Sunday, November 1, 2009





Reflections on the Primal Traditions in India.

The Festival of Lights: Deepavalli

One of the most important festivals of the Hindu calendar is the five days of Diwali . These begin on the 13th day of the dark half of Ashwin (September-October) and conclude on the 2nd day of the light half of Kartika (October-November). This is a time when the season of darkness is increasing, and essentially the festival celebrates the triumph of light over darkness. The most important day of the festival is the first day of the light half of the month Kartika. On this day it is believed that the goddess Lakshmi visits the homes of those who light lamps especially near the doorway. One name of the festival is Deepavalli, which means a row of small earthen lamps, which guide the goddess into the inner part of the home.

One could relate the row of little earthen lamps, to seeds of light. These are planted, one might suggest, in the darkness, to lead the goddess who represents fullness, or prosperity, into the heart of the home. Mircea Eliade in an essay relates light to the seed.[1] The shape of the little earthen lamp (deepa) in which a cotton wick is placed, soaking up the oil which is itself crushed from seeds, reminds one of the seed’s form. This light, Mircea Eliade reminds us, is the “Antarjyoti” or inner light, which is also associated with the Atman, or spirit.

The image of light is to be found in all great religious traditions. Its significance obviously points back to primordial times, when the mystery of light that leads the way through darkness, must have impressed the human mind even more poignantly than today, when we take light rather for granted. We note that this season of the year, when the light is supposed to be born in the cave of darkness, has been an important time of festivity all over the world. Often very close to Diwali, Indian Christians celebrate All Souls day. It is at this time also that the Church reflects on the meaning of ‘Mission.’

During the autumn term from September to November, 1993, I was invited to give a series of lectures at the Centre for Christianity in the non-Western world, in the New College, Edinburgh. These were the Alexander Duff lectures.  On Nov 1 I conducted a workshop at the Netherbow Centre to celebrate both the Celtic New Year, and the Indian festival of Lights, Diwali. The theme of this workshop was “Sacred space and story—a Celtic and Indian view of Creation”.

Alexander Duff, (1806-78), was a famous Scottish missionary in India. Alexander Duff came from a very simple rural background, (his Father was a gardener and farmer)  but distinguished himself as a brilliant student. He studied arts and theology at the University of St. Andrews. He then accepted an offer  by the foreign mission committee of the Church of Scotland's general assembly to become their first missionary to India, and was ordained in August 1829. After a difficult voyage to India, during which he was twice shipwrecked, Duff arrived in Calcutta on May 27, 1830. On arriving in Calcutta, which was in those days the centre of British administration in India, he immediately focussed on the problems of education for the local Indian community. He felt that by giving them a broad knowledge of the liberal arts and rational, scientific ways of thinking, the Indian intelligentsia would soon abandon the superstitions which he felt was the greatest evil in the native culture. Duff had the support of the best-known early Indian reformer, Raja Ram Mohun Roy, who together with Devendranath Tagore, founded the Brahmo movement. Leaders of this reform movement within Hinduism, spoke of “sweeping our house clean” and throwing “the rubbish away” in order to return to the purity of the Vedas.[2]

Alexander Duff had thought that by giving to the high caste Indians of Bengal an enlightened education, they would eventually be led to the light of the Gospel. In that sense he had a rather simplistic understanding of Mission, believing that Christianity with its Western culture based on Greek and Roman traditions, could bring “civilization” to people in India. However his lifelong efforts to establish a Western type of education in Calcutta, led to the foundation of a University which was to have a profound effect on the future of India.

Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877-1947 (1877-08-22)) who was an important figure in the cultural Renaissance on India, which took place around artists and poets like Rabindranath Tagore, discussed the whole concept of Civilization, in relation to what the West understood as “Superstition”. In his essay “Is Art a Superstition, or a Way of Life ?” Coomaraswamy writes:[3]

By a superstition we mean something that “stands over” from a former time, and which we no longer understand and no longer have any use for.

But then he further adds:

Despite the evidence of our environment, with its exaggerated standards of living, and equally depreciated standards of life, our conception of history is optimistically based on the idea of “progress”; we designate cultures of the past or those of other peoples as relatively “barbaric” and our own as relatively “civilized” never reflecting that such prejudgements, which are really wish-fulfilments, may be very far from fact.

