The Relations Between Religion and Art

Exact form does not destroy freedom in art; it gives it wings. Poetry being formal and disciplined language as compared with prose, which is comparatively informal and undisciplined, there is no sense in making it formless; if it is not going to conform to the rules of poetry let it be prose. So-called ‘free’ or formless poetry is in fact half baked poetry. Either the impulse behind it had not a high enough temperature to melt the words and make them flow into its mould, or the creative power flagged when the work was half done – that is when the idea was half-baked into a poem.

I know this from experience and I consider it important enough to justify an autobiographical aside. As a young man I aspired to be a poet – in fact I believed I was one. However, nothing came of it. Then came the time when neither prose nor verse had any value except as a vehicle for spiritual wisdom and a signpost on the way (which, indeed, is what poetry should be). Then, quite suddenly, poems began to come almost ready-made.


See how Grace is fallen on me!
The sudden beauty of my rhymes
A sign made plain for all to see;
As the Lord wrought in ancient times
With that gaunt patriarch’s aged wife,
Sarah, who through all her life
Had been a barren tree.

Had this power come in youthful years,
A bastard brood my rhymes had been.
Begotten of desires and fears,
Or pompous words that little mean.
That shameful wandering denied,
I stayed perforce a faithful bride,
Whose bridegroom now appears.

To turn my rhymes to worldly things
Now would be a bitter shame,
Like a worthless wife who brings
Disgrace upon her husband’s name.
There is not even the desire;
No lesser theme can him inspire
Who of the highest sings.

The first four poems were almost formless (actually, one was a lyric though with only vaguely formed verses and one in blank verse, though I did not realize this at the time); it had not yet occurred to me that I was professional enough to attempt rhyme and metre. Then a poem came which, in intricacy and regularity of metre, was more like 17th than 20th Century verse, and I discovered that if the impulse is sufficient the words will flow to the pattern. If not, better keep quiet. This was the poem


Disconsolate, to Him in grief I cried,
And the Beloved
From my own heart replied.
No radiant form appeared;
The subtle mist that cleared
Nought new discovered,
No splendid bridegroom, no expectant bride.

All pageants pass; whatever comes must go.
Death hath a place
For all the mind can know.
Even the loftiest vision
Time holdeth in derision
Divine embrace
From vibrant joy to memory must grow.

He shed the jewelled robe for my delight,
And I beheld
A Void, no sound, no sight.
Only What IS shall be
All clouds dispelled,
Seer and seen grown one in radiant sight.

According to Hindu doctrine there are three gunas: sattva, the upward tendency whose colour is white, rajas, the outward, whose colour is red, and tamas, the downward, whose colour is black. All things are held in being by their combined stress. After the epoch of rajas in the relations between religion and art comes that of tamas. That is when art has broken away from religion and sunk to utilitarian and ornamental patterns, worldly and human themes. Occasional flashes of intuition may still inspire the poet, but no steady glow of knowledge, no true understanding. Religion is again devoid of art and poetry, but below it now, not above it. Bad poetry wedded to bad music forms hymns that can have only a sentimental value. Holy pictures that cannot be dignified with the name of art are used to foster emotion. Except for rebels against the epoch, people no longer aspire. The paths are overgrown with weeds and blocked by rockfalls and there are no guides. The cycle comes round to where it started but in an inverted likeness. In the pure aspiration of the beginning men had no time for intricate techniques and paths; now again they have no time, but now because they have no aspiration at all.

Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita:

“Whenever harmony (dharma) is obscured and disharmony (adharma) triumphs, I appear.”1 Now, in this modern age, when circumstances make the elaborate disciplines of an indirect path once more unsuitable, if not impossible, God has appeared on earth incarnate as Ramana Maharshi and opened once more a direct path which, by his Grace, is accessible to those who turn to him and on which art and poetry, yantra and mantra, are again unnecessary. He did not encourage those who trod the direct path under his guidance to divert their energies to poetry or any of the arts. “All this is only activity of the mind. The more you exercise the mind and the more success you have in composing verses, the less peace you have. And what use is it to acquire such accomplishments if you don’t acquire peace. But if you tell such people this it doesn’t appeal to them; they can’t keep quiet. They must be composing songs.”

It is significant that when someone asked him about a technique for developing the various virtues, and combating the vices in oneself he replied that such techniques may be useful on an indirect path but on the direct path of Self-enquiry all this happens automatically. The two go together: encouragement of art and indirect methods of training. Conditions in the world today are suitable for neither.

[Footnotes by the author]


See also the website dedicated to Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi

  1. Ch. IV, v. 7. []
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  • Men of little ability, too, by depending upon the great, may prosper; A drop of water is a little thing, but when will it dry away if united to a lake?


    - Subhashita Ratna Nidhi, stanza 173