A Rasa Reader: Classical Indian Aesthetics edited and translated by Sheldon Pollock

Tank _summer 16_books _82

Hardback, 472 pages
Publisher: Columbia University Press (April 2016)
ISBN: 9780231173902
Languages: English, Sanskrit
Selected by Kai Friese

“The most literal translation of rasa, as Sheldon Pollock points out, is ‘taste’. But in classical Indian aesthetics it refers to a system of emotional registers. I like to think of it as synaesthesia. Here’s a book that takes up a 1,500-year debate on Indian literature. Arcane? Sure. But also very vira and adhbhuta. Which is to say it tastes kind of heroic and marvellous to me.” —Kai Friese


Unlike smell, taste admits of degrees; as a bodily sense it also has a more direct relationship with the object, as well as with the object’s pleasure, than the “distance” senses such as sight (we like tastes in a more intimate way than we like sights). Though natural, it can in principle be improved with training, the sort of training that, in the case of artworks, aesthetics would hypothetically be able to provide. It can also be “acquired”. But additionally, taste seems to capture that special phenomenological truth formulated by Dufrenne1. Feeling is embedded in the object no less than in the subject, and the viewer experiences feeling because affective quality belongs to the artwork; in the same way, we have the taste of a thing only because the thing itself has taste, as it does not have sight. The long debate over rasa’s location can be seen as a search for an understanding already gained by the metaphor itself – this is just what Abhinavagupta argued – one not attained in the West until the rise of phenomenological aesthetics.

The use of the metaphor in European intellectual history seems to have begun with the Jesuit thinker Baltasar Gracián in the early 17th century, for whom taste functioned more as a moral category than an aesthetic one: it is possible to refine the taste as well as the mind; in taste begins the drawing of distinctions and hence social cultivation. Taste became central to aesthetics, however, only when aesthetics was first invented as a discipline in the mid-18th century, in a world where the hereditary prerogatives of aristocracy were weakening and judgement itself was becoming the foundation of a new society. Hume’s concern, like that of many other 18th-century thinkers, was to establish a standard of taste in the face of subjective aesthetic sentiment, which he does by tracing the diversity of taste to a diversity in capacities to register what are, for him, objective qualities of beauty. His emphasis on judgement may set him apart from our Indian theorists; however subjective “taste” may seem to us, there was never any doubt for Indians that a single standard could apply. Yet like them Hume holds that the cultivation of art is essentially the cultivation of moral awareness, though the process is very different in the two worlds. For Hume, passion is linked with taste; it is something to be disciplined by taste, which is the true source of happiness; art refines our feelings. For Indian thinkers, the relationship of emotion to reason was in general a question of little philosophical interest, but neither was emotion something to be subordinated to or dominated by knowledge, as it was for Plato and most of his successors. And in any case, aesthetic pedagogy unfolds for Indians in a far more explicit manner: the viewer of a play becomes suffused “by the desire to attain the good and to avoid the bad,” as Abhinavagupta puts it, and “he actually comes to do the one and to shun the other, given that he has now gained an understanding to this end.”

What is most fundamentally constitutive of the Indian discourse on rasa, namely, the relationship between taste and social propriety (“The one thing that can impair rasa is impropriety,” says Anandavardhana2. “Composing with customary propriety – that is rasa’s deep secret”), is also most occluded, for the sources of social propriety lay far below the level of analysis. Propriety was simply a given. This “miscognition” of the social determinants of judgement was largely the case in the West as well, until critique became a component of criticism and taste was identified as a marker of social status. The distinctions social subjects make – between the beautiful and the ugly, or whatever – serve to distinguish themselves (“Taste classifies, and it classifies the classifier”). 

[1] Mikel Dufrenne, 1910-1995, was a French philosopher associated with existentialism. His most celebrated work is The Phenomenology of Aesthetic Experience (1953). 
[2] Anandavardhana, 820–890, was the author of Dhvanyaloka, a treatise on the philosophy of aesthetic enjoyment. He is credited with creating the dvani theory; the idea that enjoyment is not created by the images conjured by the direct meaning of words in literature but with the associated ideas they evoke.