Where Does Art Come From? 

Wisdom for Artists from an Ancient Well: The Bhagavad Gita

Kevin Caldwell

Rooted in my conviction that creative and spiritual inspiration flow from the same human root system, I’ve been drawing wisdom for my own creativity) as well as for other artists) from Moses, and Buddha, and Lao Tzu, and Jesus and Muhammad. In this article I will use one portion of what I have gained from my own meditations in the Bhagavad Gita. For reasons of space, I will, spare the background and just plunge in!

First, a brief comment about the Gita itself: it is a song. It is a work of art! I think this is often overlooked when approaching religious texts, and yet to approach them as art allows us to open ourselves in new ways without what so many of us may experience as the baggage of our various religious pasts and assumptions.

The opening scene is a battlefield. With the armies at the ready, the warrior prince Arjuna asks his charioteer, who is in fact a divine avatar, the lord Krishna, to place him in the middle of the field, between the two armies to survey the scene. What Arjuna sees is devastating to him: factions from two great families on both sides of the fight, ready to kill family members, their own grandfathers, uncles, fathers, sons and grandsons, friends, teachers.

In Gita 1:27 Arjuna is overcome by a compassion that leads him to despair. Turning to Krishna he says, “All I see is misfortune, and disaster. I don’t see how any good can come from this”. He despairs completely and sees no point in life even if he proves the victor. He slumps down in the chariot in abject grief, his bow and arrows falling from his hand.

That is how the opening chapter of the Gita ends: in grief and despair. But this is also the turning point in the narrative for it opens a door for Krishna to teach and Arjuna to listen, leading him to a new way of being and living.

In the Gita Krishna is a charioteer, yes, but he is also a divine friend, and a divine being representing supreme consciousness. Krishna is also known in Hindu thinking as the god of Compassion.

There is a since in which, from the viewpoint of the Gita, the human compassion of Arjuna and the divine compassion of Krishna meet together and lead Arjuna (and the reader) on a journey of discovery.

The Gita is more than a conversation between a warrior prince and his chariot driver. The Gita’s narrative also functions at what some might call the mythic level or spiritual level. At this level there is an encounter between compassion and Compassion. As such, the conversation between Krishna and Arjuna in the Gita is a conversation not simply between two individuals, but a conversation taking place in the depths of the inner being of Arjuna’s self which is in connection with a deeper self.

The Gita is proving an answer to the question, “What Does Art Start?” Where does it come from?

First, from the desire to see. This is one thing that can separate artists (of all sorts) from non-artists, or so-called non-artists. It is not artistic skill (not only that anyway) or aptitude, or training. Much of that can be learned and improved through intentional and diligent cultivation. The primary root distinction is this willingness, and indeed, desire to see, to pay attention.

And more specifically to see with compassion. One function of art and thus of artists is to show us the world as it is, even if that brings us initially to despair. Art can help us to be able to see things as they are, but for this we require not only honesty, but compassion, a sympathy and empathy of soul that enables us to see the world and people and events around us with “soft eyes.”

Such compassion can be scary because it can open what seems a bottomless pit of grief and sorrow. Most people avoid it like a sickness. But artists often serve humanity by forcing us to see. Artists often pay a price for this, as they sometimes cultivate such compassion and grief at the expense of their own well-being.

However, the Gita encourages us to see with the eyes of Arjuna, and to bring our questions to the surface no matter how painful.

For it is this which can unlock enlightenment, and for artists, this can unlock artistic inspiration.

Where does art come from? It is not the desire to create, in and of itself, that leads to art. Art begins with a desire to see, and then seeing with compassion.

How do we receive such wisdom? How might it help us create? How do we engage our imagination with compassion, and all the emotions that such compassion may bring with it?

I have been experimenting with how to answer that.

First, I express an intention to myself with words something like, “I am willing to see”, or “I want to see” or “show me”.

Then, having set that intention, I select from various prompts I have created, one example being:

-I sit in a public place and notice people, animals, or plants, or other objects. It may seem odd to look at a tree or a fence post with compassion, but this can be a very powerful practice. I once wrote a short story in which the only character was a rock. So, don’t limit yourself in terms of what to notice with compassion.

I try to note what happens inside myself as I do this.

I begin to imagine how I might try to tell the story of whoever, (or whatever!) I have noticed. And in this exercise, I do so with compassion, allowing grief and sorrow, or joy, especially in the lives of others, whether human or not, to shape my story.

Sometimes I may not tell an actual story, it may be a poem, or a song, or an instrumental (doing more of those these days). For others it may be a painting, or a sculpture, or something they cook, even a work project!

The aim is for me to cultivate a willingness to see, to see with compassion, for I believe this is one of the answers to the question, “Where does art start?”

Where Does Art Come From?