The Aesthetic Alchemy – M.S. Srinivasan

The preoccupation with universal beauty even in its aesthetic forms has an intense power for refining and subtilising the nature, and at its highest it is a great force for purification.

– Sri Aurobindo

One of the important faculties of human consciousness which was very much neglected in modern education and culture is the aesthetic sense for beauty. The ugliness and vulgarity we see in much of modern life is due to this neglect of aesthetic sense. However we tend to associate aesthetic sense with art and music. Art and poetry are undoubtedly powerful means for developing the aesthetic sense. But in an integral perspective the aim of aesthetics is to bring about a transformation in the inner consciousness and outer life of human beings through beauty and harmony.

Key Perspectives

Meaning of beauty; ideal and the path; aesthetic refinement of mind, heart and life; aesthetic discrimination: how to discern and appreciate the beauty that elevates the soul; beauty and ugliness; from ugliness to beauty: path of aesthetic sublimation; wider evolutionary perspective.

The Meaning of Beauty

Before coming to the practical aspect of the path of transformation we must have some understanding of the meaning of beauty. Let us briefly examine the nature of beauty both conceptually and experientially.

According to Indian spiritual perspective, the eternal Delight of the spiritual Reality is the foundation of life. This delight flows through all creation as the essence and sap of life. Love, Beauty, Harmony and Joy are the main expressions and forms of Delight. These are the spiritual sources of beauty.

At the psychological and material level beauty and harmony are close and inseparable companions or in other words, twin sisters. There is a great harmony in Creation and in all Nature. In the divine creative act, eternal and universal Delight of the Spirit expresses itself as an eternal Harmony which holds together all creation. Every object in Nature or Universe, from the stars in heaven to the forests on earth, is part of this Cosmic Dance or Music of the Spheres. Much of the beauty we see in Nature or the Universe is a result of this harmony expressed in the object and also the cosmic harmony behind it. For example the beauty of a Rose comes from the harmony of colours and harmonious arrangement of petals.

Similarly aesthetic experience of poetry comes from the harmony of ideas, emotions and words. And the beauty of music is very obviously the result of harmony. This close association of harmony with beauty holds the key to an integral aesthetic development.

The Ideal and the Path

This brings us to the question what is the ideal or goal of aesthetic development and what is the path or the discipline. Sri Aurobindo describes the ideas as:

“Harmony and beauty of the mind and soul, harmony and beauty of the thoughts and feelings, harmony and beauty in every outward act and movement, harmony and beauty of the life and surroundings.”

And what is the path or discipline for moving towards the ideal. Here again Sri Aurobindo describes the path as:

“Replace the less beautiful by the more, the lower by the higher, the mean by the noble. ”

In other words the main principle of aesthetic discipline is to replace the less beautiful and harmonious by the more beautiful and harmonious in the inner consciousness as well as in every activity of the outer life.

Let us now examine how to apply this principle to the aesthetic development of our consciousness and life.

The Way of Aesthetic Refinement

In the context of aesthetic refinement, sensations, feelings and thoughts are the three main domains of consciousness which need close attention. Among the three the most important from the aesthetic perspective are the senses.

What are vitamins and proteins to the development of the body, beautiful and harmonious sensations are to the aesthetic refinement of consciousness. But what is the basis or criterion for judging the beautiful. Is not the perception of beauty, subjective and personal? There is the well-known saying that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. But like many other sayings it is only a partial truth. Beauty is not entirely personal and subjective.

There is a universal beauty beyond the relative beauty perceived by the “eye of the beholder.” All that is beautiful in Nature or human life derives their beauty from this universal beauty. But until we come into some living inner contact with this highest, universal beauty, our appreciation of beauty will be to a certain extent coloured and conditioned by our personal aesthetic tastes and preferences and the level or stage of our aesthetic development of the “eye of the beholder.” As we grow in our aesthetic development and our mind and heart and senses are purified of all personal desires and preferences, our consciousness becomes more and more receptive to the universal beauty independent of the “eye of the beholder.”

