Aesthetics for Birds

Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art for Everyone

Indian Aesthetics: Rasa Theory

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There is a familiar puzzle in philosophy of art: How do fictions provoke real feelings in us?

This raises other questions: Are those real feelings? Do we feel real fear, or some fear-like thing when we watch a scary movie? How do actors or written words get us to feel those things, whatever they are?

Over at the podcast The History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, Peter Adamson (LMU Munich, King’s College London) talks about the rasa tradition that starts with Bharata’s Nāṭya-Śāstra (Treatise on Drama) and its distinctive approach to answering these questions. The text dates back to 200 BCE – 200 CE, so it’s roughly as old as Aristotle’s Poetics.

What is rasa? An aesthetic response elicited by the drama. It’s not the emotion itself, but it derives from the emotion.

There are eight kinds of rasa, corresponding to eight basic emotional dispositions:

  • the erotic
  • the comic
  • the pathetic
  • the furious
  • the heroic
  • the terrible
  • the odious
  • the marvelous
  • (and perhaps a ninth: tranquility)

There is lots of interesting stuff here. Rasa theory not only tries to present an adequate answer to the puzzle above, but has implications for lots of different issues across philosophy of art – including theories of acting and theater, the audience and taste, and the aim of art. It also has implications for fictionalism, theories of emotion, mind and representation, and language and metaphor.

Rasa can even help us understand ourselves and our place in the world:

“This enjoyment of rasa is like this bliss that comes from realizing one’s identity with the highest Brahman, for it consists of repose in the bliss which is the true nature of one’s own self.” – Abhinavagupta

It’s only 20 minutes long — go have a listen!

Image: Detail from Shiva and Parvati Playing Chaupar: Folio from a Rasamanjari Series, by Devidasa of Nurpur (Met Collection)

One Comment

  1. Here is the entry on rasa from my study guide for Hinduism:
    rasa: taste; flavor, savor; nectar of delight; aesthetic emotion; a central concept in Indian or Sanskrit aesthetics. The earliest systematic treatment of this concept is found in Bharata’s Nātyaśastra (2nd century BCE), the oldest surviving treatise on music and dance. The properly aesthetic portions of the treatise, however, were added several centuries later. Rasa characterizes the audience’s affective response to the drama. It is dependent upon situationally particular personal emotional experience or bhāva (here, ‘basic’ and durable emotions as well as transitory and ‘accessory’ emotional states, with a focus on the significance of the former). Thus the love I feel for my spouse is in some sense the basis of, but not identical to, the ‘love’ I sense when viewing a dramatic performance of Romeo falling for Juliet (in keeping with the fact that in the time of Bharata the theater-going rasika was the prototype of the aesthete). In contrast to a direct emotional experience or state, aesthetic rasa is more contemplative and vicarious, a ‘fictive’ emotional state that is shared and universal, all features that contribute to making its experience delightful or enjoyable. According to Bharata, rasa is the product of three objective, interacting elements (i.e., they are its ‘efficient’ cause): 1) vibhāva, the understanding that makes ‘representations’ (words, gestures, and internal feelings) capable of being sensed, or the indicative signs of the emotions; 2) anubhāva, the actual sensing of these elements as evidenced in their physiological effects or manifestations, most of which are immediate and involuntary; and 3) vyabhicāribhāva, subsidiary emotional elements or feelings that reinforce one’s experience. These objective factors combine with a subjective factor (the ‘material’ cause) to arouse rasa. The subjective factor is the essence of the (basic) emotion(s) at the heart of a work of art that is at the same time latent in the spectator (sahrdaya) the qualified appreciator or aesthete) as a powerful disposition(s) or impression(s) (cf. samskāra). A play, for instance, heightens, celebrates and crystallizes the truths of emotional experience through idealized representations or embodiments of generalized types in a way that effaces the distance between what is witnessed in the performance and the spectator’s own life. This effacement of distance (spatial, temporal, psychological, etc.) allows the spectator to ‘objectify’ what is otherwise subjectively experienced (one reason we can speak of ‘losing ourselves’ in a book, play or piece of music). It is this process of ‘objectification’ that raises an emotional tone to the status of a ‘delectation, that is, an enjoyable or delightful experience more contemplative and ‘distanced’—hence more objective—than our direct (and egocentric) emotional experiences. Ideally speaking, the emotions treated in, say, a poem, are not the private feelings of the poet nor are they dominated by the emotional projections of the reader’s own mental states, rather they objectively abide in the poem as its cognitive content (rasa objectified). As the great Kashmiri Śaiva philosopher Abhinavagupta (c. 950-1015) noted, it is the poem’s cognitive content that allows our own mental states to be objectively perceived by awakening latent memories, impressions or dispositions. The resulting rasa experience is said to be self-validating (or –certifying), svatah prāmana, the notion that the validity of a cognitive episode or knowledge is present in the material that creates the object and that the awareness of this validity arises spontaneously with that episode or knowledge itself; for example, in Advaita Vedānta, awareness is said to be self-validating—and self-illuminating—such that the doubt ‘Am I aware or not?’ cannot occur). The self-validating character of rasa experience appears to countenance the idea that, in the end, such experience is a species of self-knowledge, in Abhinavagupta’s words, ‘a form of self-contemplation.’ Thus ‘rasa as “aesthetic flavour” comprehends both the arousal and development of an aesthetic emotion in the mind of the aesthete, as well as the objective components of the art object, which arouse and sustain that emotion’ (Harsha Dehejia). Rasa theory claims there are eight—and after Abhinavagupta, nine—basic emotions: sexual love, comic laughter, grief (includes pity), rage or anger, courage (the ‘heroic emotion’), fear, revulsion (or disgust), wonder (or amazement), and tranquility (‘the rasa of rasas’). It is such basic emotions, rather than the more numerous and simply occurrent or transient emotions (e.g., envy, intoxication, shame, and anxiety) that are capable of being expressed as corresponding aesthetic moods or rasas, although occurrent emotions or mental states can accompany, intensify, support, or contrast more basic, stable, and dispositional emotions. It can be argued that Abhinavagupta’s metaphysical preoccupations took his rasa theory beyond aesthetics proper insofar as such delectation or profoundly joyful experience is said to serve as a foretaste of the bliss of emancipation or moksa (as formulated within the terms of the ‘integral monism’ of Kashmir Shaivism). In Sanskrit poetic criticism, the Rasa school was one of four major schools defined respectively by their foremost concepts, the others being ‘Figuration’ (alamkāra), ‘Style’ (rīti), and ‘Suggestion’ (dhvani). The rasa aesthetic was soon applied beyond the literary arts (of drama and poetry) to music and dance, the fine arts in general, and later the plastic arts as well (e.g. temple construction).

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