Blind faith and reading the vision (image) of the Supreme Personality (God)
An Article By David Sheil 1993
The Rules of the Game
The rules for the artist and the audience under the influence of the Judaic rooted religions over the past twenty centuries are found in the Old Testament’s book of Exodus as the first of Ten Commandments:
“I am the Lord thy God…Thou shalt have no other gods before Me…Thou shalt not make any graven image, or any likeness of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth: Thou shalt not bow down thyself to them, not serve them: for I the Lord Thy God am a jealous God” (Exodus 20:1-5).
Galileo’s book, Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems (1632), was banned by the Roman Inquisition in 1633. Galileo brought to the western dream the telescope, evidence of the Copernican theory of the sun being at the centre of the solar system and his atomist theory of matter. Galileo’s ideas contradicted the Bible and the Inquisition charged him with heresy because at the time, it was believed the stars and planets had heavenly constitutions, the earth was at the centre of the solar system and matter such as bread and wine can turn into the body and blood of Jesus through the miracle of transubstantiation. (Honderich ed. 1995: 304)
This essay is concerned with the relationships between art, God and science. This work examines the ‘image’ of God and offers a way of reading artworks representing a Supreme or Infinite Being. In reading such pieces, we will observe the socio-cultural influence and development of spiritual law, gender equality and the culture of liberty relating to the role of the artist and art object throughout western history.
The colour artworks, Radha Krsna Series (1999) by David Sheil, are images depicting pastimes of Sri Krsna, the goddesses or gopis and Krsna with his divine Goddess, Sri Radha, in their home of Vrndavana. Like Galileo’s book, this essay is a dialogue concerning two chief world theistic systems, that of the Judaic Christian and Islamic (western) traditions and that of the Vaisnava or Vedic (eastern) traditions.
The Classical Perspective
In 438 BC, the citizens of Athens built the Parthenon as a temple to Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom. The canon of western art history begins in the classical period, generally considered in art history a golden age. The Greek pantheon of gods has appeared, more human-like in form and character than their Egyptian and Mesopotamian predecessors, and more playful; the Greeks are asking for more. Plato, Homer, Socrates, Pythagoras, Aristotle, Philosophy, Mathematics, Science, Literature, and democracy, all this going on and there are artists, building Temples and making images of their gods. In Rome the tradition continues.
The Image of God
However, the western dream has turned in another direction. The popularity and success of the Christian preachers headed by Saint Peter and Saint Paul engulfed the west in a new idea of God. The Monotheistic idea of one God seems to be new to the region. Unlike the polytheistic Greek and Roman gods and goddesses (who appear to be demigods and not infinite), the Christian and Jewish God is an Infinite, Omnipresent and Omniscient Supreme Being. Nevertheless, there is a problem. The Jewish, Christian and Islamic traditions all worship this God and accept the Old Testament of the Bible which states that no representation of God or any other god can be made, as it is against the First Commandment and canon law of the Bible. This presents a major limitation for the artist.
French philosopher Jean-Francois Lyotard, in his essay What Is Postmodernism 1982, points out the limitations and frustrations of making art under these conditions. This essay is a critique on the enlightenment theme of ‘the sublime’ of Emmanuel Kant who cites the first commandment as the most sublime passage in the Bible in that it forbids all presentations of the absolute, that God is visually – unpresentable’. Lyotard states:
“…this abstraction itself is like a presentation of the infinite, its ‘negative presentation…but they can originate only in the vocation of the sublime in order to legitimise it, that is to conceal it…the avant-gardes are perpetually flushing out artifices of presentation which make it possible to subordinate thought to the gaze and to turn it away from the unpresentable…The postmodern would be that which, in the modern, puts forward the unpresentable in presentation itself” (Harrison & Wood ed. :1992 :1013-14).
The Radha Krsna Series offers a new form of artwork and rules for reading in the west. The ontological reading of artworks of the Infinite or Supreme Person as God is a natural process within the Vedic or Vaisnava system especially since the artist is encouraged to create Divine Images as part of the ritual of Devotion. In The Hidden Glory of India (2002) Steven J. Rosen (Satyaraja Das) describes the reading of the presentation of the absolute:
“Rather, because the image is a form of the Supreme Lord, it is precisely the image that facilitates and enhances the close relationship of the worshiper and God and makes possible the deepest outpouring of emotions in worship” (Rosen: 2002: 165).
Considering humans are created in Gods’ image as stated in the Bible, “And God said, Let us make man in ‘Our’ image, after ‘Our’ likeness…So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created He him; male and female created He them” (Genesis: 1. 26-27). Kant appears like Galileo’s critics; because the Bible forbids any presentation of the Absolute, Kant takes that to mean it is impossible.
The Christian Reader
Rosen describes the position of God in Vaisnava tradition as such, “Krsna, for example, is viewed not as an ‘Indian god’ but as the same God who is worshiped in the Judeo-Christian tradition” (2002: 7). In the Radha Krsna Series, the central image depicts Krsna and Radha, the Infinite God and Goddess of the Hindu Pantheon as male and female equally just as the Bible describes in the previous paragraph. Yet, the Bible offers nothing to artists in the way of creating images of God or reading an image of this Deity in whose likeness humans are created. In the western canon there are few images of God except the burning bush and the ‘Old Man’ God creating Adam, painted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel, ready to smite all who question Him.
