Thursday, July 26, 2007

The Autumn Season



There are many images that one could relate to the season of Autumn This is a time when one becomes very conscious of the earth, and the sacredness of the earth. It is also a time of harvest, and herdspeople take their animals out into the fields which have been harvested to graze their animals. The end of the year also points forwards to the beginning of a new year. What is old, reminds us of the cycles of nature, that bring us back again to rebirth.
"Like grain a mortal ripen !
Like grain he is born hither again !"
Katha Upanishad. 1.6
The seasons of the year are like a great cycle of time, where the beginning is always bringing us back to the end, and the end is a prelude to a new beginning. Over the last few months I have been thinking a great deal about the seasons, and have been drawing inspiration from the countryside around my home, which I have often sketched. I believe that the spiritual in art, is very much bound up with a sense of the Holy ground. My contact with the primal cultures of India, has made me feel that we need to discover a theology of the land. The following reflections on the different seasons which we are familiar with in India, and their relation to the Liturgical Year, is an attempt to relate the landscape to a spiritual journey.

The Rainy Season



The time of the Monsoons are a very important season of change. Everything becomes green, as the land becomes once again fertile. Near Silvepura there is a small grove of trees, with a pool. I have often painted this sacred grove, where a local community of agriculturalists also bury their dead. The trees are thought to have healing powers, and the bark is often stripped off to make medicine. There are many tanks where the water of the monsoons are stored, and used for agriculture. The relation of the tree to the waters is an important archetypal symbol, reminding us of the relationship between the Cross to Baptism. This is the season when the Transfiguration is celebrated, and it seems appropriate to note how nature itself is transformed by the coming of the rains.

The Summer Season



In the summer season many trees burst into flower. The Sarul tree has big red blossoms, which are almost like the flaming sun. In the roots of the tree which is not far from my home there is a little shrine. It is like a cave at the base of this tree of fire. I think of the Resurrection, and how out of death comes life. There is also the Palash tree which is known as the "Flame of the Forest". The flame like petals of this tree when soaked in water make an orange dye, which monks use to stain their ochre robes. The wood of this tree is also thought to have healing properties, and mendicants use it to make their begging bowl. The summer reminds us of the importance of sacrifice, and the spirit of renunciation.

The Season of Spring



Spring in India is a time of opening into a new year. Sometimes by the roadside in Karnataka we find a kind of door-like structure made from three slabs of stone, two of which are planted erect in the ground, and the third is placed on the top, rather like a very high table. These structures are known as "burden bearing stones", and are erected by the roadside to help those who are carrying head loads, to rest their burden for a while. These stones are very symbolic of the way, and our need to both set out on a journey, but also rest our burden. Up in the hills there is a shrine among the rocks. This shrine is called the "Hill of the Cross" or "Kurisumala". Near here Dom Bede Griffiths started a Christian Ashram where I lived for some time. It is believed that St. Thomas rested here on his way from the Sea coast to Tamilnadu. There is a sense of the wind blowing, and a feeling of space.
Spring is the time for the beginning of Lent. On Ash Wednesday people make the journey up to the hill, and throughout lent this becomes a place for pilgrimage. There are a number of Indian festivals at this time like Maha Shivrathri, or the great night of Shiva. It is believed that on this night the River Ganges, which was originally a great river in the heavens, which we see as the Milky Way, came down to earth, in order that the dead might be brought back to life. So great was the force of this river, that there was the danger that it would shatter the earth to pieces. So Shiva sat in meditation in the form of a mountain, and the river first fell on his head, before coming slowly down to earth, through his matted locks.

The Winter Season



There seem to be two movements--the roots of the Banyan tree come down to touch the earth, but the shoot which springs up from a crack in the rocks, reaches upwards. In a way, both these movements symbolize a linking of heaven and earth. It is in this context of the meeting of what is above, and what is below, that the shrine is constructed, reminding us that the Creator is always present in creation.

Birthing in the cave


The house was cave-like in its darkness, and in the gloom it was a little time before I could distinguish the various shadowy forms of the earthenware pots piled high in one corner, the worn plough resting on the rafters overhead and the battered tin trunk which the family had to protect their few belongings. Then I was pushed forward by the women relatives and there in the corner was the young woman who had just a few hours before delivered her first child.

She lay on piles of fresh straw with only torn saree pieces as a cover, but her head was firmly wrapped in the "palla" of her saree to protect her from cold. Beside her was the tiny sleeping baby nestling within the winnowing basket which had hastily been laid with straw and lined with old torn cloth pieces.

The mother seemed weary but content as she looked to the child. The child, so perfect and delicate in form, lay naked. No one had thought it auspicious to prepare clothes, hang a cot or choose a name for the new born baby, and the baby lay careless to the surrounding poverty, wrapped in the tenderness of his mother's joy and the gentle strength of nature.

The child had come as simply as the passing seasons--as full of grace and beauty as the rising sun or the first rains after the red heat of summer. The birth had the freshness of the spring green of the growing paddy and all the fullness of the ripened grain.

My anxieties and fears concerning the harsh starkness, faded in the face of this pure acceptance of the mystery of birth, and a hope in the fragility but clear strength in Creation.
(From a diary note of Jane Sahi)

The Season's Heart.



THE LANDSCAPE IN RELATION TO THE SEASONS AND A TRINITARIAN VIEW OF CREATION.



