I am an amateur at Indian aesthetic theory. I have not studied it much; I can read its Sanskrit source texts, but with some difficulty given how much they allude to literary and dramatic works I don’t know. As with Confucianism and Islamic Aristotelianism, it is a field where I cannot claim significant expertise. Yet I continue to find myself drawn to it, finding ideas that strike me as valuable and relevant – most recently reading Sheldon Pollock’s wonderful Rasa Reader, right from the first excerpt .
The earliest known extant text of Indian aesthetic theory is Bharata’s Nāṭya Śāstra. This text, circa 300 CE, sets out the concept of rasa, central to nearly all later Indian aesthetic thought. Rasa, roughly, refers to the emotion involved in a dramatic or literary work. The tradition often disagrees on where this rasa exists: the actor, the audience, the character, the author or even the work itself. But they all know that the Sanskrit word rasa literally means “taste”; it continues to refer to the sense of taste long after it has developed this more dramatic sense. And this meaning matters. Reading Pollock’s excerpt from Bharata, I am struck by the passage in Bharata’s chapter 6 where he defines rasa:
Here one might ask: What does ‘rasa’ actually mean? Our answer is that rasa is so called because it is something savored. And how can rasa be said to be ‘savored’? Just as discerning people relish tastes when eating food prepared with various condiments [vyañjana] and in doing so find pleasure, so discerning viewers relish the stable emotions when they are manifested by the acting out of various transitory emotions and reactions and accompanied by the other acting registers (the verbal, physical, and psychophysical), and they find pleasure in doing so. Continue reading
Vikram Chandra’s Geek Sublime might be the most popular book in a Western language ever to deal with Indian aesthetic theory. The book’s official subject is the aesthetics of computer science. Though I am getting a degree in computer science myself, I found myself more interested in Chandra’s lucid comments about the medieval Indian philosophers Ānandavardhana and Abhinavagupta and their theory of rasa, the emotional “tastes” that an artistic audience can savour.
What is important about Chandra’s work is that he applies the rasa theory. He draws from the best English-language works I know of on Ānandavardhana and Abhinavagupta: the writings of Daniel Ingalls, Jeffrey Masson and M.V. Patwardhan, especially their translation of Ānandavardhana’s Dhvanyāloka with Abhinavagupta’s locana commentary. But Chandra does what Ingalls, Masson and Patwardhan do not: he asks how the theories of Ānandavardhana and Abhinavagupta could apply to us. Continue reading