The Voice of the Sacred in Our Time Keynote Address by Kathleen Raine

My first meeting with Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan was in (I think) the year 1982 when she took the chair at a lecture I gave when Dr. Santosh Pall had invited me to give the inaugural lecture of the Yeats Society of India. Kapilaji was at that time a member of Indira Gandhi’s government; and I remember asking her, “Does India have to make all the mistakes of the West?” To which she replied, “Yes, all”. “But there is not time”, I said. Two years later Kapilaji was founding the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, and what she said then was “I am planting trees”, the long-living wide-spreading banyan that yet grows from a seed as small as the bindu, that all-potent “zero”, the mysterious, immeasurable source. Now the IGNCA promotes and publishes learned works whose value is not to Indian scholars alone but to the whole world where all scholars devoted to “the learning of the imagination” look to India with your still living tradition of arts and crafts rooted in a unifying vision of “the sacred”.

Meanwhile the Temenos Academy has on a more modest scale worked to protect the living seed in a dark season – Shelley’s “winged seeds where they lie cold and low”, seed of the Spirit, living essence of the past and source of future life. Kapilaji consented to become a founding Fellow of our Temenos Academy and she has generously agreed to collaborate in this visit we are making to India. Your High Commissioner in London, Dr. L.M. Singhvi, has been a constant friend to Temenos and has lectured for us – he too is a great planter of trees. In England he has been planting trees to commemorate those English poets who loved India – Shelley and Yeats and Eliot – or whom India has loved, Wordsworth and Burns and Blake. What is now a days inexplicably called “the real world” may see little practical use in the planting of trees but we who believe that the living world of mind and spirit is the real world see in these things the true source of civilization.

On my first visit, great Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was the presiding presence at the India International Centre, than whom no-one did more to protect and promote the many arts and crafts inspired by “the India of the Imagination”, and I never return to this rare centre of culture without remembering her. And now we have to thank the India International Centre for welcoming us with open arms and giving us the use of this fine new conference room, free. That a conference in India should take place was suggested by our friend and Temenos trustee Mr. Vinod Tailor, and Mr. A. Misra, retired Director in England of Air India, who has helped to sponsor our travel.

When first I set foot on the sacred ground of India, illumined by the sun-god who sheds here his most glorious light, something in me said, “Home at last”. And it is with the joy of homecoming that I am able to be here with Indian friends again, and to bring with me friends from Temenos, some returning, others visiting India for the first time. Your welcome makes our visit auspicious.

At the beginning of this century whose end is so near, Kipling could still write that “East is East and West is West”. Today we are one world, the “twain” have met and are changing one another with unpredictable results. Already we live in one world, but what will be the nature of the world into which we are moving? That is in our hands to determine. India is becoming an industrialized modern nation, with all the technology developed over the last centuries of Western science; and who can deny the great benefits that science and technology have brought to the world in many fields – the air transport that has brought us here and other means of communication – telephone, television and the rest, medical research, the motor car and the thousand conveniences of modern life that we would be unwilling to forego. But science is concerned with means and not ends, it is morally neutral. It has given us the means of saving life but equally of destroying it – weapons of destruction of terrifying power – and we have used them – and the most profitable export of the “developed” nations – including my own – are these weapons which are sold, legally or illegally, to whoever can pay for them. By treating nature as an object external to and separate from ourselves we have come to regard animals (and indeed plants and all the elements and powers of nature) as mere mechanisms, as commodities to be used as we will. Cattle, which from times immemorial, India has held sacred, are in our modern world mere commodities, links in the food-chain. At the same time our machines – computers, “artificial brains” have come to be seriously discussed as capable of thought – a double blasphemy against the sacredness of life. For the materialist world “nothing is sacred”; we ourselves are mere biochemical mechanisms in a universe without meaning or value. And yet scientific materialism has become the generally accepted supreme authority and arbiter of truth for a majority in the West and westernized world. There is no reality except what natural science can observe and measure. As for values – wisdom and love and beauty and delight, knowledge and understanding – all these are immeasurable and for that reason have no place in the technological utopia our culture is bringing into being.

But for all its triumphs, modern materialist science and technology is creating a world we are finding increasingly uninhabitable – not only because we have good reason to be terrified by our own powers of destruction, but because that destruction is already upon us in many ways. You have no doubt read with some horror of the consequences of feeding cattle on animal offal, a violation of nature which is taking its revenge in the form of disease. Our systematic destruction of forests all over the world is already changing the climate of our beautiful, delicately balanced planet earth. “Genetic engineering” is changing the nature of plants and animals in ways unpredictable. Sir Laurens van der Post, in a broadcast shortly before he left this earth in December last year summed up the situation in stern words :

“At the moment we are heading straight for destruction, there is the life of the spirit and we have not engaged with it. Our obsession with material things is quite dreadful. We have greater power than at any time in our history to control nature, and it has corrupted us. Present society is at the end of its cycle.”

