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Considering Coomarasamy

BY MARK HAGER / Economy Next

Worth Sharing

[This column was originally published in EconomyNext -Sri Lanka on its Tuesday September 7, 2021 issue]

Ananda Coomarasamy stakes a claim as modern Lanka’s most renowned thinker. Born in Colombo to a distinguished Tamil Lankan father and British mother, Coomaraswamy attended school and university in England. He visited Sri Lanka and India at various times, nursing great interest in South Asian art and religion. He spent a long scholarly career in the United States.

His reputation rests mainly on his links to the Arts and Crafts Movement, defence of Asian art against notions of Western superiority, and curatorship of Asian arts at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. I am no art critic and would attempt no comment on his scholarship in that domain.

He places that scholarship, however, within more sweeping views on culture, society and politics that warrant their own attention. I offer here some explication of those views, some interestingly provocative, others intensely peculiar.

The Victorian-era Arts and Crafts Movement criticized industrial capitalism, partly on grounds of worker impoverishment but more prominently on grounds of exalting consumerism over ‘producerism.’ Capitalism supplants production of folk craft and artistry with drudge work securing mere subsistence at worst, accumulation of vast consumer goods at ‘best.’

It also separates ‘fine art’—exalting individual genius and originality— from traditional art conveying spiritual meaning. Critique of consumerism and decline of craft activity seems worth pondering as I sit channel surfing. Critique of fine art, however, provokes puzzlement.

Coomarasamy thinks fine art is somehow reprehensible in his enthusiasm for traditional craft. Why must we reject the former in order to appreciate the latter? Beautiful art undermines spirituality?

As his career in art criticism and curation proceeds, Coomarasamy turns increasingly toward metaphysics. He wants to explain what’s really Real. He does so in terms of India’s Advaita Vedanta (roughly meaning scripture or wisdom dealing with non-duality or non-division).

It was not unusual for Arts and Crafts people to hang around with both Theosophy and middle-class socialism. Coomarasamy’s own mother exemplified this.

It is easy to see socialism’s linkage with the Arts and Crafts critique of capitalism. Fascinated with Indian spirituality, Theosophy comes in from the avant-garde with a critique of Western imperialism.

Coomarasamy’s interest in socialist economics never amounts to much but he does pitch a tent with Theosophists for a while, before distancing himself.

Theosophy’s credence about the reincarnation of souls troubles him. He denies not only that discrete souls outlive bodies and migrate into others but also that any Indian scripture actually maintains such a ridiculous notion. It’s all a silly misinterpretation.

What scripture teaches instead, he insists, is that a creature’s soul merges upon death back into the single universal Soul from whence it came. That Soul pulses through the bodies of all creatures, sentient pseudopods, never separating from their Source.

Coomarasamy maintains that this really Real core of Hindu doctrine— the unity of all beings in one universal Soul—lies at the heart of all the world’s genuine religion, spirituality and philosophy. Individual selfhood is illusory.

How do we know this truth? Through sound thinking and correct interpretation of scripture and philosophy. With a degree in geology, Coomarasamy can claim scientific literacy.

He acknowledges evolutionary theory for producing life forms through complex webs of cause and effect in the material world. He also, however, defends the ‘creationist’ view that ‘God’ made all life forms. This ‘God’ is a version of the Uncaused Causer argument in theology.

There must be a Cause of causality itself, existing not through causation but because it must necessarily exist at all times and places.

I pick no quarrel. Either an Uncaused Causer exists or it doesn’t. Coomarasamy links the Uncaused Causer with the unitary Soul animating all of life. God is the universal Self and all individual selves are but its transitory emanations.

It is, unfortunately, impossible to square this doctrine of selfhood with scientific understanding of how experience, sentience, consciousness and self-awareness evolve through life forms. Selfhood is achievement and recognition of actual separation and individuality, not the illusion of it.

Grasping that one is a self leads to understanding that there are other selves and this yields a particular form of ethics.

Coomarasamy posits that the truth as he explains it lies at the heart of all ‘traditional’ religion and art. Traditional art teaches true religion through symbols with universal significance and meaning, absorbed pre-consciously.

In this, Coomarasamy seems to walk with Jung, though he eventually diverges. Jung’s project of fostering more ‘individuated’ persons precisely contradicts Coomarasamy’s. Anyway, the religious function of traditional art helps explain Coomarasamy’s hostility to ‘genius’ and ‘originality’ in modern Western art, teaching the opposite of the really Real.

William Morris, Coomerasamy’s Arts and Crafts mentor, gravitated into socialism of the workers’ revolution variety. Enamored with Vedic metaphysical doctrine, Coomarasamy moves in quite a different direction: endorsement of Vedic Indian social order.

If traditional art conveys truth, it also harmonizes with traditional society, which embodies correct principles of political order. Like Plato’s philosopher-kings, Brahmins should exercise primary power. As ‘ones who know’ the Real, they are highly incorruptible. They can draw help from Kshatriyas, who understand government, and from Vaishyas, who understand production and trade.

By no means should any franchise extend to ordinary workers, Shudras and outcastes, who corrupt sound order with their unruly passions, follies and materialism. (By the way, feminists had best avoid Coomaraswamy’s commentary on proper roles for women.)

There is no injustice, he insists, because the system requires much more of high-caste people than of Shudras and outcastes. As proof he seems to offer the Vedic Law of Manu, mandating that Brahmins be punished dozens of times more harshly than Shudras for committing the same offence.

He amateurishly posits that Manu was an actual law code for an actual traditional society, not the philosophical pipe dream that Manu really is, according to scholars, like Plato’s Republic.

Needless to say, Coomarasamy’s ideal society overlooks the fact that low-caste Indians face distinct deficits in longevity, heath, sanitation, literacy, nutrition, occupation, income and other life chance indicators.

If aspirations for a ‘classless society’ seem remote, fantasy of a justly-ordered caste system is even more so.

A creature’s soul merges upon death back into the single universal Soul from whence it came. 

That Soul pulses through the bodies of all creatures, sentient pseudopods, never separating from their Source

Coomaraswamy tirelessly denounces Western imperialism and its economic order. Unlike other critics, however, he does not stress its possible impoverishment of those it rules. His main objection is aesthetic: that the subjugated may abandon their traditional culture, adopting the de-spiritualized fashions and values of their masters.

It is easy to share his concern that Western consumerism and entertainment may bury the world under a suffocating monoculture.

Better to retreat from what he calls ‘world trade’ so as to produce local subsistence and culture. Someone else will have to worry whether ‘world trade’ creates (or alleviates) non-aesthetic problems.

A graduate of Harvard Law School, Mark Hager lives in Pelawatte with his family