By Shakti Maira
A visit to the Matrimandir, the centre point of Auroville, leads an artist to contemplate the meaning of art, its making, its role in transforming consciousness, and the possibility of its integration with all aspects of life and society
I have often admired the Baha’i Temple in Delhi and find it to be a fine example of inspiring architecture. I had heard of another large modern visionary temple that was almost complete in Auroville, just outside Pondicherry. I was keen to experience the Matrimandir in Auroville and to have darshan of this new consciousness-raising temple, to see another instance of the coming together of art and spirituality.
I had heard that the inner sanctum is open to the public, and I hoped to meditate in this special space. At the busy visitor’s centre in Auroville, I was informed that this was permissible only for the ‘once-returners’, that is, I could meditate in the sanctum only if I had visited the temple at least once before. I was supposed to go in, come back out all the way to the gate, and then seek re-entrance. Undeterred, I got an entrance pass and set off down the dusty road to get my visitor’s badge of merit. In the distance, peeping out of lush foliage, was an unusual golden dome.
There were hundreds of well-behaved devotees and tourists who were being brusquely and somewhat imperiously herded into a single-file line by employees. (Was this a metaphor for the order and discipline demanded of spiritual seekers before they could really penetrate the teachings or higher states of consciousness?)
The line moved interminably slowly and several times I was tempted to abandon the quest. But not knowing when I might get another chance I persisted, keen to experience this legacy of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, who I have always respected for their internationalism, their emphasis on integral living, the importance they gave to creativity and art, and their reputations for being philosophers and perhaps even wizards of the transformation of consciousness.
Inner & outer
I am fascinated by consciousness. As an artist, I also see myself being, in a small way, in the business of transforming consciousness. I think art, at its best, is an endeavour to inspire people, to cause shifts in human consciousness.
In the world of art there has long been a tension, even a schism, between artists who believe art must focus on the worldly realities of social and personal issues, and those that would rather have art be a way in which people get the chance, even momentarily, to experience a transformation of consciousness, to make contact with deeper or inner realities. The former, the social and material realists, decry art that is not dealing with the obvious realities of social injustice, economic inequality and rampant psychological or emotional alienation. They think consciousness transforming through art is an escape and a socially irresponsible stance. The latter group, however, see the central purpose of art as a precious means of transcendence of life’s outer layers and an entering into the real inner world of balance, peace, beauty and joy.
I believe both these voices are valid and see them as being rooted in the common quest to transform consciousness. The prevalent credo in contemporary art in the West, and among its many adherents in India, is the raising of social consciousness. The savants of contemporary art insist that their approach to consciousness transformation is more relevant, progressive and valuable, and decry the other approach as being regressive and out-of-date. But I think there is no need for us to have just one stream in art. Art is a broad plain that can accommodate more than one stream, as both these are much needed. In contemporary art we need the consciousness-raising on social issues as much as we need the consciousness-raising of the inner potentiality for bliss—we need both the ‘Art of Complaint’ and the ‘Art of Joy’.
Art must help us make both the outer and inner connections.
When I finally make my way up to the inner sanctum at the Matrimandir, I find this fascinating chamber of pillars with alluring illumination. I want to stop and pay some attention but am not given that opportunity. We are only allowed a quick glance and firmly turned back, down and out. All I get are less then three breathing moments, if that!
When we use the term ‘consciousness’, we mean first of all awareness. To become conscious of something is to become aware of it. Awareness requires that we pay attention. To pay attention one must be able to still both physically and mentally: to temporarily turn off or turn down the mental chatter our minds are usually full of. Something I was just not allowed to do that evening at the Matrimandir. Something I have often asked, though rarely seen, of viewers when they approach a work of art.
Awareness can be momentary and passing or it can be deep and inspiring or consciousness shifting: when we are moved or when we realise something or when we become engaged with something in a new way. These are the movements of the mind and heart in any transformation of consciousness.
Problems & poisons
The spiral walk in the dome’s chamber is stuffy and the press of people makes me a little claustrophobic. I am not sure I will be going back up again. I distract myself by looking at the unfinished inner chamber that is intriguing and dynamic. It certainly does not seem to have fallen into the decorative trap of so much contemporary architecture and art.
