Welcome to White Rose Magazine.

Issue XV

Elliot Toman

A Journey into Indian Art + Spirituality

What do Enrique Iglesias and the Hindu God have in common?

Both would say: “You can run, you can hide, but you can’t escape my love.”

“The Peepal Tree,” by Lovina Tanya

Indeed, in the Indian view of God, you cannot escape God. 

Not because God has set up top surveillance on you, tapping into your privacy all the time.

In Indian spiritualism, you just can’t escape God. Even turning away from God is a path to God. A total disbelief in and denial of an anthropomorphic form of God is a valid path to God too.

In the Hindu point of view, you cannot escape God because, God is all there is.

This may trigger a flutter of questions. If God is all there is, we are God too.

If we are God, then why is there so much trouble in the world?

If we are God, why do we commit evil?

If we are God, why should we worship God?

Questions like these are often thrown out by those who feel baffled by this, out of curiosity or in an attempt to trash this seemingly illogical point of view.

Often, Gurus may try to provide an in-depth response to such questions, but any authentic response would begin with an acknowledgement of the limitation of our linear, conscious, rational mind. Everything about the human mind that we are proud of as distinguishing us from animals—for example, linguistics, logic, etc.—are the first step in the ladder of human consciousness. They help us navigate our everyday lives but cannot lead us to understanding the mysteries of the Universe.

This is not an excuse to propagate blind faith. This is an invitation to move to a higher state of knowingness: “Direct experience.” You can know God only by experiencing a state of oneness with God.

The whole of Indian spiritualism, whether in its pure non-dualistic form, or in its most ritualistic format, is a path toward experiencing God directly. 

Some may accomplish this by being a true devotee of God who strives to get as close to his chosen Divine principle as possible. Some may want to express this as being at one with and dissolving into his Divine icon. 

Others may assert “I am God myself.

This assertion of “I am God” is not a claim of superiority or arrogance. It is an expression of a factual statement: God is all there is.

All of the questions along the lines of “if God is all there is, then …” can only be answered in that experience of oneness with the divinity, beyond the realm of rational thought or verbal articulation.

It does require you to go beyond the restrictions of language and logic.

It does require “trust” and “faith” in the initial steps, but only to the extent to get you started and reach a stage where you can experience it yourself. 

It is just as protecting a child from burns and electrical shocks by strictly requiring her NOT to touch a flame or an electric wire, till the point where the child is able to recognize these dangers all by herself. It is not a means to keep the child ignorant for life so that she could be manipulated into a lifetime of obedience through “Trust” or “Faith.”

An adolescent who needs to be told to keep off flames and electric wires just hasn’t grown appropriately.

The immanent transcendence of the Divine does not close doors with the requisition of “Trust” or “Faith,” but opens new ones by creating means to provide and share a Direct Experience of the Divine.

Indian Art as the Door to the Direct Experience of the Divine

All of Indian art has evolved to provide and share a “Direct Experience” of the Divine.

Just as the direct experience of Divinity could fall in any of the categories of “I am a true child of God,” “I am one with God,” “I am God,” or other linguistic expressions, the art forms take on shades of these variations as well.

To a true practitioner, these variations are semantics, not hardened “ideologies,” “paths,” or “schools of thought.”

These are reflections of our state of consciousness and emotions.

There may be times when I am in a very loving and devoted state of mind and would want to honour my chosen God or Goddess in their most adorable forms. At other times, I may feel such a supreme surge of love or bliss that I may just want to dissolve in the object of my love and melt away. 

Or I may feel such expansiveness that I feel that there is nothing else in the entire universe, but ME.

I may possibly feel and experience ALL of these, in succession, within a matter of a few minutes.

Even the toughest and the most protective caretaker of a family may require his moments of cuddling. 

As a human being, I might want to feel sufficiently potent to be the creator of my whole destiny, but I might have moments where I just want to be pampered and be handed over all the goodies as a gift and feel like destiny’s most favourite child.

The paths to spirituality are expressions of our states of consciousness, and an individual might want to experience all shades of these in his path toward God, knowing very well, God is all there is.

It is not a surprise that the greatest proponent of non-dualism, Shankaracharya, is known for having established a large number of temples for Goddesses all over the country. 

Abhinavagupta, known for his remarkable contributions to the most poignant and the most non-negotiable school of non-duality, Kashmir Shaivism, is equally regarded as an aesthetician and some of his most outstanding works happen to be in the theory of “rasa.”

