Spiritual Art

By Rudra Shivanada

I’ve always been attracted to the various ways that the great saints and sages have tried to express their higher consciousness to us, from spiritual poetry to philosophical writings or in music and also in art. Poetic imagery is a great medium of expression but is limited by language – I may not understand the language used by the sage and translations lose much of the potency of the original. It seems that art forms can overcome these language barriers.

Art is a means of expressing our nature and identity, of our creativity, of our pains and pleasures, of our knowledge and ignorance and of our fears and desires. When an artist taps into her higher consciousness, she can help others understand different aspects of reality which are not susceptible to ordinary consciousness. Art has to find resonance within the perceiver to be meaningful. Sometimes, the artist herself may not be consciously aware of the deeper dimensions of her own work and how it will speak to those who admire it.

Ajanta CaveThroughout history, human beings have strived to express their understanding and aspirations in works of art. Only those which were cast in durable forms have survived to our times – those in stone, clay or bone, or the frescoes on walls. Last year, I was fascinated with the great stone images and wall paintings when I visited the Ellora and Ajanta caves in the India – they had spiritual art from the 3rd century to the 9th century, from gigantic stone temple art or huge stone Buddhas to delicate and beautiful paintings.

A few months ago, I visited the British Museum again and there was an exhibit of spiritual art from India, Tibet, Nepal, Cambodia and Thailand in one of the halls. Aside from the sublime and awesome visual impact, I was struck by the evident investment of humanity’s time, effort and resources in even this small selection of works. Sometimes an artist would spend years to create a particular work – whether the peaceful and sublime form of a Buddha or the whirling movement of a dancing Shiva or the lovingness of Jesus.

In the past, a master artist would only spend her time and effort on some worthwhile project because of limited resources and in almost all cases, their subjects were primarily spiritual or religious, or both. Only in the last couple of hundred years has there started a trend towards self-expression and so we might be led into thinking that there is a movement away from spiritual art.

Indeed, from about fifty years ago, there has been a movement towards commercial art – works that have mass appeal and merely have superficial meaning if any – not much better than bill-boards! This trend towards commercial art is understandable, after all, the artist needs to live and has to pay bills and if she tries to express something deeper, it might not sell.

There are artists who claim to be in a category called spiritual art. However, they may primarily be commercial also, just another way to sell themselves. After all, an artist should understand that she is expressing the spirit in every piece of work, whether it is in representation form or an abstract piece. There should ideally be no such thing as non-spiritual art.

There is much to be said for the use of abstract art to express spiritual reality. Immediately, we are struck by the use of colors, curves and lines and geometry. Our pre-conceptions are challenged – there are no comfortable and recognizable forms for us to stick to and we must connect in a deeper and formerly unknown zone.

Those who have kept to representational forms have also discovered new ways of challenging our pre-conceptions by capturing and combining forms in new ways, from the grotesque to the sublime, from beauty to the disgusting, from courage to fear, from religious to irreligious – all knocking us from our comfort zone so that we can re-examine ourselves and make new connections. This is a very important part of spirituality.

It strikes me that sometimes when I look at some modern works of art, I wonder if the artist is aware of the intrinsic impact of colors in his work. Even if we forget about the subject matter and the form of the artwork, the very colors used can have a strong effect on the viewer. It is because the energy centers within our subtle body – the whirling lotuses or wheels of pranic energy called chakras are affected by different color vibrations. These chakras are responsible for our health as well as the opening to higher consciousness – they are responsible for our health because they control the life-force sent to our organs and cells and they help in our spiritual evolution because they enable
the raising of our higher consciousness energy called kundalini. Certain color combinations inhibit the proper functioning of the chakras while others can enhance them. This is part of the reason for the attraction of certain pieces of art.

However, just as some people are attracted to horror movies, some people are attracted to art whose colors are detrimental to their well-being or spiritual progress. I hope that artists will be more attuned to the use of colors in their work and be responsible to ensure the health and spiritual impact of these colors. I hope that artists will connect with their deeper and higher selves and express themselves to give us spiritual works of wonder and joy and help us to understand hidden aspects of reality.

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