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Evaluating Indian Aesthetics
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Saam Trivedi

“Globalization is… the next big artworld idea” – Noël Carroll1

Do the art and aesthetics of the four oldest human civilizations – those of Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq!), Egypt, India, and China, all of which incidentally flourished long before such landmark dates in world history as 1066, 1607, and 1776 – have anything to teach us today? More specifically, I focus here on classical Indian (not Native American!) aesthetics and the rasa theory; leaving it to others with greater expertise in ancient Chinese, Egyptian and other aesthetics to undertake similar projects. Does Indian aesthetics have anything of value and modern relevance to us today, both generally and in the West? In what follows, I suggest that the answer to this question is in the affirmative. 

I. Exposition

I begin by setting out some basic ideas of the rasa theory of classical Indian aesthetics as found in Bharata’s Natyasastra2 – hereafter NS – an ancient Sanskrit text on dramaturgy the precise dates of which we need not be much concerned with but which various scholars – who disagree about such things – place anywhere in time from the fifth century BCE to the eighth century CE. Note in passing that it is not my purpose in this essay to engage in comparative aesthetics, and so, for the most part, I will not compare ideas and passages in Bharata’s text with thoughts about drama and the other arts in Western aesthetics such as, for example, in Aristotle’s Poetics; some might, in any case, doubt how far such a comparison and contrast might go given that while we have the entire text of Bharata’s NS, we sadly do not possess all of Aristotle’s work. Note also that, for the most part, I will set aside later commentators on Bharata (such as the tenth and eleventh century CE Kashmir Shaivite Abhinavagupta), for there is reason to think that many of these later writers may have given a religious and cosmological twist to what is at core an aesthetic theory and can be understood as such, quite apart from religion;3 here I disagree with writers such as Susan Schwartz who suggests that the goal of Indian aesthetics is to facilitate religious transformation.4 Note too that while the rasa theory’s claims were originally about drama (which included dance and music as part of theatrical performances of ancient Indian plays) and literature understood broadly, over time they have also been extended to dance, sculpture, architecture, and music; claims about rasa probably cannot, however, be extended outside the arts to cover such things as beauty in nature.

The central ideas of Bharata’s rasa theory of aesthetics can be found chiefly in chapters 6 and 7 of the NS (VI & VII). Bharata distinguishes ordinary, real-life psychological states (bhava) from aesthetic sentiments or emotions or flavors or relishes (rasa). There are forty-one psychological states of which eight are durable (sthayibhava) while the other thirty-three (which we need not be much concerned with) are transient even if complementary. It is these eight durable psychological states – love, laughter, compassion, anger, energy, fear, disgust, and astonishment – that when presented in a play (or an artwork broadly) give rise to or develop into the eight rasas or aesthetic emotions or flavors recognized in drama in a way, as will be explained later, that involves both what is expressed on stage and also the audience’s uptake, and with which they have a one-one correspondence. The eight rasas are: erotic love (sringara), comic laughter (hasya), grief (karuna), fury (raudra), heroic spirit (vira), fear (bhayanaka), revulsion (bibhatsa), and wonder (adbhuta). And of these eight rasas, four – erotic love, fury, heroic spirit, and revulsion – are considered original, the other four rasas arising from them; a mimicry of erotic love gives us comic laughter, grief emerges from fury, heroic spirit yields wonder, while revulsion gives rise to fear. Note also that for any given play, one rasa must predominate so as to give unity to the discourse, and the others if present must be subsidiary to it.  

With regard to the psychological states, four sorts of things are distinguished. The first is the determinant or external cause or stimulus (vibhava) of the psychological state, so in the case of erotic love, for example, the stimulus might be the season or a flower or ornaments or anything beautiful or desirable. The second is the consequent (anubhava), the immediate and involuntary reaction to the stimulus, so in our example, this might involve glancing coyly or mouthing sweet words. The third thing is the deliberate or conscious reaction (vyabhicaribhava), which in the case of erotic love might involve such of the thirty-three transient, complementary states as languor or suspicion or jealousy. Finally, there is the total effect of the durable psychological state (sthayibhava) – love in this case – which dominates the other three even as all four together make up the relevant rasa, which in our example would be erotic love.    

