Nayaswami Jyotish on his art and life

Read this interview of Nayaswami Jyotish. The exhibition of his paintings and canvas prints was curated and presented by Milind Sathe of Indiaart Gallery at Ananda Sangha, Pune.

Jyotish : It was a bit unusual, so I’ll tell the longer story, and maybe we can take it from there. My father and my older brother were architects, my mother was a weaver, my sister was a potter, and my younger brother teaches graphic arts. So I was born into a very creative family. I was the rebel who went into the humanities, first in philosophy, then psychology. My mother nearly always had two or three art projects going. But it wasn’t a facility in the arts that I absorbed from her, so much as a mindset that if something needed to be done, we could exercise a little creativity and do it, and it would be lots of fun. I think those were the two things I absorbed from her – a love of the arts, and the thought, “I can do anything I put my mind to.” I didn’t apply it to art until I started painting in my mid-fifties. I came to Ananda in my twenties, and then all my creative energy went into helping Swami Kriyananda build this work. Building a spiritual work, and starting a community from scratch required a tremendous amount of creative thought. And because I had that creative mindset from early on, I was never intimidated by the challenges. You might say that the early exposure to a creative frame of mind set the stage for what I’ve had to do at Ananda. I did a little photography, because it was something I could fit in – I could take photos for an hour, and it gave me a small creative outlet, but it was never a primary focus. Then, oddly enough, we were in the Bay Area, and we happened to meet a well-known healer. He’d been an engineer, and he’d built a machine that allowed him to dial in any wavelength of light he wanted. He would muscle-test you and come up with two or three wavelengths of colours that your body seemed to be needing, and then you could look into a chrome tube and absorb your personal colours. I’ve never been a good subject for subtle healing methods like homoeopathy and so on. But when I came out of the light treatment my body felt lighter than air, and I felt like I was floating over the ground. The colours stayed with me very strongly for weeks, and I realised there was something in my system that needed color. It wanted an intense color. And at first I thought that I might get a bright light bulb and some theatrical gels so that I could dial-up the colours that felt right in my meditation room. The light machine was far too expensive, and I never got around to building my own system, but there was an abiding sense that I needed more color in my life. We had a large blank wall in our living room where we had hung a tiny painting that we bought in Italy. It was ridiculously small, but it was all we could afford. Then Devi went away for the weekend, and I thought, “We need a bigger painting, and I want more colour. I’ll paint a large painting that we can hang on the wall.” I went shopping for art supplies, and of course I bought entirely the wrong paints – they were what you’d use to paint a wooden duck or something, and not at all suitable for what I wanted to do. But it got me started. My first attempt was terrible. Then I got hold of a book on painting and did four or five exercises, and by about the seventh or eighth painting I had one that I liked a lot, and we still have it on the wall. It was a painting of tulips, done in bright colours. It satisfied my artistic side, and I felt it was good enough to put on the wall. As I kept painting, fresh ideas would come to me in meditation. Often it would be no more than a feeling, or an energy, or a particular color. It was hardly ever a scene from the real world that I envisioned. For example, I was meditating on the energy of the chakras, and the third chakra was filled with a powerful energy that evoked a vibrant orange-red. I wasn’t seeing it in a literal way, but I could feel the vibration of it in the chakra, and after the meditation I thought, “How can I express that feeling in a painting?” I’m not drawn to abstract art, because it seems too ungrounded for my taste. But the feeling was very clear and specific – I had a very strong sense of a particular energy and color, and I began to think of how I could put it in a painting. The image came from Mt. Shasta erupting, reflecting the energy I had felt in the spine. The painting has bright reds and oranges, with an abstract mountain stream flowing from the crater. I called it Shasta is Born. It represents the energy that I had felt in meditation – the explosion of reds and oranges, and the mountain stream – those images came from the meditation, and I tried to use my intuition to translate it into a visual form. Many of my paintings have come from experiences in meditation. It might be a clear feeling that energises me to express it on canvas – a mood of peace, or a feeling of aspiration, and I’ll ask, "How can I translate this spiritual quality and put it on canvas?"

