Q. 382 – Art and Vedanta

Q: As an artist and casual reader of advaita-vedanta, I wanted to ask about advaita-vedanta’s opinion on Art (be it music, painting, dance etc.).

Generally speaking, we can classify art into broadly 2 categories – sentimental art and non-sentimental art. But, as a practitioner of the former and a student of the latter (I had strict classical music training), I almost think of myself as being ‘attracted’ to art – as in, there is this sense of desire to create music. Personally, I have been advised by several elders to continue producing and practicing music. But does this go against the advice of advaita-vedanta? Am I acting on desires? Will art get artists permanently stuck in the cycle of samsara?

I ask this question because – There are so many Slokas, mantras, verses (sam-veda) that are musical… so it seems like music is encouraged by the vedas and the upanishads. But at the same time, it seems like a thing of desire. This confusion needs to be cleared!

Responses from Martin, Charles, Ted and Dennis

A (Martin): The following is from a friend (a very ‘awake’ one), which I share here for being very apropos of the question. I am basically in agreement with its contents, but have some reservations concerning much modern art, including jazz and most modern music and painting. Miriam Louisa is an artisan (regret to say that my tastes in painting are not necessarily hers). Much of classical music, on the other hand, moves me to a higher reality, if I can say that (Wagner’s operatic music moves me to … a mythological realm – hoping it does not ‘deviate’ me!).



A recent online conversation with a friend brought up our observations of the way so many folk in the ‘spiritual field’ feel that it’s somehow wrong to have a passion to create, or be interested in, art. He commented, “They’ve internalized teachings that say that artistic expression is a lie, that it is too sensuous, too rajasic, too much of a distraction from “higher” things. I’m reminded of Plato wanting to expel poets and musicians from his Republic!”

The mainstream art world is a minefield for artists and artisans whose practice is fueled by the impulse to express from the wonderment and awe that is their authentic experience. On the one hand we have the denial by its curators and critics of anything that whiffs of ‘the spiritual’ in contemporary art (see the daylighting has begun), and on the other we are rebuked by the high priests, teachers and purveyors of (so-called) “higher” things themselves! I have had first-hand experience of this on my journey – I was associated for a while with teachings that regarded all creative expression as potential ego-reinforcement. It was a liberation for me to abandon such a separative misconception and embrace the full monty of the creative life; to meet and work with new teachers who themselves were artists and who considered creative practice to be an essential aspect of awakening to the Real.


My friend finished by saying that many of these people have “suppressed creative, esthetic, blissful, sensitive, compassionate and divinely universal parts of themselves by rejecting the aesthetic aspect of life.”

It made me think back to this post – originally written and published in 2009 – and prompted me to put it up again. Lest we forget.


Zen saying: painted cakes do not satisfy hunger (Painting: Wondering mind Studio: Wayne Thiebaud – Boston Cremes, 1962)

Meaning: painted cakes aren’t the real thing; they only describe the real thing. Implying that for the serious seeker of Truth, creative work is a vanity, a distraction, a pointless pursuit.

It is true that the tendency to identify with one’s creative expressions can cause the ego to inflate, with all the suffering that comes by default. But identification with any human activity carries this danger.

The question:  What is the self that expresses in self-expression? is our lifeboat in these dangerous waters.

The monk Dogen saw the bigger picture.

He said:  Painted cakes do satisfy hunger.

Aside from painted cakes, there is no way to satisfy hunger.

Aside from the painted cakes we make,artists and writers and educators and web builders have no way to express their ideas and inspirations.

Aside from the process of making painted cakes, we have no insight into our creativity and what fosters it or sabotages it.

Aside from the painted cakes we perceive, what so-called Reality is there?

If Reality is REAL, it must be whole and undivided.  Our painted cakes are therefore nondual expressions of the truth – whether we know it or not, and whether we like it or not.  The ten thousand things are painted cakes awaiting the glance of an awakened wondering mind.  This vast and all-embracing perspective lifts our creative work into the realm of sacred practice, something many artisans – including this one – are very conscious of and deeply committed to.  Our works are ‘painted cakes’ and amazingly, they do satisfy hunger.

A (Charles): As far as I know, Advaita Vedanta has no set opinion on the topic of Art, although it certainly has plenty to say about desire! I would agree with the elders who advised you to continue with your music/art. For one thing, you say that you are a “casual reader” of Advaita. If you were asking this question in the context of someone who is considering becoming a full renunciate, then a different answer might be appropriate. However, you are quite correct to point out there is much of music already in the teaching. Is not the Rig-Veda a collection of ancient hymns? Are not the various mantras intended to be chanted musically?

