Rasa: the Aesthetic Taste of Conscious Art


“O my devotees! On this path of supreme Bhairava,
whoever has taken a step with pure desire, no
matter if that desire is slow or intense; it does not
matter if he is a Brahmin, if he is a sweeper, if he is
an outcast, or if he is anybody; he becomes one with Para-bhairava.” (103)

(Abhinavagupta, Patanjali’s Paramarthasara)

ABHINAVAGUPTA lived in Kashmir at the end of the tenth and the beginning of the eleventh century A.D. A versatile genius, he injected new meaning into Shaiva Philosophy.

As an original thinker he shattered the established belief which placed a heavy emphasis on caste and gender restrictions in relation to spiritual practice. He took to task those philosophical systems which held the prerequisite that spirituality required rigorous discipline–systems which made the quest for enlightenment a legitimate right only for the chosen few. He abhorred the idea that spiritual revelation was only possible in a purely monastic surrounding, or that those caught in the householder way of life had to wait till the last portion of life before they could fully give themselves to spiritual pursuits.

The original aesthetics of India, whose highest expression is represented by the aesthetics of Abhinavagupta extends between the eleventh and the thirteenth century of the Christian era, and is divided into two stages: 1) pre-Anandavardhana writers: Bhamaha, Dandin , and Rudrata Ubhata and 2) Anandavardhana and his illustrious commentator Abhinavagupta and subsequently Mammata, Visvanatha, Jaganatha, and others who are less well-known.

About the end of the first millennium of the Christian era, and the beginning of the second, the two most important works in the world in the aesthetic field Sanskrit poetry and drama, were: 1) “Dhvanyaloka” by Anandavardhana, epoch-making work that completely revolutionised the poetics and aesthetics of India, which introduced a new concept:

“Dhvani” (“suggestion”, or rather, the connotative implications of the artistic language) representing the soul of ‘poetry, the essence of literary creation; Abhinavagupta has made a lucid commentary on this work in his “Locana” and 2) “Natyasastra” Bharata, a very solid treatise on drama, commented on by Abhinavagupta in his treatise “Abhinavabharati”.

The greatest merit of Abhinavagupta in the development of Sanskrit aesthetics, (“Sanskrit aesthetics” meaning the part of the aesthetics of India conceived and written in Sanskrit), is the synthesis of the various concepts that existed before, and the deep spiritual orientation he gave to this synthesis..

The most important concept is the aesthetic enjoyment or aesthetic pleasure, (rasa). There is no expression in modern languages that can successfully represent the Sanskrit word “rasa” in all its semantic implications.

Rasa in Sanskrit language means taste, as scholars and philosophers considered taste to be the most “interiorised” of all the sensory pleasures – in order to appreciate the taste of something, you must introduce it into your mouth. Similarly, in Indian philosophy, there is a close conceptual connection between taste and sexual experience as from all human pleasures these two are the most desired and appreciated.

The purpose of artistic activity is to trigger the perception of “rasa” (aesthetic savour) that is specific to each work of art. According to Abhinavagupta, there are 9 types of “rasa”, including erotic (srngara), comic (hasya) and heroic (vira). These represent the artistic sublimation of the 9 “sthayibhavas” (permanent dominant emotions or, in other words, essential moods: pleasure, joy, heroism, etc.).

Abhinavagupta, unlike Lollata, Sankuka, Bhatta Nayaka and others clearly distinguishes the emotions or moods of everyday life (sthayin) from aesthetic pleasure (rasa), since it represents the artistic sublimation of these emotions.

The everyday emotions, being perceived at the ego level, are felt by ordinary human consciousness as pleasant or unpleasant, desirable or not, worthy of acceptance or rejection. Abhinavagupta states, in many passages of his works, that all the “rasas” are pleasant, they are above the duality of pleasure – displeasure. Rasa (aesthetic taste), is “alaukika” (different from everyday experiences, supernormal), and is always unique.

In his commentary on “Natyasastra” Abhinavagupta explains that the aesthetic experience, being an exclusively spiritual perception, is a class in itself, incomparable to any other; it is unique, sui generis. The ontological argument is this: Since “rasa” is felt, it is exists.

Abhinavagupta gives a deep philosophical and spiritual substrate to the aesthetic experience expressed as “rasa”.

Briefly, it seems that when the “sahrdaya” (sensitive viewer or reader) follows a play, or reads an inspired poem he comes to forget time and space. At that moment, any mundane critical consideration disappears. He feels directly and personally involved in the respective work of art, all desire or anxiety disappearing from his being. His heart now reacts as empathetic, non-egotistic.

Finally, the reaction is complete, inclusive, and the “sahrdaya” totally identifies with the illustrated artistic situation.

The individual ego (aham) is transcended during the aesthetic experience, and the everyday, waking state is suspended. When we get this feeling, we discover that our reactions don’t resemble the reactions that we experienced before, now all our usual emotions disappear because the knot of our selfishness is cut, revealing at a certain point that we are in a state of unprecedented mental and emotional calmness. The purity and intensity of our emotions take us to a higher level of pleasure and enchantment, one we did not know of before, where we experience the pure, indiscriminate happiness (anandaikhagana). Thus the consciousness is absorbed into aesthetic ecstasy “rasa”.

Ecstasy is the final essence of “rasa”. The emotions like anger, (khroda), fear (Bhaya), suffering (Soka), and disgust (jugupsa), that are painful in real life, when poetically sublimated during the performance, are referred to as idealized, completely separate from any personal interest, either our own or another’s, and we cease to perceive ordinary space and time. When perceived in this way, the painful emotions lead to pure enjoyment.

The aesthetic experience becomes possible when the artist is able to transmit it, and the viewer or reader is able to receive it. In the Sanskrit language aesthetics, the artist must have “Pratibha” artistic talent or creative genius, and the one who receives the artwork should be a “sahrdaya” – very sensitive to the artistic act.

The dichotomy between Pesia (as art), and philosophy (as science), is illustrated in clear terms by Bhamaha. “Of course, even a fool can be taught to become a philosophy professor, but the creation of poetry can only be given to the person endowed with imaginative genius (or creator) -” prathiba, “and this gift is very rare.” 

Abhinavagupta cited the following definition of genius (prathiba): Imagination, or creative intelligence, is defined by how credible one can make his work,” and says: “What is special about the creative imagination of a great poet, is the ability to produce poetry full of beauty and clarity, born of the emotional current that flows from the heart.”

“Pratibha” is the intellectual capacity of the poet, whose mind is focused on the words full of understanding that carry “rasa” which are necessary for poetry.

This ability appears to be the link between the mind of the poet and the essential nature of his soul (Atman). This is what makes the wise aestheticians of this tradition say, that everything that exists in the three worlds appears as it is in the eyes of the viewer or reader, and that this ability has its source in the third eye of Shiva, the center of a genius supramental.

Without a good receiver, art sees no justifiable purpose. One such receiver is a “sahrdaya” (viewer or reader), having heart and artistic sensitivity.

When a “sahrdaya” contemplates an inspired work of art, created by a gifted artist, a “prathiba” conditions are ripe for the artistic act to become one of the most efficient methods for perceiving the spiritual aesthetic taste “rasa”, that the creation is transmitting.

So, for the aesthetics of India, art is more than a psycho-mental delight, being a very important element of an exceptional spiritual tradition that Abhinavagupta epitomised; Kashmiri Shaivism.


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