Time is understood in relation to three modes: Past, present and future. This tripartite understanding of the way that time cycles can be viewed, relates perhaps to the fact that the circle itself inscribes an equilateral triangle. From Babylonian times we have the image of two overlapping triangles, one with its apex above, and the other with its apex below, which are contained within a circle. Perhaps this form which came to be later associated with Solomon, or David, derived from an primordial discovery that the radius of a circle can be used to measure six arcs within the circumference of the circle, thus creating six divisions in the circular path. In this way the eternal rhythm of ever repeating cycles of time, can be measured out into patterns of either six or three.

In the Indian calendar system, the year is divided into six seasons. Further, these seasons can be further understood as dominated by two opposing elements: a hot and dry season as opposed to a cold and wet season. In between these two extremes, there is a season of transition, which is also a season of storms, wind and rain. In India, for example, the Monsoon season is awaited with great concern, as the whole agricultural pattern of sowing and harvesting depends on whether there has been a good monsoon or not. The word “monsoon” derives from a word which we find in Hindi, as “mosum,” meaning climate, or also season. In fact the whole year is called “varsha” which is a word also applied to rain. In many ways rain defines the different seasons. The summer is a time when there is no rain, and consequently a time when nature seems to rest. But nature also depends on the energy of the sun, and this means heat. The two overlapping triangles that in India are known as the “star of Lakshmi”, could be thought of as the triangles created by fire and water. The triangle that has its base on the ground, and its apex above, is the triangle of fire. Reversely, water is like the valley in a mountain, and could be understood as the downward pointing triangle, which is also associated with the feminine principle. The upward pointing triangle could be represented as red or orange, whereas the downward pointing triangle could be imagined as blue-green.

Trinity in the Landscape



TRINITY IN NATURE.

Somewhere I remember St. Ignatius of Loyola suggesting that wherever you find the structure of three in nature, you can be reminded of the Holy Trinity. In fact one can note that in what might be termed the “cosmic religions” which celebrate the Creation, and the presence of God in Creation, Trinitarian forms abound. In ancient Celtic rituals for example, the invocation of the Trinity goes back, I would guess even to pre-Christian times, when the three Bridgets were an important example of a Trinitarian Divinity. The shamrock leaf, which has three lobes, is another example of a natural form that is associated with a triune principle of Divinity present in Creation. In India we also find many examples of Three-in-One figures, going back to tribal art. Among the Solegars in South India, there is a very ancient tree in the forest of the “Bili Rangana Beta” Hills, which is thought to be sacred, and the three trunks that form the central body of this huge tree, are meant to be symbolic of the Three aspects of Deity. In fact among these people the Trisul, which is associated with Shaivite imagery, being a three-pointed spear, is also to be found in village shrines.

In Tribal cultures across India, there is a marked tendency to understand the cycle of the year as having three main parts. Here the Dry season, wet season (rainy season) is followed in the last part of the year by a time of fruitfulness, where the earth yields its fullness. Thinking of the elements, one could ascribe to these three divisions of the year, Fire, Water, and Earth. The element of Air is present in all these seasons, which, like the Spirit, is like the breath of Nature, and helps in the living dynamism of nature, as it transforms from one season to the next.

Earth Mother



A TRINITARIAN STRUCTURE TO THE LITURGICAL YEAR.

The liturgical year can also be understood as having a Trinitarian form, in that the Presence of Christ in Creation is also celebrated in the Liturgy as “Jesus lived, Jesus died, and Jesus will come again !” Even the life of Jesus on earth can be comprehended in three stages—his Birth, his Ministry, and finally his Passion, which includes his Resurrection. I am reminded of the Hindu concept of the Three Steps (Tripada) which encompass first the world, then the heavens, and finally the underworld, or world of the dead. Jesus, according to an early vision of the Trideum, or three days that form an important aspect of Holy Week, Christ lived, died, and then descended to the underworld to rescue those who died, before himself rising from the dead.
Another Trinitarian form that we find in the Judeo Christian tradition is that of the Three arch-angels, Gabriel, Raphael, and Michael. Once again one is reminded of the three figures that form an important part of the Indian Pantheon, where Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva are represented as the three aspects of Divinity as manifested in the Cosmos. Brahma, like Gabriele, represents the Creative aspect, which is also linked to the Word. Vishnu is celebrated as the support of Creation, who helps in preserving the world as we know it. Here we remember that Raphael is also thought of as a healer, and supporter, as when he accompanied the traveler Tobit, as described in the book of Tobias. Finally there is Shiva, who is associated with destruction, but not just in a negative sense, but as the prelude to liberation. Michael is similarly depicted as struggling with the forces of darkness and evil in the world, against which he finally succeeds, and in that way presaging the creation of a new heaven and earth.

Autumn light


THE LITURGICAL SEASONS IN RELATION TO LOCAL CLIMATIC CONDITIONS.

