Indian images, whether paintings or sculptures, should not be understood as self-sufficient, independent objects, but rather as links in a chain of spiritual, ritual procedures.

In order to get a better grasp of this, contrast Western and Indian sculpture: the Western classical ideal is, to use Winckelmann's famous phrase, “noble simplicity and quiet grandeur.” Indian sensibility is as far from that ideal as can be. read more

There is a stillness in the space surrounding an Indian sculpture; and this is true even where a figure is shown to be in great movement. A tranquility radiates from the figures. And Indian sculptural figures do not encourage enjoyment, the viewer's enjoyment, that is; they do not encourage anything. They live in worlds of their own. They are not there for us to examine and judge them. They do not address themselves to us or draw our gaze, as Classical Western figures do, almost forcing us to follow the play of their forms.


Indian sculpture is oblivious to our presence. Yet the Indian sculpture shares a space with us. Western Classical sculpture creates and moves in a space of its own in which it is encapsulated, while the Buddha's hand for example extends towards us into our space.

Western Classical sculpture directs its appeal to our eye and so is weightless; it has only an optical reality. But Indian sculpture is not like that: for one thing, you can never make eye contact with an Indian figure. It reposes before us and retains its massiveness, its materiality. It is aloof and self-contained. An Indian sculpture has the unapproachability of a living saint walking among people who give way to him because he is oblivious of them.

Western sculpture mesmerizes us with its powerful self-expression, which reveals itself as a many-sided, interconnected set of relationships. And this prompts our eyes to move over the statue circularly, for all its parts are connected and everything in it refers to every other thing. It arouses our curiosity, salutes our eye and invites us to stay with it.

But an Indian sculpture has an intense feeling of self-enveloping tranquility. It does not compel our gaze. It is at rest within itself, as pure self-less being, entirely whole and complete. These sculptures are not objects in their own eyes, and so do not need to be objects in ours. And having no wish to be objects for us, they dismiss us from their presence.

Western sculpture consists of a wealth of contours that are meant to take our eyes along certain paths, to entice and divert us. But Indian sculpture doesn't care. It provides no guidance for our eyes' movement. The statue's garments and jewelry are just additions that enhance its appearance but do not guide our eyes, unlike a Western statue in which the costume and ornament try to give order to appearance and emphasize the body's structural elements.

An Indian sculpture's clothing and ornaments are free of any desire to catch our attention; for body and ornament are not really attached to one another; they do not merge into an eloquent whole.

So Indian sculpture is not meant for the eye, particularly not for the Western eye: an eye that is looking at features, a restless, outreaching eye in motion. The Indian work is not seeking to create an effect because it does not even acknowledge the viewer's existence.

Indian sculpture is not in time and does not aim to capture a single moment, but simply gives the whole of its being at once; it can do this because it is utterly oblivious of itself (and selfless) and fully self-contained.

In Western art the figures are self-conscious, aware of themselves and of us, the viewers; and they exist in time. But the hands of the Buddha are gestures beyond time, essentially timeless, eternal elements: they are the essence of bestowing and protecting, not particular acts at particular times. The hands of the Buddha are themselves the Buddha.

Dancing Siva is not a portrayal of a dancer at a specific moment of the dance; he is the essence, the very embodiment, of the dance.

So in the Western classical sense, Indian images are not art. In fact they are devices or machines even, serving magical, spiritual, ritualistic functions—they are yantras.

Indian art is “inner art.” But Western art is “outer art,” born of a delight in capturing the fleeting and illusory beauty of the world and presenting it to the eye. Inner art, Indian art, is not to be looked at but fixated on or meditated upon.

For the outer or Western view, even what is unclear is present, but in inner or Indian vision all is equally in focus. No matter how diverse the details may be, there is no variation in intensity; just as the sun illuminates everything equally, so does inner vision. So we can dwell forever on any part of the Indian image, for our eyes are never led anywhere: each part is calm and signifies nothing and points nowhere. No part of the sculpture is a member of a larger structural design.

The sculpture of Krishna dancing on the hoods of a multi-headed snake-demon is all energy, yet there is a suspended reserved quality about him, as if he were at rest. Krishna is doing in itself; he is not performing a particular act at a particular evanescent moment. And notice too, that the god uses no energy to do what he is doing, that is, subduing this giant cobra-demon. Each part of the statue sits with the others and is utterly complacent, for the sacred image has no structural dynamics, just a fixed order—a much more rigid order than does Western art.

Also, another major difference between the two “arts:” admiring an Indian sacred work's beauty is to annihilate it. An expression of absolute spiritual power cannot be subjected to the imperative that it also be beautiful. Mandalas, yantras and sacred works in general are only truly meaningful to the initiated; for us, they are as meaningless as maps are to a child. Even for the scholar who is trained in the meanings of all its symbols, a yantra is like a map for a geographer who has never visited the country it describes.

And like maps, Indian sacred images allow no play for the imagination; it is a road map of truth and not an aesthetic organism: it is a mosaic of symbols. If you want to portray the divine, you must give up the freedom to portray the image according to aesthetic criteria. There is probably no great art anywhere in the world that is less innovative, so inflexibly stylized as India's religious statuary, which is subject to a fixed system of proportions. Western Art is ultimate and an end in itself, an “art for art's sake,” an expression of essence. Indian art is a means of mirroring eternal essence, which is ensnared in an illusory world, a world of multiplicity and appearances. The art work represents truth to those who do not yet know what truth is, to those who have not yet become truth.

