentioned six incentives for collecting: the pleasure of contemplating, and the need to understand. These two facets of the human mind are complementary and one could not exist without the other. The first involves sensitivity and the realm of the senses, while the second refers to understanding, a characteristic that is exclusive to knowledge and leads to an openness to the world. Knowledge cannot exist unless there is prior perception or apprehension, but it is also true that cognitive capacity - the structure of our brain - conditions the way we perceive and re-cognize things. And the action of one capacity on the other may broaden our range of sensitivity and our cognitive capacity. This is a determining factor in aesthetic experience: perception/sensation and the kind of knowledge it brings. This knowledge will in turn enable us to perceive things from a richer perspective and also generate a broader comprehension of the world. A constant dialogue between the physical and metaphysical planes

But let's get back to our collector, an art lover who acquires works because he (or she) likes them and cannot resist their attraction; nor, in fact, like all good lovers, does he want to resist them. Furthermore, in this case, we are talking about someone who is interested in an art that is foreign and often just the opposite to his own cultural tradition: Oriental art. People who collect art that forms part of their own culture restrict themselves, among other things, to reaffirming what they already know about and are familiar with. It is a redundancy that reinforces one's own identity vis-à-vis what is foreign to one. The most interesting aspect of our collector is, however, precisely that he focuses on what is different from the things that are familiar. It is a vision that implies a search. An attitude towards art that involves transgressing from one's own culture, but which is also a strongly conservative attitude. A transgressive attitude, insofar as it goes beyond the established tastes, the recognized aesthetic values that are easily translated into economic terms (artists' signatures, the external signs of prosperity, are quoted on the art market just like shares on the stock exchange); and conservative because Oriental art is not a revolutionary art form but is entirely bound to tradition, to such an extent (and this is one of its attractions) that some iconographic elements are still in force after at least three thousand years. This demonstrates an enviable capacity for recycling. In Indianized art, nothing is discarded; only the superfluous is lost or transformed (details of clothing, hairstyles, etc.). Symbols remain in force though their interpretation varies, usually by adding a new explanatory dimension: the philosophical plane which, added to the mythological perspective, completes it.[1]

In the West, it was the actual process undergone by art that brought us to the doors of other cultures, of other ways of representing the divine, the beautiful, the terrifying. But early collectors of Oriental religious art looked upon the objects purely as curiosities, rarities, or even grotesque items brought from afar. They were objects made by infidels in countries subjected to the "white man's power" - the colonies - so they were considered to be the products of weak, underdeveloped identities, not only in terms of civilization but also from a human standpoint. As from the 18th century, a new value was added to collections: the scientific interest. Under the prism of the new evolutionary theories, the objects were considered to be testimonials of earlier phases in the development of human culture, which - naturally - culminated in Western culture. A religious image from Tibet, for example, was neither beautiful nor interesting in itself, but represented an inferior stage in our evolutionary process. They were labelled as idols, as opposed to images of the true God. Although they were held to be of an inferior category compared with Western art, these works became part of our history. They were part of our evolution. However, in the field of philosophy, things were seen differently, and Voltaire went so far as to assert that whereas the whole world needed India, India did not seem to need anyone, this being a reference to its self-sufficiency in the area of thought. But it was not until the arrival of relativist anthropology in the 20th century that religious works of art, and particularly "primitive" objects, began to be taken into consideration in their own light.

To this state of affairs a characteristically Western feature was added: the gradually increasing indifference towards Western traditions and the obstinate, critical questioning of established aesthetic values. And this was the course Western artistic currents were to follow. It brought us to the so-called Modern Age, and it was from this outlook that thinkers and creators of the late 19th and early 20th century observed the world. Being modern meant looking at the past as something to be done away with. An artist had to become emancipated from the sterile teaching of the established artistic precepts that did nothing but restrict and limit his or her creative potential. This idea was forged within all areas of art, given that it did not only affect artists and creators. Critics, scholars, purchasers, sellers, aesthetes, collectors, all took up positions in favour or against the new paradigm. According to Arthur C. Danto, modernity begins with the loss of belief in the narrative that defines one's own culture.[2] Gauguin created under the influence of Japanese lithographs, Monet collected them in the same way as Matisse collected African masks. Not to speak of Picasso, Klee and Modigliani and their "reinterpretation" of primitive art.[3] Such an opening up to other artistic models is impossible without the implicit denial of one's own aesthetic tradition. Picasso needed new forms of expression that enabled him to create something "different", and he did not hesitate to take possession of the peculiar forms of African art that he found heaped up, mouldy, in the corners of the Trocadéro Museum in Paris. It would be of interest to learn, as Danto suggests, just what happened to induce these artists to decide all of a sudden that their own past was of less relevance than the imagined past of other cultures.