Coomaraswamy, like John Ruskin,[4] and William Morris, was essentially very critical of the kind of western rationalism that had led to the industrial revolution, and the establishment of colonial domination by modern industrial nations in the West, over a large portion of what was the non-Western world. In that sense he was basically concerned with a counter culture, that was also important to reformers like M.K. Gandhi. In fact it was Coomaraswamy who was the intellectual force behind the idea of “Swadeshi” which meant, “belonging to one’s own land”. This understanding of the essential value of a traditional culture, like the culture which the Missionaries found in India, was very different from those who believed that only the West was civilized, and all cultures of the East were essentially given over to superstitions. It was the blindness of Western missionaries to the evil aspects of their own culture, that resulted in the kind of cultural assumptions that Western Missionary movements supposed to be the Christian message to the rest of the world.

The tragedy of this approach to Mission, as essentially the extension of Western culture to the non-western world, was that it was blind to its own cultural limitations. It supposed that the mind set which was thought to be “enlightened” in Europe, could be transplanted and imposed upon the minds of everyone else.  This type of Christianity came to India, in western clothing. It remained ignorant of the cultural traditions of the East, and the fact that “superstitions” are to be found in every culture. Indian reformers starting with Raja Ram Mohan Roy, and leading on to great personalities like Rabindranath Tagore, and M.K. Gandhi, appreciated the point that the religious practices of their day needed reform. However, it was a sad lack of self perception, that did not allow many Missionaries to recognize that the colonial system which they were closely associated with, had little to do with the spirit of the Gospels that they came to preach. The institutional Church, which relied very much on colonial powers had itself lost the light which was present in the Gospels. This light was recognized by many spiritual people who came into contact with the Bible which was introduced into India by the Missionaries. But these spiritual leaders of India could immediately recognize that what the Gospels stood for, had little connection with the kind of Church that the Missionaries were representing. And so the general response from thinking Indians, was that though the Gospels were of great interest, they could not feel drawn to the Church that was so much an agent of the Colonial powers.

Christianity had been introduced into the Greek and Roman world not as a conquering ideology, but as an open hearted spirituality. One of the early converts to Christianity was Justin the philosopher. Born around 100 C.E. of Greek speaking parents in Flavia Niapolis, he grew up in Palestine. He thus represented the coming together of Greek and Jewish cultural traditions. He became a professional Philosopher, drawing on the thought of Plato and also Stoicism. Even when he became a Christian, he continued to wear the robes of a Greek philosopher. Along with Philo of Alexandria, he did much to introduce into the early Church philosophic ideas that came fro,m pre-Christian thinkers. One of the important ideas that he contributed to the early work of the Fathers of the Church was the concept of the “Seeds of the Word” or Logos. The concept of the Logos had already been taken over by Philo, and was accepted very early into the Church, so that in the prologue of the Gospel of St. John we are told that “In the beginning was the Word (Logos)” St Justin (who later became one of the early Martyrs, wrote:

Christ, the Firstborn of God is the Logos, and all mankind has received participation in Him

He further demonstrated in his second Apologia (which he wrote around 150 C.E.) that the philosophers of ancient Greece had also witnessed to this Word and could be said to have “lived with the Word” in the same way that the early disciples lived with Jesus. He declares passionately:

I confess that I pray and endeavour with all my energy to be found a Christian not because the doctrines of Plato are foreign to Christ ....        (II,13:2)

Fr. Friedrich Neuhauser of the Mill Hill Fathers (who was a professor in the St John’s Regional Seminary in Hyderabad) writes:

The human logos is ‘engrafted’ (emphytos) in all mankind. It is ‘seminal’ (spermatikos), a seed. But it is a seed of the true and real Logos, Christ. This implies that on the one hand man by nature does not possess the fullness of the Logos, but participates in it only partially and dimly; on the other hand it implies that man does really participate in the divine Logos, and thus can know God and the way to reach Him.[5]

In the context of Indian religions, this idea of the Seed of the Word, has been applied to the  philosophical notion of Shabda, which can be related to the spirituality of the Gospel in the same way that the Greek Logos was. In fact many Indians have felt that the wisdom of the Vedanta is as profound as the philosophical thought of the Greeks. Keshab Chander Sen, and later Brahmobandab Upadyay, both of whom were much influenced by the reformed movements initiated by people like Raja Ram Mohan Roy, and the Tagore family, attempted to relate the wisdom of the Gospels, to the ancient spiritual traditions of India.

Keshab Chander Sen, who took over the leadership of the Brahmo movement in Bengal from Raja Ram Mohan Roy, gave a lecture on Jesus Christ: Europe and Asia, on May 5, 1866. In this talk he says:

No doubt it is martyr blood that has nourished the precious seed of divine truth planted by Jesus, till it has become a mighty tree, whose wide-extended branches overshadow a vast extent of the habitable globe, and whose fruits are enjoyed by myriads of men and women in various parts of the world...

