Ananda Coomaraswamy, known primarily as an art historian, deserves attention also as a philosopher of spiritual traditions. As a keeper of the Indian collection at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts for three decades, he relentlessly espoused the spiritual basis of Indian, especially Hindu art. For him, spirituality was essentially about tuning in to the ‘true reality’ and the ‘one immortal source’ that manifested itself both immanently and transcendentally. Saying that ‘he never thought for himself’, he devoted himself to clarifying and expounding the metaphysics or first principles as articulated in different religious traditions. In his words, ‘philosophy or rather metaphysics represents a theory or vision and religion a way to the verification of the vision in actual experience.’ While philosophy was contemplative, religion was an active quest. But this did not mean that philosophical exegesis was only an academic exercise. For him, it prescribed the right order both within the soul and society.
Consider the opening lines of his Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power in the Indian Theory of Government: ‘It may be said that the whole of Indian political theory is implied and subsumed in the words of the marriage formula “I am That, thou art This, I am sky, thou art Earth” and so forth addressed by the Brahmin priest, the Purohita, to the King in Aitareya Brahmana. Focusing mostly on the ritual texts (Brahmanas), he sets forth a ‘traditional’ theory according to which right order requires that temporal power be guided by and subordinated to spiritual authority. According to him, the marriage formula invoked during the coronation rites, is uttered not so much by the king as is generally held but by the Brahmin priest thereby establishing the primacy of the contemplative over the active life. Given that the king is the feminine party in the marriage, he claims, it is ‘inconceivable’ that they could have been uttered by him.
The king, in his turn, is the masculine party in the relationship towards the earth/realm. In this role, he is the ‘voice’ that gives effect to the purposes of spiritual authority. The marriage brings together “counsel and power, intellect and will, right and might. Through this marriage, the ‘purohita (priest) becomes the alter ego of the kshatriya (king)’. He insists that in this marriage, there is no reciprocal equality; the relation of the king to the priest is that of part to the whole. Underlying this relationship is a metaphysic that counsels the rule of the intellect over the emotional—a rule that implies right and proportional ordering of the emotional and erotic elements in the psyche and society.
In ritual terms, this marriage re-enacts the sacred marriage of divine archetypes of priesthood and rulership namely Mitra and Varuna or Agni and Indra mentioned in connection with the Soma and fire altar sacrifices. This marriage of the priest and king, as a homologue of sacred marriages, brings about peace and prosperity to the realm. The priest supposedly mediates with and evokes intra-cosmic deities through his ritual expertise. Coomaraswamy also compares the priest to Plato’s philosopher-educator who ‘fathers’ strength and skilful speech in the temporal power through counsel. The priest seems to acquire wisdom through the study of scriptures and meditative reflection on the cosmic vision underlying them. Without priestly guidance, he insists that the ship of the state will destroy itself. Throughout, Coomaraswamy alludes to Plato, Neoplatonists such as Philo and Christian theologians in order to make his point about right ordering of the sacred and temporal powers.
But it appears that the establishment of right order even in the cosmos involves considerable conflict and violence between naturally antagonistic principles. Coomaraswamy recognizes the references in the texts to the natural opposition between Mitra (representative of priesthood) and Varuna (representative of royal power). Further, the Satapatha Brahmana says “the ksatra takes no delight in the Brahma, nor does the brahmavarcasa delight in the ksatra. But he goes on to add that the marriage effects a reconciliation that reflects their ‘transcendental unity’. For him, this unity emanates from the common source of both which is Brahma; the latter is described as the Infinite that encompasses the finite. The Brahmin priest is apparently representative of this ‘infinite source’. But the texts do not unequivocally confirm the priority of the Brahmin priest nor do they identify him solely with the contemplative life over the passion-ridden active life or the masculine over the feminine. The Brhadaaranyaka Upanisad is quite ambiguous and mentions in the same passage that there is nothing superior to the ruling power and also that the priestly power is the womb of the ruling power and ought not to be harmed.
