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 me no less important than his own. I am surely not the only one who owes to him a great part of my own awakening to the Perennial Tradition and to Oriental art yet I cannot accept what seems an insulting refusal on his part to accept the integrity of others. He could be magnificently right; but he could also be (I now fear) dishonest in his anxiety that views in which he had invested heavily should be seen to have the absolute value he claimed for them as reflections of Eternal Idea.

Coomaraswamy was born in Ceylon in August 1877, the son of an extremely distinguished Tamil father, who was a member of his own country’s Legislative Council. Sir Mutu Coomaraswamy was also one of the most successful “Westernizers” in the Empire—he had been called to the English Bar, knighted by Queen Victoria. He had even been married to his English wife, a lady of high intelligence named Elizabeth Beeby, by the Archbishop of Canterbury. When Ananda Kentish was not quite two his mother took him to England expecting her husband to join her. He died however, just as he was about to leave Ceylon, intending to stand for Parliament in England. The boy was then brought up in England by his mother, grandmother, and aunt, and he was kept out of direct touch with the East. He went to school and university in England, gaining a first-class degree in geology from the University of London in 1901.

In 1906 he was given his doctorate for work done in Ceylon from 1902-1906, and his results persuaded the British administration to found a geological survey, with Coomaraswamy as director. He lived in Ceylon with Ethel, his first English wife, a skillful photographer, and worked often in remote areas. He became more and more impressed with the vanishing life and culture of the people—which his father seemed to have in effect rejected; so began his fierce and lifelong indignation at the impact of Westernization.


During his geological excursions he collected the material for his first major art historical book, Medieval Sinhalese Art, for which his wife took most of the photographs. It was the first complete expression of his devotion to traditional ways of thought, and to craft as a means of transmitting ancient and transpersonal wisdom. Characteristically, this book could not be published in the East—the resources were lacking—but only in industrial England in 1908, after he had ceased living in Ceylon. He had also involved himself in an attempt to found a Ceylon Social Reform Society, to resist the encroachment of British ways upon the life of the people; but it failed for lack of support.

By 1907 Coomaraswamy had returned to England and became part of the crafts movement that had been inspired by Ruskin and William Morris. Inherited wealth enabled him to settle in a beautiful restyled manor house in the Cotswolds, and from that status he preached the arts of the folk. He installed Morris’s Kelmscott press and printed a special edition of Medieval Sinhalese Art on it. He also developed a deep sympathy for the religious work-ethos of the artist and writer Eric Gill, with whom he continued to correspond in later years. He discovered William Blake, whom he saw as a great modern Western visionary and whose writings he often quoted because his “theories of imagination and art so closely approach Oriental aesthetic.” He published articles not only on Indian arts and craft but also on the craftsman in England. In particular he became an apostle for the southern French poet and patriot Frédéric Mistral, who tried to revive the writings and customs of the pays de la langue d’oc at the end of the nineteenth century, seeing in him the prototype of the men who were needed to foster the resurgence of national feeling and cultural pride everywhere in the East.

Upon his return to India in 1909, he met just such a man in the poet and dramatist Rabindranath Tagore. As a writer and speaker Coomaraswamy involved himself in the cause of Swadeshi, Indian National Freedom, from the aristocratic vantage point of the Tagore family circle, often staying in their luxurious family mansion, Jorasanko, near Calcutta. The Tagores were the leaders of the Bengali revival, and Rabindranath is credited with virtually single-handedly converting Bengali into a flexible modern language. During this Anglo-Indian period of 1909-1914, Coomaraswamy was trying once again to find a place for himself in the East, at a suitable social level, and to commit himself to the revival of Indian national consciousness, perhaps by becoming the William Morris of the East. In this he failed.

For years he had been building up a collection of Indian art during his travels, primarily Rajput miniature paintings. He tried to get this collection adopted as the nucleus of an Indian National Museum, with himself as director; but without success. India had to wait until 1950 for her National Museum. He sought a post in Banaras University as Professor of Indian Art and Culture. Here too he failed. For not only did he have a doubtful political reputation, but also his subject—art history—had no place in Indian academic conceptions. His collection, however, provided him with the basis for his second major art historical book, which in turn led him directly to the United States, the least traditional and most industrialized country in the world.

