Ananda Kentish Coomaraswamy

It is an intriguing name (and somewhat silly to Westerners... Well, silly to me anyway. Sorry. I live a sheltered life.). The unfamiliar 'Kentish' nestling between the Indian monikers. It makes you wonder about the man's nationality. Was he a swami? A sanyasi? And what's a sanyasi, anyway?

Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, who was born in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) and grew up in England, tried to teach the western world about Indian insights and culture and dedicated his whole life to this mission. He said to friends who wanted to write his biography "Assess my works, that is enough. I am a worshipper of Indian culture and accordingly I believe that writing a man's biography is not conductive to his salvation. I believe so. This is not a show of modesty, it is the principle of my life" which, for the purpose of this writeup, is very irritating as I have to employ all of my mad googling skillz. (Uh, update: I found plenty of info. Blow by blow, in fact. Life story following; find a comfy chair.)

Anyway, here we go: Mutthu Coomaraswamy, originally from India and who later moved to Sri Lanka to become a well-known advocate and the first Asian to receive a knighthood, met an English girl called Elizabeth Clay-Beevi when he went to England on business. They fell in love, got married, and moved back to Sri Lanka. Unfortunatly, as soon as they had a child, Mutthu died. His widow moved back to England, determined to rear the child in his father's image. Teaching her son Ananda about the Hindu pantheon, Elizabeth was able to connect father and son.

Dramatic scene!

"He is with God Kumaraswami whom you see in the picture next to your father's."

"Is that picture the God’s? But he has six faces!"

"Yes, my son. The god has six faces and he is also known by the name Shanmukha. Your father was a devotee of this deity. That is why you were named Coomaraswamy. Your father used to worship and pray to this god everyday. You pray to him too, with folded hands and closed eyes. Pray to him to make you a good person."

*Dialogue stolen from http://www.freeindia.org/biographies/greatpersonalities/ananda/page3.htm

Ananda grew up serious and scholarly, studying at Wycliffe College for 8 years. He regularly prayed and recited passages from the Bhagavad Gita, and he devoured tomes of Indian culture. He joined the University of London in 1909, and despite having to dress in western clothing, elected to wear sandal paste with a kumkum mark on his forehead. While there, he met and married student and Indian enthusiast Ethel Mary.

Working as a Geologist back in Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Ananda published in 1909 his extraordinary work, 'Medieval Sinhalese Art'. This book opened the eyes of the West to the East, which the former believed was barbarian. In order to correct this view, Ananda took on more than geology.

With the study of Ceylonese art Ananda Coomaraswamy felt impelled to take up the study of Indian art and culture. As his study progressed he found himself in a totally new world. He learned French, German, Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Pali and Hindi. He was already acquainted with Italian, Spanish, Dutch, Persian and Ceylonese. Besides his mothertongue English, he attained scholarship in twelve languages.

Evidently, Ethel Mary felt neglected at about this point and went back to England. Ananda then promptly met and married a Ceylonese girl called Ratna Devi and added more to his plate. He established 'Ceylon Social Reform Society' and started a newspaper called 'Ceylon National Review'.

In 1910, Sir George Birdwood delivered a lecture on Western and Eastern art, saying that Eastern artists produced pictures and sculptures as works of art but did not know what beauty was. On Eastern Buddha figures: "What beauty is there in these? They are like pies made of sawdust."

Ananda retaliated with 'Origin of the Buddha Image' and a world tour. As one can infer, he was pretty fucking pissed. Ananda then decided to write like a mofo, coming up with work after work, driven. Along this journey, he and his wife had two children: Narada and Rohini.

In 1917, the Coomaraswamy moved to Boston. There, Ananda met and studied with Sister Niveditha, disciple of Swamy Vivekanandaan and formerly known as Miss Margaret E. Noble from Ireland. The Americans loved Ananda, making him the director of the Boston Museum.

Tragedy struck when his son Narada, an aspiring writer, was killed in a plane crash. Already ailing, Ratna Devi heard the news and succumbed to her sickness in grief. Ananda was "thunderstruck" at such loss, retreating into his studies and his religion. Also, his daughter—who he had hoped would marry an Indian—fell in love with an American man. Ananda consented, albeit a little disheartened, wanting his daughter's happiness.

Alone now, Ananda returned to his studies, pumping out works with alacrity and passion. He met an Argentinean widow, Dona Lusa, who looked after him and proved to be a dedicated helpmate and companion as well as a pretty good editor. Together, they had a son, Rama, who is now a doctor in America.

On the 8th of September, 1947, Ananda died at the age of 80.

By all accounts, he was an unusual yet extraordinary man. He was a hermit as well as a householder, or perhaps he was neither. Regardless, despite his worldly affairs and locations, Ananda Coomaraswamy lived only in India—and sometimes it was difficult to come back home to Boston to share his stories and his work. Nevertheless, Ananda succeeded in his mission: he provided a cultural window of the East that deeply fascinated the West.


References are:

http://www.freeindia.org/biographies/greatpersonalities/ananda
http://kataragama.org/trad_pubs.htm
http://www.lanka.net/lakehouse/1998/11/29/fea21.html

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