Beauty · Indian Culture · Inner View · Personal reflections · Spirituality beyond Religion · Words of The Mother and Sri Aurobindo

An Afternoon at Ajanta

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First published in Next Future, an e-magazine of Sri Aurobindo Society (July 2016)

“The first and lowest use of Art is the purely aesthetic, the second is the intellectual or educative, the third and highest the spiritual. By speaking of the aesthetic use as the lowest, we do not wish to imply that it is not of immense value to humanity, but simply to assign to it its comparative value in relation to the higher uses. The aesthetic is of immense importance and until it has done its work, mankind is not really fitted to make full use of Art on the higher planes of human development.” (Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 1, p. 439)

These words of Sri Aurobindo from his series of essays titled National Value of Art speak of a profoundly high and deep vision for Art and the Artist. In a later part of this series he speaks about how an aesthetic sense can facilitate human development by raising and purifying conduct, by facilitating an ethical-moral development, by purifying emotions and by training the imaginative and creative sides of intellectual capacity. He further writes, “But beyond and above this intellectual utility of Art, there is a higher use, the noblest of all, its service to the growth of spirituality in the race” (p. 450).

As I contemplate on the Master’s words a question begins to form — what does this vision of a spiritual purpose of art say about the role of a person who views and appreciates art, someone who is not an artist but is one who would be called a ‘consumer’ of art in the modern parlance?

In other words, if an artist’s highest purpose is to express and reveal the Spirit through his or her art, as viewers or audience do we also share with the artist this purpose of seeking the Spirit through beauty? As a non-artist how do I develop a sense of perception or vision so that I can access or relate to or somehow connect with the sense of divinity that the artist is trying to reveal or attempting to discover through her or his work?

Aesthetic values in general are not really spiritual values, what may seem beautiful to an individual’s aesthetic sense may not lead him or her to connect with the Spirit, the Invisible. This can be true both for the artist as well as the viewer. Cultivation of an aesthetic sensibility that can begin to transform aesthetic values into spiritual values is required of the art-lover just as it is required of the artist who wants to make art his or her sadhana (spiritual discipline).


Ananda Coomaraswamy, in his classic work, The Dance of Shiva, writes:

“The vision of beauty is spontaneous, in just the same sense as the inward light of the lover (bhakta). It is a state of grace that cannot be achieved by deliberate effort; though perhaps we can remove hindrances to its manifestation, for there are many witnesses that the secret of all art is to be found in self-forgetfulness. And we know that this state of grace is not achieved in the pursuit of pleasure; the hedonists have their reward, but they are in bondage to loveliness, while the artist is free in beauty” (The Dance of Shiva: Fourteen Essays, p. 39-40).

What strikes me in this passage is that he seems to be giving an answer to my ponderings about the viewer’s seeking for the Spirit through art. His answer seems to be: practice self-forgetfulness so as to be in a state of grace. The self-forgetfulness Coomaraswamy speaks of is not a casual mindlessness, but rather a practice of going higher than the realm of mind where the mental, vital self is forgotten along with its incessant demands, desires, expectations, and preferences.

It is in that state that one begins to experience a sense of quiet oneness with that real ‘self’ which is spontaneously and freely identified with the objet d’art one is creating as an artist or even experiencing as a viewer. That, according to Coomaraswamy, is the secret to experience beauty, similar to the secret known by the true bhaktas (devotees), true lovers – namely, to experience that Divinity within that unites, in absolute freedom, the lover with the beloved, the devotee with the Lord, the Beauty with the Beautiful, and makes them One (or Two that are in Truth One).

This takes me to that afternoon in August 2012.

The afternoon when I simply stood there. In awe. In front of That. Couldn’t move my eyes off That.

And in a few seconds it happened.


10 thoughts on “An Afternoon at Ajanta

  1. I am yet to experience what you have. I’ve read of other people who have experienced something similar to what you have. They have described it as a sense of one-ness with all of universe. And yes, they too have spoken of deep gratitude. A gratitude so intense as cannot be clothed in words.

    I’m curious and impatient to experience it too. This moment of grace.

    1. I am sure you will experience this or something like this soon, in your own way 🙂 Indeed such moments fill us with deep gratitude. Every time I recall this experience it fills me with again with joy and gratitude.

  2. Dropping by your blog after a long time, Beloo. I’ve missed a lot of your gems of wisdom in recent times. I feel a painting is like music. You either connect to it instantly or it is just there, not doing much to you. That mystical quality of Ajanta paintings is an experience worth savoring, for sure.

    1. Thanks Vinodini for stopping by 🙂 The paintings at Ajanta are indeed extra-ordinary and inspired by something divine. They definitely have the capability to transport one to some place else entirely, if one is open to the beauty hidden in them.

  3. I am not lying when I say that I have experienced such feeling once or twice when I stood before the Shiva deity in a particular temple. I was experiencing the most harrowing moments of my life those days and I could evidently feel the presence of God when I stood before him. It was beautiful! But yes, I have never experienced such kind of satisfaction or mindfulness ever in wordly joys, which leaves me pondering.

    1. Thank you Maliny for sharing about some of your deepest experiences of oneness. It feels so wonderful and humbling just reading about them. I am quite sure such moments happen with Divine Grace, and we must keep preparing ourselves so as to be ready to receive when the Grace descends. Appreciate very much your comment.

  4. It is indeed difficult to understand Sri Aurobindo initially but if one makes persistent attempts the philosophy of the Master gradually starts to unfold..and the charisma is awe inspiring!
    I am fortunate that you act as a ‘teacher’ between him and me, whose explanations make it easy for me to understand..thank you for this Beloo!
    Now, back to this post, I have a feeling of deja vu..have you not written on your Ajanta experience earlier?
    I do agree that the effect of an object of art is mesmerizing on an art lover, and they need not necessarily be ‘qualified critics’ or authorities on the subject..

    1. Thank you Amit! But the truth is that I am merely try to understand some of his thoughts myself! And seeing/thinking through/writing on various topics of my interest using his vision and thought as a reference point or guiding light helps me deepen my understanding. But I am happy that some of what I share here speaks to some of my more thoughtful, contemplative and open-minded readers like yourself!
      And yes, you are right, I did write a more reflective type of post on Ajanta a couple of years back, in fact that post grew longer into an article which was published later in an ezine (the full length article that you see here). So glad you remembered 🙂

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