An artist is no more likely to be “permanently stuck” in the cycle of Samsara than anyone else. Technically, no one is stuck in Samsara, since Samsaric life is merely an illusion born of Ignorance anyway. But from a practical standpoint, your question is really more about desire than music or art specifically. As Krishna tells Arjuna in the Bhagavad Gita, “I am the desire that is not opposed to dharma.” If creating music or art is your nature (svadharma), then it would be against dharma NOT to do so, just as it was adharmic for the warrior Arjuna to refuse to fight.

If you are unsure whether your desire to create art or music is dharmic, then the Karma Yoga approach can really help here. According to Advaita, you are not the doer, and therefore not the creator of these art forms anyway. You are not even the source of these artistic desires to begin with! By dedicating or consecrating the results of your artistry to Ishvara, you would be fulfilling your nature and practicing Karma Yoga at the same time. The type of desire you are concerned with need not be a hindrance at all to self-inquiry, and might possibly support it if approached with the right attitude.

A (Ted): The good news is that the desire to produce and practice music in and of itself does not bind one to samsara. Contrary to one of the popular misunderstandings of the nature of moksha (i.e., liberation from samsara), one need not renounce or refuse to act on all desires. Desires are essentially nothing other than the promptings of Isvara’s “will.” Thus, desires-as-such are not bad. In fact, in the absence of desires and the actions that ensue from them, the manifestation would come to a grinding halt, for nobody would do anything.

Moreover, in accordance with Isvara’s “will” (i.e., the karmic circumstances of our lives), each of us has a particular svadharma (i.e. self-duty) or role that we are to play within the context of the grand drama of the apparent reality that is dictated by various factors, among which are our personal proclivities and skill-set. It sounds like producing and practicing music may very well be your svadharma.

Desires only become problematic when we believe that the objects of desire (i.e., tangible items, relationships, conditions, circumstances, specific states of mind, experiences, etc) are necessary for our wellbeing. As a consequence of this erroneous notion, our preferences and proclivities intensify into desires that command our attention and compel us to act at their behest. No longer are we enjoying the object; rather, the object is enjoying us.

Such binding desire only arises due to avidya (i.e., self-ignorance). As long as we fail to recognize our true identity as whole, complete, limitless conscious existence, and take ourselves to be the inadequate, incomplete, limited individual we appear to be as a result of our association with a particular body-mind-sense complex, then we will chase objects (i.e. acquire stuff, accomplish tasks, achieve goals, cultivate relationships, secure positions, establish circumstances, etc.) that we believe will complete us and bring us lasting satisfaction and, ideally, permanent fulfillment. The fly in the ointment, however, is the fact that all actions and objects are limited and, thus, no action or object can provide moksha (i.e. ultimate inner freedom, or freedom from dependence on any object or circumstance for a sense of security, peace, and happiness).

Once we gain atmajnana (i.e., self-knowledge) and realize that moksha is our already existent essential nature as limitless conscious existence, we can thereafter enjoy objects without harboring the erroneous notion that they are the source of our joy and we need them to be happy. In other words, rather than expecting objects to color us with joy, we allow the joy that is our inherent nature to color our experience of objects.

Thus, as long as you know you are whole and complete, limitless conscious existence with or without music, you can enjoy producing and playing music without becoming imprisoned by it.

So, play on, my friend, play on.

A (Dennis): Excellent responses from the above. Nothing more has occurred to me, so I will just repeat the brief comments I made on receiving your question.

Advaita’s ultimate ‘interest’ in anything worldly is limited to the extent to which it can prepare the mind to accept the truth of non-duality. Therefore, one can certainly see how any sort of art can have the effect of stilling the mind and opening up the senses to see beyond the base material universe into more subtle realms. Also, interest in and practicing of art does not preclude pursuit of spiritual truth and there is no reason why it should cease after the dawning of Self-knowledge. It is something inherited or inculcated and constitutes an aspect of prArabdha karma, which continues until death of the body.

We have to do act in our lives. Creating art and music is one of the better actions! It brings joy to others and, as pointed out above, can be a potent element of karma yoga. The only proviso that occurs to me is that, if the music or art expresses passion, anger etc, take care not to become identified with it!