Jyotish: Yes, but even if I were to start with a subject from nature, the painting would express a spiritual energy, or an uplifted state of consciousness. Quite a few of my paintings have Paramhansa Yogananda or Swami Kriyananda in them. About eighty percent will have Yogananda meditating with his back turned. What it’s saying is, “Don’t look at his physical body. Don’t try to form an overly personal relationship with his personality and his physical form. Try to see him as one who is fully merged in God.” As Swami said, Paramhansa Yogananda is not that physical form – he is the divine light of God. As we’re speaking, I’m looking at a painting where the Master is meditating on a rock by the ocean. He’s gazing out over the ocean at the horizon, and there’s a bright orange sky in the distance, and a mottled setting sun. Master said that the dividing line between the ocean and sky symbolises the transition between consciousness and superconsciousness. He urged us to meditate on that line, as the painting shows him doing. The inward experience of his meditation is suggested in the sky, as the beautiful golden light that we can see in the brighter central part of the spiritual eye in deep meditation. But, again, it isn’t meant to draw you into a personal relationship with the Master. “What a beautiful smile he has!” Rather, it’s expressing a longing to know his consciousness. It’s asking, "How can I attune my consciousness to his light, so that I can receive that divine consciousness?”

Jyotish: Definitely. When I started, I tried painting with watercolours, or a watercolor medium, or acrylic inks. But those media force you to pre-visualize the whole painting in advance, because you can’t easily paint over what you’ve done. That doesn’t work for me, because I’m looking to develop an intuitive flow, and I need to be able to shift directions as my intuition leads me. Swamiji knew that I was very logically oriented, and I needed to develop a more intuitively creative approach. He encouraged me strongly in my painting. But watercolour forces you into a planned approach that’s a bit like painting by the numbers, and it’s more rational than intuitive. I eventually moved to acrylics, which allow you to paint over and over, and oils, where it’s even more the case. If you were to scrape away my paintings, layer by layer, you would very often see how I started in a direction that didn’t pan out and I painted over it, making adjustments as I went along. I might make many adjustments, and after you’ve been painting for a while you start to get a sense for what’s working for you, and what your strengths and tendencies are. Most of my paintings have lots of color in them, because I’m trying to build bridges to the spiritual world. It may be perfectly valid for an artist to paint in greys and neutral tones, but that doesn’t hold any appeal for me. I want color, and often my colours aren’t realistic, because they’re brighter than you would see in nature. The trees tend to be a brighter orange or red or yellow. And I do it for a definite reason, because if you’re seeing the astral body of a tree, my sense is that it will be a lot brighter than its physical counterpart.

Jyotish: I’m pretty sure I know the painting you’re referring to. I started out wanting to do a specific kind of painting. At the far end of the avenue of birches, there’s a lighter area, and the river represents the tunnel of the spine through which the consciousness rises in deep meditation. It’s a tunnel-like experience. And if you follow the energy up the spine to the medulla at the base of the skull, and keep following the current as it bends forward from the medulla to the spiritual eye, the river of light in the painting represents the energy that’s making that journey from the base of the spine to the spiritual eye. But, again, in order to make the upward-flowing energy more defined and tunnel-like, it needed to have walls to give it direction – but not solid walls. So the birches at the sides represent a focusing of the energy – they keep the energy from drifting off and spilling over without a clear sense of direction. If you want to meditate deeply, you can’t let your energy and attention get distracted and go wandering through the birch grove. The energy has to rise up the astral spine, then it has to go straight from the medulla into the light. That’s the vibration of the painting – it’s bright yellows, with a bright golden energy that represents the inner core of the astral eye that you can see in meditation. That bright golden-yellow color is the astral energy of the spiritual eye. But if I had left it at that, it wouldn’t be grounded. If I wanted to suggest pure energy, I could have done it with an abstract painting. But the river of golden light needed rocks on either side to keep the energy moving in the right direction. The rocks are an earth element, and they ground the painting. The painting has the four elements – earth in the rocks, the water in the stream, the fiery energy of the light, and when you ascend through the tunnel and rise into the sky, you’re entering the air element. But I don’t pre-think any of it – it comes from an intuitive flow. I might say, “Oh, isn’t that interesting.” Because I’ll look at the painting at some point – and I do this with every painting – and I’ll say, “Hm, the energy is starting to drift off before it has a chance to rise into the light. I need to give it a subtle sense of containment – it needs some trees.” But I don’t want the trees to be fully seen. I don’t want to create an abrupt break from the astral to the physical, which would distract from the feeling of a flow. So I need trees that are half-trees and half-light, to help the rising energy transition into the light – into the inner fire of the spiritual eye – and expand into the air element that represents the superconscious state.
But these are all just afterthoughts that I’m making up after the fact. In reality, I set out to paint an experience, and I’m not sure at the start which way it will go.