Secondly, the priest is not presented as a benevolent philosopher guide. The ‘purohita is originally Agni Vaisvanara of the five wraths, and if he not be pacified and endeared, he repels the sacrificer from the world of heaven It has been noted that the priests did not just perform priestly functions but also warrior-like functions as charioteers and generals. Aitareya Brahmana, which he cites often, also presents the priest who, as a ritual expert is, ‘a receiver of gifts, a drinker of soma, a seeker of food and liable to removal at will.’ The king is provider of food for the Brahmin. Far from being independent, the priest was dependent on royal power and needed the protection of the latter. In the rajasuya, the royal consecration ceremony, the Brahmin pays homage to the Kshatriya from a lower position. Also, every sacrifice involved a fee and lavish bestowal of gifts.
Coomaraswamy interprets this exchange from the standpoint of the priest; he claims that this patronage is only ‘proper’ to the king because he follows the path of action, a path that implies virtues such as generosity. Thus, royal bestowal of gifts should not be seen as one of gratitude for advantages or a fee for services. For that would compromise the superiority of the Brahmin. Rather, by receiving gifts, the Brahmin gives the king an opportunity to be magnanimous. In a similar vein, he contends that the marriage transforms the King’s self so that he is more attuned to the claims of the sacred but denies that this marriage also implies the transformation of the priest into a devourer of gifts which impel more conquests for booty. This transaction entangled the priest in the vicious cycle of violent conquests undertaken by the king and compromised his transcendental authority thus rendering his purity open to ridicule. The Brahmin priest and the barber are often linked in popular tales. More than harmony, the texts register the conflict-ridden dependence and cooperation between the two iconic figures associated with authority and power.
Coomaraswamy himself notes some of the ambivalences but glosses over them consistently through esoteric readings. Hostile as he is to historical and literary treatments of the texts, he champions a theological method. For him, subsequent texts simply explicate what is always already there in nuce in earlier texts. As such, criticisms that his approach is ahistorical and nostalgic, that it is Brahminical and masculinist and that he is constructing a ‘high tradition’ may, however valid, appear external to his approach. For him, the context does not completely determine the meaning of a text; he probes the texts for philosophia perennis or eternal truths. While one may disagree with the very idea of such truths, an effective critique of his work must proceed from within his framework. Here, such an immanent critique is pursued. It may be asked whether we should not contextualize his readings; sure, for he fulminates at length against the ‘proselytizing fury’ of the colonial and modern west which only sees idolatry and flawed revelation in eastern religions. But his search for some eternal truths is not simply a product of his context; the texts in question do speak of cosmic truths and eternal principles of order. What he does not foreground is the ambivalence in the same texts about the extent to which such eternal principles and truths are realizable in the mundane world.
For him, traditional civilization is one where ‘everything is seen as an application and extension of a doctrine whose essence is purely intellectual or metaphysical.’ Echoing Plato, he claims that the paradigmatic order is one where the superior rule over the inferior for the latter’s good. He writes enthusiastically about the ‘marvelous city of wooden automata’ in Katha Sarit Sagara, where “the whole citizenry consists of wooden engines or automata, all behaving as if alive […] (ruled by) a comely man […] the only sole consciousness there […] (who is) enjoying the sport of a King, as a God all alone by himself.’ In another portrayal of the city of resplendent wisdom, he writes of ‘the prince (who) instructed by his wife, has become a free man and performs his royal duties like an actor on stage and following his example and instruction, all citizens, no longer motivated by their passions although still possessing them, were playing at life and citizenship spontaneously and intelligently.’ Predictably, Coomaraswamy interprets these myths as articulating the right order within the soul and the city, where the “Self, inner controller, the immortal One” of the Upanisads (which are analogous to the daimon of Socrates or Plato’s Idea of the Good) rules over the passions and appetites.
These charming visions of cities organized according to first principles evoke not only wonder but also our curiosity. After all, Plato’s Republic, which informs Coomaraswamy’s reading, leaves enough doubt about the feasibility and desirability of the dream-picture. Plato’s Socrates suggests that only a rare combination of chance factors will bring about a coincidence of philosophy and politics. Besides, Socrates’ references to his daimon provoked deep suspicion in the city. As mentioned earlier, Aristotle introduces practical reason to moderate tyrannical desires to achieve wholeness in politics. Could it be that this issue never cropped up in the so-called traditional civilization of India? If the above-mentioned ambiguities are probed seriously, then the texts definitely seem to recognize the tension between the naturally antagonistic principles of brahma and kshatra and refuse to reconcile this tension in a conclusive transcendental unity.
