Tuesday, April 20, 2010



CULTURAL PATCHWORKS: A Dhvani understanding of art and secularism.

A provisional research paper in progress.

class="Normal__Char">(To be presented to
the Indian Theological Association meeting at Dharmaram.)



The following reflections
are related to an understanding of art in a secular context. The word
“secular” has gone through various shades of meaning. The Latin
seculum” means an age, or epoch. A secular reality is
one that changes from time to time, in relation to a whole cultural
and social context. This may be contrasted with what is eternal, and
fixed. It is from this perspective, that Secular came to mean that which
is different from those Eternal or archetypal Truths that are the basis
for Religious belief systems.   Secular institutions have
been thought of as passing, relative.  A secular society is one
that is conditioned by local, and historical imperatives. The secularization
of Church property, for example, was when the institutions of the Church
were taken over by the state. There is a long history in Europe of the
tension between State, understood as a political and secular entity,
and the Church which has claimed eternal, and divine prerogatives.

The ideology that underlies secularism, has
come out of the rational ideas that became increasingly important after
the Renaissance, an intellectual movement which was termed the “Age
of Enlightenment”. Secularism questioned, and even opposed the hegemony
of Religion over speculative discourse concerning the nature of Truth.
Empirical truth, based on scientific and technological know how, and
also reason, was the domain of the secular Universities. Increasingly
intellectuals, and among them artists, claimed to have an independence
from Church control. This was the situation in Europe, and what was
formerly understood as Christendom.  It was this independence of
the secular sciences and arts that led to a new understanding of knowledge
systems as standing outside theological creeds. Often in Europe the
term “secularization” is seen as a process of diminishing the influence
of organized Religion in society.

However, in India the term “Secular State” seems
to have been understood in a different way, and has been introduced
into the Indian Constitution

to ensure that every community, and various religious
interests, are protected. The Church, among other Religious “minorities”,
is very interested that the Secularism of the Nation State is maintained,
so that a religious majority does not define the State in a theocratic
sense, eliminating those religious privileges that are enjoyed by smaller
communities. Secularism in this context is also understood as acting
against communalism, and religious fundamentalism.  The term
class="Normal__Char">Dharma nirupaksha
is used
to imply secularism, which suggests that each person’s
swadharm should be respected
by the State, and every Religious community allowed to practice their
beliefs. Though the notion of Secularism that has come out of a long
tradition of power sharing between Church and State in the West, is
a concept foreign to Indian understanding of the inter-penetration of
the sacred and the profane,
class="Footnote_0020Reference__Char">1 I would like to argue in this paper that Indian
aesthetics with its concept of multiple layers of meaning to be found
in the art work, has enshrined a principle of the respect for the Other,
which is essential for what might be called the
spirit of secularism
It is in this spirit that Indian art forms have always represented an
openness to other ways of seeing and understanding the world in which
we live. This has been the contribution of art to a secular spirituality
which is perhaps special to the Indian ethos.

A secular spirituality.

As far as I understand, there are three areas to
consider. There is the secular world (which by the way also includes
the landscape, people we meet in our every day experience and so forth)
then there is the religious world (which includes our religious identity,
rituals, rites of passage and so forth) and then there is a spiritual
world which is the way in which we interpret both the secular and the
religious, and give them meaning. So we may have a secular spirituality,
giving meaning to our secular experience, and we may have a religious
spirituality. In the Hindu tradition a secular spirituality may be found
Karma Yoga, of the Gandhian
tradition,( giving importance to
Seva, Ahimsa and so forth)
but also a kind of
Bhakti that we find in
mystics like Kabir and Basavana, which questions the narrowly Religious.
From the Christian perspective there has been an idea from very early
times that Jesus was counter-cultural, and was fundamentally critical
of the Religious orthodoxy of  Judaism, with its ritual bound worship
in the Temple, offering of sacrifices and so forth. Primitive Christianity
stressed an ethical faith, beyond these outer forms of institutionalized
religiosity. Because of Jesus’ criticism of religious practices like
even the keeping of the Sabbath in a very strict ritualistic way, he
upset the religious authorities of his time, and they had him killed.
Hence the idea of the lay Indian Theologian M.M.Thomas that Jesus was
a "secular Christ". He proposes that it is a radical humanism
that characterizes the message of Jesus, and which speaks to the Asian

