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The Voice of the Sacred in Our Time

Keynote Address
by Kathleen Raine

My first meeting with Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan was in (I think) the year 1982 when she took
the chair at a lecture I gave when Dr. Santosh Pall had invited me to give the inaugural
lecture of the Yeats Society of India. Kapilaji was at that time a member of Indira
Gandhis government; and I remember asking her, "Does India have to make all the
mistakes of the West?" To which she replied, "Yes, all". "But there is not time", I said.
Two years later Kapilaji was founding the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, and
what she said then was "I am planting trees", the long-living wide-spreading banyan that
yet grows from a seed as small as the bindu, that all-potent "zero", the mysterious,
immeasurable source. Now the IGNCA promotes and publishes learned works whose
value is not to Indian scholars alone but to the whole world where all scholars devoted to
"the learning of the imagination" look to India with your still living tradition of arts and
crafts rooted in a unifying vision of "the sacred".
Meanwhile the Temenos Academy has on a more modest scale worked to protect the
living seed in a dark season Shelleys "winged seeds where they lie cold and low", seed
of the Spirit, living essence of the past and source of future life. Kapilaji consented to
become a founding Fellow of our Temenos Academy and she has generously agreed to
collaborate in this visit we are making to India. Your High Commissioner in London, Dr.
L.M. Singhvi, has been a constant friend to Temenos and has lectured for us he too is a
great planter of trees. In England he has been planting trees to commemorate those
English poets who loved India Shelley and Yeats and Eliot or whom India has loved,
Wordsworth and Burns and Blake. What is now a days inexplicably called "the real
world" may see little practical use in the planting of trees but we who believe that the
living world of mind and spirit is the real world see in these things the true source of
On my first visit, great Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay was the presiding presence at the
India International Centre, than whom no-one did more to protect and promote the many
arts and crafts inspired by "the India of the Imagination", and I never return to this rare
centre of culture without remembering her. And now we have to thank the India
International Centre for welcoming us with open arms and giving us the use of this fine
new conference room, free. That a conference in India should take place was suggested
by our friend and Temenos trustee Mr. Vinod Tailor, and Mr. A. Misra, retired Director in
England of Air India, who has helped to sponsor our travel.
When first I set foot on the sacred ground of India, illumined by the sun-god who sheds
here his most glorious light, something in me said, "Home at last". And it is with the joy
of homecoming that I am able to be here with Indian friends again, and to bring with me

friends from Temenos, some returning, others visiting India for the first time. Your
welcome makes our visit auspicious.
At the beginning of this century whose end is so near, Kipling could still write that "East
is East and West is West". Today we are one world, the "twain" have met and are
changing one another with unpredictable results. Already we live in one world, but what
will be the nature of the world into which we are moving? That is in our hands to
determine. India is becoming an industrialized modern nation, with all the technology
developed over the last centuries of Western science; and who can deny the great benefits
that science and technology have brought to the world in many fields the air transport
that has brought us here and other means of communication telephone, television and
the rest, medical research, the motor car and the thousand conveniences of modern life
that we would be unwilling to forego. But science is concerned with means and not ends,
it is morally neutral. It has given us the means of saving life but equally of destroying it
weapons of destruction of terrifying power and we have used them and the most
profitable export of the "developed" nations including my own are these weapons
which are sold, legally or illegally, to whoever can pay for them. By treating nature as an
object external to and separate from ourselves we have come to regard animals (and
indeed plants and all the elements and powers of nature) as mere mechanisms, as
commodities to be used as we will. Cattle, which from times immemorial, India has held
sacred, are in our modern world mere commodities, links in the food-chain. At the same
time our machines computers, "artificial brains" have come to be seriously discussed as
capable of thought a double blasphemy against the sacredness of life. For the
materialist world "nothing is sacred"; we ourselves are mere biochemical mechanisms in
a universe without meaning or value. And yet scientific materialism has become the
generally accepted supreme authority and arbiter of truth for a majority in the West and
westernized world. There is no reality except what natural science can observe and
measure. As for values wisdom and love and beauty and delight, knowledge and
understanding all these are immeasurable and for that reason have no place in the
technological utopia our culture is bringing into being.
But for all its triumphs, modern materialist science and technology is creating a world we
are finding increasingly uninhabitable not only because we have good reason to be
terrified by our own powers of destruction, but because that destruction is already upon
us in many ways. You have no doubt read with some horror of the consequences of
feeding cattle on animal offal, a violation of nature which is taking its revenge in the form
of disease. Our systematic destruction of forests all over the world is already changing
the climate of our beautiful, delicately balanced planet earth. "Genetic engineering" is
changing the nature of plants and animals in ways unpredictable. Sir Laurens van der
Post, in a broadcast shortly before he left this earth in December last year summed up the
situation in stern words :
"At the moment we are heading straight for destruction, there is the life of the spirit and
we have not engaged with it. Our obsession with material things is quite dreadful. We
have greater power than at any time in our history to control nature, and it has corrupted
us. Present society is at the end of its cycle."