All literary meaning, Bharata tells us, involves some kind of emotion or sentiment, thus giving us an emotive theory of literary and, more broadly, artistic meaning. Rasa, we are told, arises or emerges from a combination of the psychological states, amongst other things, just as taste in food is the result of combining various condiments and ingredients. The analogy with food here need not entail a view of cooking as an art-form, but it is worth noting nevertheless that like most Sanskrit words, the word rasa has multiple meanings, including (amongst others) juice, sap; liquid; taste, flavor, relish; condiment; an object of taste; taste or inclination for a thing, liking, desire; sentiment; and essence.5
Pursuing the analogy with food further, the NS claims that just as well-disposed people can taste and enjoy food cooked with many kinds of condiments, likewise a cultured person (rasika) can experience and relish rasa, as a final state of satisfaction, when they see dramatic representations and expressions of the various psychological states accompanied by words, gestures, and the like; the appeal to cultured persons here is reminiscent, of course, of the Humean notion of ideal critics and also similar notions of ideal or competent observers often appealed to in Western aesthetics. Cultured persons are described in the NS (XXVII. 50 ff.) as being impartial and sensitive; honest; alert; good at making inferences; capable of sympathizing with others; imaginative; open-minded; knowledgeable about music, dance, acting, dialects, grammar, prosody, customs, costumes, and make-up; having a fine sense of the rasas and the psychological states; expert at discussing pros and cons and at detecting faults and appreciating merits; and so on. It is conceded, however, that no one person is known to have all these qualities (much like Hume’s granting that it is embarrassing to ask where true critics can be found).  

While the actors in drama portray various psychological states (bhava), what cultured people experience when they taste and enjoy rasa is not the same mental state that is dramatically represented but instead an aesthetic emotion or flavor that is generalized from, and thus transcends, such particularities as character, situation, place, time etc. that are associated with the psychological state represented: the experiencer must universalize their own emotion, transcending its particularities so as to recognize the universalized emotion in the work.  Moreover, the psychological states portrayed infuse the meaning of the play in spectators, pervading them with words, gestures, and representations. Also, as Eliot Deutsch6 points out, rasa is constituted by the process of aesthetic perception, involving both the work and an experience of it, and is not something that exists solely in the work (in an objectivist-formalist sense) nor solely in us (in a subjectivist-romantic-sentimentalist sense). The artwork controls or determines rather than causes the response of the experiencer, and the impersonality of its aesthetic content allows the work to be intersubjective even while its intensity also makes it highly individual. 
II. Criticisms

Before examining what, if anything, we might learn from the rasa theory, here are some quick concerns. To begin with, the emotive theory of literary and artistic meaning, more broadly, that we are offered is too narrow, at least for us today. Not all literature and art is emotive or expressive of (or portrays) emotions and other mental states, and some is in fact purely formalist; nor is expression of mental states the sole aim of literature and art.7 To be fair to Bharata, though, let us focus on drama, which after all is the main subject of the NS. Here again there is experimental, short drama that need not be emotive or expressive; one example might be Samuel Beckett’s 35-second work “Breath” which has no characters, but even if this example does not work, there is no reason in principle why there could not be purely formalist, experimental theater that is not expressive or emotive.

Here is a different worry. If writers such as M. Hiriyanna are right,8 then pleasure is represented in Indian aesthetics as the sole aim of art. But such a view of art is clearly too narrow, for art may also have other aims such as educational or socio-political ones. The Indian context itself provides examples: the ancient Indian epic poems The Ramayana and The Mahabharata not only afford pleasure but also often give insights into moral issues and human character and emotions.9 Indeed, even the NS (I.111-3) itself sees drama – conceived as imitating the actions and conduct of people – as instructive through its depictions of actions and psychological states and through its giving rise to rasa.

