One Hundred Tamils
of the 20th Century
Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy
nominated by Sachi Sri Kantha, Japan
"Nations are created by poets and artists, not by merchants
and politicians. In art lie the deepest life principles." - Coomaraswamy
Journey Down Memory Lane To Reach 'tamiz Izam'
Chapter 41 - R.Shanmugalingam
"Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy was born on August 22,
1877, in Colombo. His father, Sir Muthu Coomaraswamy, noted for his forensic brilliance
and classical scholarship, was the first Asian to be knighted during the reign of Queen
Victoria. Sir Muthu enjoyed the esteem of such men as Lord Palmerston, Lord Tennyson, Lord
Beaconsfield. Indeed, Lord Beaconsfield portrayed him as his Kusinara in his last
In 1876, Sir Muthu married an English lady of Kent named Elizabeth Clay
Beeby, and when their only child Ananda was born, he received the middle name
Ananda, after a brilliant career at Wycliffe and London University was
appointed Director of the Minerological Survey of Ceylon when he was just 26 years of age.
Though he received a D.Sc. from London University for his research, his valuable discovery
of thorianite in 1904 is not generally known. It was characteristic of Coomaraswamys
self-effacement that he called the new mineral "thorianite" instead of linking
with his own name.
In the course of his scientific work, he became interested in the artistic
heritage of Ceylon and did a study of the surviving guilds of the mediaeval Sinhalese
craftsmen and their artifacts. The results of the study are recorded in his classic
monograph "mediaeval Sinhalese Art (1908).
Soon, he abandoned geology altogether and devoted himself wholly to the
study of the arts and cultures of India and Ceylon.It was at this time that he published
another excellent monograph. "The Aims of Indian Art" (1908). In this study and
in others, Coomaraswamy tried to reconstruct and interpret the philosophy of the national
art rather than convey merely the beauties of different art-works.
He was not a romantic aesthetician but the foremost academic historian of
Indian art scattered through the ages in different parts of Asia, but also in creating a
new consciousness of Indian cultural unity.
Undoubtedly, the aesthetic philosophy of Indian nationalism found its most
articulate exponent in Coomaraswamy during the first decade of the twentieth century. In
"Essays in National Idealism" he wrote: "We want our India for ourselves
because we believe each nation has its own part to play in the long tale of human progress
and nations which are not free to develop their individuality and character are also
unable to make the contribution to the sum of human culture which the world has a right to
expect of them." In other words, he argued that every nation ought to make its own
contribution to what Mazzini acclaimed as the "concert of mankind, the orchestra of
To him the word nationalism denoted the cultural expression of
a nation. When India had attained independence, his message was "Be Yourself."
It placed the accent on aesthetic authenticity and not on the political content of
freedom. "Nations" observed Coomaraswamy, "are created by poets and
artists, not by merchants and politicians. In art lie the deepest life principles."
In his famous oration delivered before the Phi Beta Koppa Society in 1837,
Emerson had castigated American writers for their subservience to the artists of Europe
and called them to create an indigenous literature. His oration has been justly hailed as
"Americas declaration of spiritual independence." Similarly, to
Coomaraswamy Indian nationalism was a quest for self-realization, a declaration of
We cannot perceive the full significance of Coomaraswamys philosophy
of Indian nationalism without perceiving the aesthetic impact of the theory of
"dhvani" on his philosophy of Indian art. The word dhvani" literally
means "suggestion in an aesthetic sense and was developed into an elaborate
theory by Anandavardhana, the celebrated Indian literary critic of the ninth century AD
while the "Dhvanyaloka" of Anandavardhana the "locus classicus" in
Indian literary criticism, deals with the aesthetic significance of words and their subtle
undertones, Coomaraswamy reflected on the significance of art motifs and their symbolic
meanings. Thus Coomaraswamys approach to nationalism combined the patriotic spirit
of Mazzini, the intellectual freedom of Emerson, and the aesthetic insight of
Coomaraswamy wrote much and he always wrote well. A master of the
aphoristic style, in his discourse, he blended thought and feeling, poetical fervor and
Between 1895, when as a young man of 18 he published his first article
"The Geology of Doverow Hill" and 1947, his seventieth year, he had written more
than 500 publications. Their scope is astonishing. He had written several articles on
Indian, Indonesian and Sinhalese art in the "Encyclopedia Brittanica" and also
in "The National Encyclopaedia of America," in addition to editing English words
of Indian origin in "Websters New International Dictionary." The rest of
his publications range from his collection of essays entitled "The Dance of
Shiva," to such works as "The History of Indian and Indonesian Art,"
"Hinduism and Buddhism" and "A New Approach to the Vedas."