But he goes on in the same lecture to remark:

Among the European community in India there is a class who not only hate the Natives with their whole heart, but seem to take a pleasure in doing so. The existence of such a class of men cannot possibly be disputed. They regard the Natives as one of the vilest nations on earth, hopelessly immersed in all the vices which can degrade humanity and bring it to the level of brutes. They think it mean even to associate with the natives....

He then goes on to state:

...alas! owing to the reckless conduct of a number of pseudo-Christians, Christianity has failed to produce any wholesome moral influence on my countrymen. Yes their muscular Christianity has led many a Native to identify the religion of Jesus with the power and privilege of inflicting blows and kicks with impunity !

Which leads him to conclude:

I must therefore protest against that denationalization which is general among Native converts to Christianity. With the religion of their heathen forefathers they generally abandon the manners and customs of their country and with Christianity they embrace the usages of Europeans; even in dress and diet they assume an affected air of outlandishness, which estranges them from their own countrymen. They deliberately and voluntarily cut themselves off from Native society and as soon as they are baptized, as an inevitable consequence, come to contract a sort of repugnance to everything oriental...[6]


Seeds of Light

It is in this context of a Christian Church wedded to the cultural attitudes of the colonizer, that there was a growing sense in the Indian Church, after the Independence of India in 1947, that Christianity should abandon its Western clothes, and should identify itself with the cultural traditions of the Indian people. Coming myself from a mixed background—my Mother who was British came to India in 1936 to work in a Gandhian school in Udaipur, where she met my Father who was brought up in a Hindu reformist environment in the Punjab—made me anxious to discover how one might find a common spiritual ground between a European Christian culture, and an Indian culture rooted in the experience of God found in Hindu and Buddhist spirituality. In my home as a child two festivals played a very important part—Diwali, and Christmas. Both are festivals of light, and point to a primordial belief that finally light will prevail over darkness. The great pilgrim song of the Upanishads says : “Lead me from darkness to the Light: Lead me from death to immortality !”

As a painter, the whole significance of light has been particularly meaningful for me. Light makes the way visible. We might speak of Christ as the Word, but he was also the Image. Jesus spoke of himself as both the way and the light. In the Gospel of John we are told that when Jesus said he was the Way, it was in answer to the query of Thomas:

Thomas said to him “Lord we do not know where you are going; so how can we know the way to get there ?

Jesus answered him, “I am the way, the truth and the life”

It is in relation to this Way that Jesus also says that he is the Light, so that people might walk on the way without stumbling. So the light is to be understood in the context of the pilgrim way. The light leads through the darkness, as John Henry Newman was to say in a famous hymn that Gandhi was fond of singing in his Sat Sanghs.  The commission to go out and preach the Kingdom of God was a pilgrim journey, and not a task for those who believe that they are civilized, and others need to be enlightened by them.

The same doubting Thomas who wanted to know the way, also wanted to see and touch the wounds of the risen Lord. Jesus shows him his wounds, and invites him to see and touch them. In Indian thought the concept of “Darshan” is very important. The disciple is invited the see and touch the Guru, who is also the one who shows the path.

The image of Light as breaking through all boundaries.

Light---cannot be hidden under a bushel, or vessel. Light must be placed on a lamp stand; something visible, like the City of God. "Let your light shine before men". But what, one might ask, is this bushel, this containing, and covering vessel, that some try to put the light into, and in that way even deny it the opportunity to breathe, snuffing it out in the container that is meant to hold and protect it ? The Light cannot be contained. Like the Spirit, it shines where it pleases, and in the hearts of those who are touched by it. In a reflection in a newspaper column that I recently read on the significance of Diwali,  it was pointed out that the wick of the lamp has to come out of the oil. If the wick is submerged in the oil, it will not light. The wick has traditionally been understood as the 'self'. The oil is a culture, which feeds the wick. But it is important that the wick emerges out of what can be a suffocating culture, otherwise there can be no light. Only by emerging out of the earthen vessel of oil, can the cotton wick catch fire. In the same way the Christian can only receive the light, if as a believing individual, the follower of Jesus  is willing to come out of the oil that does, however, feed the flame that burns in the heart. By pushing the wick back into that oil, which also represents a kind of love that fuels the flame, and drowning the wick in the oil, we extinguish the light of the flame. There is a tension of being in a given culture, or institutionalized religion, but also as an individual out of it; of belonging and yet also not being submerged in that sense of belonging. This dialectical tension, is I believe, essential for a spiritual discipleship, and openness to the ‘other’.

