THE AGAMIC TRADITION AND THE ARTS
I pay obeisance to the supporting
energy of the Lord
in the form of the earth
which remains established as the
for sprouting the seed of the
Ma¸gala¿loka (in praise of the
of the five elements)
Art, both conceptually and in practice, is embedded in a world-view and
cosmology, which is based on the fundamental elements (mah¡bh£t¡ni):
earth, water, fire, wind and ether (space). We find a system of
correspondences between macrocosm and microcosm, linking the gross and
subtle levels, as is evident in the Vedic as well as Ëgamic traditions.
This conception finds its immediate application in ritual, which can serve
as a key to these relationships and to the rich symbolism implied. The
correspondences between the elements, in their gross and subtle aspects,
sense-perceptions, and human emotive states have been elaborated at all
levels of the Indian tradition.
these conceptions and practices have influenced the Indian aesthetic
theories, and have found expression in the different media of the Arts.
Taking the mah¡bh£tas as the
concrete starting-point, these interrelationships can be examined in the
case of each art-form. They appear at different levels: at the level of
the material, at the level of the creative process and artistic
articulation, at the level of communication and aesthetic receptivity.
the aesthetic and symbolical dimensions of the mah¡bh£tas, their
ecological importance should not be forgotten. Man formed by such a
tradition lived in harmony with his surroundings and expressed a deep
reverence towards the earth on which he dwells, the air he breathes, the
water which purifies and gives life, the fire that transforms, and space
which gives him the vastness to live. When he draws ma¸·alas
on the ground, their symbolism of colour and form gives expression to this
relationship. When he pours offerings into the sacred fire, he is
conscious of the power and manifold nature of the element, and so forth.
Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts has since its beginning been
concerned with fundamental themes underlying the Indian Arts, exploring
them in all possible directions and thus opening a new and deeper
under-standing of the artistic traditions. After exploring the concepts of
Space and Time,[i]
another basic theme has been examined in its various dimensions in several
seminars: the concept of the cosmic elements which have been classified as
five in the Indian tradition.[ii]
Seminar on The Role of the Elements
(mah¡bh£tas) in the Indian
Arts and their Ëgamic Background
has been held at IGNCA, New Delhi, from March 12-14, 1992, of which the
papers are presented in this Volume.
life depends on the cosmic elements - earth, water, fire, air and space -
but we are rarely conscious of this fact, whether in our own body or in
our environment. Any discussion on the elements should lead us to a
greater and more immediate awareness of this dependence and to a cosmic
sense of responsibility, otherwise it is a futile academic exercise.
arts, as any human activity which needs a material support, are a
sublimation of the elements, "transformation of nature in art",
in Coomaraswamy's formulation. Every art-form has its own immediate
material, but it uses all the other elements and their transformations in
one way or another. It was one of the scopes of this Seminar to explore
the relationship between specific art-forms and the elements predominating
in them, not only in their material aspect, but in their symbolic function
and quality. Water does not only mean the physical element but the quality
of fluidity and the symbol of life; fire does not only mean a burning
flame, but the quality of intensity, of heat and burning, etc. The texts
are full of descriptions of the qualities and symbolic value of the
the elements or mah¡bh£tas in
their gross form are part of a whole cosmology and cosmogony. Their role
in cosmogony cannot be discussed here, because it would require a separate
treatment. But we have to place the elements in the total scheme of
cosmology which is the system of the tattvas
–whether 25 as in S¡Ækhya or 36 as in the Ëgamas. The system of the tattvas presents a perfect ecological balance. Ecology in the modern
Western sense is limited to nature and remains artificially cut-off from
the mental and spiritual dimensions, whereas the system of tattvas contains everything: the gross elements (bh£ta) cannot be
separated from the subtle (tanm¡tra),
nor from the sense-organs (indriya),
and beyond them to the subtler mental faculties. Even the latest theories
of modern physics have again discovered that the observer cannot be left
out of the picture, that the observed is not just an 'object'.
the system of the tattvas the
elements are the basis of the pyramid, and the ascent is from gross to
subtle and beyond: sth£la, s£kÀma
and para cannot be separated. Thus the theme of this Seminar on the bh£tas
should not be and has not been understood as a limitation, but as a,
starting-point. The elements are the very basis of the universe, and any
sublimation has to start from them. Or, seen from the other side, there is
an evolution from the supreme (para)
to the subtle and from there to the gross elements.
another aspect, too, the elements are all-pervading, that is in the
symbolic field. Where they are not present materially, they are present
symbolically. At all the levels, even the most subtle and spiritual, we
find elemental symbolism. As an example we may mention the three yogic n¡·¢s
being identified with sun, moon and fire.
we agree that the tattvas
present a complete scheme and an ecological balance, we have to address
ourselves to two important issues:
1. In actual practice cosmology
becomes manifested in ritual, life style, festivals and art.
