Explain Ananda Coomaraswamy's concept of Shiva as an artifact, referencing his 1918 publication "The Dance of Shiva."

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Jessica Pope eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In “The Dance of Shiva,”Ananda Coomaraswamy theorizes a fundamental unity between the Vedic art tradition of Southeast Asia and the Platonic art tradition of Western Europe. He suggests that beneath the superficial stylistic differences, there lies an essentially identical aesthetic philosophy.

Coomaraswamy believed that both ancient Vedic culture and Ancient Greco-Roman culture rejected a strict distinction between the sacred and the profane. Rather, the ancient cultures viewed these two realms of human life as fluid and woven together. Spiritual forces regularly interacted with man in the earthly realm. And it is through religious artifact that this interaction takes place. In both traditions, religious artifacts are the gateways or portals which allow for fluid movement between the sacred and the mundane. Without religious artifacts, these spiritual-material interactions could not take place.

For Coomawaswamy, images of Shiva the Destroyer are particularly representative of this how this process takes place. Images of Shiva dancing were common throughout Sri Lanka and neighboring regions. Typically, these images would be engraved into soft cooper stones and worn around the neck or ankle. When a number of worshipers adorned with such images came together, Shiva would descend from the heavenly realm into the earthly realm and invoke his holy dance upon the worshipers. What important about this dynamic is that it isn’t one-sided. It’s not simply that Shiva decides all by himself when he wants to descend upon the people. Rather, the people themselves – through the use of material artifact – are also able to act upon Shiva. When worshipers use the material images of Shiva in this way, he has no choice but to come down. The material images attract him, draw him in, and compel him to come down. Thus, these artifacts mediate reciprocity and mutual influencing between the gods and man.

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