The theme of the wick (representing the self, or individual will) being fed by the oil, but emerging out of the oil, so that it can be set on fire, could be related to the well known Upanishadic metaphor of the lotus flower which blossoms above the waters, where its roots are embedded in the earth at the bottom of the muddy pool. There again, the flower which represents the inner self should be free from the sources that feed it. In the same way one might say that the oil in the clay lamp, like the roots of the lotus rhizome which draw their sustenance from what lies in the dark earth below, should have a certain independence, or detachment from the very sources that fuel the flame-like flower. The mystic poet Kabir spoke of true love as a form of detachment.

Perhaps one could see the reservoir of the muddy pool, or the clay lamp, as representing a cultural tradition. In order that the flame should touch the wick, it must be above this reservoir, to receive the breath of air, which is also necessary for the living flame. If the flame or lotus flower is submerged in the very sources that sustain its life, then it will suffocate, and drown.

The philosopher of poetic metaphor, Gaston Bachelard, reflected on the phenomenology of the elemental material (what he also called the material imagination) He connects the flame with the imagination, which he suggested was the place where the psyche catches fire. He talks about the “Solitiude of the Candle Dreamer” and the “Poetic Images of the Flame in Plant Life”. [7]

In the thought of Yoga, the whole body becomes the vehicle for an inner light.  This light is enshrined in the heart of the believer. The body is like the Muslim image of the Mehrab, the niche in which the light of the Divine is placed. Sacred space is the receptacle in which light radiates, like a flame in a still place. Light circulates in the body like breath, or that ambrosia which the mystical poet Kabir relates to the honey which the bee collects and stores in the comb[8]. This light is the essence of Bliss.

O God, give me light in my heart, and light in my tongue, and light in my hearing and light in my sight and light in my feeling and light in all my body and light before me and light behind me. Give me, I pray Thee, light on my right hand and light on my left hand and light above me and light beneath me, O Lord, increase light within me and give me light and illuminate me.

                                                        A prayer ascribed to Muhammad.


The tribal Sohrai festival of Chotanagpur and the Damodar Valley.


The Sohrai festivities take place the day after Diwali. This is a harvest festival for the tribal peoples like the Oraons and Santalis. But it is also celebrated in the ‘bastis of the Kurmis, (Hinduized farmers), Prajapatis (potters) Ranas (carpenters) Telis (oil extractors) and Turis (basket makers). At this time elaborate designs are made on the mud walls of the villages, using an ancient technique of scratching an image on the wall with a comb, [9]so that a dark undercoat of black clay is allowed to appear through an over coat of light clay; either white Kaolin, or a cream coloured wash of clay.[10]

These patterns are referred to as “writing” and are a kind of graffiti, using a method not unlike “scraperboard”. Generally women make these images, beginning by drawing an outline, or frame, with geometric patterns. Mandala designs on the ground, which are in the form of circles, divided in the centre by a line, are supposed to represent the tracks created by the hoofs of the cow or horse. It is supposed that at this season Pashupatti, the Lord of animals, brings back the herds from the forest. This figure of a Divine Herder is also related to the tribal Rama,  who returns from the forest where the animals are taken to graze, and are brought back into the village at this harvest time.  The figure of the Divine Herder is represented riding on an animal which has a mythical appearance. The body of this Herder is made of two triangles. His chest is a downward pointing triangle, and his loins are shaped like a triangle pointing upwards. Bulu Imam relates this figure to the ithyphallic proto-Shiva to be found in the Mohenjo-Daro seals.

An ancient myth of the return of the cattle is to be found in the Vedas. There too it seems to relate to a festival of lights, as the word “go” meaning cow, can also mean light. Bulu Imam writes:

...both bulls and buffaloes gaily anointed with coloured spots and oiled horns are taken to posts in the cross roads of the village where the three wise men sing to them....

A pashupati song verse:

When the oil lamps of Diwali are over,

Then the lord of the animals, Pashupati

Comes with the animals from the forest.

Where have I seen such a beautiful horse ?

Where have I seen such a beautiful cow ?

Where have I seen such a beautiful family ?[11]

To the ancient herders (Ahirs) the cattle  represented wealth, but Sri Aurobindo in his reflections on the Vedas, understands these animals, like cow and horse. as metaphors for Cosmic energies. For him the cow symbolizes the earth, while the horse might represent the wind or the sky. Sri Aurobindo discusses the myth of the stealing of the animals, which he believes underlies a whole Vedic cosmology.[12]

The Herds of the Dawn.

