Wednesday, July 3, 2013



I have received some very thoughtful observations and views from my friends which I intend exploring to take me to the next level in my quest to understand the role of God and Religion in our lives. I reproduce a part of one of the comments, which I feel has a great significance on the way the human civilisation has evolved and for me in particular of great interest -

“In personal and social life the role of religion has been so profound that if you take it away, little will be left of what we call of our culture by way of food, festivals, music, poetry, art and implicit design which are religion suffused.” 

Very true, what we are today can be traced back to the evolutionary process that we have undergone as a people over the centuries. History is the progress in the consciousness of freedom. The spirit of a people, says Hegel is its culture – language, religion, art, music, poetry, architecture, morality, philosophy, science and law, this is what unifies them into an organic totality. Religion has had a large part to play in the culture of a people.

Long ago I went to Ajanta and Ellora and came face to face with the magnificence of the sculptures and wall paintings over there. At Ellora especially the monolith temple of Kailasa took my breath away, I stood staring at it for a long time. When I came back I still carried the images of all that I had seen, I did not have a camera then so I captured what I saw in verses. I reproduce a few lines of what I wrote in my poem called ‘Rapture’

There I saw Lord Shiva’s dance,
I was drowned in divine trance,
And my head in veneration bow,
To the Lord who rules above.

I marvel at these men who mould,
Stones that speak of ages old,
All the fervour of their heart,
Has poured in through their supreme art.

This was a place where the confluence of three great religions, Hinduism, Buddhism and Jainism took place by way of great art. When I speak of the fervour of the artist’s heart I speak of the religious fervour which they exhibited, without which it would not have been possible to bring life to these stones centuries afterwards. When I visit temples, I marvel at the architecture and sculptures, which are of Gods and depictions of the various manifestations and religious themes from the epics. It is not a question of whether I believe in God or not, but when I go inside these temples I am overcome by a sense of awe and reverence. The temples are scattered all over the countryside. The temples have been a sustaining factor in the life of the people for not only did they give them an identity and a place of solace, the temple was the centre point around which the economy of the village or town revolved and served to provide livelihood. This is where our classical dances, which still hold centre stage and represent the culture of our country, evolved. What about our classical music, bhajans, abhangs etc? I get carried away by Subbalakshmi’s bhajans or a Bhimsen Joshi’s abhangs. It is religion that has had a large part to play in the development of these arts and in all of them, God has been there in which ever form you conceive him. The foundations of our classical music of which we are so proud, has its foundations in religion. The bhakti bhav that percolated throughout the course of our history produced great composers who were also considered as saints, we can talk of a Meerabhai, Tulsidas, Kabir, Purandaradasa or the trinity of Carnatic music whose compositions have been purely religious, or the mystical quality of Sufi music. These continue to have great relevance even to this day. They were composed and sung with a fervour and a love to a divinity which they could visualise through their music.

One has to look at the magnificence of the paintings in the Italian section at the Louvre in Paris, religious paintings depicting episodes from the bible and the religious wars, or the sheer transcendent quality of Michelangelo’s sculptures at the Vatican and his paintings on the ceilings of St. Peter’s cathedral to realize the religious fervour with which these artists created their works of art. One can recall the film ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy’ based on the book of the same name by Irving stone depicting the life of Michelangelo’s life and the important part played by the church in the creation of his masterpieces.

The relation between art and religion dates back to as early as the Indus Valley and Harappan civilization, in India. Herbert Read in his book ‘The Meaning of Art’ writes “The relation between art and religion is one of the most difficult questions that we have to face. We look back into the past and see art and religion emerging hand in hand from the dim recesses of pre history. For many centuries they seem to be indissolubly linked and then, in Europe, about five hundred years ago, the first signs of a definite breach, appears”. Art then slowly moved to a more individualistic representation with the artist aiming to express nothing beyond his own personality.  Read continues to say “The answer to the question whether great art can exist independently of religion will therefore depend on our scale of values. The artist to achieve greatness must in someway appeal to a community-feeling. Hitherto the highest form of community feeling has been religious: it is for those who deny the necessary connection between religion and art to discover some equivalent form of community-feeling which will, in the long run, ensure an historic continuity for the art that is not religious.”

Religion played its part during the Medieval period and till the Renaissance when the patrons were the Church or the ruling aristocracy who commissioned the building of magnificent Gothic cathedrals. Similar is the case elsewhere with all religions. In India the rajas of the Hindu dynasties built magnificent temples while the Muslim rulers built mosques and similarly with the Buddhist and Jains.

When we trace the history of art from the primitive stage to what we call the most civilized achievement in Classical or Gothic art or from the cave paintings to the magnificent temples and sculptures of the Indian civilization we marvel at the evolution of the human mind. Herbert Read says that this depends on “the parallel evolution of man’s emotional attitude towards the universe – the evolution from magic and animism to religion”.

