A Professional Sage

Coomaraswamy: Selected Papers Vol. 1: Traditional Art and Symbolism Vol. 2: Metaphysics

edited by Roger Lipsey
Princeton University Press, 470 pp., $50.00 the set

Coomaraswamy Vol. 3: His Life and Work

by Roger Lipsey
Princeton University Press, 312 pp., $17.50

Ananda Coomaraswamy
Ananda Coomaraswamy; drawing by David Levine

Ananda (Indian) Kentish (English) Coomaraswamy (Tamil-Ceylonese) is known in America as one of the great scholars of Indian art, the curator for thirty years, from 1917 to 1947, of the Indian section of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Most of his important work was written in the US, but he was formed by a host of influences whose variety his name itself reflects. He was a natural scientist, trained in England as a geologist, and he founded the Geological Survey of Ceylon, of which he was the first director. He was a pioneering and scholarly art historian, and wrote three books which are still classics. And finally he could be described as a “professional sage”: he rightly disclaimed the title of “guru,” but was nevertheless given it by younger admirers during his Boston years.

These were the successive public faces he wore during his career, but, of course, they co-existed and overlapped, each one evolving from the experience of the others. We will not understand them unless we realize how deep was his indignation at what he considered to be the cultural rape of Ceylon and India by the materialistic industrial technology of the West. Coomaraswamy came to see the West’s effect on South Asia as a reenactment of what the West had done to its own spiritual inheritance.

Dr. Lipsey’s work makes it possible at last to see Coomaraswamy whole, and to understand the reasons for the peculiar aggressiveness in his later metaphysical writing. We can see that his doctrines were by no means so detached from personal psychology as he might have wished. This only matters because Coomaraswamy the writer—as distinct from the man—adopted so high a moral tone.

Dr. Lipsey is well aware of ambiguity in Coomaraswamy’s life and work, and of the controversy which surrounded his later attitudes. But he rightly stresses his accomplishment and neatly defuses criticisms in advance. This first biography of the master is fascinating to read and admirably just. The two volumes of selected articles from the last part of his life that go with it contain many of Coomaraswamy’s most important works. But Dr. Lipsey acknowledges that what he is trying to do is to represent the breadth of his subject’s mind; Coomaraswamy’s immense and varied writing should be edited into volumes organized around specific topics.

I well remember the delight with which I first encountered Coomaraswamy’s articles in my father’s set of Speculum. They showed me, as they showed many others, the way into a realm of “transpersonal meaning,” the ancient symbols, motifs, and themes in art and literature that reveal an underlying harmony and unity. As time went on, and I read more widely in the field of symbology, I became more disturbed by aspects of Coomaraswamy’s later work. There seemed to be something fishy in his remorseless abstract intellectualism and his contemptuous hostility to ideas which seemed to…

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