"The History of Indian and Indonesian Art," which was published
in 1927, is his chief contribution to the study of Indian Art in its historical.
sociological and philosophical contexts. Beginning with the Indo-Sumerian finds, it gives
a clear and connected account of the entire history of Indian and Indonesian art, with
special emphasis on problems relating to the Indian origin of the Buddha image. His
profound grasp of the various interrelated disciplines helped him to realize the twin
ideals of harmony and truth in all Indian art. Thus, in discussing the evolution of Indian
art and culture as a joint creation of Aryan and Dravidian genius, he was able to reveal
that the Gupta Buddhas, elephanta Maheswara, Pallava lingams, and the later Natarajas are
products of two spiritual natures.
According to Coomaraswamy, this situation resulted in a cultural process,
which "in a very real sense" was a "marriage of the East and West," or
of the North and South consummated, as the donors of the image would say, "for the
good of all ancient beings; a result, not of a superficial blending of Hellenistic and
Indian technique, but of the crossing of spiritual tendencies, racial
"samskaras" (preoccupations) that may well have been determined before the use
of metals was known."
Looking back, we cannot doubt that Coomaraswamys migration to Boston
was a gain; it led to a deeper appreciation of Indian art in the West and particularly in
America. Also, his stay at Needham widened his intellectual horizons and deepened his
ideas on mysticism. During this period, he concerned himself especially with the general
problems of art, religion, and philosophy. By harmonizing his manifold interest, both
Eastern and Western, he attained a unity of outlook which invests his writings with a
Coomaraswamy has argued in his "Hindu View of Art" that the
fusion of religious ecstasy and artistic experience is not an exclusively Hindu view; it
has been expounded by many others - such as the neoplatonists, Hsieh Ho, Goethe, Blake,
Schopenhauer, or Schiller and also restated by Croce. In one of his flashes of
self-revelation, Coomaraswamy called himself "an orientalist who was in fact almost
as much a platonist as a mediaevelist." And he was continually striving to understand
the creative unity of symbolical expressions - the Brahma of Indian philosophers, or the
"Unio Mystica" of Jan van Ruysbroeck the father of mysticism in the Netherlands,
and the "Urquelle" of the German Meister Eckhart - and, in this way, to
synthesise the fundamental insights of the Eastern and Western traditions of mysticism.
His culturally most significant notion is that of the chosen people of the
future - a notion which elevates Coomaraswamy to the select company of those choice
spirits who have effectively contributed to the continuous dialogue between East and west.
According to him, "the chosen people of the future cannot be any nation or race but
an aristocracy of the earth uniting the virility of European youth to the serenity of
Asiatic age." Elsewhere he wrote: "Who that has breathed the clear mountain air
of the Upanishads, of Goutama, Sankara and Kabir of Rumi, Laotse and Jesus can be alien to
those who have sat at the feet of Plato and Kant, Tauler Behman and Ruysbroeck, Whitman,
Nietzsche and Blake."
Coomaraswamy hoped for a more fruitful era in East West Cultural
Relations and wrote that "men like the English De Morgan and George Boole, the
American Emerson and the contemporary Frenchmen Rene Guenon and Jacques de Marquette were
able to make a real and vital contact with Indian metaphysic which became for them a
He also stressed the desirability of "using one tradition to
illuminate the other so as to demonstrate even more clearly that the variety of the
traditional cultures, in all of which there subsisted until now a poor balance of
spiritual and material values, is simply that of the dialects of what is always one and
the same language of the spirit, of that perennial philosophy to which no one people or
age lay an exclusive claim."
It is remarkable that Coomaraswamy, who began his career as a geologist,
should have ended it with the publication of "Time and Eternity," an impressive
contribution to comparative aesthetics. He achieved distinction in four different fields
of intellectual and creative endeavor, geology, political philosophy, Indian art history,
and the general philosophy of art, literature and religion.
In his own person he symbolized a confluence of East and West, as well as
an aesthetic symbiosis of the two cultures, scientific and literary. Child of Ceylon and
England, he became an Indian in the same deep sense in which Henry James transformed
himself into a European and T.S Eliott into an Englishman. While reflecting on the life of
Coomaraswamy one is irresistibly reminded of Walt Whitmans marriage of
continents, climates and oceans.
Coomaraswamys early scientific career can be compared to a spring
originating from some subterranean mineral source delighting everyone by its natural
freshness and sweetness. And the later development of his mind can be likened to the
course of the stream of Indian artistic consciousness, which, starting from its Vedic
source and flowing through India, catches the nationalistic current at the turn of the
century, then mingles with the stream of traditional European art and finally joins the
ocean that washes the shores of philosophia perennis'." ( from A Confluence
of East and West - A. Ranganathan)