A prince among scholars
Ananda Coomaraswamy's 127th birth anniversary falls today- August 22. Published here is the text of a radio talk on Coomaraswamy by Ranjit Fernando on Radio Ceylon in 1967
Ananda Coomaraswamy once suggested that Buddhism has been so much admired in the West mainly for what it is not; and he said of Hinduism that although it had been examined by European scholars for more than a century, a faithful account of it might well be given in the form of a categorical denial of most of the statements that have been made about it, alike by European scholars and by Indians trained in modern modes of thought.

Man of many a talent
In the same way, it could perhaps be said of Coomaraswamy himself, that he is admired in Ceylon almost entirely for what he was not, and that a true account of his ideas might well take the form of a denial of most of the statements normally made about him in the land of his birth. Coomaraswamy has long been variously presented in Ceylon as a patriot, a national hero, a famous art critic and historian, an eminent scholar and orientalist. It would therefore be as well to examine the validity of these widely held beliefs about a man who was undoubtedly one of greatest figures of our time.

The subject matter of all Coomaraswamy's writings can finally be placed under one heading, namely, tradition. The Tradition which he writes about has little to do with the modern usage of this word to mean customs or social patterns which have prevailed for some time. Coomaraswamy's theme is the unchanging Primordial and Universal Tradition which, he maintains, was the source from which all the great religions of the present as well as the past came forth, and likewise the forms of all those societies which were moulded by religion.

Forms of art
The particular aspect of Tradition which Coomaraswamy chose as his own speciality, and as the one best suited to his own individual talents, was, of course, the traditional view of art, now chiefly associated with the East, but one universally accepted by East and West alike, as also by all the civilisations of antiquity and, indeed, by all those societies which we are pleased to call primitive. Coomaraswamy never tired of demonstrating that this traditional view of life, and consequently of art, was always the universal and normal view until the Greeks of the so-called classical period first introduced a view of life and of art fundamentally at variance with the hitherto accepted view.

In his aversion to what has been called 'the classical prejudice' Coomaraswamy is at one with Plato whose attitude to the changes which were taking place in his time was, to say the least, one of strong disapproval. Coomaraswamy tries to show, as Plato did, that the view of life and of art invented and glorified by the Greeks, and subsequently admired by the Romans, was, in the context of the long history of mankind, an abnormal view, an aberration; and that although this view lost its hold on men's minds with the rise of Christendom in the Middle Ages, it was to re-establish itself with greater force at the Renaissance thus becoming responsible for the fundamental ills of the modern world.

External knowledge
In all traditional societies, quite apart from his ability to reason, man was always considered capable of going further and achieving direct, intuitive knowledge of absolute truth which carries with it an immediate certainty provided by no other kind of knowledge.'In the modern world, we think in terms of 'intellectual progress' by which we mean a progress in the ideas which men formulate with regard to the nature of things, but, from the point of view of traditional knowledge, there can be no progress except in so far as particular individuals advance from ignorance to reflected or rational knowledge, and from reason to direct, intuitive knowledge which, we might add, by its nature cannot be defined, but which nevertheless, stands over and above all other forms of knowledge being nothing less than Knowledge itself.

Classical times
From a traditional point of view, the fault of the Greeks lay in their substitution of the rational faculty for the supra-rational as the highest faculty of man, and, in the words of Coomaraswamy's distinguished colleague, Rene Guenon, 'it almost seems as if the Greeks, at a moment when they were about to disappear from history, wished to avenge themselves for their incomprehension by imposing on a whole section of mankind the limitations of their own mental horizons.'

Since the Renaissance, as Gai Eaton has said, 'the modern world has gone much further than did the Greeks in the denial even of the possibility of a real knowledge which transcends the narrow limits of the individual mentality.' Moreover, as we are all well aware, that which, from a traditional point of view, appears to be a serious narrowing of horizons, is seen, from our modern point of view, as an unprecedented intellectual breakthrough!

Plato’s tale
While it is hardly possible in a brief summary such as this to further discuss the issues involved, we might usefully ponder on Plato's story of the subterranean cave where some men have been confined since childhood. These men are familiar only with the shadows cast upon the dark walls of the cave which they have all the time in the world to study, and about which they are most knowledgeable. They know nothing of the outside world and therefore do not believe in its existence. Coomaraswamy, like Plato, would have us realise that we too are in darkness like these men, and that we would be wise to seek the light of another world above by concerning ourselves with those things which our ancestors knew and understood so well. He constantly points out that modern or anti-traditional societies are shaped by the ideas men develop by their own powers of reasoning - there being as many sets of ideas as there are men - whereas traditional societies were based on perennial ideas of quite another order, ideas of suprahuman origin and revealed - whereby all the aspects of a society were determined.