Anthropology and archaeology are conclusive as to the origin and meaning of artistic activity. We can affirm that art was an extension of people's awareness of the world's sacredness. I am not talking about tools created for hunting or storing food (i.e. directly applied craftsmanship), but about the caves of Lascaux and Altamira, the pyramids, yantras, masks; in short, any creations that, though useful for a specific purpose, exceed by far their actual usefulness. Hunting, for example, requires skill and physical strength to attack the prey, together with some sort of equipment such as spear points or knives. The body decorations, dances before and after the hunt, the paints and masks do not apparently make the hunt for food any more successful. So, this added value of any creation whose raison d'être is found in itself, not in its usefulness but as an experience or perception of itself, is what could be classified as art.

These works of art were created at the same time as a ritual, and were conceived through a ritual. A ritual that portrayed people's consciousness of their existence, of knowing they were alive and vulnerable, of death and, inevitably, of birth. This ritualization of existence involved creating symbols in order to enable human beings to tackle the overwhelming force, complexity and immensity of this reality and learn how to deal with it. Deal with the source of food, health, life and death, fear, pain and happiness. A colour, the first ochre pigments around a body at a burial; a sound, the first lullaby to a newborn baby, the first lament beside a deceased person; a movement, the first steps to attract or drive off an animal. Painting, music, dance, theatre.

The world was sacred because it was mysterious and caused respect, and our relationship with the world needed art so we could carry out the rites. Our interaction with reality was converted into art. Art and culture became synonymous. But history ran on, uncovered mysteries and took short cuts towards mankind's understanding of his surroundings and ability to manage his environment for himself. Human beings gained independence, lost their fear and, at the same time, lost their respect for that environment, that world full of spirits: the mountain spirit, the river spirit, the rain spirit. They stripped the world of its spirit/soul by submitting it to their will. And then the world slowly surrendered its leading role and was gradually transformed into the backcloth to humankind's conquests. Art, which had once served as a form of dialogue with the world, became merely a form of proclaiming heroes and, later, no more than decoration. It was no longer sacred. It was like a bone that, during unusually rapid growth, had lost all its marrow. This hollowness, this lack of substance, is what caused the West to burn its bridges in a race to who knows where.

On its course through different styles, and particularly in the modern apotheosis at the turn of the 20th century with its avant-garde movements (especially Dada and Surrealism), Western art said NO: it's not that, and it's not the other, either. What is it, then? If art has lost the function given it by Pope Gregorio Magno, for example, to enlighten illiterate non-believers, just as the clergy used the written word; if it is no longer a propagating tool used by kings and the mighty, nor is it used for the pleasure of the well-to-do bourgeoisie who copied their houses, fabrics and vases; if art is no longer at the service of anyone, and not even of itself (as abstract art would seem to boast), or if anything now goes because there are no longer any fixed values or benchmarks (as the postmodernists preach), then what meaning does art have? What is its substance?

Fig. 1


Fig. 3

Fig. 4
Fig. 5

But let's get back once more to our collector, that person who is captivated by the beauty of religious art from India, the Himalayas or Southeast Asia. He (or she) will probably have travelled widely, be familiar with other parts, contemplated art in its original setting. Or not. He may have read about other religions, other philosophies, other ways of understanding the universe. Or not. He may have felt the need to capture a fragment of wisdom for himself. Or maybe not even that. But what he does have at home is an image of Buddha, with that extraordinarily tender expression, free from all sorrow (Fig. 1). Or a sculpture of a Jina, whose imposing presence transmits the sensation of a pure, uncontaminated existence (Fig. 2). Or the figure of a voluptuous woman who freely illustrates the power of the erotic, but without falling into obscenity (Fig. 3). Perhaps the collector will enjoy the extraordinary beauty emanating from two bodies fused into one and glean the whole from which we were separated (Fig. 4). Or contemplate with nostalgia the image of a naked man in the midst of a wood (Fig. 5), an image that takes us back to a lost moment in history, a freedom that was sacrificed in the pursuit of civilization: Shiva the renouncer. Consciously or not, the collector has reoriented his or her view towards what the West lost on the way: the sacredness of art. In India, the idea that images have the virtue of transmitting sacredness runs much more deeply than any of the foregoing thoughts and constitutes one of the fundamentals of the devotional ritual: the darsana, literally the act of seeing and being seen by the divinity. Contact with the sacred through vision

