For the religious artist, art is a path to the divine, a path that can embrace devotion, ritual worship, concentration, service to God and service to humanity. For the layman, the contemplation of religious art can intensify religious feeling and deepen meditation.
A truly great work of religious art can encompass an entire religious perspective. In the caves of Elephanta in the Bombay harbor, in addition to the famous Trimurti (three faces of Shiva) there is a statue of Durga which may be read as an embodiment of the Gita ideal. The warrior’s body is almost dizzyingly active, while the face expresses transcendent bliss and non-attachment; the juxtaposition of the two is awesome. Bach’s St. Matthew Passion takes the listener through the whole range of emotions a devotee feels in contemplating the arrest, trial and crucifixion of Jesus. One of the most poignant moments is Peter’s remorse after denying Jesus.
The systematic use of visual images and music to enhance devotion and meditation has a venerable tradition in many cultures. But how do we relate it to our present-day lives? Any of us can collect copies of religious art from around the world and create our own private shrine, and this has value. But how do these images of other times and places relate to our rapidly changing life in the twenty-first century? Are we required to be participants in the creative process and not mere spectators? Does this require artistic talent?
Let us phrase the question another way: Is there creativity beyond art? Can art itself be a symbol for a larger creativity in life?
Plotinus advised, “Withdraw into yourself and look. And if you do not find yourself beautiful yet, act as does the creator of a statue that is to be made beautiful; he cuts away here, he smooths there, he makes this line lighter, this other purer, until a lovely face has grown upon his work. So do you also; cut away all that is excessive, straighten all that is crooked, bring light to all that is overcast, labor to make all one glow of beauty and never cease chiseling your statue until there shall shine out on you from it the godlike splendor of virtue, until you shall see the perfect Goodness extablished in the stainless shrine.” (The Enneads, I.vi.8)
Plotinus’ imagery is beautiful and useful, but its inward focus needs to be complemented by active images of dealing creatively with life’s unexpected challenges, much as the static Buddhist and Jain sculptures at Ellora are complemented by the active Hindu sculptures. The art of spiritual living consists of both refashioning ourselves internally and creatively responding to life’s external challenges. Indeed, much of our inner growth is determined by how we respond to external experience.
Beyond how we deal creatively with ourselves and our immediate environment is the larger question of how we relate to the universe. Can we see the universe and our part in it creatively? Do we participate in God’s creativity?
[Adapted from an editorial in American Vedantist, Vol. 2, No. 1]