The book was Rajput Painting. Cut off from India in England by the outbreak of the First World War, he gave himself up to completing the text. It was sumptuously published in 1916. The title itself indicates Coomaraswamy’s achievement; for it was he who first clearly distinguished Rajput from Moghul painting and laid the foundations for all subsequent analysis and appreciation of it. He correctly explained the links between art, Hindu religion, music, and love which give the Rajput miniatures of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries their distinctive meaning. This book was the greatest success to emerge from the “Anglo-Indian” period of his life.

The year 1916 was fateful. Coomaraswamy was thirty-nine, and a fullfledged art historian. His belief in craft as a fundamental expression of cultural identity made him reject as invalid any distinction between craft and fine art. But his reputation as a social-political sage made his standing in England at war highly equivocal. As an Indian nationalist “agitator” who denied the responsibility of any Indian to fight for the British Empire, he was not likely to be looked on with favor by the British establishment. He seems also to have been a conscientious objector to war as such. So he succeeded only with some difficulty in leaving England in 1916. He accompanied his second English wife, who went by the name Ratan Devi professionally, on her first concert tour of Indian music in the United States. No doubt with forethought, he seems to have carried a copy of Rajput Painting with him, and probably other photographs of his collection.


When he met Dr. Denman W. Ross, the great patron of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Ross was able to decide promptly to purchase the entire collection for the museum, thus establishing the first Indian department in US museums; he then persuaded the trustees to appoint Coomaraswamy as its first curator. So in 1917 Coomaraswamy left England for the last time to settle in Boston. Some of his property was confiscated; but he managed with difficulty to get the entire collection and a fair amount of money out. His feelings of bitterness toward the imperial-industrial power that dominated India and Ceylon were probably given a final boost.

In the United States Coomaraswamy confined himself for the first thirteen years to strict art-historical publication. Boston’s Oriental collections were already vast, and he settled down gratefully into his curatorship. In ten years appeared his classic History of Indian and Indonesian Art (1927)—clear, factual, scientific, and by his later criteria, cold in tone. It is still a basic text, and was backed up by a series of purely art-historical reports and articles in the museum’s bulletin. He also published a set of catalogues raisonnés: Indian sculpture (1923), Jaina painting and manuscripts (1924), Rajput painting (1927), and Mughal painting (1930).

During these years he participated with some social and sexual panache in rich American circles, and married again in 1930. Then, like many American Orientalizers before him he discovered the Maine woods. He regularly camped there, and then bought a house. He became a passionate fly-fisherman, and remained one to the end of his days. This red-blooded activity alone rules out any claim on his behalf to Buddhist or Hindu spiritual status. For in the East it is what a person does that defines him, not what he says or thinks, however elevated his ideas. Coomaraswamy knew this.

By 1932, however, his interest in technical art history had waned, and he began to assume the mantle of metaphysical sage. In 1933 he was given the title of Research Fellow, no longer curator. It was a logical move, for it enabled him to explain and justify his attitudes by referring to transpersonal archetypes. The huge series of articles that he produced from then until the end of his life in 1947, from which Dr. Lipsey’s selections are culled, were devoted to exploring the roots of culture and art in archetypal forms of thought by a method then his own. He used his profound knowledge of Indian philology to explore the ancient wisdom from which he believed Western men had shut themselves off.

Coomaraswamy’s interest in scholasticism led him to see the thirteenth century as the end of true culture in the West. After that there was only a long decline toward the scientific-industrial materialism he hated. He believed that a different kind of science could discover a valid and self-consistent corpus of ancient wisdom in certain old literatures and uncontaminated craft traditions of the world. The task he set himself was to discover the true, eternally valid ideas these enshrined, and bring them to the world’s attention. In the light of these ideas every art would reveal its true character—inspired in the case of traditional craft-arts, shoddy in the case of post-Renaissance arts.

This purpose he shared with a group of other twentieth-century Hermetic writers, among them Eric Gill, René Guénon, who settled in Cairo and joined a Sufi order, and the younger scholar Mircea Eliade, who later became professor of comparative religion at Chicago. Frithjof Schuon, Titus Burckhardt, and Henri Corbin were among other and younger men who worked similar veins. Like them, Coomaraswamy seems to have believed that in principle it was only the traditional past that had any direct access to archetypal wisdom. For although he knew some work of Jung, and corresponded with him, he seems not to have accepted Jung’s view that the archetypes by which spiritual realities express themselves are both available to modern men and constantly clothed in the forms of modern art. He thus shut himself off from an important avenue of communication with modern readers.

