An Echelon Media Company
Tuesday February 27th, 2024

Considering Coomarasamy

Ananda Coomarasamy stakes a claim as modern Lanka’s most renowned thinker. Born in Colombo to a distinguished Tamil Lankan father and British mother, Coomaraswamy attended school and university in England. He visited Sri Lanka and India at various times, nursing great interest in South Asian art and religion. He spent a long scholarly career in the United States.

His reputation rests mainly on his links to the Arts and Crafts Movement, defence of Asian art against notions of Western superiority, and curatorship of Asian arts at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. I am no art critic and would attempt no comment on his scholarship in that domain.

He places that scholarship, however, within more sweeping views on culture, society and politics that warrant their own attention. I offer here some explication of those views, some interestingly provocative, others intensely peculiar.

The Victorian-era Arts and Crafts Movement criticized industrial capitalism, partly on grounds of worker impoverishment but more prominently on grounds of exalting consumerism over ‘producerism.’ Capitalism supplants production of folk craft and artistry with drudge work securing mere subsistence at worst, accumulation of vast consumer goods at ‘best.’

It also separates ‘fine art’—exalting individual genius and originality— from traditional art conveying spiritual meaning. Critique of consumerism and decline of craft activity seems worth pondering as I sit channel surfing. Critique of fine art, however, provokes puzzlement.

Coomarasamy thinks fine art is somehow reprehensible in his enthusiasm for traditional craft. Why must we reject the former in order to appreciate the latter? Beautiful art undermines spirituality?

As his career in art criticism and curation proceeds, Coomarasamy turns increasingly toward metaphysics. He wants to explain what’s really Real. He does so in terms of India’s Advaita Vedanta (roughly meaning scripture or wisdom dealing with non-duality or non-division).

It was not unusual for Arts and Crafts people to hang around with both Theosophy and middle-class socialism. Coomarasamy’s own mother exemplified this.

It is easy to see socialism’s linkage with the Arts and Crafts critique of capitalism. Fascinated with Indian spirituality, Theosophy comes in from the avant-garde with a critique of Western imperialism.

Coomarasamy’s interest in socialist economics never amounts to much but he does pitch a tent with Theosophists for a while, before distancing himself.

Theosophy’s credence about the reincarnation of souls troubles him. He denies not only that discrete souls outlive bodies and migrate into others but also that any Indian scripture actually maintains such a ridiculous notion. It’s all a silly misinterpretation.

What scripture teaches instead, he insists, is that a creature’s soul merges upon death back into the single universal Soul from whence it came. That Soul pulses through the bodies of all creatures, sentient pseudopods, never separating from their Source.

Coomarasamy maintains that this really Real core of Hindu doctrine— the unity of all beings in one universal Soul—lies at the heart of all the world’s genuine religion, spirituality and philosophy. Individual selfhood is illusory.

How do we know this truth? Through sound thinking and correct interpretation of scripture and philosophy. With a degree in geology, Coomarasamy can claim scientific literacy.

He acknowledges evolutionary theory for producing life forms through complex webs of cause and effect in the material world. He also, however, defends the ‘creationist’ view that ‘God’ made all life forms. This ‘God’ is a version of the Uncaused Causer argument in theology.

There must be a Cause of causality itself, existing not through causation but because it must necessarily exist at all times and places.

I pick no quarrel. Either an Uncaused Causer exists or it doesn’t. Coomarasamy links the Uncaused Causer with the unitary Soul animating all of life. God is the universal Self and all individual selves are but its transitory emanations.

It is, unfortunately, impossible to square this doctrine of selfhood with scientific understanding of how experience, sentience, consciousness and self-awareness evolve through life forms. Selfhood is achievement and recognition of actual separation and individuality, not the illusion of it.

Grasping that one is a self leads to understanding that there are other selves and this yields a particular form of ethics.

Coomarasamy posits that the truth as he explains it lies at the heart of all ‘traditional’ religion and art. Traditional art teaches true religion through symbols with universal significance and meaning, absorbed pre-consciously.

In this, Coomarasamy seems to walk with Jung, though he eventually diverges. Jung’s project of fostering more ‘individuated’ persons precisely contradicts Coomarasamy’s. Anyway, the religious function of traditional art helps explain Coomarasamy’s hostility to ‘genius’ and ‘originality’ in modern Western art, teaching the opposite of the really Real.

William Morris, Coomerasamy’s Arts and Crafts mentor, gravitated into socialism of the workers’ revolution variety. Enamored with Vedic metaphysical doctrine, Coomarasamy moves in quite a different direction: endorsement of Vedic Indian social order.

If traditional art conveys truth, it also harmonizes with traditional society, which embodies correct principles of political order. Like Plato’s philosopher-kings, Brahmins should exercise primary power. As ‘ones who know’ the Real, they are highly incorruptible. They can draw help from Kshatriyas, who understand government, and from Vaishyas, who understand production and trade.