To one who goes sufficiently deep within, there is no contradiction whatsoever. To require one to stick to one path and not look elsewhere would be equivalent to demanding that a person should make a definite choice of being an “angry young man” or a “happy-go-lucky-Joe” and stick to his “path” for life.

Mystics have never found any contradiction in “being God” and “worshipping God.” A rational approach would surely want to place an individual on either side of the fence. When perceived from the standpoint of “Direct Experience,” there is no contradiction between the two. 

This is much like the popular statement by the ancient King Porus, who in Alexander’s captivity demanded that he be treated “just like a King treats another King.”

A god in tatters is no less a god. A goddess in pain doesn’t become a lesser goddess. The Indian mind seeks divinity in all aspects of existence and seeks to be treated as divine. The globally acknowledged greeting “Namaste” (= Namah + te) reflects just that.

“Oneness” vs. “The One”

The key element of the Indian view of spirituality is to identify the “Oneness,” which stands for the inclusiveness of all elements of Creation into the Divinity, rather than identifying the “One,” who is the source of all creation and stands tall and mighty, separate from the Creation.

In the Indian point of view, the Creation is inseparable from the Creator, and the entire spiritual journey is about the Creation recognizing and remembering its own identity as the Creator.

Art, in the Indian heritage, is a way to experience this oneness with the Divine. It is one of the many methods to remember and recognize this oneness with the Divinity, and a means to provide a shared experience to others.

It could incorporate a state of devotion as well as a process of expressing one’s own prowess and capacities as the Creator.

It is not a coincidence that the Goddess of Art in Indian spirituality is also the Goddess of Manifestation, and the patron Lord of Dance and Dramatic Arts is also the God of Dissolution. 

Dissolution, for the lack of an appropriate translation, is not the same as destruction or annihilation, but a process of de-manifestation. It is a letting go of the current manifestation so that a new manifestation can take its place. Essentially this is an act of Creation, too.

Creation or Manifestation in Indian spiritualism is not the conjuring the world out of nothing, but a process of the eternal Un-manifest Consciousness manifesting itself in forms. Dissolution is the equivalent of a clay sculpture being taken down to its mud form, making it ready to be re-carved into another sculpture.

Every act of creativity is an act of creation or manifestation and involves the same creative energies that the Creator utilizes to create the universe.

The artist in the Indian forms of art creates and performs to experience that oneness with the Divine. 

This doesn’t require an explicit reference to God. Even the most secular and mundane manifestations of art is a form of spiritual expression too, because God is all there is.

Spirituality is not in the Content, but the State of Being

The spiritual dimension of Indian art does not necessarily lie in the content, but is inherent in the process of the creation and performance of the art.

Devotion, in the Indian context, is primarily a state of Consciousness as against an act of allegiance to another being. The “object” of Devotion is insignificant as compared to its “objective,” which is to unlock and unearth one’s own latent divinity. An individual immersed in Devotion stands out, regardless of whether the Devotion is for the Supreme God, for one of the thousands of deities, an element of Nature, another human being, an art or craft, or any aspect of Creation.

Hence, even an art form that illustrates a normal human life with all its shades of emotions, limitations, turmoil, catastrophe, disasters, evils, and immorality is equally spiritual. 

The “Human” Elements of Indian Art

Indian art styles identify all shades of human consciousness, categorizing them in nine forms called “rasas” as an important aspect of expression.

The expression of love, romance, aesthetics, and passion may be heretic in some cultures, but is a perfectly valid form of divine expression in the Indian form of arts. A dancer may guise it in the form of a love between Radha and Krishna. Apologists and purists may vehemently insist that this is a divine love and cannot be compared to earthly human love, yet this is no different from an expression of romance between two teenagers.

The artists in the Indian forms of art did not necessarily have to break away from the society to express their dark arts or bold styles. The idea of “being a rebel” was seamlessly absorbed in the acknowledgement of every human being as a unique manifestation of the Divine, having his own unique, personal journey in life, and his own unique, personal journey to the Divine.

Rebellion in the Indian society was never revolting, but was gracefully intertwined aesthetically in everyday expressions.

Indians found a way to weave all shades of human consciousness so gracefully and elegantly that even the most passionate forms of expression found its way in day to day life, without having to worry whether it as “Adult Content” or a “Fit to view for all.”

Aesthetics as a Path to the Divine

Aesthetics was the path of sublimation of the normal to the divine. In Indian spiritual traditions, there are many references to male and female energies and their union as the source of all Creation and Creativity. These are not restricted to esoteric schools and traditions but find their presence all around us all the time, in symbolism. However, it never lends to any profanity in any form.

