Essays in the Water Cosmology
Ananda K. Coomaraswamy
Editor: Paul Schroeder
India Gandhi National Centre For The Arts, New Delhi
Oxford University Press
Hb xviii + 339 pp, ISBN 019 563385 7
“Our problem is not so much of the rebirth of an Indian culture, as it is one of preserving what remains of it. This culture is valid for us not so much because it is Indian as because it is culture.”
— Ananda K. Coomaraswamy (The opening lines of his address at Harvard University on 15 August 1947.)
The right question will provide the right answer, and the right answer would have efficacy of an “act of truth”. [P.138]
(I)n Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity, the older esoteric interpretations have been made public while the mysteries as have been lost. [P.138]
Ananda K. Coomaraswamy has given us a monumental work. The theme of this book dates back to third millennia B.C. and continues to the present. It deals with not only history but also the foundations of Indian culture; India not of the political boundaries. Presently some part of India lives in the space age, while the other is in the Neolithic Age. It is a new edition, revised and enlarged. The first two parts, ‘Yaksas’ and ‘Water Cosmology’, were published in 1928 and 1932 respectively. The part 3, ‘What are the Waters’ was not published before. It is timely publication to welcome 21st century and third millennium.
In his characteristic style Coomaraswamy investigates, and analysis by taking evidence from texts – Sanskrit, Pali and Prakrit – Vedic and post-Vedic literature including folk–lore, Ritual and Plastic arts and architecture. He traces the origin, the meaning and development of Yaksa Cult, Tree Cult, Water Cosmology and Life Cults prevalent in India, beginning from prehistoric time. He examines their parallels in and common roots with other cultures and countries and presents the mysteries, which are of timeless value. It helps to give insight in Indian people in the context of present times. It is a handbook the householder, social activists, environmentalists, the NGOs, the policymakers and the scholars alike. If looked up carefully in the context of the present wave of ‘cyberspace’ and ‘animated virtual reality’ and its background of the crisis of ‘Environment – Ecology – Energy’ and their progressively deteriorating state at local and global levels, simultaneously, has much significance.
Yaksas as Spirit, ‘Atman’, as Single Primal Principle, in various forms and aspects, as deities control waters, i.e. Essence (Rasa) in the waters, which is one with sap (in trees), Amrta (Elixir), seed (seamen) in living beings, so also, milk, rain, hoeny, mead (Madhu), and liquer (Sura). Refeferances to the Yaksa aspect as Agni (Fire), or in modern idium ‘Energy”, who is “deadly to be touched” has various aspects: in Kamadeva as ‘fire‘ or ‘love’, ’Life’, ‘Universal Life’; in the sun (Mitra) as the friend; in Yama as Devourer, Death i.e. want, privation and Desire; in Vanaspati as ‘Lord/s of the Tree or Forest; Palasa (The Flame of Forest) being Agni’s birthplace.
In the modern context we can verify and judge for ourselves the cocktail effect of unrestrained tapping of Energy, ‘Agni”, whether from hydal–fossil fuel – electrical – nuclear, or seemingly benign Alternative Technology sources such as wind – tidal – solar – bio-gas sources. Does that lead to Greenhouse Effect, besides various health disorders!
The aspect of Varuna who represents “ideal kingship”, Coomaraswamy has brought up the issue of ‘governance’, which is a ‘hot’ subject today at local and global levels he quotes variously, “When king’s virtue fails, the order of nature is disturbed”, “(T)he fertility and prosperity of the country depends upon the king’s virtue; the direct connection between justice and rainfall here involved is highly significant.” Who are the kings in our times? Are the people, or the high offices of the State, or those who hold monopoly over the resources of the Earth and the Waters? This question leads us to “Yaksa worship” and “Bali–Karan”.
Animal and human sacrifices as a form of worship have been prevalent, though the Bodhisattva forbade. It was believed that the human sacrifices were made when Hoogly Bridge was built. It is a belief that the spirit of the sacrificed person protects the building and the wealth. In the developed modern society the modus operand has changed from “Bali–karan” to “Bhook–Bali” i.e. death by starvation, which is common phenomena. May the “Bhook–bali” be on a mass scale or a stray examples: the Ethiopians, the Boat People, or at home the Tribal in Thane,
Melghat as well as elsewhere, which go unreported? These are, of course, the marginalized and underprivileged people. It could be indirect cause for the ‘protection’ of wealth and prosperity created by the modern development, therefore, of the privileged class.
Rituals of Water Cosmology take place from birth to death and in ancestor worship. One may find a person at a liquor bar in Mumbai city; he dips his finger and splashes a drop of liquor before taking his sip. In urban areas the rituals may have been miniaturized for instant delivery, where meanings and mysteries are difficult to retrieve. This may be due to loss of natural environment from built urban habitat, where canned water and synthetic plants and flowers are served, which is more of hedonism. This is aggravated by new ‘cults’ of endless production – consumption – waste, a new triad, through arms, trade and passive entertainment, but no place for contemplation.
The first two parts – ‘Yaksas’ and ‘Water Cosmology’ – are interspersed into each other, which deal with Life, Sustenance and Spirit. The first two parts are metaphysics show life and sustenance is supported by spirit in all beings, while the third part, ‘What are the Waters?’, deals with how Life and Sustenance help the person to liberate from birth till death by Way of Uajna and Yoga in Enfranchisement (Mukti) and thereby receive Invulnerable Happiness in both material and spiritual aspects, here and now,. “Yajna being work – Karma – ritual, or all works done Sacra mentally, as Sacrifice, work as Vocation (Swadharma)”. Yoga is a Way, Reunion or unity of the embodied self with the Self in itself. Perhaps in a subtle way this masterwork shows what is amiss in the global search for much wanted ‘sustainable development’.
The spatial plan of the book is analogous to a archetypal tribal hut, or a typical Indian temple. The first two parts are like Mandapas, the third is alike kitchen or a room for confinement in a tribal hut, or the ‘Garbhagriha’ with ‘Shikhara’ in temple, indeed a culmination, a pinnacle of the thesis. The first two parts are complex intricate, rich in texture of the outside of a temple. The third part is rustic, ascetic, without ornamentation i.e. as Coomarswamy says, “without extended documentary evidence“. It is graphic presentation (in words) of ascent of Life from Birth to Enfranchisement (Mukti), death being only transitory stage. It is the spherical ascent in spiral movement of the ever–expanding, ever–ascending Person towards fruitfulness and fullness of Life through Yajna (Sacrifice) and Yoga (Reunion) here and now to reach Sovran Good (Rta) and Invulnerable Happiness – ‘Ananda’.
The editing and production of this book is par excellence, which is at once visible from the beginning to the last detail: in selection of paper, appropriate typefaces, layout, the cross references provided to the text, notes, explanatory notes and plates, the bibliography and index which are carefully executed. It is a reference book for art students, architects, planners, landscape designers, and of course, movie–makers and ‘Vastu–consultants’.
Remigius de Souza
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©Remigius de Souza, all rights reserved.