Again I recall my conversation with Kapilaji, "Must India make all our mistakes"? and
her reply, "Yes, all".
Going back to 1928, to Yeatss second version of his prophetic work A Vision, his
fictional magus, Michael Robartes, foretells the same catastrophe. Robartes speaks :
"Have I proved that civilizations come to an end when they have given all their light like
burned-out wicks, and that ours is near its end"? "Or transformation", Aherne corrected. I
said, speaking in the name of all, "You have proved that civilizations burn out, and that
ours is near its end".
"Or transformation", Aherne corrected once more.
"If you had answered differently", said Robartes, "I would have sent you away, for we are
here to consider the terror that is to come".
But that terror is not the whole story; nor was it for Yeats, whose vision of history, taken
from Plato himself and the pre-Socratic philosophers takes the form of a diagram of two
interpenetrating cones, or spirals, the "gyres" the apex of each touching the base of the
other, and in perpetual motion, the revolutions of time. As one spiral waxes, the other
wanes until at the point of reversal golden age moves toward iron age and then again God
resumes his control of the world and the earth-born men give place to "the golden race",
as the divine order is restored. At these points of reversal there are (according to Plato)
troubled times; and according to Yeatss chart one of these cosmic moments of reversal is
due to begin in the first decade of the next century. How literally one should take the
symbols offered us by all poets is open to question; but what is certain is that we build
our world according to our dreams (or our nightmares), our civilizations our "cloudcapped towers" whether they be in Manhattan or on Shakespeares stage the Globe
theatre or "the great globe itself" originate in the imagination. We create our own history.
And while old civilizations India herself - are eagerly adopting Western values, at the
same time in the West we are discovering the limits of those values, and in Europe and
America there are everywhere to be found seekers, searchers, especially among the
young, the search after spiritual values, the rise of soul in protest against the overweening
claims of a materialist science which denies the very existence of immeasurable soul and
spirit. This is taking place at many levels and in many forms. Again looking back to the
first conference I ever attended at the India International Centre, among those present was
a great philosopher-novelist, Raja Rao. He was speaking of course of the eternal India,
the "India of the Imagination", the continuous age-old civilization which has lived
through millenia without a break or a revolution. He said many other things about this
state of being which he calls "India". That continuity of culture which has remained
unbroken and which distinguishes the eternal Orient from Western civilization has
never regarded the material world as the ground of reality : on the contrary, not the
observed but the observer, mind, spirit, is the ground. Not a lifeless substance called
"matter" "outside existence" as Blake puts it, but existence itself, the living principle, satchit-ananda is the ground. The universe is not a lifeless object an object in which the
logic of the materialist argument forces us finally to include ourselves but a life which

includes all, in which not only what we understand as animate creatures, but rocks and
mountains and stars, the light of the sun and the Mystery itself in which we live and move
and have our being, participate. While for our materialist culture "nothing is sacred", for
those civilizations and individuals who have understood that we are participants in a
living mystery, know that, again in Blakes words, "Everything that lives is holy".
So in these cross-currents East and West are thrown together; the same reality, the same
questions confront us both alike. But while you are adopting Western values along with
much-needed Western technology, we look to the Orient to rescue us from a materially
affluent but spiritually destitute world. For science, whose exploration of the physical
universe has pursued matter to its vanishing-point, that zero, that bindu beyond which it
can no longer be pursued, and where the observed can no longer be externalized from the
observer, Science has perhaps completed its exploration of matter, from the minute to the
bounds of space; but it can tell us nothing of the immeasurable, of meanings and values,
of love and wisdom, of joy and sorrow; and the human kingdom has been, from the most
primitive aboriginal people to the great philosophers, sages, saints, poets and artists, in all
our stories of love and war, our comedies and tragedies, concerned with values. Such is
the nature of civilization, such is the nature of our humanity. It could be questioned
whether our modern technological culture is a civilization at all. And of course, being
human, a world without meaning is unbearable to us, it is a hell, a "nightmare" as Yeats
calls it. And we look to those civilizations which have not denied and excluded spiritual
knowledge, which we in the West have so largely lost.
India has from times immemorial founded its continuous and unbroken civilization on
that living mystery in which being-consciousness and delight are inseparable. The word
"India" evokes, even now, a texture of wonder, from the teachers and the teaching,
temples and palaces, rich textiles, jewels, dance and music, to the crafts of villages,
pottery and wood-carving and metalwork, to the finger-paintings on their thresholds
painted by village women. And it is a vision of the sacredness of all life that has crafted
and embodied that shimmering vision of the Imagination in a thousand expressions of the
arts and crafts. For all our technology we in the secular West have lost the secret of
beauty - our endlessly repeatable artefacts lack that imprint of the imaginative vision
which is to be found in the still vital tradition of Indian craftsmanship. On my first visit to
India it was the presence everywhere of beauty in the saris and bracelets of the poor no
less than of women working in academic and in highly responsible administrative
positions that impressed me Indian women, I reflected, value beauty too much to let it
go. On my last visit, three years ago, I wondered, "where has beauty gone?" Should it not
be clear that something is wrong with an ideology which destroys beauty, for beauty
flowers only from the soul? So from our materially affluent but spiritually impoverished
Western world more and more of our young people in search of their own souls are
turning to the Orient. Buddhism is, I believe, the fastest-growing religion in Europe, and
probably in the United States also; and did not Nehru himself write that the Lord Buddha
is probably Indias greatest gift to the world? You have here in Delhi the International
Academy of Indian Culture, a treasury of records of the penetration of Indian culture to
East and West, to Indonesia and China and Tibet, into pre-Socratic Europe and again
today. The great diaspora of Indian immigrants in the Western world is itself permeating