Traditional art
Coomaraswamy's main preoccupation was the traditional view of art. He tried to show that Graeco-Roman art and Renaissance art, like the more modern forms of art, were of earthly inspiration and therefore of human origin (like the philosophies that went with them); whereas traditional art, like traditional philosophy, was related to the metaphysical order and therefore religious in character and devine in origin. It is now clear that in his earliest works such as the monumental Medieval Sinhalese Art, Commaraswamy did not as yet fully understand the difference between the two contrasting points of view which were to form the basis of his life's work; in these early writings, his great understanding and sympathy with the traditional arts of India and Ceylon as, indeed, his already considerable grasp of the true meaning of religion was a little clouded with modernistic prejudice, the outcome, no doubt, of his early academic training which was of a kind which he, even then, had begun to despise. But later, following his association with the French metaphysician, Rene Guenon, Coomaraswamy's writings assumed the complete correctness of exposition and the great authority which we associate with his mature work. Still later, it was as a result of Coomaraswamy's intervention that Guenon himself corrected his earlier views concerning Buddhism.

A great thinker
Insofar as we are willing to regard the field of Traditional Studies as being one of the highest importance at the present time, two men, the Frenchman, Rene Guenon, and the Ceylonese, Ananda Coomaraswamy, stand out as the two greatest thinkers of the first half of the twentieth century. A great gulf separates their work from the work of nearly all their contemporaries.

It will now be apparent that if we are to regard Coomaraswamy as an eminent orientalist and art historian, it must first be clearly understood that he stands apart from almost all those other scholars who can be similarly described, in that while they approach the life and art of traditional societies from a modern standpoint (which is both 'skeptical and evolutionary') Coomaraswamy, like his few true colleagues and collaborators, takes the view that traditional societies and their art can only be understood by a careful consideration of their own point of view however unfamiliar and inconvenient this may be. Once this is realised, it would certainly be true not only to say that Coomaraswamy was an eminent scholar but, as Marco Pallis has said, a prince among scholars.

Religion and power
For Coomaraswamy, a feudal or heirarchical society based on metaphysical principles is essentially superior to the supposedly egalitarian systems so fashionable today. Like Plato, he believed that democracy was one of the worst forms of government. His enthusiasm for such institutions as caste and kingship was based, not on sentiment, but on a profound understanding of the vital relationship between spiritual authority and temporal power in society and government. He would hardly have approved of the road which India and Ceylon have taken since their independence although he may have regarded it as inevitable.

Leader with a difference
It is well known that, from the very beginning, Coomaraswamy deplored the influence of the West on Eastern peoples, and especially the consequences of British rule in Greater India. He has, therefore, been placed alongside those who in India and Ceylon have been regarded as national leaders in the struggle for independence. But here again, a complete difference of approach separates Coomaraswamy from his contemporaries, for it was not imperialism or the domination of one people by another that Coomaraswamy was concerned about, but rather the destruction of traditional societies by peoples who had abandoned sacred forms.

It was what the British then stood for and not the British that he detested; on the contrary, there is no doubt that he loved England because he knew another, older, England which both in form and spirit was so much akin to the oriental world he understood so well.

One of a kind
It would, in conclusion, be appropriate to quote the words of that highly respected English Catholic artist-philosopher, EricGill, who in his autobiography paid Coomaraswamy this great tribute:

'There was one person to whose influence I am deeply grateful; I mean the philosopher and theologian, Ananda Coomaraswamy. Others have written the truth about life and religion and man's work. Others have written good clear English. Others have had the gift of witty exposition. Others have understood the metaphysics of Christianity and others have understood the metaphysics of Hinduism and Buddhism. Others have understood the true significance of erotic drawings and sculptures. Others have seen the relationships of the true and the good and the beautiful. Other have had apparently unlimited learning.

Others have loved; others have been kind and generous. But I know of no one else in whom all these gifts and all these powers have been combined. I dare not confess myself his disciple; that would only embarrass him. I can only say that I believe that no other living writer has written the truth in matters of art and life and religion and piety with such wisdom and understanding.'

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