Truth and Beauty

By Swami B. V. Tripurari

In his acceptance address for the Nobel prize in literature, Alexander Solzhenitsyn cited a Russian proverb: “One word of truth outweighs the whole world.” He also quoted Dostoyevsky: “Beauty will save the world.” If one word of truth outweighs the whole world, the world must be very false. But this truth is unpalatable, given the extent of beauty in this world. So much is this so that we cling to the beauty of the world, even when we are told the simple yet profound truth that it will not endure. How then will beauty save us, when attachment to it seems to be the cause of samsara, suffering in rounds of repeated birth and death? For Dostoyevsky, beauty will save us because its manifestation in art, literature, poetry, and the like is a semblance of the divine beauty that truth must ultimately personify. The aesthetic experiences of reading great literature, viewing a drama, and reciting poetry are experiences of the threshold of transcendence. Having tasted a drop of truth, we will be driven to drink deeply from its cup.

The quest for the beauty of the world no doubt must be balanced with the harsh truth—the knowledge—of its ephemeral nature. But there must be more to truth than this if it is to save us. The harsh truth of the ephemeral is its inability to deliver enduring beauty. This, however, is but “one word of truth.” It no doubt outweighs the entire experience of the ephemeral world, but it is not the whole truth. And half-truth, we are told, is worse than no truth at all. If we are to live in the light of truth, that truth must be inherently beautiful. It must possess the full face of beauty, which truth’s mere triumph over falsity lacks. The beauty of the world is what makes life worth living, and this tells us that without beauty even truth is lifeless. If truth is merely the negation of the material world—“Not this, not that” cry the Upanisads—can we live in the void that is thus created, forever silent and still? To do so is the idea of those who tread Vedanta’s path of knowledge. Realizing the emptiness in the world’s apparent fullness is itself a profound fullness, but as the Buddha says, it is merely the fullness of emptiness. If we move from negative numbers to zero, then zero appears to have positive value. But are there positive numbers as well? This is the question raised by those who tread Vedanta’s path of love—bhakti, with whom I concur.

It is our quest for beauty—real, enduring beauty—that will save us from settling for only the few words of truth that render the world false. This quest will move us from zero to an infinity of positive values. It should drive us onward to the whole truth of infinite conscious beauty, about which one cannot say enough. The great stalwart on the path of knowledge, Sankara, reasoned “consciousness is truth, the world is false.” But this is not enough, nor is the world altogether false.  We must progress from this half truth to the whole truth of the beauty of consciousness in its fullest expression, a beauty whose mere reflection is the charm of the world. It is this beauty, the reality behind the reflection, that India’s sacred Upanisads and devotional Vedanta refer to when they speak of Krishna. Sri Krishna, the speaker of the Gita, is, in Hegel’s terminology, “reality the beautiful”; in Upanisadic language “Krishna is sacred aesthetic experience—rasa.” And we are to drink from the fountain of beauty and charm that is Krishna, one in purpose with the center, while taking our proper place on the circumfrance in eternal service to the center. Knowledge that turns us from the temporal and the exploitation of the world to the inner self—the atma—is but a stepping stone to the dance of love. Really, love is the highest knowledge. In love there is something to do. And in love one knows what to do, not merely what not to do.

This article was adapted from Aesthetic Vedanta: The Sacred Path of Passionate Love.

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