Jyotish: I would say so, because it’s my nature to teach. It’s been my dharma in this life to serve as a teacher and leader, and it’s an influence that I’m not going to be able to escape when I’m painting. I could give a lecture about almost any of my paintings, and there would be a solid story and a solid philosophy. I would be trying to help people to have an experience of their own, or to understand some important points about spiritual life. I suppose I could even say that most of my paintings are lectures translated into images. But as Georgia O’Keefe said, “If I wanted to explain things, I would write essays. I paint. Look at my paintings.” I’m paraphrasing, but she’s saying that it isn’t necessary to translate a painting into words. I’m talking like this to help you understand the process I go through. But I never say, “Gee, that was a really good talk. I think I’ll translate it into a painting.” Still, I would say that my paintings all have a spiritual element, or a spiritual energy.

Jyotish: I think it’s absolutely valuable both psychologically and especially spiritually, because when you’re in that state, you’re in an equivalent state to a good meditation, or maybe even a very high meditation, where you’re absorbed in something and the ego is no longer active as much as it normally is, in its usual habit of judging and liking and disliking, rejecting this or accepting that, and all those kinds of things that go on, generally speaking, at a subconscious or semi-conscious level. When you’re absolutely absorbed in things, it raises the consciousness, and in that raised consciousness you may have heightened perceptions. You might see textures more clearly, or colors more vividly, not psychedelically but more brightly, with more feeling, and you realise that the colors are there more than you might in your normal state, or especially in a depressed state.

Jyotish: Yes, anything that uplifts the consciousness and expands it, I would say, is an innately spiritual experience, whether we label it as such or not. And I would go farther and say that any innately spiritual experience is good for a person psychologically.

Jyotish: Swami didn’t say so much to me in that vein, but he wrote and spoke about it a lot. He would often talk about creativity, or the arts, in a way that made it very clear that he was encouraging us to develop that side of our consciousness. He often encouraged me to be more intuitive and less rational, and when I started to paint, I think he saw it as a way for me to keep working on being less oriented toward reason, and more flowing and intuitive, and that it would help me in other ways. It would help my speaking and leadership, it would help with organising, and in working with people. Getting that balance would help everything I did. So I don’t think he was saying, “Wonderful, you’ve found your dharma as a painter,” so much as he was saying, “You’re developing your creativity in a flowing and intuitive way, and that’s a very good direction to help balance you. It’s a good step, and I’m going to encourage that.”