Underlying a number of the hymns of the Veda is the myth of the stealing of the cattle by the Panis, who hid the sacred cattle in a mountain cave. The sacred cattle of the Rishis, or Vedic Seers, were stolen by the Panis who represent the forces of darkness and the underworld. It was Indra, the sky god, who is represented carrying the bow, (which is also linked to the rainbow), who sent his dog Sarama out in search of the stolen cattle. Following the tracks of the animals into the dark forests, Sarama found where the cattle had been hidden in a cave. Then Indra came with his thunderbolt, and broke open the cave, releasing the herds. The cattle came out from the cave like streams of light. Here the image of go meaning cow, overlaps with fire, and the light of the dawn. The release of the cattle from the cave is compared to the dawn clouds, which are fire-coloured, like the cattle whose bodies resemble the clouds lit up by the rising sun.

The Divine Herdsman, called pasu-patti, or go-pala, can be found as an archetype in many cultures across the world. In the Greek tradition this figure appears as Hermes Kriophoros, or the ram-bearer who became the prototype of the “good Shepherd” of early Christian iconography. In fact it is the Hermetic significance of the Vedic myth of the stolen cattle that Sri Aurobindo stresses on. The search for the cattle is the basis for his kind of hermeneutics. The herds are “animals” (pasu), and the word “anima” meant the soul, or that which has life. Tracking down the animals was discovering the soul hidden in the cave which also represents the womb of matter.

Carl Jung comments in his book Aion:[13]

Another prototype in his capacity as shepherd, was Orpheus. This aspect of the Pomen gave rise to a figure of similar name in the mystery cults, who was popularized in the “Shepherd” of Hermas (2nd Cent). Like the “giant fish” mentioned in the Abercius inscription, the shepherd probably has connections with Attis.....

Carl Jung argues that these animals, the Ram and the Fish represent two aions of cosmic time, and that our modern age shifts from the aion of the Ram to that of the Fish. When I visited Bulu Imam in Hazaribagh, and was taken to see the painted walls of Kurmi villagers on the Chotanagpur plateau, I was fascinated to see images of the fish represented with its skeleton structure, looking like a tree in the mandorla[14] form of its eye-shaped body. The body of the animal that the herder is riding on, looks like the damaru drum which again is constructed like two triangles that meet at their apex. To this drum like body is added a tail at one end, and a curved neck and head of the animal at the other. This imaginary creature repeats in a horizontal form, the body of the rider who stands vertical above it.  Similar figures are noted by Verrier Elwin in the pictographs of the Saora tribe in Orissa, and in the Warli images on the West coast. Man and animal are closely linked, the one vertical, the other horizontal

Underlying these primal signs or figures, is a cosmology of the coming together of the sky god and the earth being. Here we might refer to the Kharia understanding of Sita as “Daughter of the Earth” (bhumija).[15] She too was stolen, and finally recoverd by Ram, who in many ways represents a sky deity (carrying like Indra, the bow which is his magical weapon, linked with the rainbow). Ram attacks the fortress of the Asura king Ravana, claiming Sita and bringing her back to his own city of Ayodha. Ram is helped by the monkey Hanuman, who is a healer. Hanuman is often represented as carrying the mountain on which is the healing herb that saved the life of Lakshman, the brother of Ram, wounded in the battle. When finally they return to Ayodhya, they are greeted with lamps. This is one of the popular stories, recounted as having taken place at the time of Diwali.

Sita who appears as a goddess of the earth in the tribal myths of Chotanagpur, is discovered as a baby in the furrow of a ploughed up field. She is a goddess of seeds, who is redeemed by the sky god, and brought back safely from the kingdom of the dark underworld.  The goddess of the harvest seeds, known among the Warli Adivasis as Kansari, is worshipped in the inner room where seeds are stored.[16] She is a figure representing fertility, who has to return again and again to the earth. This motif of returning to the earth is also found in the epic of the Ramayana, where Sita once again is taken back into the earth, even after she has been recovered from the underworld by Rama. Like the bija, (seed that is generated again and again) she represents the cycle of birth and death.

These images were first introduced to me by Dom Bede Griffiths in his Ashram in Kurisumala. In his book “The Marriage of East and West”[17] he mentions the idea of Owen Barfield concerning Poetic Diction, which was to play a decisive role in the work of both C.S.Lewis and J.R.Tolkein, both of whom Bede Griffiths had known when he was a student at Oxford. He writes:

Barfield[18] showed how a word like ‘spirit’ (Latin spiritus, Greek pneuma, Hebrew ruah, one may add Sanskrit atman) originally had many meanings. It could mean wind or air or breath or life or soul or spirit. A common understanding of this phenomenon is that the word originally meant wind or air, then as the connection between breath and air, and between life and breath and betweeen soul and life, was realized, man gradually grew in understanding until he came to conceive of a supreme universal being.