This refusal to reconcile antagonistic forces is loud and clear in the puranicm myths of divine marriages. From the Siva Purana, it is clear that even Siva’s marriage to Sati/Parvati is open to breakdown, violence, destruction, recovery and remarriage often in some holy spot on earth. The establishment of harmony and order is often temporary and vulnerable to some demon’s tricks or the other. And the marriage of Siva and Parvati cannot yield children in the normal sense; they both produce sons without the participation of the other. On the one hand, Siva’s dangerous asceticism has to be tamed and his marriage to Parvati is necessary for cosmic welfare; on the other hand, Siva’s excessive erotic play with Parvati is equally threatening for cosmic welfare. Marriage as the guarantor of harmony and fertility between opposites is at once affirmed and questioned in these myths. Divine marriage has to be disrupted and broken up for worldly good. Further, some myths and rituals suggest that divine marriages cannot take place on earth and are deferred indefinitely. A good example here is that of Kanyakumari whose marriage to Siva is delayed till the time of universal destruction so that her virginal powers may be deployed to kill demon-foes. Similarly, there is a well-known tradition that Meenakshi’s marriage is postponed every year because someone sneezes before the ceremony is completed. The goddess has to be married but then her chastity also has to be preserved for cosmic fertility.
David Shulman observes how ritual thus accomplishes the ‘elusive synthesis of conflicting ideals’. In a similar vein, could it be that the Brahmana texts were also registering the ‘elusive synthesis of conflicting ideals’ in their appeal to sacred marriage between King and Brahman? Even if we interpret the divine marriage to be an internalized order within the soul (as Coomaraswamy does repeatedly), it is not unambiguously good as evidenced by the myth of Parasurama, the brahmin-warrior but also matricide and killer of Kshatriyas. To quote Shulman, ‘Parasurama carries to a mythic extreme an enduring Brahmin conflict; on the one hand, restraint, purity, non-violence, detachment; on the other, inherent power, and the recurrent temptation to use it in the violent pursual of an uncompromising vision. Indeed the myth implies that the Brahmin can never be wholly free of violence….’
Coomaraswamy is championing Brahminical superiority but in the process, the Brahmin figure is bereft of the inner conflict with consuming passions that the texts express. Coomaraswamy admitted that he was supporting ‘relatively unpopular sociological doctrines’ in his interpretations of classical texts. In part, he was reacting to the modern reduction of philosophy to epistemology and politics to socio-economic issues. But then he also argued for traditional institutions such as the caste order as natural and proper. Expressing his admiration for Mahatma Gandhi he writes of the great leader as one who ‘consistently refused to disassociate politics from religion and has never repudiated the caste system but would only reform its working.’ And adds that the ‘justice and freedom in the social order can only mean that it is just that every man should be free to earn his daily bread by following that vocation to which his natural abilities imperiously summon him’. Alluding to those who are untouchables because of no caste or loss of caste status, he concedes there may be ways of ‘lifting up qualified outcastes’ and quotes Swami Vivekananda who said that ‘if the outcastes would improve their status, let them learn Sanskrit.’ While admitting that there may be kinds and conditions of work to which none should be subject, he affirmed the hierarchy of caste order.
Given that Coomaraswamy’s theological interpretation resonates with many Hindu ideologues, it may be useful to reiterate the tradition’s ambivalence surrounding conflicting ideals as expressed in myths. Mythic ambiguities and ritual improvisation hint that sacred marriage between opposite principles or figures is often elusive and/or explosive involving violence and disorder. In this light, there is much to be learnt from Hindu myths and rituals about the possibility and desirability of a marriage between spiritual and political realms. At the same time, the realm of gods and demons, as much as that of humans is ridden with factionalism and conflict; restoration of right order requires ingenuity and tactful redistribution of power and honor. This need not result in ideals being abandoned; their paradoxical nature is explored and affirmed as well as undermined in myths and ritual strategies. Obviously, recalling ritual or textual elisions may not make the ideologues embrace the liberal separation between the spiritual and the political; but it might serve to moderate simplistic visions of the so-called spiritual realm in favor of a richer, nuanced understanding of its limits and possibilities. # Brahmanas are prose texts explaining the meaning of liturgy and clarifying ritual performance; they constitute the second portion of each veda; Aitereya Brahmana belongs to Rig Veda while Satapata Brahmana belongs to (white) Yajur Veda.
Vasanthi Srinivasan is Reader, Department of Political Science, University of Hyderabad.