The Primordial Tradition:
A Tribute to Ananda Coomaraswamy

by Ranjit Fernando

drawing of Ananda Coomaraswamy at the Tagore residence in Calcutta
Drawing of Ananda Coomaraswamy (reclining on sofa in foreground) at the Tagore residence in Calcutta

Read by Manik Sandrasagra at the 112th birth Anniversary Commemorative Meeting of Ananda Coomaraswamy sponsored by the Cultural Survival Trust in association with the Taj Samudra, Colombo on Sunday lOth August 1989.

Ananda Coomaraswamy once suggested that Buddhism has been so much admired in the West mainly for what it is not; and he said of Hinduism, that although it had been examined by European scholars for more than a century, a faithful account of it might well be given in the form of a categorical denial of most of the statements that have been made about it, alike by European scholars and by Indians trained in modern modes of thought.

In the same way, it could perhaps be said of Coomaraswamy himself, that he is admired in Lanka, as in India, almost entirely for what he was not, and that a true account of his ideas might well take the form of a denial of most of the statements made about him in the land of his birth.

Coomaraswamy has long been presented, both in India and in Lanka, as a patriot, a famous indologist and art historian, an eminent scholar and orientalist; it would be as well to examine the validity of these widely-held beliefs about a man who was undoubtedly one of the greatest figures of our time.

The subject matter of all Coomaraswamy's mature writings can be placed under one heading, namely, Tradition. The Tradition that he writes about has little to do with the current usage of this term to mean customs or social patterns that have prevailed for some time. Coomaraswamy's theme is the unchanging Primordial and Universal Tradition which, as he shows, was the source from which all the true religions of the present as well as the past came forth, and likewise the forms of all those societies which were molded by religion.

The particular aspect of Tradition which Coomaraswamy chose as his own specialty -- the one best suited to his own talents -- was, of course, the traditional view of art, now mainly associated with the East, but once universally accepted by East and West alike, as also by the civilizations of antiquity and, indeed, by those societies which we are pleased to call primitive. Coomaraswamy never tired of demonstrating that the traditional view of life and of art was always the universal and normal view until the Greeks of the so-called classical period first introduced a view of life and of art fundamentally at variance with the hitherto accepted view.

In his aversion to what has been called 'the Greek miracle', Coomaraswamy is at one with Plato whose attitude to the changes that were taking place in his time was, to say the least, one of the strongest disapproval. Coomaraswamy shows, as Plato did, that the view of life and of art invented and glorified by the Greeks, and subsequently adopted by the Romans was, in the context of the long history of mankind, an abnormal view, an aberration; and that although this view lost its hold on men's minds with the rise of Christendom in the Middle Ages, it was to re-establish itself with greater force at the Renaissance thus becoming responsible for the fundamental ills of the modem world.

In all traditional societies, quite apart from his ability to reason, man was always considered capable of going further and achieving direct, intuitive knowledge of absolute truth which, as the traditionalist writer, Gal Baton says, "carries with it an immediate certainty provided by no other kind of knowledge."

"In the modem world," he continues, "we think in terms of "intellectual progress", by which we mean a progress in the ideas which men formulate with regard to the nature of things; but, from the point of view of traditional knowledge, there can be no progress, except in so far as particular individuals advance from ignorance to reflected or rational know ledge, and from reason to direct intuitive knowledge which, we might add, by its nature cannot be defined, but which, nevertheless stands over and above all other forms of knowledge being nothing less than knowledge itself.

From a traditional point of view, the fault of the Greeks lay in their substitution of the rational faculty for the supra-rational as the highest faculty of man, and in the words of Coomaraswamy's distinguished colleague, Rene Guenon, "it almost seems as if the Greeks, at a moment when they were about to disappear from history, wished to avenge themselves for their incomprehension by imposing on a whole section of mankind the limitations of their own mental horizon." Since the Renaissance, as Baton points out, the modem world has, of course, gone much further than did the Greeks in the denial even of the possibility of a real knowledge which transcends the narrow limits of the individual mentality." Moreover, as we are all aware, that which, from a traditional point of view, appears to be a serious narrowing of horizons, is seen from our modem point of view as an unprecedented intellectual breakthrough!

While it is hardly possible in a brief summary, such as this, to further discuss the issues involved, we might usefully ponder on Plato's story of the subterranean cave where some men have been confined since childhood. These men are familiar only with the shadows cast by a fire upon the dark walls of the cave, which they have all the time to study, and about which they are most knowledgeable. They know nothing of the outside world and therefore do not believe in its existence.

