Art as Path to Transcendence

A discussion with Srila Prabhupada on art in Bhakti culture1

(Paris, 1973)


In the mid-1960s, progressives held sway in American society and the mood was full throttle into a bright future of technology and human creative potential. My mom had vowed to provide her only child with a good education, and I absorbed the progressive view attending Ethical Culture schools and visiting many of New York's museums and art galleries.

American Center

Often, these outings included a stop at the Museum of Natural History, not far from our midtown apartment. I remember one show around 1965, in which curators had linked artistic work over the millennia with biological evolution. The first hall was filled with cave paintings, which the exhibition guidebook described as artistic expressions of an earlier stage in human development. According to the text, art grew more sophisticated over the millennia, until homo sapiens were at last producing an artistic legacy as complex as their own highly evolved brains.The exhibition's displays of sculpture, pottery, tapestry and paintings over the ages reinforced this idea that art, like the human species, evolved biologically, yet something about juxtaposing Darwinian theory and creative expression rang false. Did art viewed chronologically equate to art viewed progressively? That struck me as arbitrary and elitist. One hall featured the sensual sculptures of Henry Moore (1898-1986). The quasi-erotic stonework appealed to my adolescent mind, but so did older sensual figures labeled "Hindu Goddesses". In another hall, free-floating, wind-driven mobiles by Alexander Calder (1898-1976) were described as an "evolution" in Modernism. But they did not strike me as superior to dramatic, colorful 17th-century masks labeled "Tribal Talismans".

I entered college as a seventeen-year-old freshman at the University of Wisconsin and encountered a parallel bias in the undergraduate art department. Courses titled "Existentialist Painting," "Picasso and the Collective Unconscious," and "Sculpture as Force for Change" shared two assumptions: the interrelationship of art and history, and art as a subset of the Humanities'art seen as a tool humans used to cope with a Godless, soulless universe.



Two years later, in 1969 during my junior year abroad in Paris, I met a group of young people practicing Krishna consciousness, also known as Bhakti or devotional yoga. In those early days of the Krishna consciousness movement in France, gatherings took place on Sunday at the American Center for Students and Artists in the Latin Quarter. This two-story stone and glass structure offered visiting artists a theater and rehearsal spaces and was a convenient hangout for exchange students like me. On Sunday afternoons, the Center loaned an upstairs rehearsal room to the Krishna devotees. At the start of each session, an American devotee named Umapati spread a colorful cloth over a long folding table. On the table, he positioned framed images of teachers in the Bhakti tradition, and on a wall behind the table he mounted a poster depicting Krishna as a cowherd boy with long dark hair and playing a flute. Next, Umapati began cutting apples and placing the slices on a tray. Sharing apple slices with guests was a big part of those Sunday Krishna programs.

"That's Krishna, God in his original personal form," Umapati said. "God has many forms, but in his original form as Krishna he lives with his devotees in a cowherd village called Vrindavan."

"Why does he look like a girl?"

"God is the source of everything," Umapati said casually, "including the beauty in women." He continued arranging apple slices on the tray as though such talks about cosmic origins were really nothing out of the ordinary. He then placed the tray before the poster of Krishna, bowed down, and recited prayers in a language I had never heard before (Sanskrit). When the prayers ended, another devotee passed the tray around the room. People who had wandered into the rehearsal space took an apple slice and munched away, and Umapati began lecturing in French from the Bhakti text Bhagavad Gita.

"Krishna's nature is eternal and unchanging," he said. "God is not limited as we are by a material body. His body is pure spirit and does not decay or die. And since he is absolute, he remains spiritual in all his manifestations. When he appears in a wooden or stone deity, or even in this printed poster," he said, pointing to image of Krishna over the altar, "the material elements transform into his own spiritual substance. We should not think that a deity or painting of Krishna is an idol. An artistic depiction of Krishna is not different from Krishna himself. In his painting, Krishna is graciously appearing in a way that is visible to us, to help us remember him."

Here was an unexpected challenge to the notion of art as a byproduct of history. An artistic representation of Krishna, Umapati explained, when properly executed according to scriptural regulation, transcends its moment in historic time. Contemplating such an image can reawaken viewers' sense of themselves as eternal beings.

Understanding the historic background--this painting is an 19th-century Rajasthani miniature, this poster is a more recent work from the Brijbasi studios--may enhance intellectual appreciation, but the painting's true value lies in its ability to stimulate in viewers an intuition of their own immortality. Devotional art is like fire, Umapati said. It acts on anyone who comes near.



I began spending time with Umapati and his roommate, a Canadian devotee named Hanuman. They stayed at a modest hotel a few blocks from the American Center and had decorated their small room with devotional posters of Krishna and his incarnations. The posters included depictions of Krishna lifting a hill with his little finer, dancing with the cowherd girls of his village, and playing with friends in the fields surrounding Vrindavan.

Frankly, none of these works appealed to me artistically. From my New York museum-fed perspective, the paintings were naive, the compositions unimaginative, and proportions out of whack. The paintings were also quite literal. There were images of Krishna tending cows, forest scenes with pretty flowers, and clearly the artists had painted literally according to descriptions in the texts. There wasn't much for an observer to do other than observe, since few of the pieces required any interpretive skill.

