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Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877 - 1954)

by Andrew Scott

© CDN Thursday, 22 August 2002
'Where ever there is
Where ever there is virtue,
Where ever there is beauty,
He will find a home'.

Ananda Coomaraswamy was born 125 years ago on August 22, 1877 at Kollupitiya. His mother was English and his distinguished father, Sir Muttu Coomaraswamy, was a devoted Hindu and the first Hindu to be called to the English Bar. Ananda Coomaraswamy's father died while Ananda was very young and as a result young Coomaraswamy was brought up in England from where he ultimately graduated in geology from the University of London. He served in Sri Lanka 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 at the age of 70. As an energetic young man Ananda Coomaraswamy played a dominant role in the regeneration of the Sri Lankan culture at the turn of this century. He was an ardent nationalist who sometimes directed his attacks on the materialism of the West. Ananda Coomaraswamy had an utter contempt for both europeanised Indians as well as europeanised Sri Lankans. He once remarked that these europeanised Indians and Sri Lankans were Indian or Sri Lankan only by name.

What he said about India and the decadent Indian culture at that time is rightly applicable to present Sri Lanka. He always pointed out that schools and churches hastened the decay of eastern culture and remarked: "If you teach a man that what he has thought right is wrong, he will be apt to think that what he has thought wrong is right".

Ananda Coomaraswamy's views on politics too were much varied as his noble ideas about art. He was a nationalist in outlook and 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 resolve problems that face the whole wide world, and no longer merely those of a single race or continent.

His clear intellect ranged over many varieties of subjects such as petrology, philosophy, metaphysics, music, iconography, philology and art. His knowledge of the indigenous arts and crafts was unexcelled and he was even 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. Whether it was Plato or the Upanishads, the Bible or the Baghavad Gita, the Koran or the Tripitaka, Ananda Coomaraswamy was imbibed with the true spirit of their noble teachings. Taken in the broadest sense he was a truly cultured man. Ananda Coomaraswamy who, as mentioned earlier, began life as a scientist and attained its giddy heights was also keenly interested and equally competent to stress the importance of literacy. He was one of the rare Sri Lankans who emphasised 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 effort. 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 which should be read and re-read how specially in view of the serious efforts being presently made to reactivate this country's cultural heritage. Those who have not yet read Borrowed Plumes have missed a glorious piece of literature which spurs national enthusiasm too. It rings with choice sentences such as "Sometimes I think the eastern spirit is not dead, but sleeping, and may yet play a great part in the world's spiritual life".

Ananda Coomaraswamy's writings have a vital message for men and nations everywhere who are interested to preserve their moral and cultural integrity. 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 continues to inspire us even today. He is very much alive today as he was in the past and his spirit continues to speak to all those who believe that their future rests on the preservation of the individual regardless of race, religion, nationality or social status.

His greatly absorbing and colossal work Medieval Sinhalese Art, for which he collected material when on his long circuits 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. There is no doubt that his simple and noble life will continue to inspire the Sri Lankans for many more years.

As a young man of 23 he saw his fist paper on 'Ceylon Rocks and Graphite' in print in the quarterly journal of the Geological Society and by the time he died he had completed writing more than 500 publications including the bulky monuments like Medieval Sinhalese Art and History of Indian and Indonesian Art. For the 14th edition of Encyclopedia Britannica he contributed 8 articles and edited the English words of Indian origin in Webster's New International Dictionary. His books and memoirs, articles and monographs, were published in India, Sri Lanka, England America, France, Germany and Holland.

On his 125th birth anniversary let us remember him as a 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 sociologist, educationist, a knowledgeable commentator of comparative religion, erudite writer and above all as an essayist with the touch of a prophet. To us who are living in the modern world sundered by broken harmonies Dr. Ananda Coomaraswamy's life serves well as a model that should be emulated.

Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877-1947)

(@ http://www.movinghere.org.uk/)

Ananda Coomaraswamy has been described as a prophet of a new age, a kala-yogi (fine arts yoga exemplar), philosopher and theologian. He was born in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in 1877 and was the son of the famous Sri Lankan legislator and philosopher Mutu Coomaraswamy and English woman Elizabeth Beeby. It is thought that Ananda embodied an enormous amount of both his mother and father's traditions, and it is for this reason that he was able to be one of the greatest commentators on western and eastern cultural comparison and, in the international sphere, one of the most well-known Sri Lankan scholars that has ever lived.

Ananda was taken to live in England by his mother in 1879 when he was two years old as at this time her health was poor. His father also had hopes of entering British politics. However, Ananda's father died within two years of his birth and Ananda was brought up by his mother, sister and grandmother in Kent. Ananda was educated at University College London and received a doctorate of science.

Ananda's first work endeavours took him to Sri Lanka where he did much work on the geology of the country as Director of the Mineralogical Survey (1903-1906). But, like his father, Ananda's interests took him far beyond his initial scientific training. Ananda showed an interest in a wide range of aspects of life in Sri Lanka, and used the opportunities arising in his scientific fieldwork to learn widely about the country's social and cultural situation.

Ananda founded the highly influential Ceylon Social Reform Society in 1905 with the help of Sinhalese and Tamil leaders of the day. The organisation's aims were to attack denationalisation, protect national traditions and customs, and promote the use of national languages. Linking the Sri Lankan struggles with those of India were of utmost importance to Ananda, as was his concern at the loss of eastern traditions to those of the west, both themes which were to continue to be vitally important to his work throughout his life. Ananda was a prolific writer and one of the greatest of his works was written at this time (1905), 'Burrowed Plumes'. In this work he argues powerfully for the Sri Lankans developing a sense of their own traditions and national culture, promoting a complete nationalism in dress and manners.

Ananda left Sri Lanka in 1908 and included a 3 month tour of India on his return journey to England. He was attracted back to England because of the wider fields of study available there. Here he became part of an artistic community in the Cotswolds, owning and running his own printing press known as Kelmscott Press and continuing to write extensively across many areas. As well as studying widely, Ananda also wrote in many different languages. Ananda became renowned for being one of the world's greatest exponents of oriental art, comparative religion and aesthetics.

Ananda moved to Boston in 1917 and became the curator-creator of the Indian collection of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, a position he continued in until his death in 1947. He produced a prodigious amount of scholarly research during this period and in so doing had a deep influence in particular on American thinking in aesthetics, metaphysics and religion.

Although he only spent a few years of his life in Sri Lanka, Ananda has continued to be revered long after his death for the contribution he made to the country and the Asian region generally. He is seen as being a vital exponent of traditional values, reawakening the east to its own traditions, and challenging the intrusion on eastern values by the expansion of western society.



La bibliografía de A K. Coomaraswamy es vastísima y publicada originalmente en inglés en general. Su hijo, Rama P. Coomaraswamy ha censado 627 libros y artículos en una bibliografía sin pretenciones exhaustivas. Nos limitamos, por tanto, a señalar sus obras más importantes publicadas en volúmenes. Existe un índice de las obras: "A Catalogue of the Special Exhibition of Paintings, and Books en Honour of the Birth Centenary of Ananda K Coomaraswamy", National Museum, Nuova Delhi 1976, actualizado en 1981. Recientemente se ha publicado una Working bibliography of A. K C. in Ceylon, por Rama Coomaraswamy, Books of India, Londres y una "Selected Bibliography" en Sources of Wisdom, volumen conmemorativo a cargo del ministerio de Asuntos Culturales de Sri Lanka, Colombo 1981. La bibliografía más completa es, sin embargo, "Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Bibliography/Index", a cargo de Rama P. Coomaraswamy, Prologos Books, Berwick-upon-Tweed, Gran Bretaña, 1988, edición revisada de la “Selected Bibliography” de 1981.


1.- The Deeper Meaning of the Struggle, Essex House Press, Broad Campden, 1907.