By no means should any franchise extend to ordinary workers, Shudras and outcastes, who corrupt sound order with their unruly passions, follies and materialism. (By the way, feminists had best avoid Coomaraswamy’s commentary on proper roles for women.)

There is no injustice, he insists, because the system requires much more of high-caste people than of Shudras and outcastes. As proof he seems to offer the Vedic Law of Manu, mandating that Brahmins be punished dozens of times more harshly than Shudras for committing the same offence.

He amateurishly posits that Manu was an actual law code for an actual traditional society, not the philosophical pipe dream that Manu really is, according to scholars, like Plato’s Republic.

Needless to say, Coomarasamy’s ideal society overlooks the fact that low-caste Indians face distinct deficits in longevity, heath, sanitation, literacy, nutrition, occupation, income and other life chance indicators.

If aspirations for a ‘classless society’ seem remote, fantasy of a justly-ordered caste system is even more so.

A creature’s soul merges upon death back into the single universal Soul from whence it came.

That Soul pulses through the bodies of all creatures, sentient pseudopods, never separating from their Source

Coomaraswamy tirelessly denounces Western imperialism and its economic order. Unlike other critics, however, he does not stress its possible impoverishment of those it rules. His main objection is aesthetic: that the subjugated may abandon their traditional culture, adopting the de-spiritualized fashions and values of their masters.

It is easy to share his concern that Western consumerism and entertainment may bury the world under a suffocating monoculture.

Better to retreat from what he calls ‘world trade’ so as to produce local subsistence and culture. Someone else will have to worry whether ‘world trade’ creates (or alleviates) non-aesthetic problems.

A graduate of Harvard Law School, Mark Hager lives in Pelawatte with his family

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Leave a Comment

Leave a Comment

Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Sri Lanka parliamentary committee says electricity tariffs should be reduced by 20 pct

ECONOMYNEXT — A parliamentary Sectoral Oversight Committee on Alleviating the Impact of the Economic Crisis has recommended to the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL) that electricity tariffs be reduced by at least 20 percent.

A statement from parliament said on Monday February 26 that, following an analytical review of the figures presented by the Electricity Board, Public Utilities Commission, etc. and taking into consideration all other factors affecting the price of electricity, including considering the opinion given by experts that the existing electricity price can be reduced by about 33%, price of electricity should be reduced by at least 20% in the year 2024 so that the state-run Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB) will not suffer any loss.

PUCSL officials have informed the Committee that by the end of this month, they can submit the necessary recommendations to reduce the electricity bill, according to the statement.

The matter was taken up for discussion when the committee, chaired by MP Gamini Waleboda, met in the Parliament on February 22.

Officials from the Ministry of Industry, Ministry of Finance, Central Bank of Sri Lanka, Public Utilities Commission, Industry Development Board, Enterprise Development Authority, Department of Population and Statistics, Department of Inland Revenue and from government institutions including the Micro, Small and Medium Scale Industries Board and a group of industrialists had also been called for the meeting.

“The Committee gave several directives to the relevant institutions and officials to identify the micro, small and medium scale industries that are directly affected by the economic crisis and to activate the local economy and increase the foreign exchange earnings by reviving the industry sector.

“The Committee pointed out that due to the increase in electricity bills, the number of electricity connection cuts reported across the island has exceeded one million. It was also emphasised that in order to alleviate the pressure on the industry and the society, it should be arranged to provide electricity connections again by charging only 50 percent of the outstanding charges at the initial stage with the concessional basis of payment of outstanding electricity charges on installment basis,” the statement said.

The committee was also of the view to allow the customer to pay the connection fee in installments so as to avoid discouraging new entrepreneurs to start micro, small and financial industries due to high charges for getting fixed electricity connection and instructed to review the new connection fee and work to reduce it as much as possible.

The committee chair has instructed the PUCSL to conduct an audit on the electricity consumption in the public sector as an approach to ensure energy security.

“The Committee recommended to the Ministry of Finance and the Central Bank to start a loan scheme at subsidised interest for the purchase of solar panel systems with a view to promoting solar energy as a source of energy supply to industries. The Ministry of Finance expressed its agreement to provide refinancing facilities subject to a maximum as per the proposal made by the Committee to implement a loan scheme targeting micro, small and medium scale industrialists under subsidized interest rates.

The committee has also recommended that raw materials that must be imported from abroad and impose tax concessions on such raw materials be identified to ensure the supply of raw materials required for the smooth running of micro, small and medium scale industries. Copper, lead, aluminum and other industrial scraps used as raw materials in various domestic industries currently being sold by the CEB to external buyers and other entities should also be issued to micro, small and medium scale industrialists recommended by the Ministry of Industry and the Industrial Development Board, the committee has recommended.