Again I recall my conversation with Kapilaji, “Must India make all our mistakes”? and her reply, “Yes, all”.

Going back to 1928, to Yeats’s second version of his prophetic work ‘A Vision’, his fictional magus, Michael Robartes, foretells the same catastrophe. Robartes speaks :

“Have I proved that civilizations come to an end when they have given all their light like burned-out wicks, and that ours is near its end”? “Or transformation”, Aherne corrected. I said, speaking in the name of all, “You have proved that civilizations burn out, and that ours is near its end”.

“Or transformation”, Aherne corrected once more.

“If you had answered differently”, said Robartes, “I would have sent you away, for we are here to consider the terror that is to come”.

But that terror is not the whole story; nor was it for Yeats, whose vision of history, taken from Plato himself and the pre-Socratic philosophers takes the form of a diagram of two interpenetrating cones, or spirals, the “gyres” — the apex of each touching the base of the other, and in perpetual motion, the revolutions of time. As one spiral waxes, the other wanes until at the point of reversal golden age moves toward iron age and then again God resumes his control of the world and the earth-born men give place to “the golden race”, as the divine order is restored. At these points of reversal there are (according to Plato) troubled times; and according to Yeats’s chart one of these cosmic moments of reversal is due to begin in the first decade of the next century. How literally one should take the symbols offered us by all poets is open to question; but what is certain is that we build our world according to our dreams (or our nightmares), our civilizations – our “cloud-capped towers” whether they be in Manhattan or on Shakespeare’s stage – the Globe theatre or “the great globe itself” originate in the imagination. We create our own history. And while old civilizations – India herself – are eagerly adopting Western values, at the same time in the West we are discovering the limits of those values, and in Europe and America there are everywhere to be found seekers, searchers, especially among the young, the search after spiritual values, the rise of soul in protest against the overweening claims of a materialist science which denies the very existence of immeasurable soul and spirit. This is taking place at many levels and in many forms. Again looking back to the first conference I ever attended at the India International Centre, among those present was a great philosopher-novelist, Raja Rao. He was speaking of course of the eternal India, the “India of the Imagination”, the continuous age-old civilization which has lived through millenia without a break or a revolution. He said many other things about this state of being which he calls “India”. That continuity of culture which has remained unbroken – and which distinguishes the eternal Orient from Western civilization – has never regarded the material world as the ground of reality : on the contrary, not the observed but the observer, mind, spirit, is the ground. Not a lifeless substance called “matter” “outside existence” as Blake puts it, but existence itself, the living principle, sat-chit-ananda is the ground. The universe is not a lifeless object – an object in which the logic of the materialist argument forces us finally to include ourselves – but a life which includes all, in which not only what we understand as animate creatures, but rocks and mountains and stars, the light of the sun and the Mystery itself in which we live and move and have our being, participate. While for our materialist culture “nothing is sacred”, for those civilizations and individuals who have understood that we are participants in a living mystery, know that, again in Blake’s words, “Everything that lives is holy”.

So in these cross-currents East and West are thrown together; the same reality, the same questions confront us both alike. But while you are adopting Western values along with much-needed Western technology, we look to the Orient to rescue us from a materially affluent but spiritually destitute world. For science, whose exploration of the physical universe has pursued matter to its vanishing-point, that zero, that bindu beyond which it can no longer be pursued, and where the observed can no longer be externalized from the observer, Science has perhaps completed its exploration of matter, from the minute to the bounds of space; but it can tell us nothing of the immeasurable, of meanings and values, of love and wisdom, of joy and sorrow; and the human kingdom has been, from the most primitive aboriginal people to the great philosophers, sages, saints, poets and artists, in all our stories of love and war, our comedies and tragedies, concerned with values. Such is the nature of civilization, such is the nature of our humanity. It could be questioned whether our modern technological culture is a civilization at all. And of course, being human, a world without meaning is unbearable to us, it is a hell, a “nightmare” as Yeats calls it. And we look to those civilizations which have not denied and excluded spiritual knowledge, which we in the West have so largely lost.

