On the Value of Vastu

In India, we encounter a demand to conform to the prescriptions that go under the name of “Vastu”: ancient spiritual rules that guide how you must plan and design any building.  The Vastu Shastra (which is the Indian equivalent of the Chinese tradition of Feng Shui) has gained an increasing following over the years from believers who claim conformance to the rules leads to good fortune, and violation to bad fortune.  Real estate developers say that today it is far more difficult to sell apartments if they are not Vastu-compliant.  Many architects, who have undergone a modern and rational training, complain that they are forced into an unnecessary constraint on their design creativity, and share frustrations with peers about this client idiosyncrasy they must put up with.

The proponents of Vastu say it is scientific and it works.  The detractors say that it is unscientific and irrational superstition.  Let us start with the argument of architects who are detractors.  While one may feel intuitive sympathy with them, one is forced to be sceptical about their argument, for the same people would defend their sense of aesthetic judgement as something that springs from a higher realm that cannot be subjected exclusively to reason. If one defends one important aspect in design as being beyond reason, one cannot dismiss another just because it falls short of the conventions of scientific rationality.

Perhaps the proponents of Vastu are also wrong in seeking to justify it as “a set of scientific rules”.   As a sceptic, one may react negatively to the question “Is Vastu true?”  But is this the correct question?  If we revert to the wisdom of another of our great sacred texts – the Bhagavad Gita – a spiritual quest requires that we detach ourselves from the fruits of our actions.  If we follow sacred prescriptions on how to build, we should not assume that the act and consequences of building are tied in a direct cause-effect relationship, and that the impulse to adhere to such prescriptions is justified by imminent material and other benefits.  Rather, our quest for the sacred should be driven by an internalised drive to unite with a higher level of divine reality – an impulse that is recognised by many religions besides Hinduism.  If one pursues Vastu only for material success in this world, this becomes a quest to go straight to Lakshmi (the Goddess of Wealth) and bypass her consort Vishnu (the Preserver of Spiritual Balance).  That is not how it is meant to work!

A lady I met some years ago challenged me on my opinions regarding Vastu.  When I admitted my scepticism, she asked, “Doesn’t every site have its aura that must be respected?” Suddenly it became a different question, which was much more reasonable.  Every site does have its own character and aura.  Perhaps, at one time Vastu provided a set of guidelines that helped connect with this aura, and it was this union that was the goal, not a self-centred desire for benefits.  But a set of explicit rules that might have been valid at one time will not always hold good in perpetuity.  Contexts change, usually quite drastically, and the continued applicability of a static set of external rules becomes more and more problematic over time.  If one should be sensitive enough to perceive the aura of a site, the subtlety that such perception demands must spring from an ongoing capacity for internalised recognition rather than an external aid like a rule-book.  As architects, can we develop such a sensitivity?

There is a story of a young prince who was sent to a mystic for training on how to be fit to rule as a king.  The mystic lived on the edge of the forest, and instructed the prince to go and live in the depths of the forest for three months, return and report on what he had heard.  After the first three months, the prince came back and reported, “I heard a tiger killing a deer.  I heard a thunderstorm.  I heard an elephant crashing through the undergrowth.”  The mystic admonished him, “You have not listened properly.  Go back to the forest for three more months, listen more carefully, and come back again to tell me what you heard.”  This time, the prince returned to describe sounds that were far subtler than the dramatic events perceived in his first stint in the forest.  He spoke of the gurgle of tiny brooks, the rustle of a faint breeze, and the movement of insects.  Again, he was told he had not listened properly, and was directed to go back for three more months to repeat the exercise.  He did not last three months, and after a month came running back, bursting with excitement, crying, “I heard it!  I heard it!”  When asked, he ecstatically exclaimed, “I heard a flower blooming.  I heard dew forming on the grass.  I heard sunlight hitting the ground.”  The mystic then told the young prince, “You may go back to your kingdom.  You are now fit to be a king.”

Our classical traditions, with the rigour of the guru-shishya parampara, fostered such a sensitivity.  As a student of music, if you sang the same raag often enough, with the help of the guru’s guidance you eventually heard things you had never perceived before.  That ability to hear it was always there within you, the guru just helped to bring it out.  Such inspiration lies in the sites we work with.  We don’t often listen to it – but it is there.  And acquiring this sensitivity demands a commitment to sadhana: a rigorous, repetitive and ego-transcending practice.  It is only through years of sadhana that we can find this level of discerning wisdom and action: following a rule book is not a workable short-cut.

There is a gesture often used in Indian classical dance, when before the performance the dancer touches the stage and then touches her eyes.  This is a gesture of humility, recognising the sanctity of all space including the stage, seeking divine forgiveness for having to stamp on it with her feet, even though she is doing so to praise the divine.  After this gesture of humility, the dance begins, and the mastery and wisdom the dancer has discovered through her sadhana begins to reveal itself.

We should imbibe the lesson to be learnt from the classical dancer.   As architects, we indulge in such greater violence to the ground we step on.  If our first step onto the site embodied her level of humility and reverence, the spiritual would cover the same ground as the ecological.  And like the dancer, we should think long and hard about what our second step should be.  We should refrain from taking that second step until we know that our sadhana has empowered us to act in consonance with the consciousness and beauty that imbues the world.

Our ancient tradition taught us that the spiritual, the ethical and the natural are intertwined.  But we seem to be trying our best to forget this. We treat the world as a passive receptacle to be exploited for personal gain, and grab on to short-cuts that we think will make it easier to do so.  Even if we are architects who eschew Vastu, if we practice our discipline primarily to earn fame and fortune, we succumb to the same ego-driven desire as those who blindly follow Vastu as a short-cut to material fortune.

We will connect the act of architecture with a sacred realm only if we begin with a patient, non-verbal, non-judgmental, reverential attitude of absolute humility, and persistently carry that attitude into a sadhana that we hope will make us worthy of being in the world.  If we do not do this, we shall fall short of the wisdom of our spiritual tradition.  We may adhere to sacred texts like the Vastu Shastra, believing that we are anchored in divine tradition merely because those texts are ancient.  But we shall remain disconnected from their true intent, and be doing a disservice to that tradition.

If we wish to be architects in the true sense of the word, our first task is to commit to the sadhana of architecture.

This is a modified version of an essay originally published in “Indian Architect & Builder”, Vol. 15(02), October/November 2001, p.30

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