Indian aesthetics

Indian aesthetics

Indian art evolved with an emphasis on inducing special spiritual or philosophical states in the audience, or with representing them symbolically.


Rasa theory

Performing the Sringāra rasa in Koodiyattam


Of particular concern to Indian drama and literature are the term 'bhAva' or the state of mind and rasa (Sanskrit रस lit. 'juice' or 'essence') referring generally to the emotional flavors/essence crafted into the work by the writer and relished by a 'sensitive spectator' or sahṛdaya or one with positive taste and mind. Rasas are created by bhavas.[1] They are described by Bharata Muni in the Nātyasāstra, an ancient work of dramatic theory.

Although the concept of rasa is fundamental to many forms of Indian art including dance, music, musical theatre, cinema and literature, the treatment, interpretation, usage and actual performance of a particular rasa differs greatly between different styles and schools of abhinaya, and the huge regional differences even within one style.

Experience of rasa (rasAnubhava)

A rasa is the developed relishable state of a permanent mood, which is called sthAyI bhAva. This development towards a relishable state results by the interplay on it of attendant emotional conditions which are called Vibhavas, anubhAvas and sancharI/ vyAbhichArI bhavas. The production of aesthetic rasa from bhAvas is analogous to the production of tastes/juices of kinds from food with condiments, curries, pastes and spices. This is explained by the quote below:

tatra vibhAva-anubhAva-vyabhichAri-sa.nyogAt rasaniShpattiH .
ko dR^iShTAntaH . atrAha \- yathA hi
nAnA-vya~njanauShadhidravya-sa.nyogAt rasaniShpattiH tathA
nAnA-bhAvopagamAt rasaniShpattiH .

Vibhavas means karana or cause. It is of two kinds: Alambana, the personal or human object and substratum, and Uddipana, the excitants. Anubhava, as the name signifies, means the ensuants or effects following the rise of the emotion. vyAbhichArI bhavas are described later.

Lists of rasas

Eight primary rasas

Bharata Muni enunciated the eight Rasas in the Nātyasāstra, an ancient work of dramatic theory. Each rasa, according to Nātyasāstra, has a presiding deity and a specific colour. There are 4 pairs of rasas. For instance, Hasya arises out of Sringara. The Aura of a frightened person is black, and the aura of an angry person is red. Bharata Muni established the following.[2]

  • Śṛngāram (शृङ्गारं) Love, attractiveness. Presiding deity: Vishnu. Colour: light green
  • Hāsyam (हास्यं) Laughter, mirth, comedy. Presiding deity: Pramata. Colour: white
  • Raudram (रौद्रं) Fury. Presiding deity: Rudra. Colour: red
  • Kāruṇyam (कारुण्यं) Compassion, mercy. Presiding deity: Yama. Colour: grey
  • Bībhatsam (बीभत्सं) Disgust, aversion. Presiding deity: Shiva. Colour: blue
  • Bhayānakam (भयानकं) Horror, terror. Presiding deity: Kala. Colour: black
  • Vīram (वीरं) Heroic mood. Presiding deity: Indra. Colour: yellowish
  • Adbhutam (अद्भुतं) Wonder, amazement. Presiding deity: Brahma. Colour: yellow

Śāntam rasa

A ninth rasa was added by later authors (See History section). This addition had to undergo a good deal of struggle between the sixth and the tenth centuries, before it could be accepted by the majority of the Alankarikas, and the expression Navarasa (the nine rasas), could come into vogue.

  • Śāntam Peace or tranquility. deity: Vishnu. Colour: blue

Shānta-rasa functions as an equal member of the set of rasas but is simultaneously distinct being the most clear form of aesthetic bliss. Abhinavagupta likens it to the string of a jeweled necklace; while it may not be the most appealing for most people, it is the string that gives form to the necklace, allowing the jewels of the other eight rasas to be relished. Relishing the rasas and particularly shānta-rasa is hinted as being as-good-as but never-equal-to the bliss of Self-realization experienced by yogis.

