Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: As an advocate of the perennial philosophy, Coomaraswamy pursued the seemingly paradoxical task of advocating a cosmopolitan pursuit of the true, good, and beautiful, while simultaneously being a staunch advocate of a renewal of traditional Indian culture and art.

Early Life

Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy’s pedigree presaged the intellectual and cultural concerns that formed the nexus of his scholarship. He was born into a distinguished Ceylonese family. His father, Sir Mutu Coomaraswamy, was an accomplished barrister and legislator who in his spare time studied Eastern and Western classics. His mother, Elizabeth Clay Coomaraswamy, née Beeby, was of an old English family of Kentish origin. Seventeen years younger than her husband, she was widowed five years after their marriage, at the age of twenty-seven. She devoted the rest of her life to the rearing in England of her only child, Ananda.

Ananda Coomaraswamy was educated first at Wycliffe College, at Stonehouse in Gloucestershire, and later at the University of London, where he obtained a doctorate of science in 1906. Significantly, he was educated when the influence of art critic John Ruskin and artist William Morris pervaded English cultural life. Both Ruskin and Morris were concerned with the detrimental effects of modern industrialism on contemporary Western culture. Their concerns were reflected in those of Coomaraswamy, who later saw Western industrialization as a source of great social evil that adversely affected traditional Eastern culture. Coomaraswamy heartily concurred with and quoted Ruskin’s aphorism, “Industry without art is brutality.” He thought that the Enlightenment, with its concurrent industrialization, had ravaged the West and was ravaging the East.

In 1903, while pursuing his doctoral studies, Coomaraswamy was appointed director of the Mineralogical Survey of Ceylon and served in Ceylon in that capacity until 1906. Articles written during that three-year period were submitted and accepted as his dissertation for the doctorate of science. It was during that same three-year period that Coomaraswamy was first struck by the contrast between contemporary Western industrialism and traditional Eastern culture. In response, he started two societies, the Kandyan Association and the Ceylon Social Reform Society, both dedicated to the preservation and promotion of the arts of Ceylon.

At the termination of his appointment as director of the Mineralogical Survey, in 1906, Coomaraswamy left Ceylon for a three-month tour of India. This marked the beginning not only of a physical tour but also of a scholarly and spiritual tour from which he emerged with his mission in life. He became a champion of traditional Eastern culture and a critic of the modernist West. He did so by forcefully advocating the perennial philosophy.

Life’s Work

Coomaraswamy’s scholarly career can be divided into two periods: 1908-1932 and 1932-1947. The earlier period centers on empirical scholarship, the later on more mystic and metaphysical studies. However, the distinction between the two is never absolute in Coomaraswamy’s work.

Coomaraswamy critically confronts two aspects of the modernist West: the pursuit of empirical facts and the belief in cultural relativism and subjectivism. He asserts that a mere empirical study of Eastern culture denies that culture’s content and its significance. In addition, to study traditional Eastern or traditional Western culture via a modernist perspective is to deny the validity of those traditions being studied. A modernist study centers on a paradigm of facts, feelings, and style, but traditional Eastern and Western cultures consist of more than facts—they contain a belief in truth, goodness, and beauty. To give the facts concerning, for example, the worldview of Hinduism without discussing whether those facts are actually true, reduces the Hindu (or any other nonmodernist) cultural tradition to the realm of nostalgic historical fact and subjective cultural preference. It avoids and denies the possibility that Hinduism could be true. To study a nonrelativistic culture from an empirical and relativistic perspective is to deny the intrinsic validity of traditions that are not empirical and relativistic. It is in addressing this realization that the philosophical content of Coomaraswamy’s thought and scholarship began to blossom.

Coomaraswamy early established his ability as an empiricist scholar by publishing a number of important works and presenting various important scholarly papers. In addition to his early published works in the area of natural science, in 1908 he published a well-illustrated monograph, Medieval Sinhalese Art, and presented an important paper at the International Congress of Orientalists at Copenhagen, “The Influence of Greece on Indian Art.” However, his work increasingly advanced beyond the limitations of empirical scholarship with the publication of The Indian Craftsman, followed by Selected Examples of Indian Art, The Arts and Crafts of India and Ceylon, and Buddha and the Gospel of Buddhism.

During this same period, Coomaraswamy published Essays in National Idealism and presented a series of lectures proclaiming the need for an aesthetic and spiritual awakening in the East. Not surprisingly, as a critic of modern Western civilization, he found himself increasingly at odds with the empirical methods employed by the dominant modernist scholarly and artistic community as well as with various cultural and political forces associated with modernism. The...

(The entire section is 2321 words.)