How to trigger and accelerate this aesthetic development or evolution towards universal beauty? We have to consciously cultivate the beautiful and harmonious in our thought, feelings and sensations and replace the ugly and the less beautiful or harmonious by the more beautiful and harmonious. The basis of discrimination is the inner quality of the sensation or experience. The truly beautiful and harmonious, that which has the touch of universal beauty, has a calming, uplifting and ennobling impact on our consciousness. The true beauty, universal beauty, helps us to come into contact with our higher nature and the highest experience of beauty leads to total loss of self and a complete identification with the object of beauty. The beauty of nature and the works of great and accomplished masters of art and literature, in poetry, music, sculpture and painting can lead to this aesthetic experience.

The power of beauty in Nature or in great works of art can bring about a deep transformation in our consciousness. But to achieve this transformative impact, our appreciation of beauty has to raise beyond the superficial aesthetic sentiment and reactions of our surface being. There are some ignorant reactions of our surface emotional and aesthetic being which can be a great obstacle to higher aesthetic development. The first spontaneous reaction of our lower nature to beauty is to grab it for personal enjoyment and satisfaction. This is a great obstacle to the full inner assimilation of the transforming power of beauty. Similarly, loud exclamations like “how beautiful” either as a spontaneous utterance or out of vanity to display to others what a great aesthetic sense I have, dilutes and distorts the experience of beauty.

When we see or experience great beauty we must learn to assimilate the experience in total inner silence and without trying to grab or possess the object of beauty for personal use, satisfaction or enjoyment. This doesn’t mean we should not buy or keep or photograph objects of beauty. But when we come into contact with great beauty, we must keep in check the immediate reactions of the surface mind to possess it, which prevents the experience from entering deep into our being and having a transforming impact.

Next to the silent mind, the other condition for a true appreciation of beauty is freedom from attachment or preference to specific forms or experience of beauty. The various forms of beauty like that of Nature, poetry, painting, literature or sculpture lead to different kinds of aesthetic experience. If we are attached to the aesthetic experience of a particular form of beauty we may not be able to appreciate the beauty in other forms. For example, appreciation of beauty in Nature and music is almost universal. But the aesthetic appreciation of great works of art is not that universal. This is probably because the aesthetic feeling or experience evoked in a great piece of art is very different from that of Nature or music.

Similarly, the aesthetic ideals of different cultures or schools of art may differ. For example the ideal of Indian art is to express the inner truth and beauty of things through an outer form. In this Indian perspective, beauty of the form is of secondary importance. What is more important is to be faithful to the inner realities which the artist has perceived with his inner vision. In other words, the objective of Indian and Eastern artist is to reveal the invisible through a visible aesthetic form. As a Chinese artist says: “The aim of art is to reveal those realities which cannot be revealed by the Sun and the Moon.” On other hand, in the Greek or Western art there is a much greater emphasis on the beauty of the outer form and the visible realities.

However these distinctions are not something exclusive but based on predominant features. All great art, East or West, has the touch of invisible or supra-physical; there is a perception of something beyond the purely material and the mundane. Here again if there is an excessive attachment to the aesthetic perspective of a particular culture or school of art then also we cannot appreciate the beauty in other cultures.

From Ugliness to Beauty: Path of Aesthetic Sublimation

The other important issue related to aesthetic development is our attitude to ugliness. There is ugliness within us and also around us. What should be our attitude to ugliness within and around us and how to deal with it?

When our aesthetic faculties are not awakened or underdeveloped, our response to both beauty and ugliness is superficial. We are attracted by the beautiful and repelled by the ugliness. But they are fleeting reactions at the surface. As we grow in our aesthetic sensibilities we feel a much more intense attraction to the beautiful and a deeper, more intense joy in it. Similarly the ugliness causes a deep revulsion and pain. This stage where we feel a deep and intense joy in the beautiful and a painful revulsion towards ugliness, when it is properly traversed, can lead to accelerated aesthetic development. In this stage we have to consciously and systematically put into practice the principle of replacing the less beautiful by more beautiful in our inner being and outer life. In our inner consciousness, those thoughts and feelings which are gross and vulgar or those which lead to conflict, disharmony and misunderstanding like for example jealously, lust, greed, have to be replaced by thoughts and feelings which lead to refinement, harmony, peace and understanding. Similarly in the outer life, wherever we see disorder, ugliness or disharmony they have to be replaced by order and harmony. This requires a careful observation of our habits, behaviour, gestures, postures and surroundings with an aesthetic perspective.