The Secular Universe
Science, another influential factor in the composition of the western dream, was inherited from the polytheistic Greeks seems to be a gift from their gods. The theories of the classical Greeks partner Judaic-Christian thought and continue to control education and the creative spirit of the west. In an earlier article Introduction to The Postmodern Condition (1979), Lyotard begins with this:
“Science has always been in conflict with narratives. Judged by the yardstick of science, the majority of them become fables. But to the extent that science does not restrict itself to stating useful regularities and seeks the truth, it is obliged to legitimate the rules of its own game. It then produces a discourse of legitimation with respect to its own status, a discourse called philosophy” (Harrison & Wood ed. 1992: 999).
Galileo used scientific philosophy during the renaissance and altered the way we read the art of the universe. As a narrative, the Bible provides a way to understand God and to live in the world. Galileo survived the charges of heresy and led the way for freedom of thought and an alternative scientific reading for the Christian and the Physical Cosmos.
The Jewel in the Crown
Queen Elizabeth I also challenged the Catholic monopoly on God, supporting the Protestant maxims of reason and conscience. One of the great feminists of western history, QE I brought England into an age of Empire and the renaissance period of her reign is also considered a golden age. The Chartered Companies established during the reign of QE I took the British Crown to the Americas, Africia, Australia and India bringing Christianity to those lands. By the time of Victoria, the British Queen was the Empress of India, which was described as the Jewel in the Crown.
India did not become Christian like many of the other places, dominated by the Christian Empire. Rather, the religions of the Vedic Hinduism, described as “a museum of religions” (Rosen 2002: 9), contains ontology’s of monotheism, polytheism, monism and animism largely remain in tact and continue to develop today within and without India.
I conclude the essay using the Radha Krsna Series artworks to demonstrate how the development of spiritual law, gender equality and the culture of liberty within western culture has changed the role of the artist and art object.
I believe, in the secular democratic postmodern world, the Radha Krsna Series could be exhibited, published and discussed openly without fear of the capital offence of heresy as experienced by Galileo. This shows the development of the influence of the spiritual law of the Bible. The artist and critic in the west now may create images of God and freely develop relevant readings and philosophies.
The Radha Krsna Series demonstrate a development of the idea of God from Pagan or Christian ontology’s within the west. The Judaic-Christian God claims to be Infinite yet is male and few tangible images are available. The Pagan gods and goddesses are male and female yet make no claim to Infinity as Supreme beings.
The Vaisnava philosopher offers gender equality to the Supreme Being and creates a Divine image of a Male and Female Deity contradicting Kant’s theme of the Sublime.
The artworks operate like triggers to awaken an internal vision and experience and become divine objects of meditation. The narrative is briefly described in a book by David Godine, Krsna The Divine Lover (1982):
“It is a revelation of that bliss of which Radha is the eternal embodiment and Krsna is the eternal source. Vrndavan, the dancing ground is the world in which the world is forgotten. The magic world of Krsna’s youth continually blossoming back into itself out of its own delight…The dance is endless, because the revelation of Krsna is. It goes on forever both in the universe and in the heart” (Godine 1982: 121).
Still when reading the Radha Krsna Series a Christian reader may object to the form, a Scientific reader may object to the narrative. Ernst Gombrich in his book Tributes (1984) reminds us of the Kantian idea that nobody and nothing can relieve the burden and moral responsibility for our own judgement. Yet I believe the west has caught up with Kant’ s universal side; in the end he is not completely dogmatic:
“In whatever way a being might be described as Divine…and indeed manifest itself…this cannot absolve anyone of the duty to judge for himself whether he is entitled to regard such a being as God and to worship it as such” (E Kant in Gombrich 1984: 69).
The Vaisnava reader respects this universal view because without the development of universalism, liberty and equality in the west, these Images of God may have never left the shores of India.
- Godine D. (1982) Krishna: the divine lover, London: Serindia Publications.
- Gombrich, E. H. (1984) Tributes, Bath: The Pitman Press.
- Honderich, T. (1995) ed. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, Oxford: Oxford University Press.
- King James (1999) The Holy Bible, Nashville: Cornerstone Bible Publishers.
- Lyotard, J. F. in Harrison C & Wood. P ed. (1992) ‘Introduction to the postmodern condition’, Art in Theory 1900-1990: an anthology of changing ideas, Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers.
- Lyotard, J. F. in Harrison C & Wood. P ed. (1992) ‘What is postmodernism?’, Art in Theory 1900-1990: an anthology of changing ideas, Cambridge: Blackwell Publishers.
- Rosen, S. J. (2002) The Hidden Glory of India, Los Angeles: The Bhaktivedanta Book Trust.
- Sridhar, B. R. (1989) Subjective Evolution of Consciousness, San Jose: Guardian of Devotion Press
Note ~ This is an article by a good friend of mine David Sheil ( Devadyuti Das ) whom I spend lots of time with discussing life, art and reality the beautiful.