In the West, on the other hand, an essential part of human experience, a certain concern for the transcendental, has been sacrificed in the race towards secularization. This concern should be evident in the work of all artists because their task consists of interpreting the world and its mystery. During the 20th century, science obviously gave us highly satisfactory explanations of the world and very spectacular illustrations of its practical applications. However, science does not substitute or invalidate the artistic interpretation of reality. We continue to need art. In contrast to the scientist, who offers a functional explanation of the universe and makes it possible to use its resources, the artist should offer something that is not to be used, in the common meaning of the word, but to be contemplated. An artist should deliberately choose and depict a slice of reality that will reveal the nature of things, of the universe, of ourselves. A nature that is otherwise concealed. The contemplation of this slice of reality, in this case reality as revealed to the artist, is very similar to what we call religious experience, understanding the term "religious", as Mircea Eliade did, to mean an experience of the sacred without necessarily involving a belief in God, gods or spirits. Contemplation involves the revelation of something, is at the root of the experience of the transcendental. And this is where Indian artists come into their own, because their art involves an initial revelation, which is subsequently portrayed.

Needless to say, this revelation does not just appear spontaneously from nothingness. The Oriental artist must first study the shâstras, the religious texts that itemize all the points of iconography and iconometry that must be taken into account when representing divinities. We find, for example, that all the postures and colours are stipulated, corresponding to each of the transcendental Buddhas or Tathâgatas. Amitâbha should always be portrayed in a posture of meditation and the colour assigned to him is red, whereas the colour for Akshobhya is blue and he is always depicted in the earth-touching gesture or mudrâ. These colours and postures were not chosen by chance. They have very specific associative functions. In Western cultures, Wassily Kandinsky himself acknowledges how pure forms and colours affect people's emotions. In Concerning the Spiritual in Art, he says that yellow is disturbing and exciting whereas blue evokes a deep calm.[4] Akshobhya is the Buddha that calms and transforms anger; his element is water, so blue is the most appropriate colour.


Fig. 6

Consequently, a work of art is presented thus as a means for meditation. It helps the initiate in the process of visualizing and simultaneously matching mystic identification with the chosen deity. A great number of texts from Tantric literature (both Buddhist and Hindu) deal with this subject. It is generally agreed that it was Tantrism that introduced the use of images in religious rituals in the Vedic world. For this philosophy-practice, it is essential to work with the senses and based on the senses. Liberation can be attained through the manifest world of forms, and other more subtle worlds that are difficult to apprehend without a specific discipline. The road is not through denial of the senses or the sensitive world, even though such a world may be an illusion (mâyâ). So there is no reason to renounce them. Sight, hearing, taste, smell and touch do not deceive us but can be used as tools that enable us to experience divinity, or the state of grace.[5] According to Tantrism, any speculations of a philosophical nature should be psycho-experienced.[6] And this psycho-experience is what makes thought effective. Thus, the sâdhaka or initiated can meditate on his own body through the corporeal manifestation of the purusa or primordial man, identifying the different points wherein the body corresponds with the cosmos (Fig. 6, above). There is a cosmic energy, which they call shakti, which moves through the body along subtle channels. Our organs, our senses, our faculties are in direct correspondence with the universe. We are not isolated, separate beings. This separation is an illusion. We form part of the network that has no beginning and no end. In fact, one of the meanings of the word "Tantra" is a weave or net.

It is therefore understandable that the ideas of Tantrism should nourish the sphere of art, of the manifest, and give birth to the great plasticity and sensuality of the religious images. Gods and goddesses had to be represented as beautiful young sixteen-year-olds, exhibiting their semi-nakedness without a shade of decadence. Buddha and the bodhisattvas themselves express absolute beauty, in the most rigorous sense of the term. They do not depend on fashions and momentary, fleeting trends: they express a quality that transcends. Sanskrit texts are very strict with respect to the specific representations artists should work with, leaving very little room for personal recreation. Eastern works of art are usually anonymous; personal interpretations are of no interest. The idea is to go beyond individual limitations to reach broader contexts. The artist is not important as an individual; we do not want to know about his personal tastes. His raison d'être is to transmit collective wisdom, i.e. the wisdom of a community.

We find texts relating to the exact shape and size for each of the images' body parts. The good fortune, happiness, success and fertility (even the size of the herd of goats or cows) of the person who owns the image depend on the correct representation of all these parts.[7] A defective image could bring misfortune, great or small. Considering that the temptation to break the rules is absolutely human and very appetizing for an artist, it was very probably these magical connotations of the purely formal elements that contributed towards preserving artists' loyalty to these canons. The threat of losing the harvest, one's children or one's health, in short, the favour of the gods, as a result of allowing oneself creative licence, would weigh heavily on the artist's conscience and that of the person commissioning an image. Why run risks? Things may not be working out as well as one would like, but they could always be worse. It's preferable to leave things as they are, which is as they should be. And that's how things are because that's what tradition dictates. That's how things have always been, from the beginning of time.

