Sunday, August 21, 2011

The Concept of Beauty in Hinduism

by Sri Ajit Halder

The adoration of Beauty involves an appreciation of both its subjective feeling and its objective features linked with real life illustrations. The opening paragraphs leading up to the discussion of the theme of this article are presented as an aid for the preparation of the reader to benefit from a deeper understanding of the Hindu view of Beauty. Additionally, it is hoped that these observations will help the reader’s perception of beauty inherent in human creative arts and in what Nature provides for our senses.

Beauty is God’s gift to humans – we believe that there is sacredness and serenity associated with beautiful objects. We note that the sound of the word ‘beauty’ is heard every time the sweet sounding word ‘beautiful’ is uttered. The expression ‘beautiful’ may refer to the adorable body features of a person or an object. We are always drawn to beautiful sights, feel attracted to the beauty of scenic landscapes and to the beautiful paintings hung in art galleries. We listen to the beautiful melody of music and never fail to appreciate the ‘beauty’ of human forms. We stand in admiration in front of Michael Angelo’s sculpture of the angelic figure of David. Hence the concept of beauty is intimately connected and inseparably linked to beautiful objects.

The phrase ‘Beauty is skin deep’ is taken as suggesting that beauty is merely what appears to the eye or something which gratifies the senses. But to people with a taste for arts and culture, beauty is something deeper than the ‘sensory’ or ‘sensual’. It is closer to the art’s vision of beauty. These people will explore beauty in layers deeper than the skin, somewhere beyond its colour, tenderness, smoothness, wrinkles or roughness - all of which belong to the surface. Beauty in context to art is more or less the vision of the mind of the beholder admiring an object of beauty and he(she) translates this into a form, or rather to a transform beyond the object’s physical appearance.

Keats wrote – ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever; its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness’. The famous saying: ‘Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder’ and similar other utterances about beauty are mentioned lavishly in literature. Quotes about beauty are not just about the physical beauty of the outer appearance of a person, but are also about the inner beauty of the human form or about the subject under observation. None of these quotations though ever seem to answer the question - what is beauty? No doubt it is difficult to answer this question as there is no one factor that defines beauty. While outer beauty and appearance is made up of factors like health, slim features, youth, symmetry of the face and skin complexion (and these are the very components that attract the eye and cause a pleasing sensation in the mind) - physical beauty is always enhanced by a measure of the inner beauty of a person.

Moreover, any answer to the question – ‘What is beauty?’ is a subjective answer making it impossible to come up with a precise definition of beauty that is universally appealing and acceptable. It is interesting to know that amongst the various cultures of the world, the perception of beauty has many similarities. All cultures appreciate the beauty of nature and admire the beauty of the female form. In short, Beauty delights universally, beyond barriers.

Love for the most beautiful human forms and of objects can be seen in Indian artistic renditions mainly pertaining to the physical body. In ancient India, the focus on the beauty of the female form can be seen in the sculptures of Bharhut and Sanchi. The hair and body of the female is richly adorned with jewellery. Along with the beauty of the human form, the beauty of nature is also found in intricate details in the foliage and landscape described in poetry and sculpted in stone.

In the Hindu context, Beauty comprises one of the triads of ideals - Satyam (Truth), Shivam (Shiva is the name of a major Hindu god), Sundaram (Beauty). In Hinduism, Beauty has been closely linked with Godliness (Shiva). The set of three ideals describes the feeling or experience of ananda or delight at seeing or experiencing a beautiful object. One important view about beauty is that to experience beauty is to come face to face with Sat (Eternally Existing God), Chit (Consciousness) and Ananda (Bliss). So Godliness and beauty are indissolubly linked with Sat or Truth eternal [Truth is Beauty, Beauty Truth’]. The underlying idea is that appreciating beauty fully is to experience Brahmananda, the joy of being one with the universal spirit. Hence there is a strong belief that what is beautiful does not only give us joy, but can also lead to our Moksha, liberation from the bondage of worldly life.

The fact that stands out from the description of beauty in Indian religious writing is that comparisons will invariably be made with Nature and her creations. The beauty of women has often been compared with moon; for most persons, the moon is only a celestial body in the sky. However with a poet, the moon is his beloved’s face radiating white moonlight, signifying purity and brilliance.

Indian scriptures and epics have dealt with the concept of beauty, and in particular with the beauty of women. The ideal of beauty in ancient India was a favourite theme amongst poets who seemed to write extensively on the different parts of the female anatomy as well as about the male body. One may refer to Kalidasa’s description of the gait of Parvati expecting a divine child in Kumarsambhavam Kavya. In these descriptions, beauty has been endowed with heavenly form as well as the form of human beings. However, Indian religious paintings or writings are not about carnal beauty as such, but endowed with a high degree of spirituality.

One typical illustration to support this view is the hymn, the Saundarya Lahari composed by Sankaracharya. The title of the hymn means ‘wave of beauty’ and the verses graphically describe the beauty of the goddess Tripurasundari. The hymn in vivid categorization depicts beautiful features of the entire body form of the Goddess. This hymn and other similar ones enable the chanter to enjoy spiritual delight being in a state of union with the divine. The experience brings home the truth that physical beauty is transitory whereas Saundarya, the divine Beauty, is eternal.

Lastly, Beauty in the Indian religious context is equated with ‘rasa’- emotion or poetic sentiment. Indian aesthetics defines nine rasas but the fundamental rasa is the appreciation of Beauty leading to Ananda (Bliss). Brahman is rasa, the ultimate essence of all life and being, and humans find themselves in that blissful existence by gaining the aesthetic experience of Beauty as elaborated in Hinduism. This also indicates that one can achieve liberation by gaining union with the Supreme Self (Brahman) through the experience of spiritual beauty.

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