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Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy

Portrait of Ananda Coomaraswamy, 1907
Born August 22, 1877(1877-08-22)
Colombo, British Ceylon
Died September 9, 1947 (aged 70)
Needham, Massachussets
Known for metaphysician, philosopher, historian

Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy (Tamil: ஆனந்த குமாரசுவாமி, Ānanda Kentiś Kūmaraswāmī (b. 22 August 1877, Colombo, Sri Lanka, d. 9 September 1947, Needham, Massachusetts) was a Sri Lankan philosopher and metaphysician, as well as a pioneering historian and philosopher of Indian art, particularly art history and symbolism, and an early interpreter of Indian culture to the West [1].



Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy was born in Colombo, Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, to the Sri Lankan Tamil legislator and philosopher Sir Muthu Coomaraswamy and his English wife Elizabeth Beeby. His father died when Ananda was 2 years old, and Ananda spent much of his childhood and education abroad.

Coomaraswamy moved to England in 1879 and attended Wycliffe College, a preparatory school in Stroud, Gloucestershire, at the age of 12. In 1900, he graduated from University College, London, with a degree in geology and botany. On June 19, 1902, Coomaraswamy married Ethel Mary Partridge, an English photographer, who then traveled with him to Ceylon. Their marriage lasted until 1913. Coomaraswamy's field work between 1902 and 1906 earned him a doctor of science for his study of Ceylonese mineralogy, and prompted the formation of the Geological Survey of Ceylon which he initially directed.[2] While in Ceylon, the couple collaborated on Mediaeval Sinhalese Art; Coomaraswamy wrote the text and Ethel provided the photographs. His work in Ceylon fueled Coomaraswamy's anti-Westernization sentiments.[3] After their divorce, Partridge returned to England, where she later married the writer Philip Mairet.

Coomaraswamy then met and married an Englishwoman who performed Indian song under the stage name Ratan Devi. They had two children, a son, Narada, and daughter, Rohini. He moved to the United States in 1917 to serve as the first Keeper of Indian art in the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. Narada was killed in a plane crash and an already ailing Ratan died shortly thereafter. [4]

Coomaraswamy married the American artist Stella Bloch, 29 years his junior, in November 1922. Through the 1920s, Coomaraswamy and his wife were part of the bohemian art circles in New York City, Coomaraswamy befriending Alfred Stieglitz and the artists who exhibited at Stieglitz's gallery. At the same time, he was studying Sanskrit and Pali religious literature as well as Western religious works. He wrote catalogues for the Museum of Fine Arts, and published his History of Indian and Indonesian Art in 1927.

After the couple divorced in 1930, they remained friends. Shortly thereafter, on November 18, 1930, Coomaraswamy married Argentine Doña Luisa Runstein, 28 years younger, who was working as a society photographer under the professional name Xlata Llamas. They had a son, Coomaraswamy's third child, Rama Ponnambalam, who became a physician and author of Catholic Traditionalist works.

In 1933 Coomaraswamy's title at the Museum of Fine Arts changed from curator to Fellow for Research in Indian, Persian, and Mohammedan Art. [3]

He served as curator in the Museum of Fine Arts, and was significant in bringing Eastern art to the West, until his death in Needham, Massachusetts in 1947. He also helped with the collection of Persian Art for the Freer Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. and the Museum of Fine Arts.

After Coomaraswamy's death, Doña Luisa acted as a guide and resource for students of his work.