The method Coomaraswamy adopted in his metaphysical articles was a kind of philological semantics, sometimes so lavishly annotated that the notes exceed the article. They are undeniably hard to read. But Dr. Lipsey suggests that this difficulty is a kind of initiatory test, sorting out those who should, from those who should not, have access to the ideas. The method probably derived from the techniques of Western Indological philology; but Coomaraswamy carried it far beyond its original limits. His first monumental application of it was A New Approach to the Vedas (1933), which is Indological. But later he applied it to explore in detail the semantic implications of words and phrases in a wide range of religious literatures, comparing phrase with phrase across the boundaries of culture.

Significantly, these literatures were overwhelmingly Indo-European and shared common grammatical forms. The canon of orthodoxy he developed for himself was largely based on the Indian Veda and Upanishads, early Pali Buddhist literature and some later Indian craft texts, Plato, Aristotle, Plotinus, Hermes Trismegistos, Dionysos, Dante, St. Thomas Aquinas, the then accepted works of Eckhardt, and a small selection from the Persian and Rumi among the Sufi poets. By collating linguistic symbolisms he demonstrated what he believed to be nuclear spiritual conceptions common to virtually all mankind. The purely historical did not concern him; and his attempts to bring Chinese thought within the system were not unexpectedly half-hearted and relatively unsuccessful.

The following exerpt from “Atmayajña: Self-Sacrifice” (1942) is characteristic:

With giri (√ gir, “swallow”) compare grha (√ grah, “grasp”); both imply enclosures, resorts, a being within something. At the same time, giri is “mountain”; and garta (from the same root) both “seat” and “grave” (one can be “swallowed up” in either). The semantics is paralleled in Ger. Berg, “mountain,” and its cognates Eng. barrow, (1) “hill” and (2) “burial mound,” burgh, “town,” borough, and finally bury; cf. Skr. stupa, (1) “top,” “height,” and (2) burial mound. We are then, the “mountain” in which God is “buried” just as a church or a stupa, and the world itself, are His tomb and the “cave” into which He descends for our awakening (MU ii.6, pratibodhanaya; cf. AV xi.4.15, jinvasyatha).

Such commentaries are impressive and can seem inspired. It is when Coomaraswamy moves from the verbal to the visual that, despite his years of research on art, he abandons all confidence in the logic of the eye. He seems not to recognize what makes art into art, and he demands that it do no more than convey baldly the reflection of a verbal abstraction authenticated by priestly authority.

I use the term “demands” advisedly; because I think that Coomaraswamy came to assume that his daily familiarity with the literary expression of divine ideas entitled him to speak to the modern world ex cathedra in articles and speeches. He refused to admit that modern men could have any direct access to wisdom save through the intermediacy of traditional theology. Unlike Jung, he did not recognize that, in the hands of artists, archetypes around which wisdom crystallizes can clothe themselves in the styles of different eras; antiquity has no monopoly of them. Coomaraswamy claimed that radiant absolutes could only be exhumed for the modern world’s inspection. His suggestions on how the modern world might profit from them in practical terms are, to say the least, unfortunate.

This is where I must explain my personal doubts, and raise what I believe to be a very important general issue. One can accept an almost unbelievable idealistic naïveté about the past when a general point is being made: e.g., “the women of the folk do not bear resentment”! But one cannot accept evasions and condemnations which genuinely distort and mislead. In Dr. Lipsey’s selection of thirty articles on visual art and symbolism we find virtually no discussion of actual works of art, or of what artists themselves have said. The pieces consist, like the philological ones, of collated quotations from what nonartists of the past—philosophers, theologians, a few poets—have written, mixed with Coomaraswamy’s own moral pronouncements. Repeatedly he sneers at his enemies, the aesthetes. In “Symptom, Diagnosis, and Regimen” (1943), his clearest statement of his personal position, he wrote:

Aesthetic reactions are nothing more than the biologist’s “irritability,” which we share with the amoeba. For so long as we make of art a merely aesthetic experience or can speak seriously of “disinterested aesthetic contemplation,” it will be absurd to think of art as pertaining to the “higher things of life.”