Even the gross, the grotesque, and the horrific in the Indian arts forms are expressed with a degree of aestheticism. Indian arts never rely on an adrenaline gush or the evoking of the “yuck” feeling to be more impactful.

The emotions we often encounter in our everyday lives are polar in nature and arise from specific life situations. The emotions expressed in the Indian art forms are beyond polarity and causality. Emotions of bliss, ecstasy, expansiveness, etc., do not have polar opposites and do not depend on specific life situations.

The “drama” enacted in Indian dance forms does not express our regular emotional drama and traumas. Rather, it is a reflection of the “Divine play”—the Leela.

There are many ragas and compositions in Indian classical music that express the pain of separation, pain of waiting for someone, pain of betrayal, but never do these expressions tantamount to blame or resentment. 

While the richness of the nine “rasas” in Indian arts do allow for expression of a wide variety of emotions, Indian art forms steer away from all forms of toxicity. 

All expressions of pain, sorrow, or grief in the Indian art forms are just that—expressions of pain, sorrow, and grief. They never intend to find someone to blame for one’s sufferings. 

Since most of popular entertainment resides on kicks and thrills, the Indian Art forms may possibly not appeal to every individual. It does require a certain refinement of tastes and the ability to appreciate subtleties to appreciate the sublime nature of the Indian art forms.

It is an inward journey, beyond even intellectual stimulation. The intrinsic transcendent nature of the Indian art forms does not allow much space for intellectual rigour and analysis. Hence, often, the Indian Arts may not even find favours with global art experts and art critics.

Indian Art + Spirituality are Inseparable

One truly needs to be aware of the finer points of Indian spirituality to be able to understand, acknowledge, appreciate, and enjoy the finesse of the Indian art forms.

Similar to Indian spirituality, the Indian forms of art can be best learnt in their experiential form. A textbook on Indian Art may provide encyclopaedic information, but the soul of the Indian Art could only be absorbed by engaging and interacting with those who have dedicated their lives to learning, mastering, and performing these art forms.

In this series, we will explore the romance between Indian Art and Indian spirituality, in conversations with artists and practitioners of various art forms. Through these conversations, we will understand how Indian spirituality helps in the evolution of these art forms, and how these art forms enrich Indian spirituality by providing a simplified means of experiencing Indian spirituality in a practical, dynamic, living form.

Stay Quiet? Psht!

A big macher recently dressed down a man of perhaps somewhat smaller stature on a Manhattan sidewalk, admonishing him not to “divide” the Jewish community. In Yiddish, that would be sha shtil! or “stay quiet!”—in shul, as much as in front of the non-Jews.

Ronald Weiner, a past president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York, was making his way on June 12 toward the New York Historical Society for the JCRC’s annual gala. Near the entrance was CUNY law professor Jeffrey Lax, who has written about the cesspool of anti-Semitism that is CUNY, and the JCRC’s milquetoast approach to it all.

The JCRC-NY—an organization presumably committed to the welfare of all of New York’s Jews, and not just those who want to pump hands at a gala where tickets go for $1,250 apiece—had decided that a good way to tackle Jew-hate at CUNY was to fête someone at the top. The recipient that night of the JCRC’s annual award for public service: CUNY board chairperson William C. Thompson, Jr.

Lax and about a dozen supporters had come out in protest on Central Park West. Weiner made a beeline for Lax. Someone started filming.

“Instead of unifying the Jewish community,” Weiner said, invoking a calamity of epic proportions to describe Lax’s public criticism of the JCRC, “you’re causing schisms. And I take you back to the Second Temple and the behavior of the too extreme [sic].” Sha shtil.

Speaking of the Romans, the venue selected by the JCRC, the New York Historical Society, is an edifice constructed in notable Roman-Eclectic-style. But perhaps more on point were echoes of the archetypal Viennese Jew condescending to the shtetl Jew: Weiner, with his impressive titles and exquisite suit, belittling Lax, who works at CUNY’s Kingsborough Community College in Brooklyn and wears a yarmulke, as he gripped a sign saying “JCRC NY, the Jewish Community of New York Deserves Better Leadership.”

In fact, the arresting scene brought to mind Tom Stoppard’s drama Leopoldstadt, playing just down the street before closing in early July. That production traces the dismal trajectory of assimilated, well-to-do Jews, living in, well, Vienna.

Lax supporter Jan Morrow had turned out because it seemed to her that Thompson should not be the toast of the Jewish world right now, given how he and the board had declined to hold responsible any CUNY adult for the most recent anti-Jewish offense of a law school graduation speech that was rife with anti-Semitic tropes and called for “rage” against “Zionism… around the world.”

