The Theosophical Forum – April 1940

ART AND THEOSOPHY — Charlotte Braun

We do not make an attempt to define Art, rather do we agree with Plotinus when he said, "Art deals with things forever beyond human definition." Theosophists, however, approach Art from a very interesting point of view. There are certain basic principles which form the foundation of great art; they are really standards whereby we unconsciously judge a work of art. The background of these principles forms what we might term the philosophy of Art and are the grounds upon which Art and Theosophy so beautifully meet. These principles are: Unity, Harmony, Order, Equilibrium or Proportion, Symmetry, Rhythm, and Love.

These are all Kosmic, Universal laws which govern all things in the Universe from galaxies to the individual stars and planets which compose the galaxy; from man to the atoms which build man's body. Everyone sees these laws at work in the heavens at night. They are beautifully exemplified by the stars and groups of stars as they follow their own orbits and circulate among each other in perfect order, as they travel with a rhythmic movement along those paths which form well balanced and proportioned, symmetrical patterns. These paths and patterns of the stars complete the vast unified whole. The secret of good composition, that of unity and yet diversity, of repetition and yet variety, is also perfectly exemplified as that living, breathing, thinking being behind the universe actually manifests itself in a unified diversity. All the myriads of lives visible and invisible, great and small which build the universe, exist in one perfect unity yet each one is unlike any other, each one possessing different characteristics. The whole panorama is held together by the all-encompassing cohesive power of impersonal love.

It should not seem far-fetched to find a relation between the stars and Art, for truly beauty was born with the heavens and the earth; and as Emerson, the lofty-minded Sage of Concord, said, "The creation of beauty is Art." So it is then, that the work of art which imbodies these universal principles and laws must be true art; for these are the lasting, the real, the vital things in life.

The study of these laws brings us a clear understanding of the basis of ethics and morals; they form the foundation of another art, that of living. This is a very important teaching of Theosophy. In our occidental, western way, we sometimes let ourselves make the mistake of believing ethics to be conventions invented by man. However, Theosophy teaches that which all keen observers of Nature's ways have found, that ethics is based upon the primordial laws of the Universe itself.

It is really quite a wonderful thought, that the qualities of the Universe which are the basic principles of Art, are also identical with the basis of ethics and should then be the living, guiding power in the life of a great man, a great artist. A truly great man is he to whom the teaching that he is linked to every other entity by the divine life at the root of his own being, is not a mere theory, but a vital actuality. No man has even guessed his own greatness until he has realized his unity with all other entities in the Universe. Furthermore, a great man is he who has learned to live in harmony with his fellow men; he who has become at peace with himself and he who strives to maintain equilibrium and balance in his life, to walk the middle way. In the devotional book, The Bhagavad-Gita, it is written, "Those who thus preserve an equal mind gain heaven even in this life, for the Supreme is free from sin and is equal-minded." Such a state is really most natural and normal, and one which we may all attain if we can only learn to keep the rhythm of our lives in tune with the vibration of these simple laws which are as inevitable as the movement of the sea.

The great poet, whether he be a painter, musician, architect, sculptor, or dancer — for they are all poets at heart — when he makes these universal truths a part of his life, reflects them in his art. He feels so keenly the reality, the trueness, the beauty of the ways of the universe, that his art flows forth spontaneously from his heart. Perhaps it is this very spontaneity to which the Taoists of China refer when they speak of the Wu Wei. A student of Lao-Tse's teachings on this subject, Henri Borell, interprets them in this way: "The Poet sings because he sings, which is the same reason that the ocean roars and the small bird sings." But there is still another secret possessed by great leaders in Art in all ages, this is an impersonal unattachment to results. The great ones bring forth their song spontaneously from their hearts and let it stand as it is, while the smaller man tries to bend his art to conform to styles and trends. No creation can be greater than its creator.

With the ever more exciting discoveries being made of the Art of the Ancients, one can hardly avoid asking the question, "What, after all, is the origin of Art?" Theosophy, the Ancient Wisdom, gives a truly inspiring answer to this question. The origin of Art was with the gods. It is recorded that at the time that man was awakening to a realization of his own possibilities and dignity, that is, at the time when the light of mind had just been awakened in man, some 18,000,000 years ago, the arts and sciences of civilization and the Wisdom-Religion were taught him by wondrously wise beings who came to live for a while among men on earth.

These gods, these titan beings, had themselves at one time been men. They had unwrapped and unfolded from material meshes those godlike universal qualities which are latent in the hearts of all men, thus becoming one with the most beautiful things in nature, becoming gods. Dr. de Purucker has said, "Every human being, whether having evolved to the point of expressing it yet or not, is the vehicle of a divine being, of an inner God; and furthermore every human being has within him the capability of being a sage, a seer, a genius, a spiritual leader."