It has often struck me that an important aspect of the relation between Gospel and Culture, relates to the way that we perceive the landscape and the changing seasons of the year. When we celebrate Christmas, it is not only the Gospel narrative that we remember, but also the fundamental principle that God is born into the world that we know, and are familiar with. Jesus is born not only in the human heart, but also in the natural environment that is the basis for our home.
Similarly, the Passion and the suffering of Jesus is a journey that Jesus takes through the landscape, leading to the Mountain of Calvary. The time of Passion Week is determined by the moon, and has a very important connection with the rhythms of nature itself. In an Indian geographical context, the season of the year when we celebrate the passion of Christ, should influence the images that we associate with his earthly life. The fact that in India the season of Lent, and Holy Week take place at the time of year which is driest and hottest, should influence our understanding of the Liturgical seasons. In fact Ash Wednesday often takes place very close to the Indian festival of Maha Shivrathri, or the great night of Shiva, when the myth of the Descent of the River Ganges from Heaven is remembered. Ashes are very important in this myth, as the river is supposed to have come down to earth to bring life to the ashes of the ancestors. Ashes, or Vibuthi, are understood not only as a sign of repentance, but also purification. At this time in Indian folk cultures, bonfires are a common feature of festivals, and even walking on burning embers. In the forest tribal communities set fire to the undergrowth, to cleanse so to say, the scrublands, and prepare for the coming of the Rainy season. The ashes created by these fires are believe to fertilize the soil, and we note that in Indian thought ashes are often related to this concept of fertility.

In India the rainy season is a very vital time of the year, and many festivals associated with the transformation of nature can be found in this period of the year. The Christian liturgical seasons have been developed in parts of the planet, where the Monsoon does not play such an important role. And so the period between June and September does not have the same climatic importance that it does in Asian countries, where the Monsoon has a very important function. However, one can link Pentecost with the beginning of those strong winds that seem to be harbingers of the coming rains. The feast of the Transfiguration could certainly be related to the transformation of nature which we observe in the month of August. September-October are a time of the year when the part that Mary played in Salvation History, and also the feast of the Holy Angels is celebrated. This is a time of harvest festivals in India, as also in the West. The fruition of the earth, and the gathering in of the fruits of nature, reminds us of the end of time. In India we have the great festival of the Nine Nights, or Nav Rathri, and also the festival of light which is called Divali. The theme of light, and its part in the cycle of the seasons, as the nights grow longer, is a universal symbol. In the festival of the Nine Nights, we have the struggle between the forces of good over the powers of evil, which finally triumph on the tenth day, or Dushera.

A Festival of Light



THE RELATION OF FEASTS, FASTS, AND FESTIVALS TO THE SEASONS.

The two seasons of Advent and Lent are times for preparing for important festivals, but also represent the perennial need in human beings to set aside a time for introspection, and preparing the heart for the coming of the Lord who enters our inner world. The seasons of the year have their distinctive moods, which reflect the moods of nature. The season of Advent comes at a time in the Indian year when there is a time of interiority. Perhaps this is a time when the outer reality, symbolized by the fruits of the earth, are gathered and brought into the home. In tribal cultures, it is a time when the herds which have been taken out to graze in the forests, are brought back to the village, and kept indoors. The festival of lights is associated at the folk level with this welcoming of the sources of communal prosperity (in the form of the Goddess of plenty, Laxmi) into the household. This sense of the fullness of the earth, and the way that it is brought back to the community, and family homestead, could be related also the the spirit of Advent. It is a time for preparing the home and heart for the birth of the Lord, in the darkness of our present world.

The time of Advent can be related to the many festivals in India which are related to Sacrifice. Many of the “Temple festivals” take place in these dry months, when there is nothing going on in the fields, but still there is a sense of expectancy, as the community waits for the Rainy season. Often at this time of the year the flowering trees burst into flame like blossoms. The Sarul tree, for example, which has brilliant red flowers, or the Palash tree which is also called the “Flame of the Forest”, gives to the landscape a fiery colour, that reminds us of the flaming splendor of the sun itself. Sacrifices are offered, because as Gandhi himself remarked, the world would not continue without the spirit of sacrifice. In folk cultures, this sacrifice is associated with the offering of animals at local shrines, and the sprinkling of their blood over the fields. But at a deeper level, sacrifice is not just an external ritual, but is concerned with the self offering, that demands of each person a surrender of the ego, and a willingness to suffer for those who are the victims of injustice. Here again, the outer world is perceived as a sign of an inner season of the spirit. It is in this sense that we can also understand the importance of ecology in our spiritual world. Our attitude to nature around us, has to be informed by our respect for an inner nature, that is the basis for our liturgical life following the cycle of the year.

Nature's Wound


AN ECO THEOLOGY IN THE CONTEXT OF PRESENT CONCERNS ABOUT GLOBAL WARMING.

Climate change has now become a global issue. What do we understand by Change, and how does it relate to our respect for nature ? The “Book of Changes” or “I Ching” uses a complex system of images to relate three domains—Nature, the Individual person, and the whole community, which includes the way that the whole state is functioning. What is experienced as outer, objective nature, and what we are conscious of as inner subjective nature, are bound together in a mutual relationship.

Change is an essential coefficient in what we call “transformation”. The philosopher, artist and scientist Goethe was particularly concerned with processes in nature which govern the changing structures of natural forms. Gregory Bateson also addresses these questions in his work on Mind and Nature. What we are terming “consciousness” spans a world of phenomena which reaches far beyond the human mind. The human mind is affected by changes that have their origin in the cosmos, and reversely the framework of the human mind affects our whole physical environment.

The poet Gerald Manley Hopkins coined the word “Inscape” by which he meant an inner landscape, which is at one level a reflection of the world we perceive outside in nature, but in another sense is a principle of inner conscious ordering that affects our very way of seeing. There is also a link between this “inscape” and the very structure of language, which was the intuition that Gerard Manley Hopkins referred to when talking about “instress”. In stress, according to him was an aspect of the way in which human language responds to rhythm, which governs the patterns of nature, and also change. It is this mysterious instress that lies at the heart of poetry. The poetic vision, which arises out of the creative imagination, is determined by instress. Instress effects the way that language is structured, by providing the spoken word with a recitative rhythm. This concept is probably close to what Indian aestheticians like Ananda Vardhana (9th Cent.) called “Dhwani” or Resonance. This principle of resonance is a kind of empathy, whereby the human heart responds to external stimuli. This in fact constitutes what one might term the aesthetic experience.