Barfield was able to show that thesis view has no basis in reality. These words, as originally used, contained all these meanings without distinction. That is why primitive language, and the language of the Vedas for instance, is incredibly rich in meaning.[19]

It was this understanding of the basis of myth in poetic language, that gave me a way of relating myths also to visual language, as found in ancient pictographs and symbols.[20] When I was first introduced to the tribal cultures of India in the mid eighties, I was completely overawed by the rich significance of the many stories that I discovered in this primal tradition of Indian culture. Because I had been interested in the writings of Carl Jung, and had explored the symbolism of the mandala in my own painting, the primal images that I found in the folk and tribal traditions of India immediately spoke to my own imagination. For me these symbols represented “seeds of light” which could show me a way to understand the origins of Indian cultures.

Primal symbols and the development of an authentic Indian modern art.

W.G.Archer in his study of Modern Indian Art, discusses the importance of the work of Jamini Roy, in his chapter on Art and the Primitive.[21] Jamini Roy (1887- 1972) had a profound influence on the development of modern Indian art. He abandoned the idea of returning to past styles like those to be found in the murals of Ajanta or in the miniature paintings of Mogul or Rajput art. These had provided the models for the Bengal school of the “Indian Renaissance” or nationalist movement in Indian culture towards the end of the 19th century, led by artists like Abanindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose. Jamini Roy, was trained in the Calcutta Government School of Fine Arts, where E.B.Havel played an important role by reminding Indian artists of their great traditions, and suggesting that they should not merely copy western models. However, Jamini Roy eventually turned for his inspiration to the art of his native village called Chandar in the District of Bankura in Bengal, and also the bazaar art of Kalighat. In the village he had been brought up to see the Patua art of the local Santali culture[22]. Following this approach of finding inspiration in contemporary folk art, the artist K.C.S. Panikkar who became the Principal of the Government art college in Chennai also used the kind of popular graffiti that is found village art, to create modernist canvases. His influence can be seen in the work of a number of the artists of the Madras School, who drew extensively from folk traditions. The painter J.Swaminathan, (1924-1994) who was responsible for the setting up of Bharat Bhavan in Bhopal, and bringing together modern artists and tribal painters and sculptors from Madhya Pradesh and Chathisgarh, has remarked:

We have to approach the Adivasi cultures in our own society with an attitude of brotherhood and one of shared wonder at the palpable presence of the incomprehensible incessantly unfolding around us.[23]

The Primal in relation to suffering

One of the reasons, it appears to me, for the interest in  primal forms of art as found in Adivasi and Dalit cultures, relates to the archetypal figure of the suffering victim as  in some way being identified with the Purush who has to be sacrificed, in order that his broken body may become the source of Creation[24]. The depiction of suffering in Western art certainly impressed Indian artists, as suffering is not a subject of the classical tradition of art in India. Indian classical art may represent love in the form of Sringara (eros) or bravery (Vira), but agony is considered to be essentially part of the transient, imperfect aspect of life. When Indian artists turned to the theme of human agony or existential ‘angst’, it was not by showing this human emotion in a realistic way. Rather, attempts were made to find a symbolic treatment of this basic condition which was very much in the minds of Indian reformists, facing the situation of human misery in a modern world. It is interesting that this primal, raw reality of those who are downtrodden and marginalized, seemed to evoke in the minds of Indian artists, themes related to the Gospel of the ‘Suffering Servant’. Thus in Bengal the experience of partition in 1927, when the British administration decided to split Bengal into two, gave rise to a deep sense of brokenness, a feeling that the Mother land had been torn apart. It was out of this cultural sense of loss that a new kind of art emerged, which led Jamini Roy to seek a more rudimentary form of self expression, reminiscent of what he felt was the lived experience of tribal India. There was something almost expressionless and stark in the doll like figures of folk art that seemed to speak from this primal state of humanity struggling with very basic human necessities of life. The staring almost vacant eyes of folk deities, as we encounter them in the images of Kali, seem to convey a primal experience of life and death, which assumes the timeless order of mythic reality. The importance of the eye in Indian folk art relates to a symbolic idea in Indian myths, that suffering itself is a kind of seeing, a way of experiencing reality in silence. Perhaps this is what Paulo Freire referred to as the “culture of silence” among those who are oppressed—a silence that itself becomes like the ‘voice of the voiceless’.[25]