Jyotish: If you think of the pillars of Swami’s creativity, including the tremendous creativity that he brought to his leadership and his writing and speaking, music was definitely one of the main pillars of his expression. He often said, “If you want to know me, listen to my music.” He made lots of statements about the music and its importance. “I’ve never written an insincere note.” And, “Music is a language, and I understand that language, and most people don’t understand that language.” And he definitely worked to keep the vibration of the music pure. One of the things we’ve had to fight battles over, and that we still have to fight throughout this work around the world, is where people will come along and say, “Swami wrote music. I think I’ll write music.” And then they’ll want to know, “Why don’t the Ananda choirs sing my music? It’s just as good.” But Swami could hear the vibrational difference between spiritually uplifting music and the folk music, or whatever it is, that people tend to be writing. There are many beautiful melodies, but the melody, in and of itself, doesn’t quite carry it. An example that Swami gave is the theme song from the movie Brother Sun, Sister Moon, performed by Donovan. Swami said, “It starts out beautifully – it’s just exactly right, but then it gets to a point where, instead of going deeper spiritually, it goes emotional.” (Singing), “Brother Sun and Sister Moon…” And Swami said, “That musical phrase is just perfect.” But then the next note should be (singing), “Brother Sun and Sister Moon…” And it should stay on that note. But instead it goes emotional. It goes, “I seldom see you, seldom hear your tune.” It hops over to the emotional and becomes very soupily sentimental. And Swami could immediately hear that and know what was going on. Whereas others might say, “Yes, but it’s so popular!” Or “Yes, but it’s so sweet!” – Swami knew what it was saying in terms of setting up a vibration, and how it would affect our consciousness, by engrossing us in a sentimental mood instead of raising us toward a level of self-forgetful devotion. All of Swami’s music has a very definite spiritual vibration. As he put it, “I’ve never written a single note that wasn’t inspired by Spirit.” And he knew that if people would sing the music, and especially if they would sing it together in choirs and small groups, they would be greatly helped by being immersed in that spiritual vibration. But he had to fight against the tendency of people to come along with all sorts of opinions, without really understanding the language of music. They would hear something that evoked an emotional reaction in them, or they would get lost in their own sentimental tendencies and say, “But I like leaping up to the emotional note, because it’s what I heard in the music I grew up with.” The fact is, most popular music takes us into ego consciousness, while Swamiji’s music takes us into a higher consciousness and leaves the ego behind. And then people who don’t understand what it’s doing will want to change it, or they’ll want to bring it into resonance with the patterns of their old listening habits, which are reflected in the music they grew up with. “Let’s speed it up a little – it’s too slow.” Or, “Let’s make the beat heavier.” And we’re constantly having to fight to keep the music pure. It’s one of the absolute pillars of this work, because people who sing the music and listen to the music get in tune with Spirit in a deeper way. Devi and I hardly ever play any other music. We don’t sing much, because we’ve had to choose where we can put our energy. But we’ll often have music playing, and it’s hardly ever anything but Swami’s music, because it feels so right, spiritually and vibrationally.

Jyotish: (laughs) I remember a movie about Beethoven’s life that we saw many years ago. This was when Kalyani and her son Prem were living at Ananda Village. Prem was seven or eight, and in the movie a guy walked into a scene, a German fellow with a big, beautiful baritone voice, and sang part of the “Ode to Joy.” He sang it beautifully, but very much in the awareness that he was the great artist. And Prem piped up and said, “Mommy, is he winning?” Because he could feel the ego in the expression, as opposed to the purity of the music itself. So, yes, I resonate with “Don’t try to make it too beautiful.” In the sense that, don’t try to make yourself as a performer the point of interest. Make the music itself the point of interest. And the same with speaking: don’t try to make yourself the point of interest. Make it what you’re saying – the ideas, the philosophy, and the spirituality – and let the people be focused on that, as opposed to “Oh, isn’t he a wonderful speaker – or a painter or singer.”

Jyotish: Yes, it’s Or you can visit and a link will take you to the art. These paintings are for anybody to use in any non-commercial way.

Relevant Links

Art portfolio of Nayaswami Jyotish

Blog post on Art of Nayaswami Jyotish

Videos with Nayaswami Jyotish

About his art

About his painting "O, God Beautiful"

Art, meditation and spirituality

On his painting "King of the Infinite”

About his painting "Guru Purnima"

On his painting "Jyotish Sunset”

About his painting “Meditation on the Spiritual Eye”