The famous modern Indian philosopher from Mysore, called Prof. M. Hiriyanna, in his well known book “Art Experience” notes that there is a link, in Indian metaphysics, between this sense of resonance between the human heart and the rest of creation, and what was understood as an experience of the innermost Self, or Atma vidya. It is not possible in these notes to explore in any depth what we might call a spiritual experience, and the very nature of aesthetic delight (ananda), but I feel it is important to not e that for a profoundly spiritual artist like Gerard Manley Hopkins, drawing from the wisdom that he found in his own Celtic tradition, his poetic vocation was very much tied up with his spiritual aspirations. I have also tried to see a link between the poetic vision of Gerard Manley Hopkins and that of the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, who presents his view of his understanding of art in a series of lectures that are published as “Personality”
This term “Personality” in the thought of Tagore relates to a deep sense of “self” which is not the ego, but lies at the level of an inner Self, which is a Divine Presence.

The Cosmic Sacrifice


OUTLINING AN “ART RETREAT”

In 1978 a meeting was held in the Jesuit College of Shembaganur in the hills above Madurai, where a number of Jesuits concerned with spiritual direction, came together to reflect on ways in which Indian Jesuits could relate the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola, with Eastern techniques of meditation. I was invited to attend this conference as an artist interested in the relation of the imagination to meditation. In fact, the reflections that I shared in during this meeting very much influenced me when I started to think about an “Art Ashram” in the early eighties. At that time Fr. Tony Coelho sj, who became the Tertian Master, stationed in Bangalore, was also working on the establishing of a center for inter religious dialogue in Bangalore, to be called “Ashirvad” or the place of Blessings. I was asked to design the chapel for this center. This led to my organizing at this center my first “art retreat” in 1984, which focused on the function of art in the creation of conditions leading to Peace. Later this was to lead to the publishing of a small booklet that Jane and I worked on, entitled “Symbols of Peace”, published under the auspices of the Peace Centre which had been set up by the National Christian Council in Nagpur.

Through the eighties I worked with Fr. Tony Coelho, and other Jesuit friends, trying to develop this idea of an “Art Retreat”. It seemed to me that this would be something that should form the basis for an “art ashram”. Art here is not just a matter of making art objects, but is an inner imaginative search or “Sadhana”. It was at this time that I was also exploring Tribal myths and symbols, as I had become involved in the efforts of those concerned with a Tribal or Adivasi Theology, which could be linked to an Indian understanding of a Creation Theology. This it was being felt would add another dimension to the Liberation Theology underlying a theological reflection on the Dalit issue.

In the late eighties I worked on a series of paintings based on a tribal myth called the Lohar Kahani, or the story of the Iron Smelters. I had come across this myth when I visited the tribal state of Chotanagpur in 1987, and discussed the way that Fr. Van Exen sj had used this myth in his efforts to provide a basis for Tribal theology among the Christians of that tribal belt extending from the State of Bihar, to Orissa, which was also the region where the Lord Buddha had his kingdom, and wandered as a teacher of Wisdom. The series of paintings which I made on the Lohar Kahani, was used by the World Council of Churches during the gathering on Justice Peace and the Integrity of Creation which was held in Basel in 1989. It was in that year that I also was invited by Missio in Munich to conduct an art retreat in Bavaria. Subsequently for the next ten years I spent a great deal of my time and energy thinking about ways in which such an art retreat could be organized.

One of the basic concepts underlying the “art retreat” was the concept of the “Interior Landscape” which has played a very significant role in the art of the Far East. I had been introduced to this concept through my reading of a small collection of poems translated by A.K.Ramanujan of the “Sangam Poets” of South India, which he introduced with an essay on the “Interior Landscape”. This concept of the Interior Landscape, going back to Buddhist poetic traditions (as found developed, for example in the early Tamil Alwars) was later to evolve into the highly complex philosophical traditions of the Sri Vaishnavites, as has been carefully documented by the scholar Friedhelm Hardy in his famous work of Viraha-Bhakti.. But once again, it is beyond the scope of these notes to go into these sources of Indian metaphysical poetry.

Six Water pots of Cana


THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE CONCEPT OF THE INTERIOR LANDSCAPES FOR A DISCUSSION ON THE LITURGICAL YEAR IN THE INDIAN CONTEXT.

