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A PEN SKETCH BY : DR. RAMA P. COOMARASWAMY
Dr. ANANDA KENTISH COOMARASWAMY (1877-1947) was one of the most penetrating scholars to live in the 20th century. His father, Sir Mutu, was from a prominent Sri Lankan family, and his four uncles's statues adorn the four corners of the Parliamentary Building in Colombo. His father was the first "oriental" to be knighted and was for a while a member of the British Parliament. His mother was English, a lady in waiting to Queen Victoria and herself entitled. He was born in Sri Lanka, but Sir Mutu died of Bright's (kidney) disease when his son was three years old, and his mother, of necessity, returned to England where he was raised.
A.K. Coomaraswamy's schooling was at Wycliffe College in Stroud, Glochestershire, where his academic achievements were excellent. While there, he taught himself Icelandic and translated one of the shorter Icelandic sagas. He sent this translation to an Icelandic scholar at Oxford who praised it highly and made only one or two minor corrections. The family has this translation, made at approximately the age of 12, with his notes and he correction. Many years later a visitor from Iceland came to their home and the visitor could not speak any of the European languages or English. AKC spent several hours conversing with him in Icelandic.
Thus it was that his linguistic ability became manifest very early in life. It should be noted that Greek, Latin and French were part of the normal curriculum in those days. Indeed, without the knowledge of both Greek and Latin one could not go on to college. Ultimately AKC was familiar with some 36 languages and by familiarity he once stated that to know a language meant to be familiar not only with its poetry and music, but to be able to read it without a dictionary! I once found him reading a Chinese text, a language which he had not listed among those he "knew". When I asked him why he had omitted it, he said, he still needed to use a dictionary from time to time.
Wycliffe College is located near a quarry, which is one of the best locations in England for collecting fossils. It was only natural that this would result in an interest in geology. This further developed and led to his receiving his Doctor of Sciences from London University in the field of Geology and Botany-two life long interests which he retained. After graduation, AKC went back to Ceylon for the first time and completed a geological survey of the country, which to this day remains a standard work. He also discovered the new mineral Thorianite and was involved in the discovery of another mineral labeled Serendabite. His wide travels in ceylon led initially to an awareness of the destructive influence of Western values on the land which in turn required a deeper understanding of both Hindu and Buddhist culture - for it was these that were being destroyed. This also led to his involvement in political activities.
He then spend considerable time in southern India where the same forces were at play. it was here he began to write essays on Hindu culture and music, which eventually led to his landmark text on the History of Indian and Indonesian Art. He returned to England and wrote, illustrated, and hand-published on William Morris's press. Mediaeval Singhalese Art. The book in its original edition (for it has been reprinted many times) is truly a work of art in itself. Returning to India, he spent several years in the north where among other things, he collected many wonderful examples of Indian Art. He offered these to the then reigning government if they would build a museum to house the collection, but his offer was rejected and so he brought all these wonderful examples back to England.
He was involved in the Indian Independence movement during this period of his life, and his home was frequently visited by individuals whose interests were still associated with the Independence movement. During the First World War, he refused to serve in the British army as long as India was under British rule. As a result, he was exiled from the British Empire and his home "Norman Chapel", was confiscated and was made part of the English National Park Service. Arrangement were made by an Act of Congress for him to live in America where he remained till his death in 1947. He was able to bring the art collection to America. Obviously, under the circumstances. AKC could no longer be actively involved in such activities. In the United States, he became the Curator of Indian and Oriental Art at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and also taught courses at Harvard, as well as lectured in various other universities and establishments. He continued his writing other universities and establishments. He continued his writing - initially primarily concerned with the arts, but more and more with the meaning and purpose of art, and thus with meta-physics. During the last 15 to 20 years of his life, it was primarily with the latter that his interests lay. And here of course his linguistic ability served him well, for he was able to read in the original the sacred texts of all the great religions. At the same time, he took time to write several striking essays on the socio-economic problems of the world and the continued destruction of true craftsmanship in the name of progress and the garnering of money, a process which was all but come to completion in our days.
There is a passage in Ecclesiasticis, which pertains to him in remarkable degree: "The wise man will seek out the wisdom of all the ancients and will be occupied in the prophets. He will keep the saying of renowned men, and will enter withal into the subtitles of parables. He will search out the hidden meaning of proverbs, and will be conversant with the secrets of parables. He shall pass into strange countries; for he shall try good and evil among men."
AKC's knowledge of both the Vedas and the theological writings of the Catholic Church Fathers was phenomenal, not just knowledge, but understanding. This enabled him to translate the Sanskrit texts using proper equivalent theological terms such as the most modern Christian theologians are unfamiliar with. Thus his writings in this area are a boon both to Western Scholars and to Indians who are seeking to understand their own roots. AKC had no interest in being original, for he was only interested in seeking out the truth which is to be found in these ancient sources, and which are as true today as ever they were. An interesting story: When I was giving a talk at Hawaii University, a young Ph.D. candidate told me he had wished to do his doctorate on my father, but his advisor rejected his request because he said AKC never said anything new. My father would have been delighted with his comment, for the last thing he wished to do was something new.
In 1947, he retired from the Museum and intended to return to India which now being independent, he was free to do. It was his intention to take sanyasa. It was shortly before the planned departure that he suffered a fatal heart attack. And so it was only his ashes, which his wife returned to the Ganges. His legacy to India however remains his greatest gift, a legacy in Art, Culture had above all in Metaphysics. And it is this which the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts has so wonderfully been preserving and making available to those who like him are seeking to understand, where in India or elsewhere in the world.
[The author Dr. Rama P. Coomaraswamy, is the only surviving son of AKC. A Thorasic and Cardio-Vascular Surgeon, he was also Professor of Ecclesiastical History in the St. Thomas Aquinas Seminary in Connecticut. He presently lives in Wilton, Connecticut, U.S.A.]
Copyright IGNCAŠ 2001