Delight of Senses: The Indian Way of Seeing It
(A Discourse on Indian Theory of Rasa in Relation to Visual Arts)

Article of the Month - Oct 2005

This article by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of ancient Indian literature. Dr Daljeet is the chief curator of the Visual Arts Gallery at the National Museum of India, New Delhi. They have both collaborated on numerous books on Indian art and culture.

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Senses delight all and have delighted always, but Indian theorists were perhaps the earliest to perceive the delight of senses as the essence of being - a phenomenon of mind sublimating spiritually. Athenians realized the role of emotions but it was confined to mere sorrow - pathos, which, Plato thought, weakened the reason. He hence recommended poets to be dispelled from the Ideal State - the state of his utopian vision, as poets, by rousing emotions, incapacitated its citizens. Aristotle, his best known disciple, defended poets and tragic sentiment. He contended that tragic sentiment, when imitated in a dramatic performance or into a medium, only purged viewer's mind, and with his mind purged of sorrow - pathos, which weakened him, the viewer emerged stronger.

Width of Emotional World

Who was right, Plato or Aristotle, is not the issue here. What matters is the fact that their deliberation did not extend to man's entire world of emotions. Greeks thought more of Nemesis, the goddesses of divine punishment, rather than of Cupid, or a divine agent, that taught how to love, and inspired and infused it into a being. This has been the case of aesthetic theorization almost in all other early traditions of arts, literature and thought. Not that other emotions - particularly those of love, did nor occur in their arts and literature, but were not considered perhaps worthy of notice, or reverence; or were treated only to lead to a tragic end; not to a delightful union; and the least, to a spiritually sublimating one; as if to distract mind from them.

As today, this early world too did not so much fear hatred, revenge or violence, or their public expression, as it feared love. It was different with Indian mind. The emotional worlds of its arts and literature also comprised sorrow - pathos, and the Buddhist thought centred primarily on sorrow, which illness, old age, and death bred, but in the broader perception of Indian mind, love and the delight that love inspired, not sorrow, formed the axis at least of its creative endeavour. Even Buddhism did not bar sensuousness in its imagery and art perception.

26" Mirror Lady | Handmade | Madhuchista Vidhana (Lost-Wax) | Panchaloha Bronze from Swamimalai

Questions Confronting Early Theorists

It was quite early - centuries before the Common Era began, that the Indian mind addressed issues: What a poem, drama, sculpture, or a painting sought to reveal into its medium, man's intellect or his emotions? Why does a poet compose lore which does not narrate his love? Does it, or why does it delight him? Does a person enacting a character in a dramatic performance enter into the 'bhava-jagat', emotional world, of that character whom he is enacting? Why does a spectator enjoy seeing it? And, How does this all affect the spectator - the end-person involved in the entire business?

Bhava-jagat, the Theme of Arts

As discussed earlier, Plato and Aristotle restricted their discourse to just one aspect; one claiming that an emotion bred weakness; and the other, that it affected purgation. The Indian vision was elaborately defined. According to it, man's 'bhava-jagat' alone comprised the theme of poetry, drama, sculpture, or painting. The spectator - 'rasika', as he is called, witnesses a dramatic performance for the enjoyment of 'Rasa', the extract or substance of emotion - something corresponding to fruit juice. This 'Rasa', a phenomenon of mind - the delight which the spectator experienced when witnessing an emotion enacted on the stage, or represented into a medium, is the core of Indian aesthetic thought. A drama, as also poetry, sculpture or a painting, re-created the mind, and sublimated thereby the entire being, but essentially by using the senses.

Evolution of the Term Rasa

The term 'Rasa', to mean juice, particularly of the creeper Soma, appears in the Rig-veda itself. It is, however, in various Upanishadas - Taittiriya, Kaushitaki, and Isha, that the term 'Rasa' has been used to denote variedly 'essence', 'flavour', or 'something that moved'. The Taittiriya Upanishada perceived 'Rasa' as essence, something which is beyond senses; the Kaushitaki, as the flavour of Brahmana hymn or 'mantra'; and Isha, as something that appealed and moved the mind.

Obviously, the Vedas discovered song - poetry, hymn or 'mantra', something capable of emitting 'Rasa', and the Upanishadas, their underlying essence, flavour, 'Rasa', or that which moved the mind. Thus, 'Rasa', as the juice of the creeper 'Soma', had material status, but as the essence of Brahman - song or hymn, it was an abstract or aesthetic realization of the mind, and hence its delight. The term 'Brahman', which subsequently denoted commentaries on the Vedic verses, and later, one of the four 'Varnas'- divisions of Indian society and religious culture, was used in the Vedas to mean a 'Mantra'. Being in verse form, Vedic 'Mantras' or hymns are the finest kind of poetry capable of delighting aesthetically.