In the system of thought which arose from the “suma theological” of Sri Ramanuja (12th cent), who based his whole spiritual movement (known as Sri-Vaishnavism) on the basic premise that the Earth, or Creation, is the Body of God, led to the notion that there are in fact six interior landscapes. These landscapes are not only geographic—they also constitute a kind of journey of the soul towards and experience of the Divine.
The six landscapes could be summed up simply in the following way:

1. The Landscape of the Sea: This landscape of the sea shore is related also to a sense of separation from the Divine, which is the essence of the idea of Viraha, the human experience of being without God.
2. The landscape of the desert or “land of the dead” (maru bhumi). This is a kind of no-mans land where the soul begins the slow painful journey in search of the Divine.
3. The landscape of the River, or cultivated land. Here there is to be found the whole world of human settlement, and the cultivation of the land, which is basic to what we understand as the human economy, and use of the resources of the land.
4. The landscape of the Forest Wilderness. This landscape invites the seeker after inner wisdom to leave the world as a wandering ascetic, to find God in the wilderness.
5. The landscape of the Mountain. This is a higher level of the ascent of the Soul towards the Divine Presence. It is here that the union of the soul with the Beloved is finally realized, and that sense of alienation from the Divine felt on the sea shore, is resolved.
6. Finally the Landscape of the Temple. Many temples can be found on the summit of mountains. The Temple becomes another world—the world of the Holy Ground. Here the Divine Kingdom is mirrored in the human world.

The purpose of an art retreat could be an imaginative journey of the pilgrim starting on the sea shore, and gradually finding the way up to the Holy Mountains, where the source of life comes down to meet the Earth. This is also the myth of the Descent of the River Ganges, which is magnificently depicted in the sea shore temples of Mahaballipuram on the Tamil coast between Chennai and Pondicherry. These carvings on the rock face that were transformed under the Pallava Dynasty (6th-7th Cent) represent the basis in a way of Hindu iconography and temple architecture. It was here, as seen in the series of rock carved shrines, that the very concept of the Hindu temple was first conceived and elaborated on, derived from earlier wooden constructions, which were probably the forest shrines of wandering ascetics. In fact the name given to the ancient Tamil poets of this period is “Sangam” which means “meeting.” Perhaps we can understand this meeting as the coming together of different cultures, or the meeting of the inner and the outer worlds. The very notion of pilgrimage implies this meeting on the spiritual path.

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Art as Prayer




The Child Jesus is born into the world and is received into the womb of Mother Mary. This womb is like the space of Creation, because as the Liturgy expresses it, that Reality which the whole of the Cosmos could not contain, was contained in the womb of the Mother Mary. It is this process of birthing, that is at the heart of the Creative process.
Sometimes people ask when the religious artist sets time apart for prayer. But the art of making an image, is itself what prayer is about. Prayer is not just a matter of asking for something. Rather it is what happens when we are open, and receive the image of the Lord into our hearts.

Art and Yoga.


The following reflections are taken from an essay I wrote some time ago on the Yoga of the Heart. Carl Jung understood the image that we have of Jesus, as the reflection of an innermost Self. This inner Self is also related to the Child who is an archetypal figure of the self that remains playful, and imaginative, and is the source of all our creativity. Meister Eckhart spoke of the Child Jesus being born in our heart, and in that way becoming present in our life.



THE YOGA OF ART

The relation of art to Yoga, has been a concern for me over the last forty years. I first began to reflect on this after reading a book on Christian Yoga when I was still at art school, and also reading an essay by Ananda Coomaraswamy, in which he proposed that every form of art is a yogic Sadhana, or spiritual search. During the years that I was associated with the Ashram of Dom Bede Griffiths, I reflected on the relation of the Icon to the Hindu and Buddhist understanding of the Mandala, as a way of meditation.

The Spiritual in art is concerned with the process of incarnation---the Word becomes Flesh, and pitches His tent amongst us. This is the process that is also at the heart of Eastern spiritual techniques.


In our effort to represent the Gospels in an Indian spiritual context, the vision of reality that underlies the pactice of Yoga seems to be indispensable. Indian iconography has been imbued by yogic ideals. The image of the Guru, as also the figure of a transformed humanity through a spiritual force, lies at the very basis of an Indian Christology as represented in the visual arts.

When in 1983 I was encouraged to think of establishing an “art ashram”, where the practice of the visual arts could be related to an inner spiritual search, I thought that it would be the Yoga of the Heart that should inform such a school of seeing. Here the visual image could become a pointer to that wordless silence that ultimately lies beyond images. A spiritual iconography must be based on a kind of apophatic Advaita, that recognizes that images are always provisional, pointers to an abiding Presence, but never defining that Mystery. The Spirit, I believe, acts as a bridge that helps us to enter in a way that is characterized by a deep empathy, to that heart of belief that lies at the centre of every Faith. We meet other people who are searching for the Divine, not on the external roads that lead to pilgrimage centres, but in the darkness of the cave of the heart, where all differences are lost, in a common longing for the Source of all life.

Chakras and the Body of God




C. G. Jung in his essay “Yoga and the West” warns that Yoga is often mis understood in the light of Western preoccupations with Science and Technology. Here the obsession with “controlling nature”, so that it becomes just a way towards human development, is projected onto the praxis of yoga, understood as a way of controlling the body and breathing. Jung writes:
“The Indian can forget neither the body nor the mind, while the European is always forgetting either the one or the other. With this capacity to forget, he has, for the time being, conquered the world. Not so the Indian. He not only knows his own nature, but he knows also how much he himself is nature. The European, on the other hand, has a science of nature, and knows astonishingly little of his own nature, the nature within him…”

“Western man has no need of more superiority over nature, whether outside or inside. He has both in almost devilish perfection. What he lacks is conscious recognition of his inferiority to the nature around and within him. He must learn that he may not do exactly as he wills. If he does not learn this, his own nature will destroy him..”