2.- Mediaeval Sinhalese Art, Essex House Press, Broad Campden, 1908. 2ª. ed. revisada y ampliada, Nueva York ,1956.

3.- The Aims of Indian Art, 1908.

4.- The Message of the East, Ganesh Press, Madrás, 1908.

5.- Essays in National Idealism, Colombo Apothecaries Co. Ltd., Colombo, 1909.

6.- The Indian Craftsman, prefacio de C. R. Ashbee, Probsthain, Londres, 1909.

7.- Indian Drawings, India Society, Essex House Press, Londres, 1910.

8.- Selected Examples of Indian Art, Essex House Press, Broad Campden, 1910. Reimpresión: Today & Tomorrow's Printers & Publishers, Nueva Delhi, 1971.

9.- Art and Swadeshi, Ganesh Press, Madrás, 1911.

10.- Indian Drawings: 2ªserie, Chiefly Rajput, India Society, Essex House Press, Londres, 1912.

11.- The Arts and Crafts of India and Ceylon, Foulis, Edimburgo, 1913. Reimpresión: Noonday Press, Nueva York, 1964. Traducción española: Artes y oficios de la India y Ceilán, Aguilar, Madrid, s. f. Trad. Francesa: Les Arts et les Métiers del´Inde et de Ceylan, 1924

12.- Bronzes from Ceylon, chiefly in the Colombo Museum, 1914.

13.- Myths of the Hindus & Buddhists, en colaboración con Sister Nivedita, Harrap, Londres, 1913. Reimpresión: Dover Publications, Inc., Nueva York, 1967. Trad. española: Mitos y leyendas hindúes y budistas, M. E. Editores, Madrid, 1995 (traducción de Diana Gibson). Trad. italiana: Miti dell'India e del buddismo (con Suor Nivedita) (trad. de A. Odierno), Laterza, Bari 1927 (edizione anastatica), Laterza, Bari 1980, con una nota de Raniero Gnoli.

14.- Vishvakarma: Examples of Indian Architecture, Sculpture, Painting, Handicraft, First Series: One Hundred Examples of Indian Sculpture, Introduction by Eric Gill, Luzac, Londres, 1912-14. Reimpresión: Munshiram Manoharlal, Nueva Delhi, 1978.

15.- Buddha and the Gospel of Buddhism, Putnam, Nueva York, 1916. Reimpresión: Harper & Row, Nueva York, 1964. Trad. española: Buda y el Evangelio del Budismo, Paidós, Buenos Aires, 1969. Paidós Ibérica, Barcelona, 1989. (trad. de Enrique Franchi). Trad. italiana: Buddha e la dottrina del Buddhismo (introd. y traducción de G. Sassi), Luni Editrice, Milano 1994.

16.- Rajput Painting, 2 vol., Oxford University Press, Londres, 1916. Reimpresión: Motilal Banarsidass, Nueva Delhi, 1977.

17.- The Mirror of Gesture: Being the Abhinaya Darpana of Nandikesvara, por A. K. Coomaraswamy y Gopala Kristnayya Duggirala, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1917. 2ª ed. con nueva introducción: Nueva York, 1936. Reimpresión: Munshiram Manoharlal, Nueva Delhi.

18.- The Dance of Siva, Sunwise Turn Press, Nueva York, 1918. Ed. revisada: Sagar Publications, Nueva Delhi 1976. Trad. española: La danza de Shiva, Siruela, Madrid, 1996 (incompleto, sólo se incluyen los artículos referentes al arte). Trad. francesa: Madeleine Roland: La Danse de Shiva, con un prólogo de Romain Roland, Rieder, Paris 1918. Reimpresión: Editions Awac, Rennes 1979. Trad. italiana: La danza di Siva. Arte e civiltà dell'India, Luni Editrice, Milano 1997.