It has always been a struggle in the world of art to keep art dynamic and powerful. To lift it out of the poisons that deaden it: the poisons of being purely decorative objects or being mainly objects of conspicuous consumption. A newer poison that has arisen these days is the poison of art becoming an object for investment. Now people are making investment decisions, as they match the colours of their sofa and try and show-off big-name art. None of these pitfalls that art struggles with have anything to do with art as a consciousness transformer.
The line out of the dome has stopped. Somebody has stumbled and fallen. How practical is the design of this new temple? There is no air and I must keep thinking.
Another problem that has occurred is the retreat of art into a world of its own. Where art has become self-referential. It is less concerned with viewers and people, and more involved with concepts and its own history. So many art historians, teachers and artists seem caught up with ‘art for art’s sake’. Art is made, talked about and taught within what is becoming its own world, where a small group seems to have taken over art and is fascinated with art history, learning about art movements and its languages or its theoretical foundations and pillars.
This has happened to such an extent that the world of art has become divorced from the rest of living. Most people cannot relate to, understand or be inspired by art. How can art transform any consciousness if it goes on like this? How can artists not sense the distance forming between the arts and everyday life?
On my way to the Matrimandir, I noticed what looked like antennae at the top of the dome. Were all those gold discs stuck around the Matrimandir also some kind of antennae, connecting the meditators in the sanctum to consciousness raising energies in the universe?
Artists often function as society’s antennae. They are usually sensitive people who are quick to feel the sufferings of others: caused by social injustice, natural disasters, or racial intolerance. They will raise their voices in writing, theatre, dance, paintings and they seem always willing to organise and contribute their work
to raise funds for earthquake, riot and war victims, or to help in the struggle against AIDS and cancer. They also seem to be able to hear inner voices that others often don’t. They seem more connected with the other realms of consciousness: dream, myth, fantasy, imagination and ideas.
The thesis of Leonard Shlain’s book Art and Physics is: “Revolutionary art anticipates visionary physics. The artist introduces a new way to see the world, then the physicist formulates a new way to think about the world.” As evidence, he looks at the parallels between Western physics, starting from the Greeks and going all the way via Newton and Einstein to quantum physics, and Western art. It is an attractive and imaginative book that occasionally may seem a stretch, but as Einstein said: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”
I was struck by a statement made by the great German scientist Werner Heisenberg that seems to wisely integrate not only science with the arts, but also brings together different schools within art: “Both science and art form in the course of the centuries a human language by which we can speak about the more remote parts of reality, and the coherent sets of concepts as well as the different styles are different words or groups of words in this language.”
I am out of the Matrimandir. The sun is setting and the air is filled with birdsong.
I think that there is a simple but profound meeting ground for aesthetics and social justice. It is in the balance, harmony, rhythm and proportionality—the four cardinal values of Indian aesthetic philosophy that hold true for society as well. If we could get more of these values realised in art and in society, through economic, political, social and environmental action, we would have more beauty, fairness, justice, peace and wisdom.
Perhaps aesthetics is a good model for what we wish to raise our consciousness towards—a world of balance, harmony, rhythm, proportionality, ergo a world of beauty and joy. Perhaps all artists who are motivated to transform consciousness, social or individual, are trying to do something that is not so different after all!
The integration of physical and mental, social and spiritual seems very much at the heart of Sri Aurobindo’s insights, and this is what stood out for me while reading his Essays on the Gita. I have always struggled with philosophies and spiritual practices that are against the natural and physical energies of the world, that decry life as maya or illusion and claim that desire is the fundamental ‘bad guy’ we have to fight off. I have also found that meditation practices that emphasise awareness and mindfulness can create a split in one’s being and can make shallow all experiences by taking out some of the natural rhythm and flow. I found Sri Aurobindo’s integrative approach to higher consciousness through the celebration of the energies of life (prakriti) and their integration with the pristine quality of Awareness (purush) as being spot on. It seems wiser to integrate rather than set up bad/good inner conflicts.
I walk towards the exquisite banyan tree, outside the temple. Perhaps I will sit here quietly for a little while. It seems rich in prakriti and a wonderful place to meditate in. But, the officious herders do not permit this.
As I leave, I look back at the Matrimandir one last time. It has begun to look like a giant golden golf ball that was waywardly struck, a nasty slice off a giant driver, from some astral golf course on a distant star or galaxy and landed here on earth. Transforming consciousness through art, no matter how imaginative the architecture or painting or sculpture, has never been easy. But it’s wonderful that the effort is being made, in Auroville and elsewhere.
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