One could understand Yoga as a way of understanding Creation as the Body of God. In that sense Yoga can perhaps be an important way towards creating an eco-theology, which recognizes the Divine Presence in Creation. That, after all, was what Moses witnessed when he observed the Burning Bush on Mount Horeb, the Holy Mountain. The Burning Bush, as the Jewish tradition of Midrash has recognized, was a symbol of Creation, in which the Divine Presence came to rest. When Moses approached this Presence, he was asked to take off his shoes, because the very ground was Holy. Then the Divine Presence told Moses that He had seen the suffering of humanity, and intended to set his people free.


Jung is very diffident about appropriating the wisdom to be found in Yoga, to serve the ends that have culturally determined the development of Western civilizations. He warns that if yoga is just taken as yet another technique, it will not serve its original purpose, which was to understand the process of embodiment out of nature. Purush is not meant to control and dominate over Prakriti, any more than the Yang principle in Taoist thought is meant to take over, and subsume the Yin force which is essential if nature is to be respected. The purpose of yoga is both to differentiate, and to integrate. It’s concern is a kind of wholeness which is at once a recognition of the way in which Purush and Prakriti complement each other, but also a strict acceptance of their different domains. In that sense Yoga is as much about separation, as it is about unity. For Jung the problem in western forms of civilization, is a kind of pride, which believes that everything can be brought under the scrutiny of human consciousness. This ultimately denies the fact that there is a whole world of potency that we can never be conscious of. This is not to deny the importance of consciousness, but to understand its limits. What we are calling creativity, or the energy which is also able to transform the reality which we can learn to see, is that it has its root in that which lies beyond our power of will, or active capacity to be conscious. All great traditions of art in the East recognize that the creative impulse comes from a level, which is beyond the capacity of the individual person’s domain of self -control.

It is this mysterious domain, which governs the way in which we become conscious, but yet remains beyond the reach of our conscious will, which can be called “prana”. Here again Jung perceptively notes that what is taken just to be breathing exercises, is in the praxis of Yoga much more than just the mechanism of inhaling and exhaling oxygen with the motor functions of the lungs. Prana is in fact the life force. And in the same way that we are not able to be conscious all the time of our breathing, even though throughout the day and night we breathe unconsciously, so also we are not conscious of the life force which is the real energy which keeps us alive

Meditating on the features of Christ as we find him present in the heart, we might think of the two elements of water and fire. Jesus is present in the waters of the heart as he was when he was baptized in the river, and the Holy Spirit descended on him. But Jesus is also present in the fiery furnace of the heart, as when he judged the world, and said he had come to bring fire down onto the earth.

They look on one who is pierced


My own efforts to give a shape to an Indian Christian iconography has been based on this search for the archetypal, especially in the search for spiritual wholeness which is found in the typology of the Icons, but also in the tradition of the Hindu and Buddhist mandala. Mandala structures underlie the symbolic symbols which we find in the Gospel of St. John, where sacred geometry, and number symbolism is very important, as it was also in the Eastern tradition. In this connection the Pythagorean and Orphic schools which played an important part in shaping the symbolic systems of the Gnostics, probably drew a number of their ideas from ancient Asian symbol systems, linked to Buddhist and even Jaina monastic schools.

A very important symbolic form which cane to have a very particular significance in early Christian iconography was that of the mandorla, or almond shaped form which is created geometrically by the intersection of two arcs, giving rise to a seed or flame like image. This form is found in nature, in the shape of petals, the fish, and even the eye. It was particularly favored by the Orphic schools, which saw in it a symbol of life, and even the opening into the womb. Essentially this form, which looks like a wound, is the original heart mandala. The modern Italian artist Lucio Fontana has explored the aesthetics of this spear-like incision that has a very dynamic import. The mandorla was used as the halo of light around the Transfigured Lord, and we find it in the Tympanum structure over the door of many western Gothic Cathedrals, as for example at Chartres. In fact the characteristic Gothic lance like window, uses the geometry of this pointed arch, which was known earlier to Islamic architects, and was introduced into the West after the Crusades, which resulted in many interesting new forms that came from the meeting of cultures, East and West.

Tree of the Cross



The legend of the search of the true Cross, follows an almost dream like sequence of images, which trace the origin of the wood of the cross back to the Tree of the knowledge of good and evil, and the tree of Life which were at the center of the garden of Paradise. Seeds from this tree were taken by the son of Adam and Eve, and planted in the grave of Adam from which a tree grew up. The wood from this tree served for the building of the Ark of the Covenant, and the Temple of Solomon. The wood from this tree was used to make a bridge over which the Queen of Sheba stepped, when she came in search of Solomon. Finally, it was from this wood that the Cross was made on which the Savior died, and it was this wood, which appeared to Helen when she went to Jerusalem to search for this Cross of Life.

This search for the True Cross, is itself like a way consisting of the many images which link together the living organism of the Biblical narrative. Each event in the continuing journey of the tree of life down through the ages, marks the path of that principle of vitality which links the primal tree in the garden of Eden, to the final tree on which Christ died on Calvary. Each station on this journey, is like one of the “chakra’s” or mandala patterns symbolizing the whole cosmic body of salvation history. The tree becomes a symbol of the heart of that body, because, as Jesus himself said to his disciples “I am the tree, and you are the branches”. Through this continuing tree of life the sap flows, which is like the Prana, or life energy which keeps the whole body alive. The Tree image is both latent in the seed, but also finally manifest in that tree which symbolizes the whole universe. In the same sense the heart in its psycho-somatic reality is the microcosm of the whole body, which replicates in its totality, the seed symbol which lies hidden at its center. The full-grown tree is the seed, in the same way as the whole circle is already present in the point or drop (bindu) from which it spreads out its many branches.

