Friday, 18 December 2015

The Religion of Beauty

Consciously or unconsciously we keep adoring beauty

It is told that  once Ananda, the beloved disciple of the Buddha, saluted his master and said: “Half of the holy life, O master, is friendship with the beautiful, association with the beautiful, communion with the beautiful”.“Say not so, Ananda, say not so!” the master replied.“It is not half the holy life; it is the whole of the holy life.” (SAMYUTTA NIKAYA)
Why is there a universal “weakness” for the most useless thing called beauty? ( Laotze had spoken of beauty as “the usefulness of the useless,”  and Kant as “Purposiveness without purpose.”) Because beauty is from the otherworld. Plato meant the same when he said “beauty is the splendour of the Truth.” When women saw beautiful Joseph they exclaimed he is an angel. See beautiful girl and one exclaims a houri from heaven. Indeed beauty is from the otherworld and its existence is one of the most powerful proofs for the existence of God. Ghalib’s answer to his own question yeh pari chehra loag koun hae is they are manifestations of the One. We might be tempted to deny God in our sceptical moments or at least grant our failure to comprehend His presence near and around  (as “nearer to us than our jugular vein,” as Al-Muheet) and within us but we can’t deny that we are attracted to beauty in human face, in smiles, in innocent gestures,  in sounds, in rhythms, in colours. In fact in everything one can discover beauty, and if one can’t one is spiritually blind. Ibn Arabi was asked what about human faces and he said he hasn’t seen it. As beings all things including the  lowliest or seemingly ugly or harmful  are beautiful as Ghazzali and Eckhart said.  In God nothing is ugly; whatever ugliness we see is because we see things outside God or through manipulating utilitarian self. Abu Yazid said that he saw nothing without first seeing God. That is precisely what Nagarjuna means when he exclaims samsara is nirvana or this world is Heaven. A saint was asked by an atheist where is God and he pointed to mountains and landscape around and said see it. See it, attend to it, contemplate it and get lost in it and you have seen something from God. For the gnostic all things are tajilliyat – epihphanies. Joyce talks about an epiphany his hero experienced on seeing a wading girl. However, a saint is capable of seeing God in everything, not only in women. A flower is enough as a proof for God for him as Schuon has remarked. The tragedy is we fail to see as lovers and saints see. We have lost the faculty of seeing as Adam saw in Paradise before the Fall. All things are Infinite if we could truly see and then angels would shake hands with us as they did with Blake. This is similar to what Companions were told  by the Prophet when they complained of loss of vision when they leave his Presence.
      Consciously or unconsciously we keep adoring beauty. We all – including the most puritanical – love beauty in harmonious sound. Music if defined as harmonious sound is the feast God offers us from dawn to dusk in the rhythms of nature –birds, insects, rains, streams, winds all are playing a symphony free for all. We can understand God’s Name “The Irresistible” in many ways including the phenomenon of our spontaneous attraction to music – the beauty of sound – and virgin nature teeming with all kinds of beauties. It is God the Wadood who attracts us and we can’t resist. To be human is to be open to Beauty. How can we witness God or His Unity or perpetually remember Him through farz-i-dayim? The easiest way is by being open to countless forms of beauty. A poet see more beauty than non-poets. He also creates it as does any artist. A saint bathes in beauty; he sees only beauty. How beautiful is the world is known only when we are in love or have found some other means of escaping the great blinker that objectifies or degrades everything – ego. One can’t name a  completely ugly thing; all things participate in beauty or some degree. God alone is perfect beauty. Not even paradise can be. And man must ceaselessly seek perfect beauty and that is why nothing in this world or the otherworld satisfies him finally until he is granted the Vision of God. In this world nothing satisfies us finally except remembrance of God or the Void that is the plenitude of Being.
      If the idea of worship implies reverent devotion to the Other that is not the self and not for the fortification of the self but its liberation in love and devotion, all humans can be said to worship God in the aspect of Beauty. We are all moved by the beauty of the soul and that is why all of us bow before the presence of saints. To be man is to love beauty. Atheism  understood as rejection of God the Jameel– the ground of beauty – is inhuman view that no sane person accepts. When the Quran says  “Afillahi Shakkun….” it implies that one can’t entertain a doubt regarding God the Other manifest in the heavens and the earth. Baudelaire, the poet, to whom  modern art owes its renewed awareness of the theological quality and tyrannical spirituality of beauty, writes:

  • ". . . it is this immortal instinct for the beautiful which makes us consider the earth and its various spectacles as a sketch of, as  correspondence with, Heaven. . . . It is at once through poetry and across poetry, through and across music, that the soul glimpses the splendors situated beyond the grave; and when an exquisite poem brings tears to the eyes, these tears are not proof of an excess of joy, they are rather the testimony of an irritated melancholy, a demand of the nerves, of a nature exiled in the imperfect and desiring to take possession immediately, even on this earth, of a revealed paradise." 
      Modern age is the ugliest in history, as is noted by the greatest art historian Coomaraswamy. In previous ages even a spoon or a cup was painted with all one’s soul and thus beautiful. Man surrounded himself with beauty, lived beauty and radiated beauty.  Almost all the wonders that will outlast modern age are from ancient or modern world. We have largely forgotten beauty in our houses, in our  surroundings, in cities, in villages, in souls.  It is museums that are beautiful and they are generally from ages past when man’s  religion was beauty, and not utility. Today our architecture is, generally speaking, designed for utility or vanity. And that has given us largely ugly, homogeneous, and inhospitable world where all cities look alike and you can find suffocating monotony of banks, malls, schools, hospitals  that are designed without regard for vivifying symbolism and for the dead – customers/clients/alienated individuals or hired workers. They are best for the dead.
      Pursuing perfection is pursuing beauty and that is precisely the end of Islam – Ihsan which means doing things perfectly, so perfectly that one can say that God does them. An artist, like a true servant of God, has no sense of autonomous agency or ego. He has perfectly surrendered so that his hand is God’s hand.(“Hath hai Alah ka Bandae  Mumin ka Haath”)
      It is in the name of beauty, a more perfect understanding of beauty that philosophers, Sufis and  poets criticize one another. Or critics including our enemies criticize us in the name of a principle of greater perfection or beauty and thus we should be thankful to them if they truly succeed in bringing to our attention a greater beauty.
      I conclude with a quote from Dostoevsky, the great priest of the Religion of Beauty:
  • “Man can live without science, he can live without bread, but without beauty he could no longer live, because there would no longer be anything to do to the world. The whole secret is here, the whole of history is here.”
Islamic Shahadah has been rendered as “There is no beauty but Beauty.” All things are lawful or can be enjoyed in God. Man is saved by beauty according to all traditions and no sane person can fail to understand it. However, all religions also warn us against confounding a particular beauty with the Absolute Beauty and temptation to forget God while enjoying His beautiful world outside God.

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