There are also other methods of sublimation of ugly or negative feeling. There is the aesthetic sublimation of negative feelings through literary or artistic expression or study of literature. As we have said earlier the Delight of the Spirit runs through all life and every throb of life, in our inner being as well as in the outer world. This taste, rasa, of delight is present in the positive as well as the negative movements of life.

At the psychological level, the taste or rasa of this delight can be felt in the positive as well as negative feelings. There is a warm and pleasant flow of vital energy behind all emotions, positive or negative, which we can feel if we don’t cling to them and let them flow freely. We can come into contact with this delight, rasa, behind our emotions through art, poetry or literature, which leads to a certain amount of aesthetic sublimation of negative feelings. According to the ancient Indian literary tradition, every epic or kavya should express nine rasas, or feelings, which include positive feelings like kindness or heroism and also negative feelings like fear and revulsion. One of the objectives of this rule could be aesthetic sublimation of our emotions through study of literature.

However these disciplines can be pursued only in those areas of life which is under our control or where we have some influence for change. What should be our attitude to the ugliness in the world, over which we have no control? As we have said earlier, pain or revulsion for ugliness is helpful at the first stage in our aesthetic development. But the feeling of revulsion, even if it is for ugliness, is not a very beautiful emotion. As we progress further into the next, higher stage of aesthetic development, this feeling of revulsion for the ugly has to be replaced by the attitude of equanimity and understanding. We must learn to look at the ugliness within us or in the surrounding environment, with a calm equanimity, without any moral or aesthetic disgust and try to understand the deeper causes or the inner purpose behind them in the totality of life. What we perceive as ugliness is perhaps part of a larger harmony or has a deeper purpose in the evolutionary plan of Nature or the Divine. For example someone who loves deeply the animal world in Nature, can see beauty even in animals like Hippo, which to the ordinary vision appear ugly. Similarly, even some of the violent and terrible aspects of Nature like for example, a bunch of ferocious and hungry lions chasing, killing and devouring an elephant, are perhaps part of the larger ecology of Nature. This principle applies not only to physical nature but also to human life as a whole.

The Wider Evolutionary Perspective

This brings us to the larger spiritual and evolutionary vision of life. All the ugliness and evil we see around have perhaps a temporary purpose in the evolution of human life towards its spiritual destiny. And the highest spiritual visions of seers have perceived that whatever falsehood, ugliness or evil we see in the world is a distorted expression of a truth, beauty and goodness of the spirit.

This doesn’t mean acceptance of the ugliness around us. The spiritual evolution of human life is moving towards the realisation of universal and eternal truth, beauty and goodness. So whatever possible we must try to replace the false, evil or the ugliness with truth, beauty and goodness. However if we have the inner vision to see the deeper truth and purpose behind the falsehood and the ugliness in the world, we can bring about this change or evolution with a greater knowledge and understanding.

In the integral vision of Sri Aurobindo, we, humans, in our present condition is a half-baked, ignorant, weak and immature creature evolving towards spiritual maturity and perfection, which is within us. Similarly the world in which we live is also an unfinished creation progressing towards a divine goal. All the evil, falsehood and ugliness we see within or around are due to this weakness, imperfection and ignorance, further complicated or magnified by the dark forces of the world. But this is only a temporary phase and not a permanent feature of human life or the world; it is like a dark or tragic interlude in a long movie, which ultimately ends in light and joy. We and the world are evolving towards a progressive, and ultimately perfect, manifestation of truth, beauty and goodness in our inner being and outer life. Every human individual has or is given the opportunity to consciously participate in this evolution by progressively replacing the falsehood, ugliness or evil within him or her, and wherever possible in the world around, with truth, beauty and goodness.

Those individuals or communities who are able to do this evolutionary work with sincerity, persistence and creativity will be the leaders of the future world. And the mission of art and aesthetics is to lead the world from ugliness and disorder to beauty and harmony.

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