Jesus as Sat Guru of the Heart


The heart as the abode of the indwelling Lord and archetypal Friend.

The image of the heart contains within its mystery the meaning of love. Jesus reveals to his disciples that he is not just the Lord, but is also the Friend. True friendship is a quality which is discovered through the heart.

What do we mean by friendship? Yoga is concerned with yoking, or with bonding. It is revealed in the constant interplay between the one and the many, between unity and duality. As we remarked earlier, yoga demands the recognition of difference, but at the same time affirms the power that integrates. It is in this principle that true friendship

The heart connecting


There is a quality of beauty that unfolds from this friendship. It is a bridge, which links the manifestation of diversity, which lies at the very heart of Creation. By being the Eternal Friend, the Indwelling Lord or Sat Guru, who is found at the center of the mandala, accompanies the disciple on the spiritual way, but does not destroy the individual freedom of each seeker. To be a friend, is to be a fellow pilgrim. We recall the image of Christ who is often depicted as on the way to that final destination which culminated not in the Cross, but in the Resurrection. Jesus appears after his death to the two disciples on the way to Emmaus. He shares with them an understanding of the hidden meaning which lies at the heart of the whole Biblical tradition. He shows the disciples how every image in the Prophets points to the Truth of his life and death. But having given them the key to his story, he makes as though to continue on his path, reluctant to stop with them at their resting place in Emmaus. Later, they finally come to recognize him in the breaking of bread. But in the very moment of recognition, he disappears. It is then that his friends, whom he had reprimanded for being “slow of heart to believe” now confessed: “Did not our hearts burn within us, as he talked to us on the road?”

Finally speaking the yoga of the heart, is to be found in an openness which sees the Reality through a shared vision on the Way. The yoga of the heart is about deep feelings that cannot be simply defined by dogmatic statements. It is a way of understanding which works through images, and the intuition, rather than rational, discursive thought. It is a way of being hospitable, and of meeting God not through a direct vision, but through a friendship, which unfolds slowly, by traveling together with Christ on the journey of life.

The archetypal image




Symbols in Icons, emerging from archetypal images.

My work on religious symbolism arose out of my interest in the ideas of the psychologist Carl Jung, and his understanding of the relation between what he called the integration process, and the structure of the Mandala as understood in the Buddhist and Hindu traditions of yogic meditation. Jung found that the form of the Mandala is universal, but that the contemplative traditions that are to be found both in Christianity and in Eastern Faith systems like Buddhism and Hinduism, had given the Mandala a meaning which related to an inner process of transformation. This process is known both to the monastic branches of Christian spirituality, going back to the Desert Fathers, but also to the yogic teachers of India. Jung, and a group of friends and collaborators like Mircea Eliade, Joseph Campbell, Heinrich Zimmer, Giuseppe Tucci, and others, also showed that this deep knowledge of the way that the unconscious functions was known to human beings from the very dawn of consciousness, as it is the process whereby unconscious images are made conscious in what we understand as the evolution of civilizations. The symbols that are associated by the iconic structure is called a “Mandala” (Sanskrit word meaning simply circle), brings together unconscious material, and conscious understanding, or interpretation. But there always remains in the true icon, elements of the unconscious, which are very ambivalent.

Meditating on the Cross



The Mandala has traditionally been used as an aid to meditation. By focusing on the center of the Mandala, the mind is brought to the reality that holds all the differences that we experience, together. The center is the place where the image of the Lord is found. Around this center we find the space of Creation, with its four cardinal directions, and outer circumference, which comprises the outer limits of our consciousness. Here are often represented those elements that are most ambiguous, and indicative of all that lies on the periphery of conscious mind. These are irrational, chaotic images that seem to lurk in the shadows of our search for unity and order, but still need to be recognized, and included in the wholeness that comprises our self awareness.

Snake symbol as archetypal sign of healing



An example of such an unconscious symbol is the serpent. The image of the snake plays a very vital part in primal or folk images. According to Jung, the serpent like other very basic living forms, itself represents the energy of life, in all its ambivalent and complex manifestations. The serpent is life, and its movement is itself full of vitality, but it is also poisonous, and can be fatal to those who are bitten by a poisonous snake. Of course this fundamental ambiguity in nature we also find in all elemental symbols like water, fire, air and so on. Water itself is essential for life, but it can also destroy. The same is true of fire, and the storms that we associate with the movement of air. The systems of Yoga are concerned with transforming these primal energies into life sustaining, as opposed to life destroying manifestations

The Cosmic Cross



In Kundalini yoga, for example, the energy which we associate with sexuality, and fertility in general, which is symbolized by a serpent which lies coiled up at the base of the spine, in the region of sexual organs, is aroused, but also transformed into a conscious energy. Art in that sense, as all culture, comes out of this energy as a sublimated form of this life force. It is in this sense that we are to understand the mysterious injunction that “the serpent should be lifted up”. The serpent is a creature which lives on the ground, or even under the ground, in holes which lead to the very heart of the earth. But this serpent can also lift itself up, and on occasion is seen to climb up into the branches of a tree. The image of a snake wrapped round another snake, or a vertical staff is found in very ancient cultures both in India and in Europe, and symbolizes a process of healing (the art of medicine has from Greek times has been characterized by this figure of a serpent twined round a vertical pole).

Serpent lifted up.