Other additions

In addition to the nine Rasas, two more appeared later (esp. in literature): Additional rasas:

  • Vātsalya (वात्सल्य) Parental Love
  • Bhakti (भक्ति) Spiritual Devotion

However, the presiding deities, the colours and the relationship between these additional rasas have not been specified.

List of bhavas

According to the nATyashAstra, bhAvas are of three types: sthAyI, vyAbhicArI, sAttvika based on how they are developed or enacted during the aesthetic experience. This is seen in the following passage:

पुनश्च भावान्वक्ष्यामि स्थायिसञ्चारिसत्त्वजान् । । ६.१६ । ।

Some bhAvas are also described as being anubhAva if they arise from some other bhAva.


The Natyasastra lists eight bhavas with eight corresponding rasas:

  • Rati (Love)
  • Hasya (Mirth)
  • Soka (Sorrow)
  • Krodha(Anger)
  • Utsaha (Energy)
  • Bhaya (Terror)
  • Jugupsa (Disgust)
  • Vismaya (Astonishment)

This list is from the following passage:

रतिहासश्च शोकश्च क्रोधोत्साहौ भयं तथा । जुगुप्सा विस्मयश्चेति स्थायिभावाः प्रकीर्तिताः । । ६.१७ । ।


Sanchari Bhavas are those crossing feelings which are ancillary to a permanent mood. [3] A list of 33 bhAvas are identified therein.

nirvedaglAnisha~NkAkhyAstathAsuuyA madaH shramaH .
Alasya.n chaiva dainya.n cha chintAmohaH smR^itirdhR^itiH ..18..
vrIDA chapalatA harSha Avego jaDatA tathA .
garvo viShAda autsukya.n nidrApasmAra eva cha ..19..
supta.n vibodho.amarShashchApi avahitthaM athogratA .
matirvyAdhistathA unmAdastathA maraNameva cha ..20..
trAsashchaiva vitarkashcha vidnyeyA vyabhichAriNaH .
trayastri.nshadamI bhAvAH samAkhyAtAstu nAmataH ..21..


The sAtvika-bhAvAs themselves are listed below.

stambhaH svedo.atha romA~nchaH svarabhedo.atha vepathuH .
vaivarNyaM ashru-pralaya ityaShTau sAtvikAH smR^itAH ..22..

These are explained by Bharata and dhanika as below:

"सत्त्वं नाम मनःप्रभवम्। एतदेव समाहितमनस्त्वादुत्पद्यते। " इति भरतः। "एतदेवास्य सत्त्वं यत् दुःखितेन प्रहर्षितेन वा अश्रु-रोमाञ्चादयो निवर्त्यन्ते। तेन सत्त्वेन निर्वृत्ता भावाः - सात्त्विकाः भावाः। तद्भावभावनं च भावः।" इति धनिकः। "पृथग् भावा भवन्त्यन्येऽनुभावत्वेऽपि सात्त्विकाः। सत्त्वादेव समुत्पत्तेस्तच्च तद्भावभावनम्॥" इति धनिकः।

Thus, physical expression of the feelings of the mind are called sAttvika.

The Rasas in the Performing Arts

Raudram rasa of the destructive fury of goddess Durga in Bharatanatyam

The theory of rasas still forms the aesthetic underpinning of all Indian classical dance and theatre, such as Bharatanatyam, kathak, Kuchipudi, Odissi, Manipuri, Kudiyattam, Kathakali and others. Expressing Rasa in classical Indian dance form is referred to as Rasa-abhinaya. The Nātyasāstra carefully delineates the bhavas used to create each rasa.

The expressions used in Kudiyattam or Kathakali are extremely exaggerated theatrical expressions. The opposite of this interpretation is Balasaraswathi's school of subtle and understated abhinaya of the devadasis. There were serious public debates when Balasaraswathi condemned Rukmini Devi's puritanistic interpretations and applications of Sringara rasa. The abhinaya of the Melattur style of abhinaya remains extremely rich in variations of the emotions, while the Pandanallur style expressions are more limited in scope.



