The Relations Between Religion and Art

This article was written by Arthur Osborne and is taken from the January 1964 edition of the journal ‘Mountain Path’ available at

Despite the secular spirit which swept over Europe at the Renaissance and has spread to the rest of the world in the present century, it would still be true to say that the greater part of the world’s art and poetry has been religious in inspiration and origin. Why?

It has been suggested that the reason is simply that in past ages the churches have been the principal or only patrons; that, however, is a shallow explanation, looking at the past through modern spectacles. It does not explain why Hindu life and literature were dominated for centuries by the great religious epics (and let us remember that the Greeks also considered the Homeric poems the basis of their religion, although they show little of the profundity of the Hindu epics). It does not fit the Taoist painters, who were largely amateurs in no need of a patron, or the sculptors and painters of Buddhist cave temples, at Ajanta and elsewhere, who were world-renouncers. It would be laughed at by the Persian poet-saints who scandalised the orthodox. It does not even apply to the great temples of Mediaeval India or the gothic cathedrals of Christendom, in complying with whose intricate symbolism and shaping whose exquisite figures the builders were hammering out the lineaments of their own true nature.

Nor were lay patrons lacking-princes and feudal lords, not to mention royal courts, in India, in China, in Japan, in Christendom, in most parts of the world. Works of art were indeed created for them too and poems sung in their honour. To take but one example among many, there are the exquisite miniature-like paintings of Rajputana. But always the greatest output, greatest both in quality and quantity, was for religion. And indeed, how many of the Rajput paintings had the eternal symbolism of the love of Radha and Krishna for their theme!

Before attempting an answer, there is another question that interweaves with this. What is the attitude of religion to art? At their origin religions seem to agree in either ignoring or deprecating art. The Quran forbids representational art and speaks scornfully of poets. The Tao-Te-King declares that the five senses dull the mind and that the Sage, therefore, is not deluded by them but aims at what is of benefit. Both Christ and Buddha completely ignore art and poetry in their teaching, as do also their immediate followers. In fact all religions that have a known historical origin run the same course: from an austere, bare primitivism when art is deprecated or ignored to a gorgeous mediaevalism a few centuries later, when religion burgeons out into a luxurious glow of beauty, even though man’s private life is still hard compared with the comforts and conveniences of our secular world.

Once again, the obvious answer – that the religions became untrue to their origins – is superficial and does not fit the case. The foremost purpose of a religion is to guide those who will adventure out of the apparent reality of this life to the clear-sighted bliss or ecstatic rapture of the Sage or Saint, through whom waves of Grace flow downwards and outwards to the less aspiring believers. So long as this continues to be done a religion is well rooted in its origins; so long as a tree bears good fruit it is a healthy tree. Religions which could produce a St. Francis and an Eckhart, an Abdul Qadir and an Ibn Arabi, a Shankara and a Ramanuja, an Ashvaghosha and a Hui Neng, were not untrue to their origins; the paths were still open and guides who had trodden them still available. Moreover, it was often the Masters themselves who created or encouraged art or poetry, a Dante and a Rumi, a Kabir and a Milarepa.

There is another explanation. In the incandescent white heat of the origin of a religion the energy of those who aspire, strengthened as by a springboard by their rejection of the degenerate world around them, shoots straight upwards. The sattva guna, the upward tendency, dominates. Directing the energy outwards to forms, even beautiful forms, would be a weakness, almost a betrayal, for however beautiful forms may be they limit and obscure the pure beauty of the formless. As a poet saw intuitively long after the certainty of religion had been lost, even though life be a dome of many-coloured glass, it still “Stains the white radiance of eternity.”

If you are climbing a mountain path and it is a matter of life and death to reach the summit, if all your alertness is needed to avoid pitfalls and dangers, all your strength to strive upwards, you do not stop to pick flowers by the wayside, however beautiful they may be. One who has reached safety can do that. Even after art and poetry began to be honoured, it was usually assumed in India (and to a large extent in Buddhism and Islam also) that it is those who have attained Realization who should write poems. Indeed, their greatest poets are those, like Tukaram in Marathi or Tayumanavar in Tamil, who wrote from the fullness of spiritual knowledge. The Maharshi himself, although he did not write much, composed in the ‘Forty Verses’ one of the most profound metaphysical statements and in the first of the ‘Five Hymns to Sri Arunachala’ one of the most glowing symbolical love poems of all religions and all ages.1

To some extent this is anticipating. Coming now to the mediaeval epoch, we find that the incandescent white heat has cooled to a mellow golden glow. Sattva is combined now with rajas, the upward-tending with the outward-tending urge. Indirect paths to Realization begin to be followed: Tantrism in Hindu and Buddhist India, Hermetism in Christendom and indeed, with surprising similarity, in China and Islam also. It is found necessary first to harmonise a man, redirecting his lower tendencies and developing his finer qualities, before launching him on the final quest. Such rectification no longer happens automatically, as a by-product of the quest, as in the earlier stage, but needs to be planned and organised. Art is now deliberately encouraged and developed, it is not merely allowed as a concession to those who are not one- pointed enough to strive without it, still less is it indulged in as a luxury; it is used as a technique of discipline and development. A poem acquires the qualities of a mantra, a sacred incantation whose vibrations harmonise the mind; a drawing or architectural plan becomes a development of a mantra or a mandala, a shape of inherent power.2

In mediaeval religious art, whether poetry or the plastic arts, whether in Japan or Europe or anywhere between, gorgeous exuberance is combined with strict discipline of form and precise symbolism. The adaptation of art to symbolism in order to use it as a mode of worship or a technique of training does not in any way impair its value as art. Rather it enhances it, for art is form-giving and, even though one had the expertise of a Swinburne, the form-giving will remain trivial if there is nothing great to give form to. Therefore what might be termed in a broad generic sense ‘mediaeval’ religious art is on the one hand rigorously formal and on the other superbly sumptuous.

  1. See The Collected Works of Ramana Maharshi, Riders, London, and Sri Ramanasramam, Tiruvannamalai []
  2. See The Theory and Practice of the Mandala by Prof. Giuseppe Tucci, Riders, London []
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