Murali Sivaramakrishnan belongs to that rare breed of the vanishing (rather vanished) tribe of English teachers who are well-equipped with a strong foundation in the Indic spiritual tradition. Sturdily armed with a Sanskrit orientation, he approaches the territory of Indian aesthetics that angels dare not tread. It is common knowledge that the primary source of this discipline is the vedas and the upanisads. All great creations of art are the supreme emanation from the heart filled with rasanubhava. We do have a hoary tradition of aestheticians extending from Bharata of the fifth century BC down to Panditharaja Jagannatha of the 17th century who have thought long and thought deeply on what constitutes the nature and mode of existence of a work of art. The western critical tradition cannot pride itself of such unbroken continuity. There is a yawning unbridgeable gap of 10 centuries between the decline and fall of the Roman empire in the fourth century A.D. and the European renaissance of the 14th century, the interim medieval age relegating arts as unwanted baggage in its over-insistence on religion.
This book is an attempt, in the words of the author, “to reread the contribution of the mystic in the light of contemporary scholarship,” with an approach that is “holistic and integral, methodology not derivative but comparative, and poetically sensitive.” The work, a collection of articles previously published during 1993-2011 in various journals, is divided into four major sections in 11 chapters with an addition of two personal, contemplative musings — for me the best of the lot — and a select bibliography. Of these, the section ‘Aesthetics’ is of immediate concern to us. Murali is quick to realise the distinction between the aesthetics of the West and the East. Indian aesthetics centres on supra-sensual values since it is impossible to comprehend the finite without extending it to the infinite.
For Sri Aurobindo, the object of human existence is brahmananda, the delight of being and hence progress in life lies not in rejecting beauty and delight or practising a life of denial but in rising from a lower to a higher plane in the realisation of the experience of beauty and delight. The aesthetic process lies in the soul becoming conscious of its pilgrimage towards God. He envisions the possibility of the human to enlarge his awareness to the ultimate stage of Divine Supraconsciousness.
Murali maintains that Sri Aurobindo’s aesthetics is integral in nature and spiritual in its conception. Life is viewed in its entirety and in its all-inclusiveness. He steers clear of two attitudes: the materialist’s rejection of anything behind the phenomenal appearance and the ascetic’s refusal to accept the material reality of the world. These two stand as the major obstacles to a comprehensive awareness which is possible only through an integration of Life and Spirit into a cosmic continuum. “To become complete in being, in consciousness of being, in force of being, in delight of being and to live in this integrated completeness is the divine living” says Sri Aurobindo in his The Life Divine. Murali coins the phrase ‘the aesthetics of transformation’ to denote this stage in the evolutionary process, in the Arnoldian sense of ‘a growing and a becoming, and not a being and a resting.’
Murali advises us that while approaching the works of Sri Aurobindo we should bear in mind the following: “his distinction of the subtler levels of spirituality from overt religion and its discourses; his foregrounding of the intensity and necessity of experiential yoga…; his constant involvement with poetry and the power of the Word — the mantra”. His concept of the efficacy of the mantra, the poetic expression of the deepest spiritual reality, which he formulates at great length in his magnum opus The Future Poetry is vital to the Aurobindonian spiritual aesthetics which is all about the wholesale transformation of the inner-self (body, mind and spirit) and not, not at all, of the tawdry fripperies of external existence.
Most of these essays deal with Sri Aurobindo’s search for enlightenment, his recovery of the significant principles of ancient aesthetics embedded in our scriptures. Ideas and illustrations get repeated time and again; hence there is a noticeable lack of progression in the elucidation of Sri Aurobindo’s aesthetics. It is none too easy to guide the reader through the labyrinth of the works of the great mystic. Murali draws heavily from the abundant source available in our scriptures. However there remain some nagging questions which an uninitiated reader is bound to raise. How does an aesthetic experience get immediately intuited? What is the locus of such an experience? Does it offer a terminal value? What is aesthetic judgment? Or aesthetic bliss? Probably such overt pragmatism is irrelevant and unwarranted in the context of Aurobindo’s synthetic vision. One searches for the ‘New Directions’ promised in the title of the book. Whither are they?