Coomaraswamy, like Plato, would have us realize that we, too, are in darkness like these men, and that we would do well to seek the light of another world above by concerning ourselves with those things, which our ancestors knew and understood so well. He constantly points out, that modem or anti-traditional societies are shaped by the ideas men develop by their own powers of reasoning, there finally being as many sets of ideas as there are men; he also tries to show that traditional societies, on the other hand, were based on perennial ideas of quite another order -ideas of divine origin and revealed -- whereby all the aspects of a society were determined.

A recurrent theme in Coomaraswamy's writings was the traditional view of art. When referring to European art, he repeatedly stressed that Graeco-Roman art and Renaissance art, like all the more modern schools of European art, were of earthly inspiration and therefore of human origin like the philosophies that went with them, whereas traditional art, like traditional philosophy, was related to the metaphysical order and therefore religious in character and divine in origin.

We now see that in his earliest works such as the monumental Medieval Sinhalese Art, Coomaraswamy did not as yet fully understand the difference between these two contrasting points of view which were to form the basis of his later and more significant work; in his early writings, his profound understanding of the traditional arts of Greater India, as indeed his already considerable grasp of the true meaning of religion, was a little clouded with modernistic prejudice, the outcome, no doubt, of his early academic training in England which was of a kind that he had, even then, begun to despise. But later, following his association with the French metaphysician, Rene Guenon, Coomaraswamy's writings assumed the complete correctness of exposition and the great authority, which we associate with his most mature work.

Insofar as we are able to see that a universalist approach to the study of the world's religions, coupled with an understanding of the true meaning of Tradition, have, at the present time, a special importance for the modern world, we shall also see that two men, the Frenchman, Rene Guenon, and Sri Lanka's Ananda Coomaraswamy, stand out as the greatest thinkers of the first half of this century. A great gulf separates their thought from the thought of nearly all their contemporaries. The second half of this century has witnessed the emergence of a whole school founded on their pioneering work and on the Perennial Philosophy, a movement which has found acceptance in many parts of a confused and bewildered world.

It will now be apparent that, if we are to regard Coomaraswamy as an eminent orientalist and art historian, it must first be clearly understood that he stands apart from almost all those other scholars who can be similarly described, in that while they approach the life and art of traditional societies from a modern standpoint {which is both "skeptical and evolutionary", to use his own words), Coomaraswamy, like his few true colleagues and collaborators, takes the view that takes the view that Tradition can only be understood by a careful consideration of its own point of view however inconvenient this may be. Once this is realized, it would certainly be true, not only to say that Coomaraswamy was an eminent scholar but, as Marco Pallis has said, a prince among scholars.

Coomaraswamy saw that a feudal or hierarchical society based on metaphysical principles is essentially superior to the supposedly egalitarian systems held in such high esteem today. Like Plato, he maintained that democracy was one of the worst forms of government, nor did he view any other materialistic system with more favour. His enthusiasm for such institutions as caste and kingship was based, not on sentiment, but on a profound understanding of the vital relationship between spiritual authority and temporal power in society and government. He would hardly have approved of the road which India and Lanka have taken since achieving their so-called independence, although he would have regarded it as inevitable.

It is well known that, from the very beginning, Coomaraswamy deplored the influence of the West on Eastern peoples, and especially the consequences of British rule in Greater India. He has therefore been placed alongside those who in India and Lanka have been regarded as national leaders in the struggle for independence. But here again, a complete difference of approach separates Coomaraswamy from his contemporaries, for it was not imperialism or the domination of one people by another that he was concerned about, but rather the destruction of traditional societies by peoples who had abandoned sacred forms. It was what the British stood for and not the British that he detested; on the contrary, there is no doubt that he loved England because he knew another, older England which in form as well as spirit was so much like the oriental world he understood so well.

It would, in conclusion, be appropriate to quote the words of that highly respected English artist-philosopher, Eric Gill, who in his autobiography paid Coomaraswamy this great tribute:

"There was one person, to whose influence I am deeply grateful; I mean the philosopher and theologian, Ananda Coomaraswamy. Others have written the truth about life and religion and man's work. Others have written good clear English. Others have had the gift of witty exposition. Others have understood the metaphysics of Christianity and others have understood the metaphysics of Hinduism and Buddhism. Others have understood the true significance of erotic drawings and sculptures. Others have seen the relationships of the true and the good and the beautiful. Others have had apparently unlimited learning. Others have loved; others have been kind and generous. But I know of no one else in whom all these gifts and all these powers have been combined. I dare not confess myself his disciple; that would only embarrass him. I can only say that I believe that no other living writer has written the truth in matters of art and life and religion and piety with such wisdom and understanding."

Ananda Coomaraswamy Commemorative Oration 1999
Cultural Survival Trust