During the Indian Independence struggle, a number
of creative thinkers and artists became interested in this secular spirituality.
For example the Brahmo Samaj, of which Devendranath Tagore was a founder,
and the whole Tagore family were followers, rejected outer rituals.
They wanted to return to what one Tagore called an
Adi Dharm. This concept
was also adopted by the Arya Samaj, and influenced Punjabi reformed
movements, close to Sikhism, like the Radha Swami sect in Beas. Somewhat
related then to this secular type of Hinduism which Gandhi himself espoused,
(he called it a
Sanathan Dharm)  was an
interest in the ideas of Buddhism, and Jainism, which are both essentially
and reject the
kind of theism which is typical of the
Brahmanic tradition. Christianity,
however, is certainly theistic. It has a concept of Grace, which has
much in common with the ideas of Ramanuja, for example. But it also
has aspects that are close to the
Shramanic criticism of
outer ritualism.

My main argument
in this paper, is that by thinking of a secular spirituality, there
is a possibility for a dialogue between religious traditions, or spiritualities,
which is not possible if we are confined within to a rigid religious
attitude that has no room for dialogue in the sense that Levinas or
Martin Buber meant by a deep engagement with, and not just tolerance
of, the Other. Buber argued that we can only really become conscious
of who we are in our own self-experience, by meeting and creatively
engaging with the Other. That concept of
giving space for
the Other, and not trying to appropriate the Other,  can be the basis
for a secular spirituality, fostering inter Faith dialogue and understanding.

Secular Spirituality giving a
space for the Other.

In the following reflections on the importance of
art and culture in the context of the Indian pluralistic society, I
am thinking about secularism as a way of respecting the Other. Here
I will try to relate a philosophy of the Other, which has come from
various thinkers interested in dialogue, and cultural diversity, to
a theory of art as engaging with the Other. I would also like to understand
secularism in its approach to time and the way narrative  relates
to concepts of linear and circular time, giving meaning to Story as  
the unfolding of a sequential  chronology. It is this secular approach
to the Jesus Story that Indian artists have tried to represent.
class="Footnote_0020Reference__Char">4 Perhaps this has been a way of discovering the spiritual
meaning of suffering. It is the figure of a ‘Suffering Servant’
that has interested the imagination of secular minded Indian artists.
This is in contrast to the joyful, playful figure of godlike forms who
seem to live an existence outside the struggles of history.
class="Footnote_0020Reference__Char">5 In this context the tension between Secular and
Sacred can be viewed in the light of a different way of representing
reality either in terms of History, or Myth.

Image of beauty.

One of the central questions that modern art seems
to address, is the way that we understand and depict beauty. It has
been said that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder. This reduces
the question of beauty as opposed to ugliness to being just a matter
of taste. Certainly we have to recognize that what one particular generation
regards as beautiful, may be rejected by another generation. What was
thought to be beautiful, in the sense of pretty, in the 19
Century is now considered to be
Kitsch. It is beyond the
scope of this essay to explore the difference between what is considered
the lasting value of beauty, and the impermanent, changing tastes in
a society regarding what is thought of as pleasing, or attractive. The
lasting quality in art which we call Beauty, is not just a matter of
passing fashion. The scholastics defined this Beauty as the “Radiance
of Form”. This formal quality can be considered as attractive, but
also awesome or even frightening.
class="Footnote_0020Reference__Char">6 What is considered “pleasing” is often related
to the conventional, acceptable, and non-threatening. In that sense
what is accepted as pleasing in art, is often a kind of superficial
beauty which has no depth, and which  finally speaking has no lasting
value. Popular images of this type are sometimes referred to as ‘calendar
art’. Much of the art we find in the majority of Indian Parish Churches,
and also modern Hindu Temples or prayer rooms, could be placed in this
category. This however is not to deny that there has been much of outstanding
beauty in religious art to be found in all Faiths. But this beauty is
not to be confused with what is conventional and pleasing to popular

Real beauty is always unconventional, because it
challenges us to think, and question the world in which we live. There
is, however, much that is called contemporary, modern art, which is
also equally conventional in its own way, governed  by the passing
fashions and commercial demands of the art market, as the
kitsch which we associate
with  religious art that is merely sentimental, and literal like
the illustrations in many Bible books. To be secular does not necessarily
mean to avoid
kitsch—one only has
to look at advertisement art in the public domain, or the art that ‘sells’,
to see that there is little of lasting depth or meaning in it.