The arresting scene brought to mind Tom Stoppard’s drama Leopoldstadt, playing just down the street.

Gala-goers mainly were not amenable to Morrow’s message. “Many of them smirked at us,” said Morrow, a clinical psychologist. “One guy turned around at the top [of the stairs] and flashed the finger.”

Weiner’s treatment of Lax didn’t appear much better. “Do you think [the] JCRC is doing a good job?” Lax said, in reference to the JCRC’s responsibility to protect Jews from CUNY’s systemic, anti-Jewish bigotry.

“It depends on the level,” Weiner said, adding, “You’re a street fighter… Listen to me. You’re a street fighter. I know who you are… You’re a publicist… You’re not a serious thinker.”

Said Lax, “I’ve written in law reviews…”

“I don’t give a s—t,” Weiner said. “You’re not a serious thinker on Jewish issues because if you did [sic], you’d care about Jewish unity.”

It got worse. “Do you know that in the 45 senior leadership [positions] at CUNY, there are zero Jews left?” Lax said.

“You know that I know that,” Weiner said. “Where the f—k have you been in all these intervening years, and all that?”

Do you know that in the 45 senior leadership [positions] at CUNY, there are zero Jews left?

“Excuse me!” Lax said, “I’ve been fighting for eight years! Are you joking?!”

 “Well, apparently you’ve not been very effective, have you?” Weiner retorted.

“We’re bringing attention to this,” said Lax, who in 2021 co-founded Students and Faculty for Equality at CUNY, or S.A.F.E. CUNY, to push back against anti-Zionism at the school.

Regardless of Weiner’s affability, he is certainly a man in demand. The website of Perelson-Weiner LLP Certified Public Accountants, where Weiner has been chairman and president for 28 years, touts Weiner’s position on the “Executive Committee of the Prince Mohammad Bin Salman College of Business and Entrepreneurism” in Saudi Arabia. A country which, at the very least, has funneled billions of dollars into anti-American and anti-Jewish propaganda disguised as Middle East curricula for our high schools and universities.

In 2022, the JCRC announced a partnership with CUNY to help make it a place where all Jews once again feel welcome. The organization has brought CUNY execs to Israel and the West Bank, and taken anodyne steps, like issuing a statement after the law school speech. But the JCRC’s eagerness to lend its weighty imprimatur to CUNY’s insipid efforts while refusing to play hardball with CUNY officials—and indeed celebrating its very chairperson—make Lax’s labors even harder, if that’s possible. The JCRC has traded advocacy for access. And it is unwilling to acknowledge how that mutually beneficial exchange facilitates more anti-Semitism by gaslighting beleaguered CUNY Jews.

I have never met Weiner or Lax. But viewing the exchange online was enough to get me on a northbound Amtrak train a few weeks later. People like me have grown very, very tired of people like Weiner, telling us to sit down and shut up, lest we cause “schisms” inside the community—or ruin a nice party.

I was shaking a little in the hours running up to 4 p.m., when I figured I should hit the pavement in front of the JCRC office, at 520 8th Avenue, shortly before quitting time. I’d made a large sign: “Truth to Power: JCRC-NY Fails Jews” with the hashtag “#CUNY.”

As I stood there, sign aloft, a man in a yarmulke glanced up and said, loudly, “It’s true.” One young woman with dark hair came out of the building, caught my eye, and gave me a tiny, furtive salute before walking quickly away.

One woman timidly approached. Her son attended CUNY, she said, and at a family function there, the “kosher” meal consisted of sandwiches made from corned beef and cheese— “they were literally stuck together,” she told me.

“Could it have been an accident?” I said, because sabotaging kosher food is so repugnant and shocking—even for CUNY—that I just couldn’t wrap my head around it. “I don’t think so,” she said sadly.

Several hundred people looked up at my sign as they passed. Perhaps a half dozen lingered to chat. But I am here to tell you that one person can change the temperature on any street. 

The time has come to show up for each other, by demanding our leaders get aggressive—and ugly, if need be—in fighting for the Jews of Brooklyn, or Manhattan, or wherever Jews need fighting for.

You don’t need a crowd with you. You don’t need an organization behind you. You don’t even need a sign that’s laminated.

All you need is your commitment to justice for Jews, born of your love for Am Yisrael. That, and your bottomless reserves of strength, drawn from two thousand years of degradations, violence, and sha shtil.

Get up, people. We need leaders whose moxie at the very least matches our own.

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