Beauty in Hinduism


Beauty comprises one of the triad of ideals— truth, goodness, beauty—with which classical philosophy has been especially concerned. It is looked upon as one of the active forces of the universe and an aspect of the ideal spiritual power, propelling all reality. In the Hindu context, beauty has been closely linked with godliness as in the concept satyam shivam sundara—that is, truth, goodness (shivam is also translated as “godliness,” because Shiva is the name of a major Hindu god), and beauty. This phrase describes the feeling or experience of ananda, or delight at seeing/experiencing a beautiful object. Rabindranath Tagore has expressed the view that to experience beauty is to come face to face with god—sat chit ananda (existence-consciousness-bliss). Goodness and beauty are indissolubly linked and united with sat, or truth. The underlying idea is that beauty is part of the concept ofparabrahman, beyond the universal spirit. It also means that appreciating beauty fully and in the right manner is to experience Brahmananda—the joy of being one with the universal one. Saundarya is aesthetic activity and experience. A contemplative penetrating and deliberate experience of beauty stemming from art objects is jnana, or knowledge, and is a transcendent and transforming experience. Hence there is a strong belief that what is beautiful does not just give us joy and happiness but can lead to liberation.

The Indian civilization’s love for the most beautiful and sensuous can be amply seen in artistic renditions pertaining to the physical body. In early India, focus on the beauty of the female form may be seen in the sculpture of the Bharhut and Sanchi. The figures of Yakshi-nis (earth spirits) and Shalabhanjikas (tree spirits) abound with ample features that include well-endowed, full-bodied, voluptuous forms. The hair and body is richly adorned with jewelry, indicating the love for ornamentation. There is no doubt that norms of beauty are culturally constructed and varied from region to region. Along with the beauty of the human form, the beauty of nature is also found in minute detail in the foliage and landscape hewn in stone and poetry. The four Sangam poets often used the beauty of scenic landscape to express feelings of love, sorrow, and other human emotions.

The ideal of beauty in ancient India was a favorite theme with the poets. This is to be connected with the theory of rasa, inexactly translated as “sentiment,” which is a unique part of ancient Indian poetics. This beauty was for the anthropomorphic form of human beings as well as celestial beings. Poets seemed to luxuriate in lengthy verses on different parts of the female as well as male body. The art-history response has claimed that Indian religious art is not concerned with carnal beauty as such, but with higher spirituality. In fact, this is belied by numerous religious hymns that graphically describe the physical beauty of the goddess. The Saundaryalahari, supposed to have been composed by Shankaracharya in the eighth-ninth century, is a long hymn devoted to the beauty of the goddess Tripurasundari. The title Saundaryalahari means “waves of beauty.” In graphic and vivid categorization, the verses delineate each physical feature from the head to the toe of the goddess. Even though it is meant for a goddess, the depiction is replete with a lively candor. The title also means enjoyment—the enjoyment of spiritual delight in a state of ecstatic union with the Divine. It is not to be compared with the enjoyment of the sense objects and eludes any rational explanation; rather, it is based upon the belief that one can achieve liberation through divine beauty. In the Bhagavad Gita, it is said that any glorious or beautiful existence in this world should be understood to be but a fragmented manifestation of Krishna’s opulence.

Paradoxically, even though the society imagined gods to be bearers of beauty, grace, and power, the gods inhabited a different world of thought, at once human and yet transcendental with their many limbs and extra corporeal ways.

The physical responses to love are largely involuntary manifestations of emotions— sattvabhava. Indian aesthetic theory considers them highly significant because they arise from inner feeling and cannot be simulated. In the case of love, such signs as sweating and bristling of the hair—as on the skin—show the body’s natural excitement and longing, no matter what one may do to pretend otherwise. Also taken as involuntary signs are paralysis, trembling, weeping, change of color, breaking of voice, and fainting. Physical beauty is thought to be enhanced by these signs and few descriptions of beauty can ignore them.

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