But to Umapati, Hanuman, and their devotee friends, the posters were windows onto the spiritual world. Each morning, the crew of devotees gathered to chant on their beads, and while chanting they gazed attentively at the posters. I felt very much like an outsider to their relationship with devotional art.



In December 1969, I visited the London Krishna temple and decided what the devotees were doing, in terms of nurturing their inner selves and working for the greater good, appealed to me more than my studies at the Sorbonne. I moved in to the temple, and a few weeks later requested initiation from the movement's founder, Srila Prabhupada. Eventually, I relocated to the Paris temple and worked on French translations of his books.In 1971, Prabhupada visited Paris. This would be a good opportunity to clear up some of my lingering questions about the role of art in spiritual life. He was nearly eighty years old, and those of us who were his students worried how long he would still be with us. I waited until I could meet alone with him in his quarters, then dove right in.

Krishna playing the flute

"What is art, Srila Prabhupada?" I asked. He looked up and studied my face for what seemed a long time.

"Art is to put things in their proper place for best utility," he said.

I didn't understand, but rather than ask the same question again I said, "Some artists might disagree. Andy Warhol, for example, paints soup cans. He takes an object out of its proper place on a grocery store shelf, puts it on canvas, and brings out some beautiful quality that was not seen before."

"Beauty and art are different," Prabhupada cautioned. "Beauty is something that satisfies the eyes. Your eyes may be satisfied by something, my eyes by something else. Beauty is a kind of sense gratification. If I like it, then I say it is beautiful. If I don't, then it isn't. There is no such thing as a standard of beauty. Just like nowadays, artists make so-called beautiful paintings"--and he waved an imaginary paintbrush back and forth in the air, imitating Jackson Pollock creating one of his famous drip paintings.

"I don't like it," he said with a chuckle, "but someone else may say it is very beautiful. So, beauty and art are different. Art means arranging things for the highest utility. Beauty may satisfy but not have any higher utility. Anything is art when it serves the very best utility."

Utility--putting was obviously the crux of his definition of art, although I still wasn't sure what he meant. "If someone fulfills that qualification of highest utility," I asked, "is he an artist?"

"Yes," Prabhupada said. "An artist is one who knows the standard of best utility."

There was a Webster's dictionary on a bookshelf in Prabhupada's room. I turned to the word artist.

"The dictionary defines artist," I said, "as 'one specifically skilled in the practice of a manual art or occupation, as cooking.' If we apply that to your definition of art, then someone who is skilled at cooking for Krishna is an artist."

"Oh, yes," he said. "That is putting things in their proper place. Anyone who performs his work for the satisfaction of Krishna is an artist."

That helped. Prabhupada was defining art in its devotional sense, as any action that brings the performer closer to God. "Putting things in their proper place" meant returning them to their Owner--offering back to Krishna what was already his, as an expression of love. Prabhupada wasn't denying the value of composition or design. Rather, he was expanding the parameters of "art" to include any action performed as an expression of Bhakti or devotional yoga. I remembered a verse to that same effect in the Bhagavad Gita (2.50), where Krishna encourages his warrior-disciple Arjuna to "strive for yoga, which is the art of all work."



The idea that art can bring people to a point of spiritual insight was not new. Concerning the Spiritual in Art, a book from 1912 by Russian painter and art theorist Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944), called for a spiritual revolution in painting that would permit artists to express their inner lives in abstract, non-material terms. Kandinsky sought to convey his idea of spirituality through a universal visual language of abstract forms and colors that transcended cultural and physical boundaries. His idea was that artists should not need the sanction of material authority to express their deepest emotions, and he considered non-objective, abstract art as the ideal visual mode to express the "inner necessity" of the artist and to convey universal human emotions and ideas.

I had been a Kandinsky fan in college, and what Prabhupada said was blowing my mind. Here was a logical, reasonable alternative to Kandinsky's assumptions about what constitutes "spiritual" in art. True, transcendence by definition cannot be bound by material form. But the opposite of material form is formlessness or abstraction only for those who have no information of spiritual form. We have no experience of a spiritual body, so we look at a painting of Krishna and assume that his body is material, limited, and temporary like ours. To depict the "spiritual" with abstract colors and shapes may point the right direction --"non-material"--but abstraction ignores the existence of form beyond material limits. The moment was clarifying and humbling, since Prabhupada obliged me to consider my own intellectual bias when it came to a subject I thought I knew.

Prabhupada left Paris shortly after that meeting. I learned something later from his assistant that serves as a lovely coda to this remembrance of my time with him. It seems that on the plane, he chanted Hare Krishna on his beads while meditating on a drawing of Krishna pinned to the seat in front of him. Not unusual: many devotees chant while meditating on a picture of Krishna. What was striking about this meditation was that Prabhupada had chosen a crayon drawing done by the child of one of his students. The drawing was a stick-figure Krishna, done with Crayolas.

The drawing may not have had much resale value as a work of art. It may not have proven that biological evolution had rendered art more sophisticated. Still, to Srila Prabhupada it was finer than a Rembrandt, more valuable than a Degas, more evolved than a Picasso, because it was a drawing of Krishna done by the loving hand of a young devotee. In that simple sketch, Prabhupada saw abundant subject matter for artistic contemplation: devotion, sincerity, earnest labor, and a six-year-old's humble offering of love for God.


1 Updated 4/8/17 from an article first published in Back to Godhead magazine, vol. 16. no. 12, 12/1/81