This permanence of Eastern cultures in an eternal present, in contrast to the West's linear experimentation of time, is what has kept them closer to the primitive feeling of sacredness. And it is loyalty to tradition that has set time in an eternal instant that repeats itself. However, as already explained, this is not a capricious tradition, because the origin of these apparently arbitrary forms dictated by the canon is based on profound visualization and meditation. The task of the yogi. The forms are determined by clear visions of the heavenly archetype from which they originate (I personally prefer the idea of things being in syntony with rather than originating from). According to Ananda Coomaraswamy, the most outstanding principle in Indian art is the notion of pramâna, the rule of correctly directed thought.[8] This idea involves the existence of types and archetypes to which all artistic representation should adapt. We should not forget that deities are not only beings of a transcendental nature but are also states of mind. Human nature is not separated from divine nature. The divine nature is within ourselves, and can be found within ourselves if we proceed as indicated by tradition.

The artist does not resort to models but uses a mental construction.[9] The most important term in this theory of Indian art is rasa, literally hue, essence or taste, interpreted as aesthetic pleasure. According to this theory developed in Kashmir between the 7th and 9th centuries AD, based on a treaty on the science of drama (Natyashâstra by Bharata, circa 2nd century) and commented on by Abhinavagupta, a philosopher initiated in Tantrism, "aesthetic categories are the modifications of sentiments that emerge in an individual ... like an emotional state free of all particular connotations".[10] Bharata listed eight basic emotional states that give rise to eight specific rasas, e.g. love would give rise to the erotic rasa, laughter to the comic rasa, and fear to the terrible rasa. In this case, it is supposed that certain abstract categories exist, wherein what is individual is no more than a small portion or expression of their potential. Over and beyond the purely personal is the transpersonal sphere, and correspondence is established between both worlds. Liberation, in this case, depends on our being able to detach from ourselves something that in reality has the consistence of abstraction. When we feel an emotion, for example anger, we are in reality possessed by a hurricane-like fury. We are not, therefore, less vulnerable than clouds are vulnerable to the force of the wind, or water to the force of the tides. It is this constant reference to broader contexts than the strictly individual one that imbues art from the Indianized world with its special value. Deeper levels of human nature are thus experimented with through art.

In the East, therefore, tradition has preserved the quality of art as a revelation of what is sacred. The Western perspective has kept sacredness at a distance and placed it in a sphere that is practically inaccessible for human beings except for the rare exceptions of mystics or movements deemed heretic by the institutionalized Church. Even so, great works of art - particularly music and architecture - have been produced in profoundly religious contexts. The Orient has maintained a close coexistence with sacredness, regardless of its manifestation. Beside their home computer, people in the East will have a little chapel with a sacred image to which they offer flowers, prayers, incense, or simply silence. It's beautiful: it's art. In the West we have an exaggeratedly compartmented life. We have created a series of niches that are separate from each other, so we are obliged to move from place to place to carry out each of our separate activities. It is the specialization of space: we sleep at home, we eat the set menu for lunch at the restaurant, we work at the office, we pray in church, we look at art in art galleries. It cannot be denied that this atomization of space according to our different human requirements has brought many advantages, but also many disadvantages. Collectors of sacred art can restore in their vital space something of what has been lost. Functionality and productivity have led us to sacrifice aspects that previously formed part of our day-to-day life. They have been eliminated or extrapolated and we can only access them in specific ways or in specific places. Electrical appliances now occupy the place of honour in our homes.

Nevertheless, while this secularization and technical orientation of our lives was taking place, we find the evaluation of art and artists has rocketed. Never before have such huge sums been paid for an artist's work. Collectors have never had it so hard. And this has occurred - let's not forget it - at a time when art does not respond exactly to anything special, does not apparently have any specific function, but rather seems to answer to the ultimate definition of luxury: uselessness. Huge amounts of money are paid for something that in reality is of no use except for being looked at, an ostentatious show of wealth, especially if (considering the money spent on it) purchasers are forced to keep the objects in a safety deposit box at a bank and cannot even enjoy looking at them. A total waste, or the best and safest of investments, depending on how you look at it. The fact that art has become a major financial resource is a schizoid phenomenon in a society that places the highest value on the directly practical function or application of an object.

