Ironically, we can thank unconscious and powerful people for a great deal of the art that we enjoy today. Specifically, the power energy center of the false-self motivated kings, princes, popes and prelates to compete with one another to acquire art and the prestige that possessing the “best” art would bring to their towns, principalities, kingdoms or empires. Before the Gothic cathedrals were reaching for the heavens in Europe to glorify the Roman Catholic Church, the temples in 7th century India were being used for similar reasons but with a very different artistic sensibility. “India was divided into numerous warring kingdoms, ruled mostly by Hindus. These dynasts also vied with one another in building ever more elaborate temples, displaying some of the finest architectural sculpture the world has seen.”
Comparing Western with Eastern sculpture on Gothic cathedrals and Hindu temples illustrates how the different functions can influence the artistic outcomes. First, let’s look at the purpose of the 13th century cathedral as an expression of the intention of the Church. In Gombrich’s The Story of Art we find the following sentence: “The new cathedrals gave the faithful a glimpse of a different world. The faithful who surrendered himself to the contemplation of all this beauty could feel that he had come nearer to understanding the mysteries of a realm beyond the reach of matter.”
For example, the sculpture entitled Melchisedek, Abraham and Moses in Chartres Cathedral (begun in 1194) is meant to tell the story of the Bible to an illiterate population and to enthrall the masses within a narrative that gave the church control over the behavior of the faithful. The Gothic cathedral was the outward expression of the power energy center of the collective consciousness of the Roman Catholic Church. This worked well because the “faithful” were deeply unconscious concerning the nature of reality.
We can see that both the 13th century cathedral and the 11th century Hindu temple both “soar” toward the heavens to focus the consciousness of the faithful on the afterlife. It was this promise concerning the future in the afterlife that gave Catholicism and Hinduism power over the worshippers who stood in awe of the beauty that surrounded them. “The Hindu temple symbolized the axis of the cosmos, the mountain Meru which rises through the different realms of Earth and Heaven, its spire reaching towards the Beyond.”
Religious institutions, in both the East and West were manipulating the emotions of the people who entered these sacred places by appeals to the ancient story that contained them. “All the arts of medieval India were informed by one constant idea, derived from the dance-drama, which had flourished in India since at least the second century B.C.E.—first to awaken and then to reconcile traces of the powerful emotions felt during that long series of rebirths which every Indian, Buddhist or Hindu, knew he had experienced.”
The one glaring difference that we see between the stone carvings of cathedral and temple is the sensuality of the human bodies which are often essentially naked in the East while in the West the human body is invisible beneath flowing robes. “Both sculpture and painting reflect the bodily imagery and gesture and posture of the dance-drama, and share in its ultimate aim, to bring the spectator into that supreme emotional condition, Rasa, which is a genuine version of Blissful union with the divine ground of being, Brahman. The experience that brings one most intensely to Rasa is sexual love in all its variety.” Hence, we have in Hindu temple art what would be unthinkable in the medieval cathedral—the depiction of the sexual act in the religiously significant dance-drama. “Hindu temple art always presents its dramatis personae as supremely beautiful, charming to the eye and seductive to the hand.”
And so we have art sponsored and funded by the rich and powerful, created by the talented and faithful and expressing the erotic and beautiful. In short, we have the sculptures in the cathedrals and temples both manifesting and illustrating the operation of the collective false-self of two different cultures. Because the details of the two stories differ in their beliefs, attitudes and values, we have dramatically different artistic outcomes. Both, however, result in the creation of beauty and therefore have much to say about the truth of the human condition.
References and notes are available for this essay.
Find a much more in-depth discussion on this blog and in printed books by Roy Charles Henry.