India has from times immemorial founded its continuous and unbroken civilization on that living mystery in which being-consciousness and delight are inseparable. The word “India” evokes, even now, a texture of wonder, from the teachers and the teaching, temples and palaces, rich textiles, jewels, dance and music, to the crafts of villages, pottery and wood-carving and metalwork, to the finger-paintings on their thresholds painted by village women. And it is a vision of the sacredness of all life that has crafted and embodied that shimmering vision of the Imagination in a thousand expressions of the arts and crafts. For all our technology we in the secular West have lost the secret of beauty – our endlessly repeatable artefacts lack that imprint of the imaginative vision which is to be found in the still vital tradition of Indian craftsmanship. On my first visit to India it was the presence everywhere of beauty – in the saris and bracelets of the poor no less than of women working in academic and in highly responsible administrative positions that impressed me – Indian women, I reflected, value beauty too much to let it go. On my last visit, three years ago, I wondered, “where has beauty gone?” Should it not be clear that something is wrong with an ideology which destroys beauty, for beauty flowers only from the soul? So from our materially affluent but spiritually impoverished Western world more and more of our young people in search of their own souls are turning to the Orient. Buddhism is, I believe, the fastest-growing religion in Europe, and probably in the United States also; and did not Nehru himself write that the Lord Buddha is probably India’s greatest gift to the world? You have here in Delhi the International Academy of Indian Culture, a treasury of records of the penetration of Indian culture to East and West, to Indonesia and China and Tibet, into pre-Socratic Europe and again today. The great diaspora of Indian immigrants in the Western world is itself permeating our own world with another quality. In the Christian Church itself, especially in the religious Orders, Oriental meditation methods are becoming widely practised. The Christian tradition itself remains the ground of European culture, but is increasingly under threat from the prevailing materialism, and a science which claims reality for the material order alone. Were it not for the two thousand years of Judaeo-Christian culture, and the still older Hellenistic civilization the damage would have been still greater.

Of course truth is truth everywhere, and we too have not wholly lost the Judaeo-Christian, and the Platonic traditions which created European civilization. All spiritual traditions are records of humanity’s experience of the sacred. We gave the name of Temenos to our journal of “the Arts of the Imagination” and to our Academy because the “temenos” is the sacred precinct of a temple; and it is in that sacred precinct – be it of temple, church or mosque, or in that sacred space within the soul itself – that works of Imagination have arisen, whether in sculpture and architecture, music, dance and drama. Yeats in his Introduction to Tagore’sGitanjali (published in 1920) wrote that Tagore’s poems display in their thought a world I have dreamed of all my life long. The work of a supreme culture they yet appear as much the growth of the common soil as the grass and the rushes. A tradition, where poetry and religion are the same thing, has passed through the centuries, gathering from learned and unlearned metaphor and emotion, and carried back to the multitude the thought of the scholar and the noble.

We too once had such a civilization, to which our great cathedrals stand witness, in which learned men and craftsmen, noble and simple alike devoted their wealth and their skills to a common vision.

But if every religion is grounded in a vision of the sacred, that vision is itself an experience which belongs to our nature no less than do love and joy and sorrow. It is innate in the soul, and may be awakened by some simple thing, Wordsworth’s “tree, of many one”, or Traherne’s “orient and immortal wheat that never would be reaped and never had been sown”. Indeed the ties between religion and the vision of “the sacred” no longer seem in any way inevitable, although of course mosque and cathedral sculpture and stained glass window, themselves reflect, and can therefore in their turn awaken, such a vision. The need has been felt, in the last hundred years, to go back to the source, Whereas the secular world is time-bound, the source is present at all times, available in every present. It is available now, and for the timeless reality time is never running out! But we are also in history, and circumstances change, forms valid in one age are not necessarily so in another.

Are the old god-forms dead, or are such symbols as the dance of Shiva, the Christian Cross, the Tree of Life, the candle-flame, the sun, inherently meaningful? Indeed, is nature one continual epiphany, rose and rainbow, mountain and river, star and eagle and tiger, Hanuman and Ganesha, all in themselves and for ever forms of wisdom? Are the eternal teachings of every spiritual tradition a “perennial philosophy”, inherent in the nature of things? Is the law, like that of birth and death, “the same anew” i.e., Re-experienced, relived, reloved in every age, in every life? Unageing spirit takes many forms, according to time and place and culture. Our English poet-prophet William Blake called it Imagination, and called Imagination “the divine humanity”, “the human existence itself”, what you in India have always known as the Self, present in all, a teaching implicit in the Gita and the Upanishads. In denying this inner light we mutilate and kill our souls. And that is why the world needs India as never before. The great civilization of the “India of the Imagination” remains intact but is in grave danger from the imperialism of a materialist civilization, that instead of Imagination the universal divine spirit offers an “internet” of information, and for the delight of the soul in its own universe offers luxury and wealth. It would be an irreparable loss were the great India to succumb to the effortless culture which is overspreading the world, of materialism that denies soul and spirit. Will it be destruction, or transformation? And, if transformation, what will change, what is undying?

It is these things that we are here to consider together. For these questions are not mere matters of opinion, private matters, they have practical consequences in every sphere of life, in economics and agriculture and ecology, in architecture, education, medicine, in the arts. We build our world according to our nightmares or our dreams. The Christian law given in the Lord’s Prayer is “on earth as it is in Heaven” – and “heaven” is within us. The Irish poet-mystic AE who played an active part in Irish agricultural reform spoke of the need to conform “the politics of time” to “the politics of eternity” – which is the same thing. We have come to share our experience of the renewal of the sacred with you, to learn, to dip our small cups in the eternal river of India; thank you Kapilaji, for making this possible and I thank those speakers, scholars and fellow-participants in the Great Battle, for being with us.




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