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Volume X - Sufi Mysticism


Art and Religion

Very few in the world today link religion with art, or art with religion. But in point of fact, art is much more important than the average person realizes it to be – despite the saying that 'art is what man makes, and nature is what God makes.' I would prefer to say that nature is what God makes as God, and art is what God makes as man. The artist who has arrived at some perfection in his art, whatever his art may be, will come to realize that it is not he who ever achieved anything; it is someone else who came forward every time. And when the artist produces a perfect thing, he finds it difficult to imagine that it has been produced by him. He can do nothing but bow his head in humility before that unseen power and wisdom which takes his body, his heart, his brain, and his eyes as its instrument. Whenever beauty is produced in art, be it music, or poetry, or painting, or writing, or anything else, one must never think that man produced it. It is through man that God completes His creation. Thus there is nothing that is done in this world or in heaven that is not divine immanence, which is not divine creation. It is the apparent separating of that divine work which causes the perplexity that separates man from his Lord.

In the first place, everything that we see in the world – all the occupations that we engage in willingly or unwillingly – lead us to accomplish a certain purpose. But it is a fact that there are certain things in life by which we accomplish a far greater purpose, and which can only be accomplished by an inspiration from within. Art is a domain in which inspiration manifests with great facility. In order to become spiritual, to attain inspiration, it is not necessary that a man should be very religious or especially good; what is necessary is love of beauty. What is art? Art is the creation of beauty in whatever form it is created. As long as an artist thinks that whatever he creates in the form of art is his own creation, and as long as he is vain about his creation, he has not learned true art. True art can only come on one condition, and that is that the artist forgets himself – that he forgets himself in the vision of beauty. There is one condition through which his art can be still more valuable, and that is when the artist begins to recognize the divine in his art. As long as the artist has not realized this, he has not touched the perfection of art.

In reality, art is nature re-expressed, perfecting the beauty that is already there. Nature in no way lacks beauty; nature is perfect and therefore is most exalting. But it is beyond man's power to see nature as a whole. He only sees a part of it, and everything that is only seen in part is limited. It is this condition which limits the beauty for us. As man sees only a limited beauty in nature, his first impulse is to perfect it; and the means he adopts to improve upon it he calls art. The soul of man is the light of God, and so this impulse that arises in the heart of man to improve upon nature is also a divine impulse. Therefore, art is divine, for all beauty is divine.

It is said in the Bible, 'God is love,' and again, 'In God we live and move and have our being.' The word of the Prophet is, 'God is beautiful, and He loves beauty.' If we take these two teachings and unite them as one, we shall find that God Himself is love and at the same time beauty. In whatever direction man strives in life, it leads towards a certain beauty. If he wishes to be rich, or to have a high position – whatever may be his pursuit in life – in some form or other it is in order to have beauty. No doubt the idea of beauty is different for each individual. One considers beauty to consist of a beautiful environment; another, that it means being dressed in beautiful clothes; yet another thinks that grace of movement, of manner, or of expression is beauty. One person sees beauty in character, another in virtue; one finds beauty in verse, another in the realm of music; one admires the beauty that is external, another seeks beauty within. And it is the method of creating beauty, under whatever aspect, which is called art.

Man is always seeking for beauty, and yet he is unaware of the treasure of beauty that is hidden in his own heart. He strives after it throughout his whole life. It is as if he was in pursuit of the horizon: the further he proceeds, the further the horizon seems to have moved away. For there are two aims: the one is real, and the other false. That which is false is momentary, transitory, and unreliable – wealth, power, fame, and position are all snatched from one hand by the other. Therefore in the language of the mystic this is called Maya; its nature is to change constantly. But our soul's longing is to hold on to something, to grasp something that we can depend upon. If a man seeks a position, he feels, 'If only I could find something which would be permanent, something I could depend upon.' If he seeks a friend, his first thought is to find a friend upon whom he can depend. Constancy is more valuable than anything else in friendship.

Man wants something in life upon which he can rely; and this shows, whether he believes in a deity or not, that he is constantly seeking for God. He seeks for Him not knowing that he is seeking for God. Nevertheless, every soul is pursuing some reality, something to hold on to; trying to grasp something which will prove dependable, a beauty that cannot change and that one can always look upon as one's own, a beauty that one feels will last forever. And where can one find it? Within one's own heart. And it is the art of finding that beauty, of developing, improving, and spreading that beauty through life, allowing it to manifest before the inner and outer view, which one calls the art of the mystic.

The artist, in the true sense of the word, is the king of a kingdom that is even greater than the kingdoms of the earth. There is a story told in the East of Farabi, the great singer, who was invited to the court of the Amir of Bokhara. The Amir welcomed him very warmly at the court, and as the singer entered the Amir went to the door to receive him. On coming into the throne-room, the Amir asked him to take a seat. 'But where shall I sit?' asked the singer. 'Sit,' said the Amir, 'in any place that may seem fitting to you.' On hearing this, Farabi took the seat of the king. No doubt this astonished the Amir very much; but after hearing the singer's art he felt that even his own seat was not fitting, for he understood that his kingdom had a certain limitation, whereas the kingdom of the artist is wherever beauty prevails. As beauty is everywhere, so the kingdom of the artist is everywhere.

But art is only a door, a door through which one can enter a still wider area. At different times, the religious have considered art to be something outside them; this has very often been due to a kind of fanaticism on the part of religious authorities. It is so not only in the East, but in the West as well, that one finds a tendency to separate art from religion. This does not mean that some great teacher of religion has taught it; rather, it has come only from people who have not realized religion apart from its form. No one who has touched the depths of religion can ever deny the fact that religion itself is an art, an art that accomplishes the greatest thing in man's life. And there can be no greater error than to make this art devoid of beauty.

In ancient times in all the Hindu and Buddhist temples and pagodas there was music, there was poetry, there was sculpture, and there was painting. In those times there were no printing presses, and no books could be published on philosophy and religion; but if one can find any scriptures expressing the ancient religious and philosophical ideas, they are in the ancient art. For instance, whatever sign can be found of the mysticism and the religion of ancient Egypt, of which so much has been said and so little is known, it is not in the manuscripts – it is in the art. Also the ideas of the Sanskrit age are still to be found in India engraved on the carved stones, rocks, and temples. Travelers from the Western world often go to the East in order to see the degree of perfection Eastern art attained. Very few really know that art not only strove for perfection in those days, but that those who could not read also used it as a means of communication.

The art of ancient Greece too is a sign and proof of great perfection in divine wisdom. Every movement that we see in Greek art is not only a graceful movement, but also has a meaning; and every statue expresses a certain meaning in its attitude, if only a person can read it. From this, we learn that intuition is necessary both for the making of a work of art and for the understanding of it. This is the very thing which the human race today seems to be losing more than at any other time in the world's history. One might ask why man has lost that intuitive faculty. It is because he has become so absorbed in material gain that he has become, as it were, intoxicated by the worldly life; and intuition, which is his birthright and his own property, has been lost from view. This does not mean that it is gone from him, only that it has become buried in his own heart.

We are vehicles or instruments that respond. If we respond to goodness, goodness becomes our property. If we respond to evil, then evil becomes our property. If we respond to love, then love becomes our possession. If we respond to hatred, hatred becomes our life. And if we respond to the things of the earth so much that our whole life becomes absorbed in worldly things, then it is quite natural that we should not respond to those riches which are within us, and yet so far removed from us. Intuition is not something that a person can learn by reading books, nor is it a thing that one can buy and sell. Intuition is the very self, and the deepest self of man; and it can be realized by that soberness which is so very desirable in life. Absence of intuition means absence of soberness.

checked 18-Oct-2005