Essays in Life and Eternity
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 10: Aesthetics and the Field of Beauty

The human individual is ostensibly concerned with the true nature of things, it loves the world of truth as distinct from the realm of untruth – stages of which have been briefly noticed in our earlier findings, but there is also the love of system, symmetry, order, pattern and beauty which satisfies the mind deeply. While truth attracts our admiration, awe and wonder, beauty evokes a sense of composure, sobriety and inner delight. All kinds of art come under the study of aesthetics. There are indeed many arts: kinds of expertness in methodical presentation to the point of perfection. Good writing is an art, good administration is an art, maintenance of good health is an art, being always happy within is an art, to live harmoniously with one's atmosphere or environment is an art, to think logically is an art, to be truly good is an art. All things that 'satisfy' are embodied in art. The greatest arts, supreme objects of aesthetic enjoyment are, to state them in an ascending order of importance, architecture and sculpture; drawing and painting; music, dance and drama; and, above all, literature.

Arts which require for their presentation heavy external material are lowest in the category of aesthetic evaluation. Architecture requires the largest quantity of weighty material. Sculpture also needs material but in a lesser quantity. Drawing and painting require the least of materials, just canvas and ink. Music and its attendant forms of aesthesis require no physical material at all, not even ink and pen. What is needed here is just a methodical production of sound. Art is either visual, audible or intellectual. Architecture, sculpture, painting and drawing are examples of visual beauty; music is auditory, dance and drama are both visual and auditory; while literature is purely ideational, intellectual, an act of pure understanding and feeling. The higher we go in the order of ascent in the scheme of the presentation of beauty, the more enjoyable does the object become, so that powerful literature can shake the whole world in an instant. While the other arts have only a local importance and do not produce such a permanent effect on the mind as literature does.

In the perception of art, there are, again, two phases as stated, namely, that which attracts by its beauty and that which attracts by its sublimity. The towering Himalaya Mountains, the astounding expanse of the blue sky with its wondrous stellar kingdom, the majestic tumult of the ocean, and even the grand personality of the elephant evokes our sense of wonder and awe, partly because their largeness of quantum and unapproachableness makes us feel small in our own selves. The ego is pressed down to its minimal level and there it is in the absence of an egoistic affirmation of ourselves that we appreciate in wonderment the power and greatness of things which are above us and seem to defy us with all our assumed importance. The other aspect of aesthetic perception is the attraction caused by beautiful things such as the blossoming of a healthy flower, the charming face of the full moon in a clear sky, as also the healthy shape presented in a symmetrically ordered body, whether of a substance a plant, an animal or a human being. Apart from the beauty of health and symmetry in the case of a human personality, there is also the factor of youthfulness which adds to the charm of vigour, vitality and symmetry of the physical presentation.

But what is it that makes anything look beautiful? Philosophically, we may say that the proportion in which the Infinite, or the Absolute, as the highest universal, is visualised in any particular thing will decide the extent of beauty which that thing evokes. It is the universality involved in the particular that is the source of beauty and the sense of perception. In the perception of beauty, the processes involved are the perceiving mind, the act of perception and the object itself. The question arises, whether the object can be considered to be beautiful even if there is no one to perceive it. We may perhaps, in a way, concede that beauty and perfection do not require somebody to know them, since the flower and the moon and the charming face of a child can remain beautiful even if there is no one to see them. Our commonsense understanding would like to assert that this is true, but is this really true? Does the flower know that it is beautiful? Is the moon beautiful to itself? That is, does beauty really from part of the beautiful object? Here we seem to be in a doubtful position, and it does not look that, in the end, beauty can justify itself apart from the process of its being perceived. If being perceived is what gives beauty to an object, it would mean that beauty is in the perceiving mind rather than in the object. It has been well said that beauty is in the beholder. But here, again, is a question: can the mind perceive beauty if there is nothing to be perceived at all? Does the mind know that it is the source of beauty even if it has nothing to conceive or think of?

This position lands us in an unavoidable conclusion that beauty is not the entire prerogative of the object called beautiful; nor can it be said that it is enough to have a mind alone and there need be no abject to apprehend beauty. Beauty, then, comes out as a consequence immediately following a reaction taking place between the perceiving subject and the structure of the perceived object. As there is a sort of beauty in a square rod getting itself fixed into a square hole of the corresponding size, or a round rod getting fixed in a round hole, and there is no beauty in a square rod being thrust into a round hole, there is also the feature of the presence of the object getting properly fixed into the prevailing mood or the condition of the mind of the perceiving individual. A grieved mind can see no beauty in anything, as a sick body can see no taste even in the best articles of diet. The need of the perceiving mind determines the extent of the perfection that it can behold in its object, for beauty is a form of perfection. There are several lacunae or imperfections in the human mind, which differ from individual to individual, and which will decide the kind of thing that the mind of the individual needs to make it experience a sense of fulfilment and perfection. That is, the object should be constituted in such a way that it will reveal characteristics which the perceiving individual does not possess. If the mind of the individual perceiving has all the qualities which an object presented before it has, such a mind will not get attracted to that object, but the attraction will immediately summon itself forth if the contour or the structure of the object satisfies the kind of lack that the perceiving individual feels within. Thus, it would appear that beauty is entirely relative to the conditions prevailing in a given form of interaction between the subject and the object. Beauty, then, would belong neither to the subject nor to the object. It is not something existing by itself. It is a state of consciousness that suddenly erupts in between the subject and the object, but not belonging either to the subject or the object, a transcendent inclusiveness which oversteps the limitations of the subject and the object and brings them into a state of harmony and mutually cooperative association to make good what each lacks in oneself but can be found in the other, so that the union between the two characters engenders a consciousness of self-transcendence, which is endearing beauty and great grandeur.