Of course, we must not forget a form of applied art that is highly valued and absolutely indispensable in our lives: design. Who hasn't admired the breathtaking beauty of a bridge, a steel structure suspended in space? But that is an engineering feat, and is valued as such. Its cost and its valuation are basically subordinate to its function. We must therefore surely realize how absurd it is when an auction room sells a work of art for a sum that would be sufficient to finance a public work. A painting, for example, does not fulfil any practical function except for the widespread, but not so well regarded, function of decorating. What exactly, then, do we value in a work of art? Could it not be the fact that it enables us to enter the lost context of what is sacred that tacitly imbues it with extraordinary value? It is certainly not surprising that nowadays art galleries and museums have become the temples of the West and are visited by more faithful than the churches themselves. Why should contemplating a work of art not be deemed a religious experience? In fact, we need to learn how to look at things, to get to know them, and then to contemplate them, which is not the same thing. We are ready to see art from all cultures past and present, by all artists, because our society, in its frenzy to consume culture, can offer us artistic manifestations from all corners of the earth. Let's now learn how to contemplate art. To learn, as artist Antoni Tàpies says, how to create that intimate experience that constitutes the ideal situation for making the seeds planted by the creator really fertile; a situation that may quite possibly be what has stimulated people throughout the ages to amass the great private art collections.[11]

© Ana Pániker


1. Just as some deities assume the characteristics and histories of other, more ancient ones. Many of the avatâras or reincarnations of Vishnu correspond to older local deities. The India of the people, with its millions of gods and goddesses, continues to exist alongside the trilogies of brahmanism, atheistic interpretations and philosophical assumptions of liberation. Fertility and prosperity, the same as five thousand years ago, continue to be the main reasons for many prayers and rituals.

2. Danto, Arthur, C, 2001: El aspecto de los pasados artísticos en oriente y occidente, in Deutsch, Eliot (Ed.), Cultura y Modernidad. Barcelona: Kairós, p.263.

3. For a deeper study of this subject, see the catalogue of the exhibition Primitivism in 20th Century Art. Published by William Rubin, New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1984. For a criticism of the exhibition, see Clifford, James. 1998. Dilemas de la cultura. Barcelona: Gedisa: Chapter 9.

4. Kandinsky, Vassily, 1974. De lo espiritual en el arte. México: Premiá Editora: p.73.

5. In the sâdhana or Tantric ritual, offerings to the divinity represent the five senses: flowers are offered to represent sight, a bell is rung to represent hearing, a piece of fabric or cloth is given to represent touch, and incense is burned to represent smell. The five senses are transformed through this ceremony.

6. Bharati, Agehananda (1965). The Tantric Tradition. London: Rider, 1992.

7. Banerjea, J.N. , 1956. The Development of Hindu Iconograohy. Calcuta: University Publications: pp.594-95 and pp.609-10.

8. Coomaraswamy, Ananda, K, 1997. La transformación de la naturaleza en arte. Barcelona: Kairós: p.15.

9. Coomaraswamy, Ananda, K, 1997. La transformación de la naturaleza en arte. Barcelona: Kairós: p.127.

10. Maillard, Chantal & Pújol, Óscar, 1999. Rasa. El placer estético en la tradición India. Varanasi: Indika Books (Ethnos). p.16

11. Tápies, Antoni, 1999. El arte y sus lugares. Madrid: Siruela: p.43


Banerjea, J.N. The Development of Hindu Iconograohy. Calcuta: University Publications, 1956.

Bharati, Agehananda (1965) The Tantric Tradition. London: Rider, 1992

Clifford, James. Dilemas de la cultura. Barcelona: Gedisa, 1998

Coomaraswamy, Ananda, K. La transformación de la naturaleza en arte. Barcelona: Kairós. 1997. The Transformation of Nature in Art, 1934

Danto, Arthur, C. El aspecto de los pasados artísticos en oriente y occidente, in Deutsch, Eliot (Ed.), Cultura y Modernidad. Barcelona: Kairós, 2001.

Huntington, Susan. The Art of Ancient India. New York: Wetherhill, 1985

Kandinsky, Vassily. De lo espiritual en el arte. México: Premiá Editora, 1974

Maillard, Chantal & Pújol, Óscar. Rasa. El placer estético en la tradición India. Varanasi: Indika Books (Ethnos), 1999

Rubin, William (Ed.), Primitivism in 20th Century Art. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1984

Von Schroeder, Ulrich. Indo-Tibetan Bronzes. Hong Kong: Visual Dharma Publications, 2001

Tápies, Antoni. El arte y sus lugares. Madrid: Siruela, 1999