19.- Catalogue of the Indian Collections in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Part I: General Introduction - Part II: Sculpture, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, 1923. Reimpresión: Bharatiya Publishing House, Delhi, Varanasi, 1978;

20.- Introduction to Indian Art, Theosophical Publishing House, Madrás, 1923. Reimpresión: Munshiram Manoharlal, Nueva Delhi, 1969. trad. francesa: Pour comprendre l'art Hindou Bossart, Paris, 1926, (trad. de Jean Buhot). Reimpresión: Editions Awac, Rennes 1979. Traducción italiana: Introduzione all'arte e alla mitologia dell'India (prefacio de A. Schwarz, trad.de P. Caracchi y F. Garnero), La Salamandra, Milano 1984.

21.- Catalogue of the Indian Collections in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Part 4: Jaina Paintings and Manuscripts, Boston, 1924.

22.-  Bibliographies of Indian Art, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, 1925.

23.- Catalogue of the Indian Collections in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Part 5: Rajput Painting, Boston, 1927.

24.- History of Indian and Indonesian Art, Karl W. Hiesemann, Leipzig, 1927; Goldston, Londres; Weyhe, Nueva York. Reimpresión: Dover Publications, Inc., Nueva York 1965. Reimpresión: Munshiram Manoharlal, Nueva Delhi, 1972.

25.-The Origin of the Buddha Image, «Art Bulletin», IX, 4, 1927. Reimpresión: Munshiram Manoharlal, Nueva Delhi, 1972, 1980.

26.- Yaksas, I, Smithsonian Miscellaneous Collections, Washington, 1928. Reimpresión (junto a Yaksas II): Munshiram Manoharlal, Nueva Delhi, 1971, 1993.

27.- Catalogue of the Indian Collections in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Part 6: Mughal Painting, Boston, 1930.

28.- Yaksas, II, Smithsonian Institution Publication, 1931. Reimpresión (junto a Yaksas I): Munshiram Manoharlal, Nueva Delhi, 1971.

29.- Introduction to the Art of Eastern India, 1932.

30.- A New Approach to the Vedas: An Essay in Translation and Exegesis, Luzac, Londres, 1933. Nueva edición: The Vedas, Essays en Translation and Exegesis, Prologos Books, Beckenham, 1976. Trad. francesa: Une nouvelle approche des Vedas. Essai de traduction et d'exégèse, Arché, Milano, 1994.

31.- The Transformation of Nature in Art, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1934. (2ª ed. 1935), Reimpresión: Dover Publications, Nueva York 1956. Trad. española: La transformación de la naturaleza en arte, Kairós, Barcelona, 1997 (trad. de P. R.). Trad. italiana: La trasfigurazione della natura nell'arte (introducción y traducción de Grazia Marchianò), Rusconi, Milano 1976.

32.- Elements of Buddhist Iconography, foreword by Walter E. Clark, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1935. Reimpresión: Munshiram Manoharlal, Nueva Delhi, 1972, 1979.

33.- Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power en the Indian Theory of Government, American Oriental Society, New Haven, (Connecticut), 1942. Reimpresión: Kraus, Millwood, NY; trad. francesa: Autorité Spirituelle et Pouvoir Temporel dans la perspective indienne du gouvernement, Arché, Milano, 1985 (trad. de Michel Boutet). Próxima trad. italiana en Luni Editrice.

34.- Hinduism and Buddhism, Philosophical Library, Nueva York, 1943. Reimpresión: Greenwood Press, Westport, 1971. Trad. española: Hinduismo y Budismo, Paidós, Barcelona, 1997 (trad. de Agustín López y María Tabuyo). Trad. francesa: Hindouisme et Bouddhisme, Gallimard, París. Trad. italiana. Induismo e Buddismo (trad. de Ubaldo Zalino), Rusconi, Milano,  1973, 1987.

