Lectures Commemorating the Birth Centenary of Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy

(Institute of Indian Art History, Karnatak University, 1980)

In 1977, the year of the Coomaraswamy centenary, I toured India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal to give lectures on AKC, as some called him. Collecting the main lectures and additional writings, this book is like a compass with markings then obscure—in what directions did they point?—but now clear and modestly prophetic. Even then, when the Coomaraswamy trilogy had just been published (see the next entry), I was contesting the value of twentieth-century art with AKC. Proof: the two opening essays in the book, “Traditional Ideas and Modern Art” and “The Question of Sacred Art in Our Time.” The seeds for An Art of Our Own were already set in the ground.

And then the extended essay “Daedalus,” a first adventure into ancient Greek myth and tale. The seed for Have you been to Delphi? was set in the ground. Most surprising of all, as I look back so many years, is the concluding essay, “Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power in the South Indian Theory of Government.” It is a commentary on one of AKC’s most difficult late books, Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power in the Indian Theory of Government (1942), and represents the seed for the work I’ve dedicated to the political thought and practice of Dag Hammarskjöld. AKC looked into the deep past for greatness and probity; I looked nearby, in our own time, and found it.

The opening paragraph of this last essay speaks to AKC’s procedure as a scholar and author, and to the courage he asks of his readers. “The enduring challenge left by Coomaraswamy lies in the late writings, writings he himself regarded as the accomplishment that represented his best understanding and good will. They can be described as a meditation, but hardly resemble the cliché of meditation in which the complexities of the world are gradually sloughed off, leaving peace and radiance. On the contrary, they deal dialectically, setting idea against idea, with the fundamental problems of life, and they are formidably complex in discourse. Rarely peaceful, they are much rather what he spoke of as being ‘all in act’: fully committed, without a trace of laziness, to the recognition and solution of difficulties. . . . The writings are difficult, at times even irritatingly so, but truthful by ancient standards and increasingly beautiful as one comes to know them.”

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