Coomaraswamy made important contributions to the philosophy of art, literature, and religion. In Sri Lanka, he applied the lessons of William Morris to Sri Lankan culture and produced, with his wife Ethel, a groundbreaking study of Sri Lankan craft and culture. While In India, he was part of the literary circle around Rabindranath Tagore, and contributed to the "Swadeshi" movement, an early phase of the struggle for Indian independence. In the 1920's, he made pioneering discoveries in the history of Indian art, particularly distinctions between Rajput and Moghul painting, and his book Rajput Painting. At the same time he amassed an unmatched collection of Rajput and Moghul paintings, which he took with him to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, when he joined its curatorial staff in 1917. Through 1932, from his base in Boston, he produced two kinds of publications: brilliant scholarship in his curatorial field, but also graceful introductions to Indian and Asian art and culture, typified by The Dance of Shiva, a collection of essays that have lost none of their attractiveness and remain in print to this day. From 1932 until his death in 1947, he was yet another man, another mind. Deeply influenced by René Guénon, he became one of the founders of the Traditionalist School. His books and essays on art and culture, symbolism and metaphysics, scripture, folklore and myth, and still other topics, offer a remarkable education to readers who accept the challenges of his resolutely cross-cultural perspective and insistence on tying every point he makes back to sources in multiple traditions. He once remarked, "I actually think in both Eastern and Christian terms—Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, Pali, and to some extent Persian and Chinese." [5] Alongside the deep and not infrequently difficult writings of this period, he also delighted in polemical writings created for a larger audience -- essays such as "Why exhibit works of art?" (1943).

In his book The Information Society: An Introduction (Sage, 2003, p.44), Armand Mattelart credits Coomarswamy for coining the term 'post-industrial' in 1913.

Perennial Philosophy

He was described by Heinrich Zimmer as That noble scholar upon whose shoulders we are still standing[6]. While serving as a curator to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in the latter part of his life, he devoted his work to the explication of traditional metaphysics and symbolism. His writings of this period are filled with references to Plato, Plotinus, Clement, Philo, Augustine, Aquinas, Shankara, Eckhart, and other Rhinish and Asian mystics. He was responsible for creating the collections of oriental art for the Freer Museum, Washington D.C., as well as for the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. When asked what he was, foremostly Dr. Coomaraswamy referred to himself as a Metaphysician, referring here to the concept of perennial philosophy, or Sophia Perennis.

Along with René Guénon and Frithjof Schuon, Coomaraswamy is regarded as one of the three founders of Perennialism, also called the Traditionalist School. Several articles by Coomaraswamy on the subject of Hinduism and the Perennial Philosophy were published posthumously in the quarterly journal, Studies in Comparative Religion, alongside articles by Schuon and Guénon (among others).

Although he agrees with Guénon on the universal principles, his works are very different in form from Guénon's. By vocation, he was a scholar, who dedicated the last decades of his life to searching the Scriptures. He offers a perspective on the tradition which complements well that of Guénon. He had a very highly active aesthetic perceptiveness and he wrote dozens of articles on traditional arts and mythology. His works are also intellectually finely balanced. Although born in the Hindu tradition, he had a deep knowledge of the Western tradition as well as a great expertise and love for Greek metaphysics, especially that of Plotinus, the founder of Neoplatonism.

He built a bridge between East and West that was designed to carry a two-way traffic: his metaphysical writings aimed, among other things, at demonstrating the unity of the Vedanta and Platonism. His works also sought to rehabilitate original Buddhism, a tradition that Guénon had for a long time limited to a rebellion of the Kshatriyas against Brahmin authority.

"Alan Antliff documents ( I Am Not A Man, I Am Dynamite) how the Indian art critic and anti-imperialist Ananda Coomaraswamy combined Nietzsche's individualism and sense of spiritual renewal with both Kropotkin's economics and with Asian idealist religious thought. This combination was offered as a basis for the opposition to British colonization as well as to industrialization."[7]