35.- Why Exhibit Works of Art?, Luzac, Londres, 1943; reimpreso con el título: Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art, Dover, Nueva York, 1956. Nueva edición: Munshiram Manoharlal, N. Delhi. Trad. española: La filosofía cristiana y oriental del arte, Taurus, Madrid, 1980 (trad. de Esteve Serra). Trad. italiana: Come interpretare un'opera d'arte (introducción y trad. de G. Marchianò), Rusconi, Milano 1977

36.- Figures of Speech or Figures of Thought: Collected Essays on the Traditional or «Normal» View of Art, (Second Series), Luzac, Londres, 1946, retomado casi totalmente en el volumen luego señalado con el nº 40.

37.- The Religious Basis of the Forms of Indian Society, 1946 (folleto).

38.- Am I My Brother's Keeper?, The John Day Company, Nueva York, 1947. Reimpresión con el título The Bugbear of Literacy, 1949, 2ª ed. ampliada, 1979, Arno Press, Nueva York. Trad. italiana: Sapienza orientale e cultura occidentale (trad. de L. Fenoglio), Rusconi, Milano 1975, 1988.

39.- Time and Eternity, en «Artibus Asiae», serie monográfica, suplemento nº 8, Ascona, Switzerland. Reimpresión: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, Nueva Delhi 1988. Trad. española: El tiempo y la eternidad, Taurus, Madrid, 1980 (trad. de Esteve Serra). Kairós, Barcelona, 1999 (trad. de Pedro Rodea). Trad. francesa: Le Temps et l´Eternité, Dervy-Livres, París, 1976 (trad. de Gerard Leconte). Trad. italiana: Tempo ed Eternità (trad. de R. Rajko), Luni Editrice, Milano 1996.

40.- The Living Thoughts of Gotama The Buddha, con I. B. Horner, Cassel, Londres, 1948. Trad. francesa: La Pensée de Gotama le Buddha, 1949.

41.- Selected Papers I / Traditional Art and Symbolism, a cargo de Roger Lipsey, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1977.

42.- Selected Papers II / Metaphysics, idem.

43.- On the Traditional Doctrine of Art, Golgonooza Press, Ipswich, 1977. Editado como libro aparte: Sobre la doctrina tradicional del arte, Olañeta, Palma de Mallorca, 1983 (trad. de Esteve Serra)

44.- Selected Letters of Ananda Coomaraswamy, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1988.

45.- What is Civilization? And Other Essays, éd. Rama Coomaraswamy, con prefacio de Seyed Hossein Nasr, Golgonooza Press, ipswich, 1989.


Through his writings, Ananda Coomaraswamy (1877-1947) revealed himself as a great art critic, philosopher and historian of our time.  In the words of his wife, Dona Luisa, "The extraordinary production in art history, aesthetic theory, social criticism, comparative religion, symbolism and metaphysics of this man is astounding.  He had intellectual powers with which few men of his generation could compare".  Besides being an enlightening influence in the West, he was also instrumental in the East's awakening to the beauty of its own tradition.

Coomaraswamy's publications comprise many voluminous books, and a very large range of pamphlets, articles, critical reviews, translations and letters published in different countries.  Indeed, a glance at the list of his writings would make one wonder whether one is looking through the Catalogue of a Library or the works of a single individual.  Out of this corpus, 12 books have already been published by IGNCA.  They are :

1. Selected letters of Ananda Coomaraswamy, Edited by Alvin Moore, Jr; and Rama P. Coomaraswamy (1988).  The letters included in the volume, published for the first time, reveal the being of this uncompromising man, who believed in no theories or ideologies, political or philosophic issues.  Combining scientific precision with his own sensitivity, Coomaraswamy addresses himself to the discipline of history, philosophy, arts and crafts.

2. What is Civilisation (1989): The essays comprising the volume ask fundamental questions, which are both piercing and incisive.  In one unbroken sweep, a vast spectrum of Western and Eastern Civilisations is covered.

3. Time and Eternity (1990): Coomaraswamy propounds that though we live in Time, our deliverance lies in Eternity.  All religions make this distinction between what is merely "everlasting" or "perpetual" and what is eternal.