Around 1937 Jamini Roy began to paint a whole series of images on Christian themes, that combined the counter-cultural with this primitive sense of woundedness.  W.G. Archer reports in his chapter on Art and the Primitive, that in 1943 Jamini Roy told Mary Milford :

This is my latest period. I am not a Christian. I do not read the New Testament or any other writing, butt I meditate on what I have heard or what I know. There have been few, if any, satisfactory paintings of Christ for expression of the significance of his life. This is a great theme and I shall continue to struggle to find a fitting expression in modern terms.[26]     

Writing about the work of K.C.S. Paniker, Richard Taylor comments:

In the fifties Paniker  took his artistic cue from Jamini Roy and this may well be one reason for his interest in painting Christ at that time. It has been well written that “K.C.S.Paniker was one who had all along refused to submit to the ‘realism’ of modern European analytical styles. And when Jamini Roy did those remarkable pictures, Paniker immediately grasped what was meant by them.”

Richard Taylor sums up this new movement in Indian art by saying:

Once when he was painting Christ, he told a friend that he was not painting Christ, but that he was painting ‘agony’ and that Christ occurred to him as the appropriate subject—I would be inclined to say motif—and that he could not associate this ‘agony’ with any Indian image........It was then he said that if you scratch Buddha you will see a prince, whereas if you scratch Christ there is the carpenter’s son, someone authentic.[27]

Art as Mission.

Returning to the hand written notes of my talks in Edinburgh in 1993, after a gap of 16 years, I am conscious that my understanding of Mission has changed over this period. In 1992 the Babri Masjid was demolished by those who claimed that they represented a new ideology of Hindutva, which gave rise to a political party after the difficult time known as the “Emergency”. Since then religious fundamentalism has appeared in different forms, among Christians, Muslims, and also Hindus. This has made dialogue between Faiths more difficult.

Unfortunately the kind of evangelical stance of a number of Mission organizations, very much returned to the exclusivist attitudes of missionaries in the 19th Century, adding further to the religious divide. Dialogue is not possible when one party claims to possess the Truth, to the exclusion of the other. Only when there is a respect and recognition of truth on both sides, can dialogue be profitable. Christians may feel that they belong to Christ, but it is a big mistake to think that Christ belongs to Christians. If we are talking about light, it cannot be contained in such an exclusivist way. Light is for all, and as we hear from the Prologue of St. John’s Gospel, the Logos came to enlighten everyone. The seeds of light are scattered everywhere, and can grow in the heart of every human being.

There has been a tendency for the Institutional Church to use art as a way of claiming its sole prerogative over revealed Truth. But art has never been the agent of any one institution or culture. Art is in that sense counter cultural, impossible to institutionalize. The spirit of art is always to cross boundaries, to build bridges, and not walls. I believe art has a mission, but that mission is to find common ground where cultures, and spiritualities can meet and dialogue with freedom, and not a fear of being somehow colonized.

The diversity of religions and cultures is also related to natural diversity—the fact that every place, and every individual has a spirit, which embodies the memory of experiences, and climates that are very different in different parts of the world. The idea of a seed is that it holds within itself a memory, which grows in some places, but cannot be transported to other environments. The diversity of encapsulating of genetic materials, within the living seed, is a natural outcome of biodiversity. This is also true of individuals who belong to different cultures, and who respond to spiritual impulses in various ways.

Recently, while preparing for an exhibition of my recent paintings in Mangalore on the theme of the “Spirit of a place” I read a paper by Fr. John Fernandes, who is the professor of the Chair in Christianity of the Mangalore University on values to be found in the religions of the world. In this he reflects on the Primal cultures of India, and how they embody certain values that are very necessary in our modern world. He shows how the Spirit can be found in these cultures that have their roots in pre-history. He writes:

The “Great Spirit” is believed to be the preserver of “good” and destroyer of “evil” in the world. This Great Spirit, though transcendent and far beyond the world, is also experienced as dwelling in, and to be reached through nature. She/He is invoked and worshiped through prayers, offerings and sacrifices. Human beings relate to the “Divine” through symbols, rituals and invocations.

Father John Fernandes goes on to enumerate certain values that can be found in these “primal” cultures. These are:

    • Ecology: Equilibrium between the various forces of nature is a necessary pre-condition to harmony.
    • Life: Respect for life of every kind—vegetative, animal and human— is an important practice of primal religions. This leads to:
    • Non-violence: Not to harm or destroy life, except when it is necessary to sustain another life, is the ideal.