The Story of A King, A Sage, A Deer (King Bharat 's Tale)

It was, however, Sage Bharat, who in his Natyashashtra dealt with the subject - 'Rasa', at fuller length. Possessed of deep psychological insight, Bharat actually investigated man's entire psyche and discovered various emotions and sentiments, which it comprised. He also elaborated how an emotion, when represented into a medium, transpired 'Rasa', and delighted thereby spectator's mind and effected sublimation. He considered 'Rasa', its sole instrument, though strangely did not attempt at defining it. Questions such as: 'What is Rasa?' or 'Why does it delight?' are answered simply as: 'because it can be savoured'. Obviously, he only defined its role but not its being; perhaps because its abstractness could not be contained in words - form.

Bharat's period varies from the second century B. C. to the second century A. D., but he alludes to some earlier scholars, which suggests that during the period after the Upanishads to Bharat, the subject was in active discourse, though nothing of it now exists. The theory appears to have remained in focus in the post-Bharat period also but it is only from ninth century onward that any material becomes available. Most of the 'Acharyas' - Bhatta Lollat, Dandin, Shankuk, Bhattanayak, Anandavardhan, Abhinavagupta, Bhojaraj, Mammat, Ramachandra Gunachandra, Shardatanay, Vishvanath, Rupagoswami, and others, who further elaborated Bharat's theory emerged during the period from the ninth to the fourteenth century. Later, in contemporary aesthetics, the theory was revived with greater thrust and its relevance was universally acknowledged.

Rasa-Theory in Contemporary Contexts

Contemporary studies,  exploring human mind, have more minutely analyzed it, but they have presented broadly only a greater magnification of Bharat's concept of 'bhava-jagat'. Love, sex, eroticism, or whatever, modern sciences find so significant for life, this ancient theory of 'Rasa' found as the sweetest and perceived it as the foremost of all emotions. Gods, ascetics and even beasts are its slaves. Bharat consecrated 'Shringara'- love, as the apex of all 'Rasas', as if he was pre-determining the course of Indian arts - painting and sculpture, which later discovered their relevance and prime thrust mainly in love. If anything, Bharat said, was 'sacred, pure, placid and worthy for an eye', it would be some aspect of  'Shringara'.

Radha Krishna Fluting in Nidhivan

Art aesthetics emerged in the Western world around the seventeenth-eighteenth centuries. It was more as an aspect of concurrent philosophical investigations, which the known metaphysicians of those days explored. Interestingly, all major theories  Empiricism, Emotionalism, and Expressionism, contended that experience is always sense-based. They all emphasized sense-perception, exploring and expressing emotions, their universalisation, appealing to viewer's senses, and delighting thereby. They did not specifically classify human emotions but identified each of love, compassion, quiescence, and the like as distinct emotions. In these dimensions of the Western art aesthetics, there loudly resonates the theory of 'Rasa', which Bharat propounded two millenniums ago.

 Rasa in Aesthetics - An Application of Rasa Theory to Modern Western Literature by Priyadarshi Patnaik
Rasa in Aesthetics - An Application of Rasa Theory to Modern Western Literature

Bharat's Kridaniyakam

Formally, Bharat's treatise was restricted to dramatics, but in effect, it encompassed all arts which were the subject of the eye and the ear. He used the term 'Kridaniyakam' for the drama but it adequately defined other arts. As the eleventh verse of the first chapter of his Natyasastra has it, Maha Indra, the king of 'devas' - gods, along with a group of 'devas', went to Brahma, the Creator, and prayed to him to create for their recreation a 'Kridaniyakam'. Then Brahma created for their recreation the art of stage - drama. Under the definition of Bharat, Kridaniyakam was an act of body - a performance on stage, sculpting a stone, making a painting, or writing a verse, which excited the senses of viewer, reader or listener and recreated him thereby.

Rasa: Arts' Obligation

Bharat was very precise in his perception. To him, what moved emotions, was different from what provided useful information. 'Mere narration' or 'bare utility' wasn't art. In his perception, that which afforded useful information, or created utility, could be arts of secondary type - something like crafts of contemporary times. Bharat averred that arts were arts only when they excited the senses and aroused emotions, and created 'Rasa', in which the mind perpetually rejoiced. He prescribed ten conditions of good writing - 'gunas' as he called them; ten faults - 'doshas', good writing should avoid; and, thirty-six characters of literary writing. Bharat's perception was thus broad as well as minute and analytical.

As Bharat had it, a subject's instinctive nature comprising all sentiments and emotions - inherent and inborn, as well as concurrent and passing, alone could be the theme of arts. The former - inherent and inborn, he named, 'sthayi-bhavas'; and latter - concurrent and passing, 'sanchari-bhavas'. The two sets of emotions conjointly comprised man's emotional world.