All the great civilizations whether it is the Greek, Egyptian, Indian and Chinese they all have had their Gods and more importantly religion which sustained their growth and held them together. After all, religion has been defined as an organized collection of beliefs, cultural systems and world views that relate humanity to the supernatural, and to spirituality.

As per Herbert Read, the first breach between art and religion started towards the end of the European Renaissance. In fact the modern era started sometime towards the end of the sixteenth century with the Reformation movement and the dilution of the hold of the church in Europe. Even this breach can be felt in Indian art. From a patronage given by the church to art when religious themes were the order of the day, art moved slowly into being patronised by the royalty and ultimately it came down to the individual artist who saw nothing beyond his own perception and understanding of the world around him.

Though much more can be said about the role of religion in music and art, I reserve this for a subsequent posting. But here again I would like to end this posting, again quoting from Herbert Read “Even where great artists have created their masterpieces in apparent isolation from any religious faith, the more closely we look into their lives the more likely we are to discover the presence of what we can only call religious sensibility. The life of Van Gogh is a case in point.”


vaikuntam said...

A vexed question. A problem created in one frame of reference often cannot be solved by observers located in that frame of reference. You have to be located outside - which is not possible, when a religious bent of mind is burnt in to your DNA. Modern Egypt may have little connection with ancient Egypt but we are in an unbroken chain.

The link between religion and culture is stronger in Carnatic Music than in Hindustani music so I suppose there is nothing immutable about it. T M Krishna (and Jeyashri Ramnath) attempted to answer the question

Atheists like Dawkins have of course denied the link

Especially since 9/11, we've seen quite a debate about whether the world might be better off without religion. If you had to make a case for religion-one positive, if minor, thing religion has done--what would it be?
It's true that some kind, nice, sympathetic people are also religious, and they might say that their kindness is motivated by religion. But equally kind people are often not religious. I really don't think I can think of anything; I really can't.
Not even something like the Sistine Chapel?
That's not religion; it's just because the church had the money. Great artists like Michelangelo or Bach and Beethoven would have done whatever they were told to do. Michelangelo painted what his sponsors told him to paint.

Dawkins attacked another atheist who said choral music moved him.

At the other extreme are people like Mother Theresa. Jyoti Basu asked her to train some government nurses in care giving. She said no, what we do is not medical work but a religious duty. We serve Christ when we serve the sick. Cannot separate our christianity and our care giving

GS Subramanian said...

I agree that kind,nice,sympathetic people will remain so whether they are religious or not. But I disagree that art can be bought for money, of course an artist needs patronage but the ultimate product of his efforts can only be judged by the fervour in his heart.I personally feel that the minute an artist streamlines his product to cater to commercial considerations, the corruption in his artistic endeavours starts. We can see a lot of it happening nowadays. Well may be because of my religiousity I have never been able to stomach Dawkins views, for I find him at the end of the spectrum. In all these discussions religion is not about Hinduism, Islam or Christianity or others, it is about the religious sensibilty that Herbert Read talks about and which I have quoted in the last para

Varsha said...

I think art is what an artist expresses. It is his work, his creativity. Religion I believe has nothing to do with it. Yes the Church had the money so they paid Michelangelo to work for them. He came up to their expectation. Had it only been his religious fervour he would have created art for the poorer Church too. The world is quite materialistic. Always has been.
Temples, Church and Religious bodies have always had the upper hand where money is concerned. They have ruled the lives of humankind, by capturing the thoughts of the people. Fear of the unknown, punishment for misdeeds, repentance and daan, Confessions have all been tools to chastise all the people all the time.
Music, particularly Bhakti Music is beautiful. Yes it was created by devotion. If one is so steeped in a culture where Religion and God is the most important then you will produce the best music for God.
The Pyramids were not created to please God. It was for the ensurement of an afterlife for the Pharaoh. Even the Taj Mahal, was the resting place of a Queen. Religion plays an extremely important role in the lives of most people. I therefore feel so bad that Religion makes us do away with our thinking faculties as far as the super natural is concerned.It is the panacea and crutch for almost everyone. Pray to God, ask for a favor, offer a donation!
Commit a crime and repent, give your daan and get absolved of all your sins?
Sorry, but then this is how I feel.

GS Subramanian said...

Suprabhat Ganguly said: Brilliantly written,it not only shows your mastery on writting prose and command over the language but also brings out the depth of your study.But without denying the importance of religion in shaping the human civilisation and the evolution of art and culture, is religion also not used to create hatred among the communities,wage wars and drench the earth with human blood? As the power hidden in the atom can destroy towns and cities and can also be harnessed to the immense benefit of humanity,so also the religion has the potential to create as well as to destroy civilisations.