The figure of Christ on the cross, has from ancient times been associated with the sign of the brazen serpent which Moses lifted up in the desert, as a sign of healing. The cross, let us also not forget, is itself a Mandala, and in many representations of the Cross of Salvation, the vertical and horizontal intersecting lines of the cross are set within a circle, which stands for wholeness.

Mandalas and Meditation


In the following reflections on the Yoga of the heart, which I began working on when I first went to live at Kurisumala Ashram in 1967, and also started painting a series of Christian Mandalas, try to relate the structure of the Icon to the process whereby the vertical and horizontal aspects of reality come together. I remember even before I went to Art school in London, when I was about 14 years old, and had just been baptized into the Catholic Church, I tried to make a series of symbolic sketches of Gospel scenes, placed within a kind of Mandala structure. This was particularly possible when thinking about the Gospel of St. John. The Mandala as a way of presenting narrative events is a well known method of representation in the Indian tradition.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Finally, mention might be made of the Russian icon type called “In Thee Rejoiceth O Gracious One” which originated as late as the 15th Century, and derived from an anthem in the Eastern Christian Liturgy. This icon is very close too the Mandala in its structure, which is used in the East to lead the mind of the worshipper towards concentration, or, as it is often termed “One-pointedness” We see in the centre of this image a structure that represents the Church, where, in a circle, is enthroned Mary, and on her lap the child Jesus. Around the Church is painted a garden. Above is the traditional “Sabaoth Lord God”, with “Emanuel the Child” in His bosom, and in the child’s breast the Dove symbolizing the Holy Spirit. This image is essentially an image of the Glory of God, and depicts in a visual form the Doxology that is the centre of the liturgical act of worship. Here we find an image of the Trinity, in relation to the spiritual life of the Church. Between above and below there is a connection, as between the heavenly and earthly Jerusalem. The icon is not just something static. It represents an act of transformation, where that which is transcendent, beyond the power of the imagination to conceptualise, is given a form that enters the heart and focuses our yearning for the Light. In the human presence of Mary we find a reflection of our own humanity, and it is this humanity which is being lifted up, and transformed by the spiritual force that is symbolized by the Spirit. If the structure of the icon represents the incarnation, and the humanity of Jesus born into the cave of the human heart, the light which illumines the icon, is the transforming power of the Holy Spirit, that gives breath and life to the whole of creation.

Viewing the icon as a process of internalisation.

This duality of the heart is common to all Christian, Hindu and Buddhist thought. In Christian tradition, though only one heart is mentioned, its dual function is clearly defined. There is the carnal heart, which must die, and there is also the spiritual heart in which the day-star has risen. Ramana Maharshi warned his disciples not to think of the heart in a particular place, whether inside or outside the body, for it is the Reality. So if we have differentiated two hearts, heavenly and carnal, it is in an effort to distinquish the two aspects of Reality. The heavenly heart must descend and replace the carnal heart. The Chinese landscape painting celebrated, as is well known, not so much exterior reality as the lay of land within our souls. Hence a Chinese landscape must have the “Yang-Yin”
principles. The “Yang” principle is associated symbolically with the masculine, light principle, whereas in contrast the “Yin” aspect of reality is associated with the feminine, dark principle. The image of the water fall, which we often find in landscape paintings on Chinese hanging scrolls, is supposed to represent the descent of the heavenly principle onto the earthly plane. In Indian mythology we also find the theme of the “descent of the River Ganges” depicted, for example in the Pallava rock sculpture of Mahaballipuram. Bhagirath, the archetypal Guru, sits at the door of the cave of the heart, bringing down from heaven the beneficence of Grace, for the salvation and forgiveness of Creation, which has lost its link with the source of life that lies beyond the cosmos. In Tribal cultures in India, we hear also of a ladder linking the earth to the heavens. According to the Khasi myth of the north west hills, it was down this ladder of light that the first inhabitants of this planet came, carrying with them seeds with which they cultivated the earth. But finally, the tree of darkness plunged the earth into chaos, and when the first tribal peoples tried to cut down this tree, so that their crops might have the light that they needed to grow, they also inadvertently cut the ladder that connects earth to heaven.

I would suggest that a similar idea of the linking of what is above, with what is below, is found in the structure of the icon. In the icon of the Nativity, for example, the child Jesus is born in the cave of the heart, and in the sky above, the star (bindu, or “heavenly heart”), sheds a pencil of light, which penetrates the dark cave, where the child is lying in the manger by his Mother, and amidst the shadowy forms of animals. The three wise men follow this star, that is they concentrate their gaze upon the point of light (or, as the Meister Eckhart called it, the “Soul-spark”) which leads them down to the cave in Bethlehem, where God has become flesh. It is also important to recall here Eckhart’s teaching on the birth of God in the heart. Interesting too is the presence of the ox and the ass in the cave. Nowhere in the gospels are these creatures mentioned in the nativity story, yet from Eastern sources of symbolic imagery related to animals, we know that the ox symbolizes the earth, and the horse represents heaven. The ass, one might say, is a humble form of the horse—it is heaven come down in the world! Actually the ass in the Russian icon is nearly invariably depicted like a horse. The ox is often painted red (earth colour) and the ass, or horse is represented as blue or white. (Note: The iconographic tradition of painting the ox and the ass in nativity scenes stems from Isaiah I, 3 : “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people doth not consider.” In other words, the animal kingdom has often more insight than human beings, who have lost the wisdom of the heart.)