How are the Indian arts
manifesting, expressing, integrating this cosmological scheme in their
How does the concept take on flesh
and form and sound and movement?
What are the methods of
transferring this cosmology into the visual and audible form that we ca.11
2. We should not adopt a
complacent attitude with regard to the Indian tradition, as if everything
were in harmony. We should rather seriously ask ourselves why it is that
a, tradition with such a wisdom in relation to nature has fallen into such
neglect of nature and has allowed an ecological disaster to happen in its
own environment. Can our reflections on these inter-relations between
cosmology, ritual and the arts be more than a romantic looking back to a
lost harmony, and can they create an awareness of the urgent need of the
hour? Can the arts, and the theory or philosophy supporting them, become
an instrument of integration and ecological aware-ness, instead of being
cut off from their context and used as an isolated act of entertainment
for the privileged few?
is here where the Ëgamas / Tantras
can play a crucial role of mediation, with their integration of the senses
and of matter into spirituality.
a word of explanation on the limitation and scope of the topic of this
Volume is necessary.
is no doubt that, at least in the Indian context, the arts have grown out
of a re-enactment, of the cosmos, of human life and of the Divine, which
we may call, for lack of better word, ritual. Whether it is the Vedic
sacrifice Ëgamic temple-ritual or personal puja, it always involves
symbolic forms like the shapes of the Vedic altars, cosmic ma¸·alas,
yantras, sculpture, architecture, music, dance, poetry, etc. Thus
ritual is all linked with different art-forms and with cosmological
conceptions which are basic to all the arts. We could describe it with the
symbol of a triangle:
the sake of a more precise discussion it seemed useful to limit the scope
to only one, though very vast, stream of the Indian tradition where this
triangle becomes clearly manifest, that is the Ëgamic tradition. By Ëgamas
we mean a I class of literatures and practice which may be áaiva, VaiÀ¸ava
or á¡kta (or even Jaina or Buddhist), but which have certain common
characteristics. It would have been very tempting to include the Vedas in the same discussion, and in not doing so we do not want to
emphasize a total separation of the Vedic and Ëgamic traditions, on the
contrary, we will discover many threads connecting the two. We need not go
here into any controversies about the relationship between Vedas and Ëgamas or Tantras, this would be besides the scope of our
search here. We rather want to find the connecting threads between the
three points of the triangle, that is cosmology, ritual and arts, in the
context of the Ëgamic tradition.
is an undeniable fact that, when speaking of the elements or mahabhutani,
the cosmological, ritual and artistic dimensions are closely interwoven,
but more often than not these are studied in isolation and not in their
inter-connectedness. Thus it is the aim of this Volume to discover these
connections and establish the relationships.
the Seminar was primarily concerned with an exploration of the Ëgamic
tradition in its relation to the Arts, the ecological importance of such
an exploration remained constantly in our minds, from the Introduction by
the convener to the conclusion by Dr Kapila Vatsyayan. Understanding the
tradition should not remain limited to a literary analysis nor to
extolling the glorious past when man was in harmony with his surroundings
and his activities were integrated in the rhythm of nature. It should
rather help us to become more aware of the dimensions we have lost in a
fragmented way of life, and to recover some of the attitudes embedded in
the tradition, such as respect and reverence for the earth on which we
dwell, the air we breathe, the water which purifies and nourishes us, the
fire which transforms and heats, and the space which gives us room to
live. In this sense this Volume is not merely historical or literary, but
directed at the burning issues of present-day ecology.
of the Seminar was to be achieved in five steps, and hence the articles
presented here are arranged in five sections, related to the number five
of the elements:
An exploration of the concepts and practices of the Ëgamas in
relation to the elements, their cosmology, ritual and Yoga,
An analysis of the aesthetic theories, mainly based on the
Natya-Sastra and Abhinava Bharati,
The artistic theories and techniques as found in the Sastras of the
The manifestation of the elements in the different artistic
expressions, where each art-form has a special relationship with one or
more of the elements, and yet all are present in one way or another, and
General questions relating to the Arts and ecology.
five points are supposed to cover the different levels where the elements
underlie the Arts: the level of the material, the level of the creative
process and artistic articulation, the level of symbolic relationships and
the level of communication and aesthetic receptivity.
this Introduction I can only give a short survey of the rich material
presented in the papers, to show the connecting link.