To turn to a different doubt, the NS specifies many elaborate rules about drama, pertaining to such things as hand gestures, bodily movements, gaits, rules of prosody and different kinds of language, metrical patterns, diction, modes of address and intonation, kinds of plays, costumes, make-up, styles, and so on. These are often accompanied by many neat – perhaps too neat and artificial – classifications and sub-classifications, reflecting the ancient Indian excellence at and indeed obsession with such things. One might worry though (as in the case of Aristotle’s similar pronouncements about drama in The Poetics) if such rules might be too rigid, stifling genuine and revolutionary creativity. To mention just one example, the NS (XIV.12) suggests that dramatic characters are to enter and exit using the same door, and against this, one might wonder if an occasional variation might be called for in some dramatic situations (such as a chase) or otherwise generate surprise. Sure, some rules may be needed for creativity, and great art is often created within the bounds of possibilities set by such rules. But such rules are at best rules of thumb, and great artists (e.g. Amrita Shergil and M. F. Hussain in the Indian context, as well as those such as Picasso, Joyce, Beckett, and Beethoven in the West) often master rules or current conventions only to break them and create revolutionary art.  

A different set of related criticisms concerns what Bharata says about many mental states and their dramatic representation. For example, the comic and laughter are seen as inferior in the NS (VI.47-61), as in the ancient Greeks, laughter of ridicule being associated with persons of the so-called middling type, and vulgar and excessive laughter with so-called inferior people. While there may be some concern, as with the Greeks, that excessive laughter is uncontrollable and thus verboten, nevertheless Bharata seems not to appreciate sufficiently that humor can help one bond with others and can also release both physical and psychological tension. Likewise, the NS (VII.14) claims (much like Plato) that sorrow relates to women and people of supposedly inferior types who weep in relation to it, in contrast to people of allegedly superior and middling types who are patient. Perhaps there is an assumption here in Bharata that boys or at least real men don’t cry, though we should certainly question how repressed and mentally unhealthy it is not to be in touch with and appropriately and moderately express one’s emotions, especially the negative ones such as sorrow. Similarly (as in Plato), fear is said by the NS (VII. 21 ff.) to relate to women and supposedly inferior types. But, contra this, one might wonder if moderate and appropriate fear might warn us about threats in the world and also tell us something about ourselves,10 besides playing a role in developing our imaginations and survival skills. In like manner, the NS suggests (VII. 25) that disgust relates to women and supposedly inferior types. But here one must ask if we are not dealing with plain bias against women and the so-called inferior in a patriarchal culture that has also witnessed a lot of caste-related and other forms of oppression. For, after all, disgust gives rise to revulsion, one of the eight rasas, as we are told in the NS (VI. 72).

One final worry. The NS makes associations between rasas and colors (VI. 42-3); for example, erotic love is said to be light green (which may or may not signify fertility), comic laughter white, and so on. For the most part, though, such connections seem without sufficient justification; leaving aside such exceptions as fury being red, presumably the basis of the association here being the color of blood and also often of raging faces. Similarly, it is not always clear what the rationale is behind the NS (XIX.38-40) associating the seven different musical notes of the scale with the rasas when it comes to recitation; or when it comes to songs using stringed instruments (XXIX.1-16). 

III. Learning from Indian Aesthetics?

So, are there any insights for us today in the rasa theory? Here are some possible lessons from classical Indian aesthetics; and while I do not have space here to develop these at length, I hope to do so on a different occasion. 

Does the rasa theory entail that some sense dramatic works, and artworks generally, are not complete until a competent audience experiences and interprets them in a fully absorbed way, thereby tasting and relishing the rasas in them? While such a view may be compatible with the kind of performativism urged by Richard Shusterman,11 it is ontologically problematic on its own. For all sorts of plays may exist undiscovered as complete scripts and be discovered later in time in a forgotten cellar, but we would not say that a recently discovered Kalidasa (an ancient Indian playwright) or Shakespeare or Ibsen or Tennessee Williams play is incomplete solely because it has not yet been performed and appreciated appropriately by cultured persons. 