Reading this article, which was based on a lecture Fr John Fernandes gave in Switzerland, I felt that I needed to go back to what I had tried to articulate in the lectures I gave in Edinburgh. This has meant that while keeping to the basic structure of the talks that I gave then, I have also tried to add various insights that have been given to me over the years since I originally gave the Alexander Duff Lectures. One of the main shifts in my understanding now, in the light of various developments in the Indian situation of today, is that local cultures cannot be used to spread the Christianity in the form of membership in an institutional Chruch. Rather, Christians as members of the Church need to immerse themselves in local cultures. As one theologian put it: The Church has to come to India as a pilgrim people, ready to be immersed in the waters of the River Ganges.

On one occasion Alexander Duff himself said:

“I will lay my bones by the Ganges that India might know that there is one who cares.”


                                                                                    Nov. 1. 2009






[1] Spirit, Light and Seed by Mircea Eliade. History of Religions, Vol. 11, No. 1, Aug 1971.  Pp 1-30

[2] Cf “Jesus in Indian Painting” by Richard Taylor. C.L.S 1975  P 61

[3] Cf “Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art” by Ananda K. Coomaraswamy.  Chapter III pp 61-63

Also “What is Civilization? And other essays” by Ananda Coomaraswamy 1989

[4] John Ruskin ( 1819– 1900) Compare the dates of Alexander Duff: 1806-78,

[5] The Doctrine of the “Seeds of the Word” in the Apologies of St. Justin  Martyr by Fr. Friedrich Neuhauser mhm. In “Research Seminar on Non-Biblical Scriptures, published by the NBCLC, Bangalore, 1974

[6] Jesus Christ: Europe and Asia byKeshub Chander Sen, Library of Indian Christian Theology, Edited by David Scott. C.L.S 1979  pp 45-72

[7] cf “The Flame of a Candle” by Gaston Bachelard, translated by Joni Caldwell.

[8] Amiya Jhare ho sadhu. Ami is the nectar which the bee deposits in the cave of the heart.

[9] In connection with the use of the comb as an instrument for making patterns, see Verier Elwin, The Tribal Art of Middle India, London 1951 Chapter V, The Comb.

[10] Cf The Painted houses of Hazaribagh, Jharkhand, by Bulu Imam in Abhandlungen und Berichte der Staatlichen Ethnographischen Sammlunge Sachsen 52, Berlin 2005 pp 173-188  J.Hoffmann stated from his studies of the Mundaic language and culture “soraiporob, the cattle festival..”(Vol. XIII p. 4055) He found and described “The Sorai festival is kept everywhere on the same day, viz, on the new moon of kartikcandu, soraicanda (October)

[11] Op cit. P. 179

[12] The Secret of the Veda by Sri Aurobindo. Cf chapter XII : The Herds of the Dawn. Chapter XIV: The Cow and the Angirasa Legend , and Chapter XV, The Lost Sun and the Lost Cows.

[13] Aion, researches into the phenomenology of the self’, by C.G.Jung. Collected works, Vol.9 Part II. 1959 . p. 103

[14] “Mandorla” is a Greek term meaning “seed”. The shape which is found everywhere in nature, is created by two arcs, which make a form like the eye, or the petal of a flower.

[15] Cf The Birth-story of Sita by C. Bulke sj. Sevartham Vol. II 1986

[16] Cf. The Painted World of the Warlis by Yashodhara Dalmia 1988.  The Ritual Cycle, Part Three: The Song of Kansari.

[17] ‘The Marriage of East and West’, by Bede Griffiths, 1982

[18] Owen Barfield (1898-1997)


[19] ‘Marriage of East and West’, Op.Cit. pp 49-50

[20] Cf  Language and Myth by Ernst Cassirer. Trans. Susan Langer 1946

[21]  India and Modern Art by W.G.Archer, 1959. Chapter 6. PP 109-115

[22] Cf ‘Indian Popular Painting’ by Mildred Archer. 1972

[23] Art and the Adivasi by J. Swaminathan in Indigenous Vision: Peoples of India, Attitudes to the Environment, Edited by Geeti Sen. Sage Publications 1992

[24] This concept of the Primal Person who is sacrificed, in order that out of his body parts the whole of creation might be made, is found already in the Vedas, and is very much an aspect of the sacrificial cults among tribal Adivasis, as will be discussed later.

[25]The Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ by Paulo Freire. 1968

[26] Op cit. Art and the Primitive. P 111

[27] Jesus in Indian Paintings by Richard W. Taylor. Confessing the Faith in India: No 11. C.L.S 1975 pp 72-73