4. Essays in Early Indian Architecture, Edited by Michael W. Meister (1992): Coomaraswamy's probing analysis of texts and sculpted reliefs in order to reconstruct the extraordinary wooden architecture of early India was not only an act of great scholarship, but also a foundation on which further histories of India's exceptional architectural tradition have all been constructed.

5. Spiritual Authority and Temporal: Power in the Indian Theory of Government, Edited by Keshavaram N. Iengar and Rama P. Coomaraswamy (1993): The Indian theory of Government is expounded on the basis of the textural sources.  The welfare of the community depends upon the obedience and loyalties of the subjects to the dual control of the King and Priest, that of the King to the Priest, and that of all to the principle of an Eternal Law-Dharma-as King of Kings.

6.Yaksas: Essays in the Water Cosmology, Edited by Paul Schroeder (1993): The origin of the Yaksas is examined in the context of Vedic, Brahmanical and Upanisadic literature, along with the non-Aryan and pre-Aryan preoccupation with the concept.  Dealing with the interpretation levels of artistic motif, Coomaraswamy delved deeper to unfold the water cosmology.

7. Thirty Songs From the Punjab and Kashmir, Eidted by Prem Lata Sharma (1994): The songs were recorded by Mrs. Alice Coomaraswamy, with Introduction and translation by Ananda Coomaraswamy.  She had studied Indian classical music from Ustad Abdul Rahim of Kapurthala, and later she transcribed the thrity songs learnt by her in staff notations.

8. Vidyapati Padavali (1994): Vidyapati Thakur's wreath of songs on the theme of courtship of God and Soul under the names of Radha and Krishna, was translated by Coomaraswamy and Arun Sen, from original Maithili.  The spiritual significance lies in Radha depicted as a village girl in love play with divinity and Krishna, not a historical figures, but infinity incarnate, the principle of unity and totality.

9. Essays in Architectural Theory, Edited by Michael W. Meister (1995).  This volume presents in consecutive form the essays that best represent Coomaraswamy's rapidly developing thinking on the hermeneutics of architecture, - its "why" not "how".

10. The Transformation of Nature in Art, Edited by Kapila Vatsyayan (1995): In this volume, Coomaraswamy attempts to explain the theory behind medieval European and Asiatic art, especially art in India.  The first principle of his theories is that art does not exist for its own sake; it exists as a means to some religious conditions or experience.

11. Hinduism and Buddhism, Eidted by Keshavarama N. Iengar and Rama P. Coomaraswamy (1999): The two essays are authoritative expositions of the teachings of these religions as understood by those who practised them rather than as understood by scholars and comparative religionists who studied and reviewed them from without.

12. The Perception of the Vedas, Edited by Vidya Nivas Misra (2000): Coomaraswamy's stuides of the Vedas and Upanishads, published in a variety of American, European and Indian Journals, have been arranged in this volume in relations to some aspect or the other of Vedic text as one integrated perception.

The following books are already in the press in advanced stages of publication, and are expected to be published between March 31 and June 30, 2001.

1. Essays on Jaina Art, Edited by Richard Cohen.

2. Essays on Geology and Mineralogy, Edited By A. Ranganathan and K. Srinivasa Rao.

3. Bibliography of Ananda Coomaraswamy, Compiled by James Crouch.

4. Elements of Buddhist Iconography, Edited by Krishna Deva.

5. Essays on Music, Edited by Prem Lata Sharma.

Necessary material for the following volumes has been collected and after careful editing, press copies will be prepared.

1. Essays on Swadeshi.

2. Essays on Education.

3. Essays on Women.

4. Mirror of Gesture : Abhinaya Darpan of Nadikesvara.

Other titles are also being identified and relevant material being collected for publication.  Lastly, two unpublished manuscripts have been given to  us by his son Dr. Rama P. Coomaraswamy, which after careful editing will also be published.  They are :

1. The Early Iconography of Sagittarius and

2. Concerning Sphinxes.

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