The teachings taught by the Gods at this early date have been kept alive, guarded and protected ever since and have been the inspiration behind all the ancient civilizations of man. There have been times in man's history when a large majority of the people made this God-taught knowledge a part of their everyday lives and therefore their art naturally reached a very high peak. This might well be the explanation for a strange situation one finds at the dawn of the recorded history of all the great ancient civilizations. In China, Egypt, India, even Greece, as far back as can be traced, one finds a perfected language, the characteristics of each nation already manifested in their dress and physical aspect. This alone indicates a far, far more ancient civilization than the modern world recognizes. Then there is their art which we call primitive, but which is often pure, simple, and plainly symbolic of universal truths.

One cannot but feel that the artists who fashioned such relics as the old bronzes of ancient China were wise in the ways of the Universe. The older these bronzes are the more perfect is their proportion. It is very interesting, therefore, to note what H. P. Blavatsky said in The Secret Doctrine in regard to proportion. "All the rules of proportion were taught anciently at initiations, and there is deep esoteric significance hidden in every rule and law of proportion." When Madame Blavatsky speaks of initiations she undoubtedly refers to the Mystery-Schools of old. The Mystery-Schools were groups of devoted students who studied the mysteries of the Universe, the truths concerning man and his relation to the Universe, thus keeping alive the fire of truth kindled so long ago and at the same time forming a definite source of spiritual inspiration; forming the actual foundation of the culture of old.

It is really fascinating to find wonderful cosmic truths wrapped in the old legends we all know so well and to find many different interpretations of the symbolic art of these ancients. Indeed many believe, and it is not an impossibility, that some of the old epic poems of the ancients were based on actual episodes in history; that such beautiful and highly symbolic stories as the Iliad and the Odyssey were, at least in part, the experiences of men and women such as ourselves. S. C. Kaines Smith, an authority on all matters Grecian, beautifully expressed this very thought in reference to the Homeric poems. He wrote: "Of one thing we may be confident — that the greatest poem in the history of the world is not based upon "such stuff as dreams are made on," but that through the swinging cadence of its lines there runs the echo of reality — that the cup of Nestor, the shield of Achilles, the riding-gear of Odysseus, the splendor of the palace of Agamemnon, of Menelaus, of Alcinous in far Phaecia, are memories of things seen, of things inherited from the mighty dead. . . ."

Of course we cannot agree that the poems of Homer are the greatest in the world, for the epic poems, The Book of the Dead of Egypt, and the Ramayana and the Mahabharata of India cannot be overlooked.

The art of the ancients is not only symbolic but it often complies perfectly with all the principles of great art. For example there is the architecture and sculpture of Egypt, so grand and sweeping in proportion. One of the most wonderful and truly inspiring pieces of sculpture ever carved is the seated figure of King Khephren of the IVth Dynasty, the date of which is believed to be 2800 b. c. There is an atmosphere of most sacred serenity and infinite peace about this majestic work, carved from a slab of dark green diorite. The hawk at the back of the head indicates spiritual aspiration; it implies that he was in search of that same godlike goal of goals which was reached, which was realized, by Gautama the Buddha of India when he attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. One finds, therefore, this same atmosphere of infinite peace and compassion surrounding so many of the millions of statues of the Buddha which fill the temples of the Orient.

In China the art of painting reached an unparalleled height of refinement and spirituality because painting was the expression of the artist's highest, most lofty thoughts. The painting of the Chinese is great painting at its best. Especially is this true of the painting of the Tang period, sixth century a.d. At this time a large majority of the people possessed great knowledge of the universe and all things in it. But most important is the fact that they made practical use of their knowledge; they made the universal basis of ethics a necessary part of their lives, so that a glorious spiritual wave swept through the land. This wave had a most mystical and sacred source in the Tientai Monastery in the mountains of Cheh-kiang, where one hundred and thirty years before the Golden Age an esoteric school had been founded by Chih-i, the Teacher. To this spiritual nucleus came both peasants and nobles, students and artists, to give themselves and their lives to unselfish service to humanity. After one hundred and thirty years the Tientai Theosophy bore its beautiful fruit: the spirituality of the lives of the people was reflected in their art. The Chinese art was carried to the greatest height it, or perhaps any art, ever attained

The same beautiful story unfolds itself in the history of Greece, where the Mysteries were taught at Eleusis and Samothrace. But in the sixth century a.d. the Mystery-Schools in the Western world were closed by Justinian, and since then there has been no art in the Occident in which we find a general, sweeping, cosmic significance. There has been great art, however, which has been produced wherever the individual artist breaks through to the universality in his own nature and grasps intuitively many of the most divine thoughts. Every Theosophist would agree with the Italian artist of the Renaissance, Michelangelo, when he said, "Nothing makes the soul so pure, so religious, as the endeavor to create something perfect. God is perfect. Whoever strives for perfection strives for something God-like."

Theosophical University Press Online Edition