The distinction between an historical perspective
on art as addressing the passage of time in narrative, and an ‘other
worldly’ art that is a form of spiritual escapism, is not simply a
matter of differing tastes. Here the stress is on re-interpretation
in the light of present day concerns and challenges.
class="Footnote_0020Reference__Char">7 The world of Myth, which is an eternal, archetypal
dimension, is related to what confronts us in the present. It is this
process of re-interpretation that concerns us, when thinking of the
relation between the secular and the sacred in culture. It will be necessary
at a later stage in this essay to think about the deeper theological
significance of beauty as a way of understanding the Divine as present
in the world that we experience as everyday, and secular.

A secular spirituality arises from a search for wholeness,
which includes the body and our physical senses. It is not “other-worldly”,
but is engaged with the human condition in all its finiteness, and in
what is provisional. This includes the human sense of the suffering
of a transitory being, which is as yet incomplete and unrealized. We
discover beauty as a gift that comes through the accidental. The art
experience, according to Indian aesthetics, is discovered through the
process of improvisation. A recognition of the transitory, time bound
manifestation of cultures that constitute the diversity  
of human life, enables us to see culture as a reflection of changing
nature, and not as something as fixed or pre-determined. Culture, like
nature itself, is enriched by diversity, and a responsiveness to changing
conditions or circumstances. The image of “patchwork” helps us to
relate cultural forms to the patterns of change through time. This shows
us that culture is always essentially secular, in the sense of belonging
to a particular epoch, or stage of life. It is sacramental, in that
it relates to rites of  passage. In that sense culture can never
be eternal, or universal.

Representation of Jesus in Indian

This brings us to a discussion of how Indian cultures
have viewed the life of Christ as narrated in the Gospels. What has
the image of Christ meant to Indian artists ? I would propose that it
is the Secular Christ, the Christ who suffered, but whose Passion related
to the given human situation of contending with opposing forces, both
political and spiritual, that has fascinated the imagination of Indian
artists. It is this human face of the Divine that is represented in

Finally, I conclude these
reflections with a personal testimony coming from my own experience
of working as an artist in th
e context of the Inculturation Movement of the Indian
Church. I have to admit that I too have changed in my whole understanding
of what constitutes the relation of Gospel to culture. The Gospel of
Christ respects the “otherness” of cultures. It does not try to
impose itself on cultures, by appropriating all forms of human expression,
and narrative, to itself. The Gospel gives space and freedom to cultures
to be different. This is the essential grace of the Gospel, its gift
to peoples. It is important to see the relation of Gospel to cultures
as one of dialogue, not of appropriation. Christians discover their
own Faith through this dialogue with cultures.

Cf “Bonfire of Creeds: The essential Ashis Nandy. OUP 2004. Chapter
6: Secularism, Hindu Nationalism and other masks of Deculturation.

Cf Man and the Universe of Faiths, by M.M.Thomas. CLS 1975

Cf Traces of the Other by Michael Barnes. Satya Nilayam Endowment Lecures
Series No.3. 2000

Cf “The Oriental Christ” by P.C. Mazoomdar. Boston. 1897

I would like to refer here to the work of modern exegetes who have tried
to outline the image of a secular, historical Jesus. For example “The
Historical Jesus: The life of a Mediterranean Jewish Peasant, by John
Dominic Crossan. Harper San Francisco 1991

Cf “The Concept of Dread” by Kierkegaard. Beauty can be “dreadful”
or “awesome” in this sense.

Thomas Merton in an essay on the “Absurdity of sacred decoration”
claims that kitsch is not just inferior art, but is also the degradation
of a true spirituality. Published in “Disputed Questions” 1960

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