However, the thought that a play is not fully realized until experienced appropriately by a competent audience has more promise and may well be the greatest insight in the rasa theory, assuming that plays are meant to be performed and, like all artworks, to be experienced and appreciated appropriately, which in the case of Indian aesthetics involves savoring the dominant and other rasas in it, amongst other things. This is perfectly compatible with Edwin Gerow’s claim12 that rasa is the end or purpose of the play, and organizes it; and it is compatible with Schwartz’s suggestion that the aim of dramatic performance is that cultured persons experience and relish rasa.13 It is worth noting here that on the ancient Indian conception of theater, drama is essentially a performing art, a visual spectacle; even though (as with theatrical performances during Shakespeare’s time) actual performances of ancient Indian plays did not use much painted scenery or sets and instead used prose and poetry, gestures, plot, characters etc. to conjure up the illusion of place and time. Merely reading a play silently as a literary work (as we might do today with Shakespeare or Ibsen or Tennessee Williams) was not seen as being on par with actually performing a play; even if some Western writers such as Peter Kivy have argued recently that silently reading a play or a literary work is also a kind of performance.14
Another plausible candidate for insight from the rasa theory is the idea that the success of a performance of a play is determined by the extent to which cultured audiences relish its dominant and subordinate rasas.15 However, does the cultured person have to be aroused to some kind of psychological state, which they must actually feel, to taste and enjoy rasa? Or instead of full-fledged arousal, can it suffice if the psychological state in question is merely contemplative and called to mind? While the text of the NS (VI. 31-5) may suggest the former view, measured modern critics such as V. K. Chari opt for the latter.16 Chari suggests that mental states such as moods need not be evoked or produced in readers (or spectators), per the rasa theory, but rather the purpose of literary (and artistic) works is to present emotional situations so that the situation is called up in the reader’s or spectator’s mind in its fully imagined detail and is recognized as the situation of a particular emotion. Rasas are thus made available to perception regardless of whether the corresponding emotions are actually aroused in the reader or spectator. Also worth noting is the idea that to appreciate a play or an artwork appropriately, its experience must be relished or savored or enjoyed, the way suitably disposed diners enjoy food. Mere cold, cognitive appreciation of a play or an artwork will not suffice.

Yet another thing we might learn from the rasa theory is the idea that aesthetic enjoyment is the highest experience of life and is a kind of contemplative feeling that is higher than ordinary feelings such as sympathy, for it is a universalized feeling not tied down to the particularities it transcends. K. C. Bhattacharya puts the point well when he uses the example of a child playing with a toy, her grandfather affectionately watching the child, and my enjoying contemplating the scene.17 While the child’s feeling is primary, the grandfather’s feeling is sympathetic, and my feeling is contemplative. Also, while the grandfather’s feeling has a personal interest in this particular child and her play, my contemplative feeling is not personal but is rather generalized as I enjoy the pure essence of the feeling,18 as a universalized feeling stripped of its particularities, as an impersonal feeling as I contemplate with relish the very idea of a grandparent (or any human being for that matter) sympathetically delighting in a child’s play.

A different valuable lesson from the rasa theory is the idea that the cultured person can lose herself in the artwork, identifying herself with it and losing her sense of self-consciousness as rasa fills her. However, this need not involve believing with Kathleen Higgins (following Abhinavagupta)19 that the cultured person must be spiritually prepared per traditional Hindu philosophical and religious ideas, involving transcending the supposedly illusory ordinary, empirical self to realize that one’s true self, Atman, is identical with Brahman, the ground of all things that is ultimate reality. For one can immerse oneself fully in an artwork and lose one’s sense of self in it without believing in or appealing to such Hindu notions; this is possible not just for those in the West outside the Indian tradition, but even for those within the Indian philosophical tradition who reject Hindu philosophies and instead embrace heterodox non-Hindu ideas such as those of the atheist, materialist Carvaka school of Indian philosophy. Indeed, there is no reason in principle why a Carvaka or someone grounded in Western traditions could not be a cultured person (rasika) in the sense the rasa theory has in mind. There is a notion of transcendence, to be sure, in the rasa theory, but this need not be understood in traditional Hindu terms, as spiritually transcending the mundane to realize unity with Brahman. Instead, the relevant notion of transcendence could just be understood, as discussed above, as transcending the particularities (characters, situation, place, time etc.) of the emotion theatrically presented, as the cultured person savors a contemplative feeling, consisting of a generalized aesthetic emotion; as Lewis Rowell puts it, rasa is “…an awareness that rises above the circumstances which awakened it.”20
A final lesson may be that even though poetry and the arts in general are emotive discourse according to the rasa theory, a lot of thinking or intellection is involved in emotional expression; as Chari puts it, the alleged opposition between thought and emotion is a misconception.21 