Agama, ritual and Yoga in
relation to the elements was presented from the Vaisnava Paficaratra
tradition by P.P. Apte, from the point of view of the dualistic and
non-dualistic Saivagamas by H.N. Chakravarty, S.P. Sabarathi-nam and S.S.
Janaki respectively. From these presentations several common features of
these different schools emerged, which are independent of their respective
theologies. One of these common features is the importance of ritual
purification of the elements in the body, called bh£ta&ddhi. Any
ritual re-quires the purification of the worshipper's gross and subtle
body which has to go through the five elements, and by which the
worshipper's body be-comes divinized. This process was clearly described
and analyzed by P.P. Apte in the Pancaratra tradition, and by H.N.
Chakravarty, S.S. Janaki and S.P. Sabarathinam in the Saivagamas.
Apte brought out another important aspect of ritual where the elements are
represented in ma¸·alas with
their corresponding shapes and colours. Ma¸·alas
are microcosmic representations of the macrocosm, and they combine ritual
and art in a unique way.
Chakravarty gave the philosophical and cosmological background of the
elements in the Saivagamas, from the point of view of the non-dualistic 'Saivism
of Kashmir. The five elements are the basic tattvas in the Ëgamic
cosmology comprising thirtysix tattvas. The five elements are further
under-stoodas forms of Siva, corresponding to the five Brahmans. The astamurti conception of Siva also accords a basic theological
importance to the elements.
Janaki developed the process of bhutasuddhi in the Saiva, Siddhanta
tradition and showed the correspondences of the elements with colours,
forms, mantras, deities, etc.
The yogic correspondences to the subtle centres in the body were also
referred to S.P. Sabarathinam dealt with the ma¸·alas in the Saiva
these presentations of the Ëgamic material made it clear that the
elements are present at all the levels, from the physical to the subtle
and spiritual, and that all these meanings are embedded in a cosmo-theology,
whether it is interpreted in a dualistic or non-dualistic way. They are
not only instruments of external ritual and inner purification, but they
have a definite significance in the ultimate process of divinization of
second section is focusing on the aesthetic theories which have been
largely informed by the Vedic and Ëgamic traditions. K.D. Tripathi's
paper: 'From Sensuous to Supersensuous: An inquiry into some terms of
Indian Aesthetics' presents a pivotal point of the Volume. Following
Abhinavagupta, he went into the very process of creativity and the role of
sense-experience in the process of passing from the aesthetic to the
transcendent experience. He analyzed the very basic concept of rasa
in the light of its elemental association with water. The aesthetic
qualities of madhurya and ojas
are related to the watery and fiery elements. In fact, most of the terms
of Indian aesthetics can be derived from the essential qualities of the
five elements. The paper made it clear that the very process of the
aesthetic experience, being a process of universalization or
sadharanikarana, is a transformation of the sensuous into the
supersensuous. In this, the qualities of the elements are more important
than their physical nature.
Tripathi discussed the ritual of the Rangadaivatapujana of the
Natya-Sastra and the use of the elements and compared the consecration of
a temple with the consecration of a theatre. However, the historical
question of the dependence on the Ëgamic ritual cannot be solved easily,
since the textual form of the Ëgamas is later than that of the N@+Stistru.
However, the symbolism of the elements is essential in the preliminary
rituals of theatre.
third section moves from the Natya-Sastra and the aesthetic theories to
the Sastric theories of the different Arts. Two papers, by Prem Lata
Sharma and Mukund Lath, were devoted to Sarigitta-dtistra. P.L. Sharma
analyzed the specific role of the elements and their qualities in music.
Some of the elements, such as wind, play a physical role in the production
of musical sound, while others are represented by their qualities. The
Satighz-Rutn&uru speaks of the elements in relation to the body and
mental faculties in terms of Ayurvedu, and also in their subtle meaning in
terms of Yoga and of the cakras in
Lath developed further the idea of 'The
Body as an Instrument' in the light of the Sangita-Ratnakara,
and he expanded on the process of sound-production in the human body. From
both these papers it became clear that musical theory and practice is
intimately linked with the human body, its physical and subtle
understanding which consists of the five elements in their gross and
own paper entitled 'Lines of Fire, Lines of Water: the Elements in
Silpasastra' was dedicated to some aspects of the elemental symbolism in
Silpa-sastra, as applied to both, sculpture and architecture. This
symbolism is found in the lines of the compositional diagram (panjara),
which have certain qualities of the elements: the horizontal is the
water-line, the vertical the fire-line, etc. The integration of the
apparently opposing qualities of water and fire is found in the hexagram,
a basic form of all yantras. The
images created on the basis of such diagrams share the qualities of the
respective elements and their combination. The human figure is also
divided vertically in sections attributed to the five elements. In
architecture, the symbolism of the elements is part of the general cosmic
symbolism of the temple which is applied to its different parts.