Rasa theory blossoms beginning with the Sanskrit text Nātyashāstra (nātya meaning "drama" and shāstra meaning "science of"), a work attributed to Bharata Muni where the Gods declare that drama is the 'Fifth Veda' because it is suitable for the degenerate age as the best form of religious instruction. While the date of composition varies wildly among scholars, ranging from the era of Plato and Aristotle to the seventh century CE. The Nātyashāstra presents the aesthetic concepts of rasas and their associated bhāvas in Chapters Six and Seven respectively, which appear to be independent of the work as a whole. Eight rasas and associated bhāvas are named and their enjoyment is likened to savoring a meal: rasa is the enjoyment of flavors that arise from the proper preparation of ingredients and the quality of ingredients.

Kashmiri aestheticians

The theory of the rasas develops significantly with the Kashmiri aesthetician Ãndandavardhana's classic on poetics, the Dhvanyāloka which introduces the ninth rasa, shānta-rasa as a specifically religious feeling of peace (śānta) which arises from its bhāva, weariness of the pleasures of the world. The primary purpose of this text is to refine the literary concept dhvani or poetic suggestion, by arguing for the existence of rasa-dhvani, primarily in forms of Sanskrit including a word, sentence or whole work "suggests" a real-world emotional state or bhāva, but thanks to aesthetic distance, the sensitive spectator relishes the rasa, the aesthetic flavor of tragedy, heroism or romance.

The 9th - 10th century master of the religious system known as "the nondual Shaivism of Kashmir" (or "Kashmir Shaivism") and aesthetician, Abhinavagupta brought rasa theory to its pinnacle in his separate commentaries on the Dhvanyāloka, the Dhvanyāloka-locana (translated by Ingalls, Masson and Patwardhan, 1992) and the Abhinavabharati, his commentary on the Nātyashāstra, portions of which are translated by Gnoli and Masson and Patwardhan. Abhinavagupta offers for the first time a technical definition of rasa which is the universal bliss of the Self or Atman colored by the emotional tone of a drama.

Inclusion of bhakti

In the literary compositions, the emotion of Bhakti as a feeling of adoration towards God was long considered only a minor feeling fit only for Stothras, but not capable of being developed into a separate rasa as the sole theme of a whole poem or drama. In the tenth century, it was still struggling, and Aacharya Abhinavagupta mentions Bhakti in his commentary on the Natya Shastra, as an important accessory sentiment of the Shanta Rasa, which he strove with great effort to establish. However, just as Shantha slowly attained a state of primacy that it was considered the Rasa of Rasas, Bhakti also soon began to loom large and despite the lukewarmness of the great run of Alankarikas, had the service of some distinguished advocates, including Tyagaraja. It is the Bhagavata that gave the great impetus to the study of Bhakti from an increasingly aesthetic point of view.

Attention to rasas

Poets like Kālidāsa were attentive to rasa, which blossomed into a fully developed aesthetic system. Even in contemporary India the term rasa denoting "flavor" or "essence" is used colloquially to describe the aesthetic experiences in films; "māsala mix" describes popular Hindi cinema films which serve a so called balanced emotional meal for the masses, savored as rasa by these spectators.

See also


  1. ^ Farley Richmond, "India", in The Cambridge Guide to Asian Theatre, ed. James R. Brandon (Cambridge University Press, 1993), p.69.
  2. ^ Ghosh, Manomohan (2002). Natyasastra. ISBN 81-7080-076-5. 
  3. ^ C.Ramanujachari and Dr. V. Raghavan. The Spiritual Heritage of Tyagaraja.

Further Reading

  • Sen, R. K., Aesthetic Enjoyment: Its Background in Philosophy and Medicine, Calcutta: University of Calcutta, 1966
  • Sen, R. K., A Brief Introduction to a Comparative Study of Greek and Indian Aesthetics and Poetics, Calcutta: Sen Ray & Co., 1954
  • Sen, R. K., Nature of Aesthetic Enjoyment in Greek and Indian Analyses, Indian Aesthetics and Art Activity, Simla: Indian Institute of Advanced Study, 1968

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