About the Book:
By many scholars, not least in the field of Oriental studies, the existence of symbolism in general and of Indian symbolism in particular is cast in doubt or simply denied. Although there is too much dilettantism in this field, the author of this important study requests for the conviction that symbolism must be taken seriously as a subject of inquiry. The author has taken as point of departure the makara, the well-known Indian water-monster. He traces the connections between monster-head and other motifs, and then, clinging to this thread, penetrates to the core of Indian symbolism: the golden germ as the principle of life, the significance of the tree in the Indian conception of the world, the cult-image, and the like.
If it did not sound so old-fashioned and cumbersome I should have given this study the sub-title "Prolegomenon to an introduction to the study of Indian symbolism". This wording would undoubtedly have made it clearer than is the case at present that I wish my work to be judged as a preparatory and preliminary exercise, and that I have intended to undertake no more than a journey of exploration in a hitherto little-investigated sphere of Indian culture. However, even without such a sub-title it will soon become clear to the reader of the following pages that the framer of the theories developed in them does not cherish the illusion of having achieved something of an exhaustive character, forming a whole in itself. For apart from the question of whether the method followed in my work is correct or not, the idea of a clear-cut whole is as incompatible with Indian symbolism as, for instance, the idea of a town enclosed within its ramparts is with that of a tropical primeval forest.
There is another and more important ground for reserve when the concept of symbolism is at issue. The present writer is well aware that scholars are in general extremely suspicious about symbolism as a subject of study, not indeed without reason. There is too much dilettantism in this field, theories have been thrown out too lightly, and hobby-horses have been trotted out in too unbridled a fashion for any high hopes to be aroused when someone yet again takes up the fight with the many-headed hydra of symbolism. However that may be, it is not to much the fight itself that is in question, or the person of the combatant, as the opponent who is fought against. By many, not least in the field of oriental studies, the existence of symbolism in general and of Indian symbolism in particular is cast in doubt or simply denied. According to them, its nature is fully explained by the "Lust zu fabulieren" which every individual as well as every community possesses in a greater or lesser degree and which, being completely unverifiable, is not a fit subject for serious research. So one may ask, in these circumstances, if there is any sense in joining battle with an opponent who is thought either to have no existence or to lead a merely illusory existence in the disturbed brain of some Don Quixote?
But enough of this figurative language. The existence of symbolism cannot in fact be disputed. I shall not challenge the opinion of those who choose to regard symbolism and human fantasy as brother and sister, just as in my turn I request respect for the conviction that symbolism must be taken seriously as a subject of enquiry. This conviction may seize the researcher under the influence of reading a poem, the study of a piece of prose, the contemplation of a work of art, or in becoming acquainted with any other product of the Indian genius. It can originate, for example, in reading an authoritative text such as the Lalitavistara, the life-story of the historical Buddha. In doing so, anyone will be struck by how important a part is played in this history by miraculous tales, and by the profound and pious earnestness with which they are related. And inevitably the question will pose itself whether it is very probable that so dominant an influence in these traditions is to be ascribed to the subjective desire to something else, something higher; and whether it is not far more probable that in those stories, in a language unknown to us, truths were revealed to the initiated listener that were of paramount importance to him.
The plastic arts speak to us even more graphically os such matters. If we take as an arbitrary example of this form of art a highly 'fantastic' production such as the Ekapadamurti of Siva, illustrated in Plate 73, we observe that while the upper part of the deity's body is normally formed both his legs are grown together in one, and that from his sides the gods Brahma and Vishnu spring forth, thus forming a sort of human candelabrum on a pedestal. With this singular image before us, and after taking into account the features falling within the art historian's purview, such as its origin, style, school, date, and so on, it would be difficult to deny that there yet remains in the image something unidentified. And we must ask ourselves again whether this 'something' might not be very important, and whether on closer investigation it might not turn out to be the most essential part of the image, viz. its meaning as a symbol, disclosing something higher than what is merely perceived by the senses.
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