Meister, in his paper on 'Unity and Gravity of an Elemental Architecture',
demonstrated the symbolism of the temple with the help of slides. He
summarized the general idea thus: 'The temple by intention is poised
between elements, always placed near water; built of and on the earth; it
is itself the home of fire; its tower the embodiment of air; and its apex
fourth section passes on to artistic practice (prayoga) in which Ganapati Sthapati gives a summary of his vast
knowledge and experience of the conceptions and practice of traditional
architecture. He elaborated on Space as the primal element of
architecture, and he gave much importance to the Vastupurusamandala in
constructing a house or a temple.
Vatsyayan has related Indian myths and their representations in art to the
questions of ecology. She has shown that myth and art have a powerful
message for our ecological situation, especially in India, if we know how
to read it.
concluding section starts by a comprehensive survey of 'The Cosmic
Elements in India; an Agenda of Questions' by A.R. Kelkar. He put the
theme in the context of cosmology and gave a survey of different
cosmological schemes, comparing them also with other Indo-European
cultures, such as the Greek. His semantic analysis of central terms of the
theory of art like rasa, underlined the thesis proposed by K.D. Tripathi about the
elemental origin of these terms. His 'agenda of questions' presented a
useful survey of possible relationships of the elements with the Arts.
the main stress of the last section lies in the emphasis on ecology, a
link which had not been sufficiently established in the papers describing
the Ëgamic and Sastric traditions. Bryan Mulvihill stressed the need for
a 'cultural ecology', which is the need of the hour in a world-wide
situation of exploitation of the earth, pollution and ecological disaster.
All traditional cultures with their wisdom and deep respect for the
elemental forces of nature have to teach modern civilization how to deal
with their environment. He stated that 'perhaps no other society has
developed the human interdependence with nature to such a refined and
elaborate degree than the cultures of the Indian sub-continent where the
relationship with the elemental forces is portrayed on every level of
human and cultural expression.' Sadly, this har-monious relationship of
man and nature is now very much disturbed in India itself. The author also
demonstrated his thesis on the elements with the help of a Buddhist mandala
structure, maybe one of the 'leitmotifs' of this seminar. His appeal was
for a greater awareness of the interdependence and relationship with the
elements that traditional cultures preserve. He found the reasons for the
ecological disaster of our time in a 'globally embedded arrogance' and
'inflation of the ego', leading to sheer exploitation of the earth.
her concluding speech, Kapila Vatsyayan also made a poignant appeal to
link our traditional wisdom, ritual and art, with the problems of ecology
in India and the world over. Tradition should not remain closed in itself,
unaware of the environment, but it should play a crucial role in
rediscovering the primordial relationship of man and nature.
'missing link' between the Ëgamic knowledge and ecology could be
mentioned as one of the weaknesses of the Seminar, but it reflected
faithfully the present state of affairs in India. If we can recognize this
weakness and come to a greater awareness of the relevance of the
cosmologies propounded in the Ëgamas,
which found their expression in the various art-forms, starting from
ritual itself, the Seminar would have served an important, purpose.
at all some conclusions could be drawn, I would dare to make a general
remark. It is obvious that such a rich tradition of Ëgamic cosmology,
ritual, aesthetic theory and artistic practice cannot be exhausted in a
few papers. But it is perhaps the sign of a living tradition that it takes
the basic elements so much for granted that it is not longer aware of
them. Thus, to my mind, the ground on which we stand, the earth element,
prthivi or bhumi, has not been given its due importance. If this basic
element alone (though of course not in isolation) could be studied in all
its implications, we could come closer to a real Indian ecology.
are grateful to Professor Kirti Trivedi, Industrial Design Centre, IIT,
Bombay, for providing the slides of ma¸·alas to illustrate the article
by P.P. Apte. These ma¸·alas have been created by him in association
with Dr P.P. Apte, on the basis of the Pauskara Samhita.
thank the American Institute of Indian Studies, Ramnagar, Varanasi, for
providing photographs to illustrate the article by Michael Meister.
also wish to thank the staff of IGNCA, Varanasi, for assisting me in
bringing out this volume, for composing and formating the text in the
computer and proof-reading. Sri S. Dorai has prepared the line-drawings
after the originals provided by the authors.
Concepts of Space, Ed. by Kapila Vatsyayan New Delhi (IGNCA and
Abhinav Publications) 1991, and Kalatattvakosa, Vol. II, Ed. by
[ii] Kalatattvakosa, Vol. III will be dedicated to this theme.
©1995 Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi