Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy

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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...

(This entire section contains 2321 words.)

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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 philosophical premise that increasingly informed Coomaraswamy’s scholarship was expressed in the preface to The Arts and Crafts of India and Ceylon: “The Hindus have never believed in art for art’s sake; their art, like that of mediaeval Europe, was an art for love’s sake.”

It was in the midst of a worsening situation that Coomaraswamy received an offer in 1917 to become a research fellow at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. He spent the next thirty years at that museum, and it was there that his scholarship in philosophy and metaphysics thrived. His scholarship increasingly differed from his earlier empiricist scholarship (his scientific publications) and from his earlier empirical and aesthetic efforts as an art historian. His mature scholarship focused increasingly on the metaphysical. His later scholarship centered on his dedication to the notion of the perennial philosophy.

The term “perennial philosophy” was first coined by Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in reference to the notion that there is a divine reality to the world of things, lives, and minds. This philosophy holds that reality and life ultimately make sense, that it is beyond the capacity of natural science to discern that ultimate meaning, and that the perennial philosophy is a cosmopolitan and enduring alternative to modernist Western culture.

Advocacy of the notions associated with the perennial philosophy that became so central to Coomaraswamy’s mature scholarship is evidenced by the philosopher’s early and continuing interest in the theme of Nataraja, the dancing Siva. In 1912, Coomaraswamy published an essay titled “The Dance of Siva.” Later republished in various collections, this essay is considered to be a classic work not only of art history but also of theology and philosophy. It is clearly not a modernist piece of scholarship. It speaks not of what the iconography meant nor how the iconography makes one feel; instead, the essay speaks of how this work of art explains reality and life. The dancing Siva, a traditional theme in Hindu religion and art, addresses the relationship of being and becoming and of matter becoming meaningful. The traditional theme synthesizes science, religion, philosophy, and art, as does Coomaraswamy’s essay. His essay of the dancing Siva and of the art objects that depict that theme, rather than being a factual and nostalgic analysis of an exotic style of art and theology, constitutes an actual attempt to explain the nature of the world and life.

As Coomaraswamy’s philosophy became more metaphysical, he produced a major contribution to the study of Indian art in its historical, theological, and philosophical context, History of Indian and Indonesian Art. That text was soon followed by The Transformation of Nature in Art, in which Coomaraswamy developed his comparison of Eastern and medieval Western culture, a comparison that lies at the core of his advocacy of the perennial philosophy. Just as the perennial philosophy advocates a unity of science (in the sense of a body of knowledge), religion, philosophy, and art, in The Transformation of Nature in Art, Coomaraswamy concludes that “Heaven and Earth are united in the analogy of art, which is an ordering of sensation to intelligibility and tends toward an ultimate perfection in which the seer perceives all things imaged in himself.”

Why Exhibit Works of Art?, a collection of essays published in 1943, provides an overview of the direction of Coomaraswamy’s work and thought. In this work, he covers the philosophic and religious experience of the premodern world, East and West, concluding that premodern cultures were merely different dialects in a common, cosmopolitan language.

The essence of the perennial philosophy is vitalist and mystic rather than empirical or rationalistic (in the modernist sense). Beginning with the premise that reality is necessarily singular although it appears to be multiple, the mystic attempts to escape the illusory world of multiplicity, conflict, and death by identifying with the universal and enduring absolute. By properly understanding the illusory appearance of the world of multiplicity, conflict, and death, one comes to the mystic realization that becoming is not a contradiction of being but the epiphany of being. These concepts are fully developed in Coomaraswamy’s opus magnus Time and Eternity. Published in the last year of his life, this work is a cross-cultural comparison of the notions of time and eternity. Coomaraswamy discusses how the key to happiness is found in imitating and in identifying with that living and enduring principle that informs reality and life. That vitalistic force, whether it is called Atman, Logos, or Dharma, passes out of eternity into time for no other purpose than to assist beings in passing out of time into eternity. It is that passage that is key to obtaining genuine happiness and bliss. Coomaraswamy applies the results of this line of reasoning to the production of art, concluding that art is eternity crystallized in time.


Since Coomaraswamy’s death, interest in his work has declined in the West, and attempts to maintain or revive interest in his work have been primarily Indian. That decline has several probable sources, both intellectual and sociopolitical. The overwhelming dominance of empirical and scientific thought in the modernist West and the materialistic presuppositions of postmodernity are adverse to the thrust of the perennial philosophy. Modernity embraces both British empiricism and the Kantian notion that attempts to understand reality are personal or social constructs; this leads to the postmodern conclusion that facts are objective, but all attempts to understand reality are ultimately subjective and often the expression of mere power. From such a point of view, the perennial philosophy is, in philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s words, “nonsense on stilts.” Philosopher Immanuel Kant would view it as a hypothetical construct, and philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would see it as a mask for power. This last critique has some sting to it, in that Coomaraswamy’s defense of the caste system in India is difficult for many to understand; his praise for Nietzsche is equally troubling.

Alternatively, the perennial philosophy is an intellectually viable alternative to the modernist and postmodernist West; its sociological and political implications are subject to various interpretations. Indeed, the critique of the perennial philosophy pales in comparison with the telling critique of the intellectual and social defects of modernity, so convincingly argued by Ananda Coomaraswamy.

Additional Reading

Bagchee, Moni. Ananda Coomaraswamy: A Study. Varanasi (Benares), India: Bharata Manisha, 1977. This biographical work presents a picture of Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy not only as a scholar, philosopher, and theologian but also as a private, public, and international personality. The author discusses the paradox of writing a biography for Coomaraswamy, given that his work and his beliefs denied the importance of biography.

Coomaraswamy, Ananda Kentish. The Wisdom of Ananda Coomaraswamy: Being Glimpses of the Mind of Ananda Coomaraswamy. Presented by S. Durai Raja Singham. Petaling Jaya, Malaysia: S. Durai Raja Singham, 1979. This volume is a wide-ranging annotated anthology of Coomaraswamy’s most telling aphorisms. Arranged topically, the aphorisms include Coomaraswamy’s thoughts on art, beauty, Indian women, music, competition, religion, and political figures.

Dasgupta, Kalyan Kumar, ed. Ananda Coomaraswamy: A Centenary Volume. Calcutta, India: Calcutta University, 1981. This collection of essays pays tribute to Coomaraswamy’s contributions to the study of Indian art, iconography, philosophy, aesthetics, religious history, and contemporary politics. The preface of this book provides an exposition of the intellectual journey of Coomaraswamy from empiricist to mystic and from art historian to metaphysician. For advanced undergraduates.

Livingston, Ray. The Traditional Theory of Literature. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1962. The author presents a concise study of the works of Coomaraswamy from which he develops a perennial philosophy of literature. While using concepts presented by Coomaraswamy in an Eastern context, he explicates and applies those concepts within the historical continuum of Western literature.

Narasimhaiah, C. D. Ananda Coomaraswamy: Centenary Essays. Prasaranga, India: University of Mysore, 1982. This tribute to Coomaraswamy presents a collection of essays on his work and ideas. These essays center on three realms of scholarly study that Coomaraswamy finds symbiotic: metaphysics, politics, and art. For advanced undergraduates.

Quinn, William W. The Only Tradition. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997. Surveying the work of Ananda Coomaraswamy and Rene Guenon, this book explores the first principals of perennial philosophy and suggests the decline of Western society is due to the decreasing importance placed on these principals.

Raja Singham, S. Durai, comp. Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy: A Handbook. Malaysia: s.n., 1979. This volume provides an extensive compendium of works published by Coomaraswamy. Includes an annotated chronological bibliography, topical listings, and lists of articles and reviews.

Sastri, P. S. Ananda K. Coomaraswamy. India: Arnold-Heinemann, 1974. The author emphasizes that although Coomaraswamy is well known as an art historian, his major contributions to scholarship are in the realms of religion, mysticism, and metaphysics. In those realms, he is the proponent of the perennial philosophy, which, in the philosopher’s view, is the basis of all significant thought in the East and West. A critical evaluation of that position is lacking.