We must Remember Dr Ananda Coomaraswamy as a Great Sri Lankan who Attained International Eminence

By Andrew Scott

Where ever there is knowledge,
Where ever there is virtue,
Where ever there is beauty,
He will find a home.

Dr Ananda Coomaraswamy was born exactly 135 years ago on August 22, 1877. His mother was English while his distinguished father, Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy, was a devoted Hindu who was also the first Hindu to be called to the English Bar. Ananda Coomaraswamy’s father died while Ananda was very young and young Coomaraswamy was brought up in England from where he ultimately graduated in Geology from the University of London.

He served in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) as an active geologist and mineralogist and achieved recognition as a renowned scientist by a series of very impressive discoveries. Later he became the Curator of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and died in 1947 aged 70. As an energetic young man Ananda Coomaraswamy played a prominent role in the regeneration of the culture of this country at the turn of this century. He was an ardent nationalist who sometimes directed his attacks on the materialism of the West.

Noble ideas

He had an utter contempt to both Europeanized Indians as well as Europeanized Sri Lankans and he constantly remarked that these Europeans or Sri Lankans were Indian or Sri Lankan only by name and said: “A single generation of English education suffices to break the threads of tradition and create a nondescript pariah who does not belong to the East or the West, the past or the present.” He was one of those who always pointed out that schools and churches hastened the decay of Eastern culture and noted: “If you teach a man that what he has thought right is wrong, he will apt to think that what he has thought wrong is right.”

Ananda Coomaraswamy’s views on politics too was as much varied as his noble ideas about art. He was a nationalist in outlook but he always pointed out the great danger to which nationalism may eventually lead.

He elaborated on his warnings in one of his early essays of genius ‘Young India’ and advocated that nationalism should positively contribute to the solution of problems that face the whole world, and no longer mere – as a single race or continent.

His clear intellect ranged over many subjects such as petrology, philosophy, metaphysics, music, iconography, philology, art and architecture. His knowledge of the indigenous arts and crafts was unexcelled and he was also called the greatest orientalist of all time. In Ananda Coomaraswamy was harmoniously blended both Eastern and Western culture and whether he wrote on politics or poetry, on myths or on metaphysics he wrote with erudition and clarity and whether it was Plato or the Upanishads, the Bible or the Baghavad Gita, the Koran or the Tripitaka, he was imbued with the true spirit of their noble teachings.

Ananda Coomaraswamy who began life as a scientist and attained its coveted heights, was also highly interested and equally competent to stress the importance of literacy. He was one of the rare Sri Lankans who emphasized that literacy is an essential commodity for the cultural resurgence of a nation.

One of his essays ‘Borrowed Plumes’, first published in Kandy in 1905, was his maiden literary efforts. It reflects the deep thoughts of a youthful genius. In this essay he describes very movingly the destruction of native life under foreign domination.

This is an interesting essay that should be read and re-read now specially in view of the serious efforts being presently made to reactivate Sri Lanka’s cultural heritage. His writings have a vital and vibrant message for men and nations everywhere who are interested to preserve their moral and cultural integrity.

He revealed to the Sri Lankans that art is nothing more, nothing less, than a mere skill and he showed an utter contempt for those who had built up a magical aura around art and spoke of some vague appreciation of art.

His greatest lament was that the modern mind had separated art from work and that art as a leisure time activity is completely unknown. He placed a high value both on his dignity and freedom as well as on the dignity and freedom of others and his independence of spirit and thought continue to inspire us even today.

Modern world

It was characteristic of him that he was ever active and critical of his fellow men too. His greatly absorbing and colossal work, Medieval Sinhalese Art remains a monumental volume in this sphere while from rocks and stones to art and culture, from culture to man and society itself he was an authority as well as a dynamic source of inspiration.

To us living in this complex modern world, sometimes harassed by these very complexities, which often result in broken harmonies, Ananda Coomaraswamy’s life serves well as a unique model. To those of us who love to preserve and improve our personal integrity and human dignity his life contains personal qualities worth of emulation and it is good for us, his countrymen, to emulate his worthy qualities and his vital message of the more idealistic values of integrity, justice, courage and purity of thought and action for which he nobly stood.

We should also remember Dr Ananda Coomaraswamy as a great Sri Lankan who attained international eminence as a philosopher of art and art historian, as an expositor of oriental art and philosophy, as a traditionalist thinker, as a sociologist, educationalist, knowledgeable commentator on comparative religion, erudite writer and above all as an essayist with the touch of a prophet.