Sadharanikarana - Universalising an Emotion

Bharat and succeeding Acharyas - scholars, explained how arts universalized an emotion and made it an instrument of universal appeal. They asserted that an actor, while seeking to reveal the emotion of his subject, would himself become such emotion's courier; and, a powerfully revealed emotion would drag the spectator also into its periphery. Thus, the subject's emotion, reaching the spectator through the actor, becomes the emotion of all; it thus gets universalized. This universality of emotion is the essence of arts, as individuality might interest a few, but an emotion, when universalized, becomes everyone's delight. Indian aestheticians perceive this transfusion of emotion as its 'sadharanikarana'.

World of Emotions - Sthayi and Sanchari-bhavas

Bharat's theory explores and scientifically classifies the human mind, or psyche, at least, its basic inherent instinctive nature, comprising emotions and sentiments. Bharat identified this psyche as man's 'bhava-jagat', his world of emotions. Bharat perceived it as consisting of eight 'sthayi-bhavas' - inherent emotions or sentiments, thirty-three 'sanchari-bhavas' - temporary emotional bearings, and a number of 'vibhavas' and 'anubhavas' - emotions subordinate to 'sthayi-bhavas'.

Bharat enumerated these 'sthayi-bhavas' as 'Rati', 'Hasa', 'Shoka', 'Krodha', 'Utsaha', 'Bhaya', 'Jugupsa', and 'Vismaya'. These eight 'sthayi-bhavas' inspired eight corresponding 'Rasas'. Accordingly, 'Rati' is the root of 'Shringara'- love or amour; 'Hasa', of 'Hasya'- humour or comic sentiment; 'Shoka', of 'Karuna' - pathos and compassion; 'Krodha', of 'Raudra' - fury, wrath or anger; 'Utsaha', of 'Vira'- valor or heroic sentiment; 'Bhaya', of 'Bhayanaka'- fear, fearful, or that which strikes terror; 'Jugupsa', of 'Vibhatsa'- loathsome, loathing, horrible, or odious; and, 'Vismaya', of Abdhuta - dismay, amazement or marvellousness.

Emotional World of Arts

The emotional world of arts is wider, as besides the emotions that the classical tradition has identified, arts introduce a number of sentimental dispositions, emotional situations and feelings, which the changing times, during these two thousand years, have infused into human mind, and are now man's permanent nature. Visual arts have added further thrust and fresh significance to the earlier emotions also, and have so much diversified some of them that they have now an absolutely different face.

Radha Krishna Bless Chaitanya and Nityananda Mahaprabhu

In Bharat's days, and till quite late, theology had two faces - rhetoric and ritual. It was inconceivable that a devotee would dance around the deity, or that, like a love-lorn maiden, the individual self-pined to unite with the Supreme Self. With the emergence of the Vaishnava Bhakti cult and Sufism, there emerged these new faces of 'Shringara' or love. Chaitanya Mahaprabhu, overwhelmed by his love for Krishna, begins dancing and oozes from the eyes of the enrapt saint an ocean of tears.
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  • Thanks! This article was great help as research for my painting, which is about understanding the underlying themes in Indian art.
    Anjali Agarwal June 26, 2007
  • Tremendous article. Difficult to find such a beautiful yet fully informative article. Very good work
    Prakash Dixit April 04, 2006
  • Dear Dr. Daljeet, dear Prof. Jain, this is just a short note, but it comes from my heart, wanting to tell you how much I appreciate that Nitin gave me the chance to meet the people, whose work and writings are contributing so much to my search for understanding the deeper meaning of Life. Having spent much time in Indonesia, especially in Central Java, I tried to study the spiritual aspects of Borobudur and during the cause of these studies I came across Atisha and his teacher Serlingpa and therefore the connections between the Javanese philosophy and the Buddhist version of Tibet. Then again, what is the Javanese philosophy? Just another version of the Vedas?? Your latest essays on Khajuraho and the Indian Way of Seeing are like a key to my -so rationally dominated - western mind. May I add, that the term ,, Rasa" is also part of the Javanese philosophy. The Javanese talk of "Olah Rasa" , which none can clearly translate. The best of all translations seems to be --management of inner feelings. Rasa is also mentioned as the force which must - or should - follow Karsa. Karsa being the most inner soul. Then there is the ,, Dosa Kerta sila" - the holy commands... May you bless your readers by sharing your knowledge and love for what there was and is.
    Christel October 28, 2005
  • Enjoyed reading this article and appreciate the level of intelligence. Well written and informative. Thanks again.
    Carol Teitelbaum October 24, 2005
  • I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for the wonderful and informative articles you send. Though not Indian or of a Hindu or Buddhist path, I am fascinated with learning all I can about various cultures to be able to share in informative discussions with many of my Indian colleagues. Your artworks are always beautiful and I hope to someday have the funds to purchase some for my home. Once again, thank you for always sending out such a fascinating letter. Best regards,
    Christina October 19, 2005
  • Exquisite
    phyllis October 17, 2005