In Indian art there is no glorification of life; it doesn't set up memorials to life. There is in this art no sense of perfected earthly existence holding up a mirror to its own beauty—no narcissism. In classical Western art, man appears as divine because his beauty is so great. In the West man usurps the place of God. In Indian art, man is god and art is created so that he can experience this truth and then need art no longer. In India, beauty is not the essence of the divine.

Western Classical and Indian art are polar opposites: one, Western, celebrates the beauty of this world of appearances, this maya, this illusion that we all live in as real; the other, Indian, displays this maya, this illusion in all its beauty, for only in this way, through illusion, can the divine appear visible at all. What for the first is an end in itself, an ultimate goal, for Indian art is merely a gateway and a beginning. And because their aims are opposite, the image in each art takes on a completely different appearance. The Indian silent essence is not only missing from but undreamt of in Western Classical art. And it is that essence from which images, words and even thought itself must retreat without ever having reached it.

Indian artistic creation is akin to sacrifice, a making sacred; for it restores a lost or threatened loss of unity. Sacrifice unites the entire human domain, social and individual, with the divine in the sacred space of a temple. And like a sacrificial offering, an Indian art work is invested with a magical power or potency by the artist.

In the Hindu view of the world, nothing is static; there is no abiding, only a relentless originating, growing, decaying, vanishing and reemerging of all. And in Hindu sculpture, this sense of time is written or carved in stone.

Much of very early Indian relief sculpture perfectly illustrates the philosophical idea of Maya: formless, undifferentiated rock is in the very process of transforming itself into individualized and animate forms; the apparition of living forms appears out of formless, primal substance. In Indian art, rock has been the substance found best suited to be wrought in microcosmic imitation of the macrocosmic dream. The character of all existence, both earthly and divine, is a mirage.

In Indian art, all forms (mineral, vegetable, animal and human) are seen as derived from one primal substance. Buildings seem to have grown from the very soil on which they stand. In India, there has always been a concerted attempt to express the unity of all forms, of all of life.

The human figure is likened to and is often portrayed almost as if it were a plant. Both plants and humans are self-absorbed. The character of Indian art is to aid one in achieving tranquility, to aid one in experiencing the rapture of visionary experience in which well being, both physical and psychological, may be obtained.

Indian art is oneiric; it is meant to be experienced as a dream, and even more vital, to transport the viewer out of mundane existence into a world of dreams.

The filmy drapery of Indian figures suggests trance and the stillness of the dream. The jungle creeper becomes a garment; the human body contains the sap of inward bliss, especially noticeable in the Buddha figures. And inward bliss is coincident with physical well being. The aim again is to attain unity of mind and body in meditative rapture.

Temple architecture too is designed to encourage altered states of consciousness, trance and ecstasy. It was discovered that single units (small arches, for example) in combination could create rhythms that lead to ecstasy by using these units – whether abstractions, figures or foliage – in decoration, and packing them together ever more tightly. Oneiric effects would be obtained by accumulating rows of figures endlessly repeated.

Altered consciousness is a vital part of Indian spirituality and temporal existence, whether attained through meditation, trance, collective ecstasy or drugs. Strictly speaking, Indian art is not mystical but pantheistic, aiming not for exclusive isolation but for inclusive wholeness and rapture.

Indian art is always trying to achieve an identity between adorer and adored; the first tries to become, to be, the second, and to realize this identity in trance or meditation, often with the aid of an art object. So primarily, art works are meditation aids or diagrams of sacred reality.

The eroticism in temples is a religious affirmation of life; and eroticism was a valid means of attaining ecstasy, altered states of consciousness, even religious salvation; it is a transcendence of good and evil. In fact most medieval temple sculpture is erotic. But this is mystical eroticism, creating unity out of disunity and multiplicity.

And of course, the very shape of most temples, even minus the decoration, is erotic. And the erotic temple sculpture is a projection of an ideal, a sexual fantasy without any puritanism whatsoever. But most of all, the eroticism is meant to point up that sexuality is in fact a miracle, a unity of opposites, and in this it is divine.

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Muslim rule and everything it created in India was melancholic, arrogant, romantic and exquisitely, magnificently, sumptuously useless. But Islam beautified and aestheticized India. And probably the greatest result of Muslim rule in India is the architecture that resulted from the encounter and fusion of Hindu and Islamic styles. The Muslims brought the arch, dome and minaret, but they relied on indigenous craftsman to carry out the building work. The fusion is of an Islamic architecture of structure with a Hindu architecture of mass.

Here in India Islamic art is penetrated by tropicalization. Muslim purity and lightness becomes in one sense ponderous, but in another they are grounded, and the art is all the more powerful because of that: note the cave-like interior of the Taj, but also its weighty yet light exterior.

Note: These remarks are based on many sources, but primarily on the writings of Heinrich Zimmer.

Copyright © Martin Noval 2006