The definition used by the Department of Population and Statistics for micro, small and medium industries and the definition used by other institutions such as the Industrial Development Board and the Central Bank for those industries are different from each other, which is an obstacle in making policy decisions, the committee had noted, directing the Department of Population and Statistics to support to the policymakers by releasing statistical data based on a common definition.

“The committee also recommended that the Credit Information Bureau should take prompt action to remove their credit information from the blacklists so as to facilitate access to credit facilities for micro, small and medium scale industries facing financial crisis to activate their balance sheets and to review all existing laws and procedures for registration of micro, small and medium scale industries as well as to obtain licenses and introduce a simple system.

“The committee informed all the parties to establish a steering Committee headed by the Ministry of Industry to implement the recommendations given by the Committee and to report its progress within a week,” the statement said. (Colombo/Feb27/2024)

Continue Reading

Sri Lanka sets up fund to help children of Gaza

The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East is mandated to provide education, health, relief and social services, and emergency assistance to refugees. (Pic courtesy UNWRA)

ECONOMYNEXT – Sri Lanka’s cabinet of ministers have approved a proposal by President Ranil Wickremesinghe to set up a fund to help children caught in the war in Gaza, a statement said.

The government will contribute a million US dollars and use funds allocated by state agencies for Ifthar celebrations.

Public contributions are also called.

The Presidential Secretariat is requesting public donations citizens for the “Children of Gaza Fund” to be contributed to account number 7040016 at Bank of Ceylon (7010), Taprobane Branch (747) by 11th April.

Deposit receipts should to be forwarded to 0779730396 via WhatsApp. (Colombo/Feb27/2024)

Continue Reading

Top US official calls for inclusive reforms, deeper defence ties with Sri Lanka

ECONOMYNEXT — United States Deputy Secretary of State for Management and Resources Richard Verma in discussions with Sri Lanka officials had called for inclusive reforms and stronger human rights and also discussed deeper defence and maritime cooperation.

The United States remains committed to the economic growth and prosperity of Sri Lanka, statement from the US Embassy in Colombo quoted the official as telling government, civil society and economic leaders during his February 23-24 visit to Sri Lanka.

“Verma met with President Ranil Wickremesinghe and Foreign Minister Ali Sabry to discuss progress on Sri Lanka’s IMF program, including inclusive economic and governance reforms aimed at keeping Sri Lanka on the path to sustainable economic growth.  Deputy Secretary Verma stressed the vital need to protect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including freedom of expression. They also explored opportunities to deepen defence and maritime cooperation between the United States and Sri Lanka, including strengthening the Sri Lanka Navy’s capabilities to safeguard national security and promote a more stable Indo-Pacific region,” the statement said.

 On February 23, aboard the SLNS Vijayabahu, one of three former U.S. Coast Guard cutters transferred by the United States to Sri Lanka, Deputy Secretary Verma said: “I am pleased to announce that the Department of State has notified Congress of our intent to transfer a fourth medium endurance cutter to Sri Lanka.  The Department obligated $9 million in Foreign Military Financing to support this effort.  We look forward to offering the cutter, pending the completion of Congress’ notification period.  If completed, this transfer would further strengthen defense cooperation between the United States and Sri Lanka.  The ship would increase Sri Lanka’s ability to patrol its Exclusive Economic Zone, monitor its search and rescue area, and provide additional security for ships from all nations that transit the busy sea lanes of the Indian Ocean.” 

 Participating in the announcement at Colombo Port were Sri Lanka State Minister of Defense Premitha Bandara Tennakoon, Commander of the Sri Lanka Navy Vice Admiral Priyantha Perera, and U.S. Ambassador to Sri Lanka Julie Chung, who remarked, according to the statement: “The United States has previously transferred three cutters to the Sri Lankan Navy, which deploys these ships for maritime operations and law enforcement missions, countering human trafficking and drug trafficking, while supporting humanitarian assistance and disaster response efforts. The eventual transfer of a fourth vessel would be just one more point in a long history of cooperation between Sri Lanka and the United States in preserving a free and open Indo-Pacific region.” 

Verma also visited the site of the West Container Terminal (WCT), a deepwater shipping container terminal in the Port of Colombo. The WCT, currently being constructed by Colombo West International Terminal (CWIT) Private Limited with 553 million US dollars in financing from the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, will provide critical infrastructure for the South Asian region, the embassy said.

“Operating near capacity since 2021, the Port of Colombo’s new addition will be the port’s deepest terminal and aims to boost Colombo’s shipping capacity, expanding its role as a premiere logistics hub connecting major routes and markets, boosting prosperity for Sri Lanka without adding to its sovereign debt,” it said. (Colombo/Feb27/2024)

Continue Reading