In “The Intellectual Operation in Indian Art” (1935 he declares, “To say that a work of art is its own meaning is the same as to say that it has no meaning.” In a footnote he disposes of the whole European tradition of portraiture—Titian, Rembrandt, van Gogh—by citing a quotation from Jitta Zadoks on Roman art as “reanimation of corpses in a charnel-house.” Duns Scotus, whom he quotes elsewhere, should have helped him to see that haeccitas matters transcendentally; and so should the profound Buddhist Mahayana doctrine of the Nirmanakaya. He also ignores the important scholastic doctrine of the aesthetic contemplation of form as a valid religious activity, which he must have known.

Coomaraswamy also fails to tell the truth about Oriental art, to which he was so attached. “Introduction to the Art of Eastern Asia” is one of his most admired articles, but in it he makes at least two vital assertions which he must have known to be false. “Oriental art rarely depicts or describes emotions for their own spectacular value: it is amply sufficient to put forward the situation itself, unnecessary to emphasize its effects, where you can rely upon the audience to understand what must be taking place behind the actor’s mask.” In fact, the sacred fourth-century Sanskrit manual of drama and dance, the Natyashastra, devotes the whole of chapter seven and many other passages to the techniques of using the visible and audible effects of emotion—even grimaces—to awaken latent feelings in the audience. Medieval Indian art is full of such emotive devices, conveying especially the erotic, the terrible, and the sublime. Coomaraswamy writes of the Far Eastern icon in general, “There is no feeling of texture or flesh, but only of stone, metal, or pigment.” In fact there are numberless Hindu icons of male and female deities, and many great early Buddhist icons in Japan, which show that statement to be absurd. Part of the interest of such works is how and why “feeling of texture or flesh” was expressly embodied in them.

In his excellent essay “Chinese Painting at Boston” (1944), he comes closest to acknowledging openly that his older ideological formulas need to be extended. But he still does not realize the radical distinction between the Indian view of the Real as the “eternal noun” and the Chinese sense of Tao as a stream of unrepeatable process to which every one of Blake’s “minute particulars” is literally essential. For in “The Theory of Art in Asia” (1936) he had written that “Ch’an-Zen art presents no exception to the general rule of art in Asia, that all works of art have definitely and commonly understood meanings apart from any aesthetic perfection of the work itself”—whatever “perfection” here may mean. The formulas of late Japanese Haiga painting might perhaps be said to be a case in point. But what of the highly evolved calligraphic expression of great painters like Much’i, Liang-kai, or Shih-tao, whose works were head by the Chinese and Japanese for conveying each their own “meaning beyond the text”?

The issue emerges fully into the open when Coomaraswamy writes (in “Abhasa,” 1934) of Gujarati and Rajput painting that “the flattening of the visual concept must be related to a corresponding psychological modification, and certainly not to any technical procedure for its own sake; for thought precedes stylistic expression in the work.” He thus denies any status to style as “thought,” and buries the real artistic factors under such labels as “psychological modification” and “technical procedure.” Many other passages also show how he failed to see that, just as with music, the actual working-out of the structure of forms in visual art is in a radical sense the artist’s real topic; and hence “style” represents genuine but nonverbal thought.

Coomaraswamy seems never to have realized that there are orders of artistic form which have their own raisons d’être and open vistas toward Being in their own self-consistent terms. There are “wisdoms” of nonverbal form. He seems never to have experienced in depth the world of analogical structures which twentieth-century music and art have made us—and could have made him—aware of. Indeed there is no index entry in Dr. Lipsey’s books either for “analogy” or “metaphor,” though Coomaraswamy’s own method was based on reading them.

This being so, what are we to make of the outright claim which Coomaraswamy asserted in the College Art Journal in 1943 that “there must be a censorship of art”? (That was how it was printed in 1946; Dr. Lipsey prints the more innocuous “manufacture” for “art.”) Here is the “something fishy” I referred to at the outset. I think that Coomaraswamy gained such an intense insight into the depths of religious expression through words that he became emotionally committed to a sense of total righteousness of the sort claimed by certain religious leaders. He felt his vast abstract categorical knowledge of religion and traditional morality to be all-embracing, a kind of personal Koran entitling him to condemn anything that lay beyond its scope. The case of Coomaraswamy can thus serve as a warning to others about the psychological hubris which may possess even the greatest scholars—and he was certainly one of them. This is the light in which we should read what he wrote. We can then accept gratefully the riches he does have to offer.

This Issue

February 22, 1979