By Ananta Shakti Dasa
An artist realizes his dream of finding the perfect form.
During my school days in the 1960s, it wasn’t difficult to see that the modern education system was a kind of slaughterhouse for the mind and intellect, a place where individuals were reduced to packaged goods to be consumed by an exploitative society. At age fourteen I decided to become an artist/naturalist, which meant spending lots of time absent from school but present in my local library, and exploring riverbanks, shorelines, and wooded areas. In the library I met illustrious teachers every time I opened an art book. Great artists like Picasso, Da Vinci, Gaugin, Raphael, and the Pre-Raphaelites taught me so many lessons in the use of color, tone, composition, and most of all, imaginative expression. In the great outdoors, Mother Nature was a wonderful teacher who introduced me to the miracle of changing seasons, wherein infinite varieties of fascinating creatures coexist in an ecological wonderland.
With so much inspiration available for a budding artist, where would I start? I thought I’d give the educational system another try, and I visited the local art college. The head of the Fine Art section was a waffling intellectual living on cloud nine, so I gave that a miss. The Graphic Design department was all about selling products and making a living, but at least that was practical. I enrolled, but the psychedelic generation I was a part of had a profound effect on my consciousness. I needed answers to the important questions of life: Who am I? Where am I going? What is the purpose of life?
I concluded that art is best when it encapsulates the answers to these questions in a new and exciting way. But what are the answers? The Graphic Design department was just going to engage me in the advancement of consumerism, so I left.
My best friend at that time was Ron Holbeche, a Christian mystic who painted vibrant canvases that were exhibited in the more progressive churches. He always talked to me of God and service to God. He was like my guru and always asserted, “Man was made to serve God.”
Ron and I both craved a vision of a perfect person, and we had our own conceptualizations of what that meant. Ron painted the silhouette of a young Adonis male filled with hundreds of bright rainbow colors, whereas I considered that a perfect person must be seen to contain a harmonious combination of aggressive logic and gentle intuition. I reasoned that to be complete, such a being would be androgynous. I decided to depict this ideal not as a hermaphrodite, but in a symbolic way, with half the body male and the other half female, much like the Shiva-Shakti form seen in Indian temples.
Encounter with Lord Rama
At about this time, I built a tepee of the American Indian style, lived in a forest commune, and made an independent living as a portrait artist. I also specialized in designing and making fringed, beaded moccasins for the hippie community. It was a busy, productive life.
Then, as if by divine providence, an art college friend, upon returning from a visit to Bangkok, gave me some rice-paper rubbings taken from bas-reliefs of divinities of the temple of the reclining Buddha. Although I didn’t know it at first, the images depicted the pastimes of Lord Ramachandra. I immediately appreciated the combination of delicate exquisiteness and divine irresistible power that Ramachandra personified while upon His chariot, bow drawn, ready to slay His evil enemy.
I started work on a series of highly detailed color studies based on these rubbings. I became obsessed and addicted to these forms. They represented sweet perfection to me. One of my friends, who had visited Krishna’s holy town of Vrindavan, India, then told me that the divine person was Ramachandra, an incarnation of the Supreme Lord Krishna. He gave me some Spiritual Sky incense (made by Hare Krishna devotees) and advised me to offer a stick a day to the figure of Krishna on the packet, which I did.
Around this time I received a surprise visit from someone who had been given my address. Her name was Carol, and she was from the Hare Krishna temple in Toronto. After introductions, she wanted to teach me a mantra. I responded by closing my eyes tight and repeating over and over again, with rapt attention, the words she gave me: Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna, Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare/ Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama, Hare Hare.
As I was doing this, a beautiful bluish person of independent power, much like the figure on the incense packet, entered my consciousness. This person personified bliss and possessed a body of pure energy, just like liquid sapphire. I was stunned, blessed, and totally at a loss for words. Carol had introduced me to the chanting of the holy names, for which I am forever grateful.
Soon after, I visited the Hare Krishna temple in Watford, just outside London, and had darshana with the presiding Radha-Krishna deities, Sri Sri Radha-Gokulananda. That was probably the greatest revelation I ever had. It seemed the ultimate deja vu experience, and my intuition made sense when the devotees explained that we all have an eternal loving relationship with God. It simply needs to be awakened by the glorification of His holy names.
I joined the temple shortly after and received formal initiations. In the following years I had many opportunities to study and glorify the divine forms of the Lord in His multifarious aspects and also to do portrait studies of His Divine Grace A. C. Bhaktivedanta Prabhupada.
God’s Unique Spiritual Form
Discovering the actual form of our most ancient of friends, that friend who has been patiently guiding and tolerating us since time immemorial, must surely be the greatest of all discoveries and experiences. Growing up in the patriarchal Christian tradition, I learned through art that God, being the original father, must look like a mighty yet old and bearded Anglo/European man. He casts stern glances in all directions while sitting on His kingly throne surrounded by angels and light. At slight provocation He hurls flaming thunderbolts at those who dare defy His authority.
This anthropomorphic projection surely strikes fear and reverence into human hearts, but does such a contrivance inspire love? I think not.
I found the Vedic viewpoint to be much more attractive on all levels. It teaches that God is beyond the influence of time, which is subordinate to Him. He therefore possesses an eternally youthful form of incomparable beauty in every detail, from His fine, curling, bluish black hair, to His radiant toenails, which defeat the luster of the most precious gems. Restless lotus-shaped eyes adorn His splendorous face. Every aspect of His form intrigues the eyes to an insatiable degree. Therefore the name Krishna, meaning “the all-attractive,” is surely a fitting name for God.
As an artist I am concerned with dimensions. If we examine the dimensions of Krishna’s divine form as revealed in the Vedic scriptures, we discover that many measurements differ from the human form. The most obvious differences are the size of His head in proportion to His body and that His hands reach to His knees. Indian sculptors who carve temple deities use these dimensions, which are delineated in reference books. The measurements are exact and define divine deity forms, thus setting them apart from any type of human form, although obvious similarities are there.
In the sacred Bhagavad-gita (9.22) Lord Krishna says, “But those who always worship Me with exclusive devotion, meditating on My transcendental form—to them I carry what they lack, and I preserve what they have.” And in the Brahma-samhita Lord Brahma also assures us, “Only a person whose eyes are smeared with the ointment of love can see the beautiful form of Sri Krishna.”
Although I am unqualified to approach Lord Krishna, Srila Prabhupada’s followers have mercifully engaged me in Krishna’s service, in particular by depicting Krishna’s pastimes and writing and illustrating books on the subject. For this blessing I am eternally grateful because a picture of Krishna’s pastimes provides a view into the spiritual world. Therefore, as an ISKCON artist, I would like to offer the following recommendation: Suspend your disbelief, for with faith and an open mind, an apparent statue comes alive and a picture becomes a window to another world. Imagination and the spirit of devotional service give life to what appears to be the dull matter of this world. Therefore, in this mood let us serve Lord Krishna, His devotees, and whomever we can, and be happy forever. Hare Krishna.