IV. Conclusion

I hope to have shown through the case of Indian aesthetics that it is not completely insane – as some readers might think – to engage with non-Western art and aesthetics. While there are both similarities and dissimilarities between Western and non-Western aesthetics, a careful look should reveal that non-Western aesthetics, evaluated on its own merits, has its own insights. Harking back to the quote from Noël Carroll at the start of this essay, in this age of globalization (when some are talking of the decline of the West and the rise of the rest), readers would do well to explore similarly the aesthetics of various non-Western cultures, which are, for lack of knowing better, sadly too often simply lumped together under the generic category of “non-Western aesthetics,” without paying due attention to the differences between, say, Chinese, Indian, Japanese, Islamic, and African aesthetics.22 

1. Noël Carroll, “Living in an Artworld”, American Society for Aesthetics Newsletter, Vol. 32, No. 1 (Spring 2012), 3.
2. Some translations of this ancient text are: Manomohan Ghosh (trans.), Natyasastra, 2 vols. (Varanasi: Chowkhamba Press, 2007); also Adya Rangacharya (trans.), Natyasastra (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 2010); and Pushpendra Kumar (trans.), Natyasastra, 4 vols. (Delhi: New Bharatiya Book Corporation, 2010).  
3. Cf. V. K. Chari’s excellent Sanskrit Criticism (University of Hawaii Press, 1990), 6-11. 
4. Susan Schwartz, Rasa (Columbia University Press, 2004), 1-3; 14-20.   
5. See V. S. Apte, The Student’s Sanskrit-English Dictionary (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 2000), 465. 
6. Eliot Deutsch, “Reflections on Some Aspects of the Theory of Rasa”, in Rachel van Baumer & James Brandon (eds.), Sanskrit Drama in Performance (University of Hawaii Press, 1981), 215-6. Chari, op. cit., 19 similarly suggests that rasa is both the relish enjoyed by spectators and also the relishable quality manifested by the work.
7. Cf. Chari, op. cit., 29; and 251 where it is suggested that the rasa theory might too narrowly exclude such literary works as discursive essays and biographies. 
8. M. Hiriyanna, “Art Experience 2”, in Nalini Bhushan & Jay Garfield (eds.), Indian Philosophy in English (OUP, 2011), 222. 
9. Cf. Chari, op. cit, 32. 
10. Compare similar claims made about the emotions in general in Ronald de Sousa, Emotional Truth (OUP, 2011). 
11. Richard Shusterman, “The Logic of Interpretation”, Philosophical Quarterly 28 (1978), 316-8. 
12. Edwin Gerow, “Rasa as a Category of Literary Criticism”, in Baumer & Brandon, op. cit., 230-1. For a nice overview of Indian aesthetics, see Gerow’s “Indian Aesthetics”, in Eliot Deutsch & Ron Bontekoe (eds.), A Companion to World Philosophies (Blackwell, 1999). 
13. Schwartz, op. cit., 97. Cf. Chari, op. cit., 12; 39-40.   
14. Peter Kivy, The Performance of Reading (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008). 
15. Cf. Adya Rangacharya, Introduction to Bharata’s Natyasastra (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers, 2005), 81. 
16. Chari, op. cit., 46; 227. 
17. K. C. Bhattacharya, “The Concept of Rasa”, in Nalini Bhushan & Jay Garfield, op. cit., 198-200. See also M. Hiriyanna’s “Indian Aesthetics 2” in the same volume, 210-2.
18. As Schwartz, op. cit., 52 puts it rasa is the refined essence of emotions. 
19. Kathleen Higgins, “Comparative Aesthetics”, in Jerrold Levinson (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Aesthetics (OUP, 2003), 681. 
20. Lewis Rowell, Music and Musical Thought in Early India (University of Chicago Press, 1992), 328. 
21. Chari, op. cit., 72-3. 
22. Thanks to Noël Carroll and esp. Roy Perrett for helpful inputs.

2013 © Saam Trivedi

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