Spirituality and Beauty

Leela ramaswamy
Last Updated : 18 September 2012, 16:47 IST
Last Updated : 18 September 2012, 16:47 IST

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What has spirituality got to do with physical beauty? Not much, you would answer, but rather surprisingly, this is not true.

As much as one may deny it, human ideas of goodness are deeply intertwined with our concepts of outward charm. For instance, large, lustrous eyes, proportionately set are believed to reflect sincerity and honesty. A fine and high forehead is thought to be indicative of intelligence, while a prominent chin stands for determination. Conversely, a large, hooked nose points to a cruel nature and small eyes are regarded as a sign of cunning. Cutting across cultures, gods are endowed with handsome looks and goddess comes across as paragons of beauty. Demons and devils have ugly faces and startling shapes. Cinematic do-gooders are dashing and heroines are visions of loveliness.

Calm reasoning will tell us that such judgements are patently unfair and go against all canons of justice and fair play. The shape and configuration of the face and body are merely physical outcomes. They are the result of heredity, health and environment and are in no way a reflection of character.

Just as you will gain no more than a certain determined height, so by no means can you easily enlarge your eyes or your mouth.

Apart from being untrue, such ideas are irrational and have been the cause of injustice, harm and misery. Bizarre notions of superiority related to blond hair and blue eyes were in part responsible for the persecution and savage killing of Semites during World War II.
White invaders looked upon black inhabitants of Africa as inferior beings and had no qualms about treating them as slaves. Prejudices such as these have not only a long history but continue to influence us to this day.

For instance, a story concerning the great painter Da Vinci is often quoted to drive home a moral point.

Da Vinci, it tells us, was looking for a child who possessed the gentle and innocent looks of the young Jesus. He found his model in a boy who sat fishing on the banks of a river.
Years later, he wanted to paint the picture of the betrayer Judas Iscariot. He visited a prison that housed the most hardened criminals. There he found his man, the very epitome of wickedness and ugliness. All of a sudden, when Da Vinci began painting, the man broke into uncontrollable sobs and cried out, ‘Don’t you remember me, I am the same person whom you painted as the Infant Jesus.’ Ugliness had crept in where once beauty had dwelt. His wicked ways had brought him to this pass. Many, however, give this story little credence and assert that it is not supported by reliable evidence. Be that as it may, why does the idea that goodness and beauty go hand in hand persist?

The rather astonishing answer is that it is not utterly baseless. Detectives, it is well known, depend on subtle changes and reflexes in the face to identify the guilty. The kind and good-hearted like Mother Teresa have a certain radiance about them and the evil-minded often carry an impress of it on their faces.

John Keats, the master of sensuous verse, summed it up beautifully. He wrote, ‘Truth is Beauty and Beauty, Truth’, pointing out that our inner lives find expression in our outer demeanours. Spirituality is linked with beauty because “handsome is that handsome does.”

Published 18 September 2012, 16:47 IST

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