our own world with another quality. In the Christian Church itself, especially in the
religious Orders, Oriental meditation methods are becoming widely practised. The
Christian tradition itself remains the ground of European culture, but is increasingly
under threat from the prevailing materialism, and a science which claims reality for the
material order alone. Were it not for the two thousand years of Judaeo-Christian culture,
and the still older Hellenistic civilization the damage would have been still greater.
Of course truth is truth everywhere, and we too have not wholly lost the JudaeoChristian, and the Platonic traditions which created European civilization. All spiritual
traditions are records of humanitys experience of the sacred. We gave the name of
Temenos to our journal of "the Arts of the Imagination" and to our Academy because the
"temenos" is the sacred precinct of a temple; and it is in that sacred precinct be it of
temple, church or mosque, or in that sacred space within the soul itself that works of
Imagination have arisen, whether in sculpture and architecture, music, dance and drama.
Yeats in his Introduction to Tagores Gitanjali (published in 1920) wrote that Tagores
poems display in their thought a world I have dreamed of all my life long. The work of a
supreme culture they yet appear as much the growth of the common soil as the grass and
the rushes. A tradition, where poetry and religion are the same thing, has passed through
the centuries, gathering from learned and unlearned metaphor and emotion, and carried
back to the multitude the thought of the scholar and the noble.
We too once had such a civilization, to which our great cathedrals stand witness, in which
learned men and craftsmen, noble and simple alike devoted their wealth and their skills to
a common vision.
But if every religion is grounded in a vision of the sacred, that vision is itself an
experience which belongs to our nature no less than do love and joy and sorrow. It is
innate in the soul, and may be awakened by some simple thing, Wordsworths "tree, of
many one", or Trahernes "orient and immortal wheat that never would be reaped and
never had been sown". Indeed the ties between religion and the vision of "the sacred" no
longer seem in any way inevitable, although of course mosque and cathedral sculpture
and stained glass window, themselves reflect, and can therefore in their turn awaken, such
a vision. The need has been felt, in the last hundred years, to go back to the source,
Whereas the secular world is time-bound, the source is present at all times, available in
every present. It is available now, and for the timeless reality time is never running out!
But we are also in history, and circumstances change, forms valid in one age are not
necessarily so in another.
Are the old god-forms dead, or are such symbols as the dance of Shiva, the Christian
Cross, the Tree of Life, the candle-flame, the sun, inherently meaningful? Indeed, is
nature one continual epiphany, rose and rainbow, mountain and river, star and eagle and
tiger, Hanuman and Ganesha, all in themselves and for ever forms of wisdom? Are the
eternal teachings of every spiritual tradition a "perennial philosophy", inherent in the
nature of things? Is the law, like that of birth and death, "the same anew" i.e., Reexperienced, relived, reloved in every age, in every life? Unageing spirit takes many
forms, according to time and place and culture. Our English poet-prophet William Blake

called it Imagination, and called Imagination "the divine humanity", "the human
existence itself", what you in India have always known as the Self, present in all, a
teaching implicit in the Gita and the Upanishads. In denying this inner light we mutilate
and kill our souls. And that is why the world needs India as never before. The great
civilization of the "India of the Imagination" remains intact but is in grave danger from
the imperialism of a materialist civilization, that instead of Imagination the universal
divine spirit offers an "internet" of information, and for the delight of the soul in its own
universe offers luxury and wealth. It would be an irreparable loss were the great India to
succumb to the effortless culture which is overspreading the world, of materialism that
denies soul and spirit. Will it be destruction, or transformation? And, if transformation,
what will change, what is undying?
It is these things that we are here to consider together. For these questions are not mere
matters of opinion, private matters, they have practical consequences in every sphere of
life, in economics and agriculture and ecology, in architecture, education, medicine, in
the arts. We build our world according to our nightmares or our dreams. The Christian
law given in the Lords Prayer is "on earth as it is in Heaven" and "heaven" is within us.
The Irish poet-mystic AE who played an active part in Irish agricultural reform spoke of
the need to conform "the politics of time" to "the politics of eternity" which is the same
thing. We have come to share our experience of the renewal of the sacred with you, to
learn, to dip our small cups in the eternal river of India; thank you Kapilaji, for making
this possible and I thank those speakers, scholars and fellow-participants in the Great
Battle, for being with us.