Works by Coomaraswamy

  • Figures of Speech or Figures of Thought?: The Traditional View of Art, (World Wisdom, 2007) ISBN 978-1933316345
  • Hinduism And Buddhism, (Kessinger Publishing, 2007) ISBN 978-0548124420
  • Introduction To Indian Art, (Kessinger Publishing, 2007) ISBN 978-1432577636
  • The Dance Of Siva, (Kessinger Publishing, 2006) ISBN 978-1428680302
  • Buddha and the Gospel of Buddhism, (Obscure Press, 2006) ISBN 978-1846647390
  • Indian Music, (Kessinger Publishing, 2006) ISBN 978-1428680319
  • Buddhist Art, (Kessinger Publishing, 2005) ISBN 978-1425464066
  • Guardians of the Sundoor: Late Iconographic Essays, (Fons Vitae, 2004) ISBN 978-1887752596
  • History of Indian and Indonesian Art, (Kessinger Publishing, 2003) ISBN 978-0766158016
  • The Essential Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, (World Wisdom, 2003) ISBN 978-0941532464
  • Dance of Siva Fourteen Indian Essays, (Kessinger Publishing, 2003) ISBN 978-0766129252
  • Myths of the Hindus and Buddhists, (Kessinger Publishing, 2003) ISBN 978-0766145153
  • Rajput Painting, (B.R. Publishing Corp., 2003) ISBN 978-8176463768
  • Early Indian Architecture: Cities and City-Gates, (South Asia Books, 2002) ISBN 978-8121505185
  • The Living Thoughts of Gotama the Buddha, (Fons Vitae, 2001) ISBN 978-1887752381
  • The Origin of the Buddha Image, (Munshirm Manoharlal Pub Pvt Ltd, 2001) ISBN 978-8121502221
  • Perception of the Vedas, (Manohar Publishers and Distributors, 2000) ISBN 978-8173042546
  • The Door in the Sky, (Princeton University Press, 1997) ISBN 978-0691017471
  • Mirror of Gesture, (South Asia Books, 1997) ISBN 978-8121500210
  • The Transformation of Nature in Art, (Sterling Pub Private Ltd, 1996) ISBN 978-8120716438
  • Spiritual Authority and Temporal Power in the Indian Theory of Government, (Oxford University Press, 1994) ISBN 978-0195631432
  • A New Approach to the Vedas: An Essay in Translation and Exegesis, (South Asia Books, 1994) ISBN 978-8121506304
  • What is Civilisation?: and Other Essays. (Oxford University Press, 1991) ISBN 978-0195623734
  • Yaksas, (Munshirm Manoharlal Pub Pvt Ltd, 1998) ISBN 978-8121502306
  • Metaphysics, (Princeton University Press, 1987) ISBN 978-0691018737
  • Coomaraswamy: Selected Papers, Traditional Art and Symbolism, (Princeton University Press, 1986) ISBN 978-0691018690
  • Bugbear of Literacy, (Sophia Perennis, 1979) ISBN 978-0900588198
  • Bronzes from Ceylon, chiefly in the Colombo Museum, (Dept. of Govt. Print, 1978)
  • Early Indian Architecture: Palaces, (Munshiram Manoharlal, 1975)
  • The arts & crafts of India & Ceylon, (Farrar, Straus, 1964)
  • Christian and Oriental Philosophy of Art, (Dover Publications, 1956) ISBN 9780486203782
  • Time and eternity, (Artibus Asiae, 1947)
  • Am I My Brothers Keeper, (Ayer Co, 1947) ISBN 978-0836903355
  • Archaic Indian Terracottas, (Klinkhardt & Biermann, 1928)

Works about Coomaraswamy

  • Ananda Coomaraswamy: remembering and remembering again and again, by S. Durai Raja Singam. Publisher: Raja Singam, 1974.
  • Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, by P. S. Sastri. Arnold-Heinemann Publishers, India, 1974.
  • Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy: a handbook, by S. Durai Raja Singam. Publisher s.n., 1979.
  • Ananda Coomaraswamy: a study, by Moni Bagchee. Publisher: Bharata Manisha, 1977.
  • Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, by Vishwanath S. Naravane. Twayne Publishers, 1977. ISBN 0805777229.
  • Selected letters of Ananda Coomaraswamy, Edited by Alvin Moore, Jr; and Rama P. Coomaraswamy (1988)

See also



External links



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