ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
-A A +A

Emotion and Rasa in Premodern and Classical India

Kedar A Kulkarni ( is with the International Research Center/ Interweaving Performance Cultures, Freie Universitat, Berlin.

Emotions in Indian Thought-Systems edited by Purushottama Bilimoria and Aleksandra Wenta, New Delhi: Routledge, 2015; pp 289, ₹850.

A Rasa Reader: Classical Indian Aesthetics by Sheldon Pollock, New York: Columbia University Press, 2016; pp 442, $90.



The author would like to thank the International Research Center/Interweaving Performance Cultures and the Center for the History of Emotions at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin for providing him with venues to discuss and deliberate on some of the ideas presented in this article.

The affective turn in the humanities, combined with a deeper consideration of emotions in human life, has generated a large body of scholarly research over the past two decades. A host of introductory and deeper theoretical studies in the form of edited volumes and single emotions studies (there is even a textbook in the pipeline) have marked the arrival of the study of emotions as a coherent subject even at the undergraduate level (Plamper 2015).1 Academic discourse on these issues does not seem to show signs of waning either. A recent special issue of PMLA journal, a publication of the Modern Language Association of America, was dedicated to emotions, with a chapter on “rasa,” emotion, and affect theory (Dharwadker 2015).2Emotions in Indian Thought-Systems and A Rasa Reader: Classical Indian Aesthetics, the books under review, are both welcome additions to this scholarship, which has yet to fully engage with the ancient world and more so, with classical India. Uniquely, both volumes are perfect companions to each other. The former, a theory of “real” felt emotions, finds a good bedfellow in the latter, an anthology of source texts on rasa, a theory of aesthetic emotions; definitions and considerations in both volumes often bring the reader close to theories of affect. Together, one finds a rich discourse on a multitude of emotions and feelings that cannot be named as such—and indeed need not be named in some cases.

This review proceeds in three stages—first, a look at Emotions in Indian Thought-Systems, in which I tease out the main overlaps and points of intersection between the edited volume’s many chapters. Following this, I look more closely at A Rasa Reader, in which I draw attention to various arguments that seem relevant to literary and cultural studies, and discourses about emotions and affect. My approach to these two books is that of an inexpert but interested party, one with some engagement with discourses on emotions, affect and rasa, and as one who would like to know more for his own work. In this review, given the materials under consideration, I do not differentiate between affect, emotion, feelings and moods. Such distinctions are neither salient for these texts nor for the historical actors discussed within them, even though such distinctions often occupy an important critical space within modern humanities. One of the only distinctions often theorised in both texts is a distinction between bhava (emotion) and rasa (aestheticised emotion)—but even here, a rigid distinction does not make sense, as the sources reveal. I see myself—and many general interest academic readers like me—as ideal readers of these two books, not entrenched in the smaller nuances of Sanskrit philosophical conventions but who have often ventured into these materials for their work, for teaching, or for a general understanding. My comments and evaluations in this review article are, thus, directed with an eye towards the non-specialist reader, one who may not have the time to slowly pore over each of the primary sources discussed in both of these books nor have the requisite linguistic skills, but is nonetheless interested in both the specifics and general outlines.

‘Premodern’ Emotions in India

Emotions in Indian Thought-Systems provides an entry into the vast corpus of “premodern” literature on emotions produced in India. Bilimoria and Wenta express a clear objective for their volume,

to improve our understanding of emotions in India, especially with regard to (the) historical development of emotional experience and the methods of its conceptualisation. This book constitutes a modest step in this direction, as it wishes to address the … character of emotions in Indian thought-systems, with an emphasis on the role of emotions in the constitution of religious identity. (pp 1–2)

The volume is organised around a number of themes, namely, Tantrism, Bhakti, “Buddhism, Patanjala, Yoga, and Saiva Siddhanta,” and Aesthetics. It provides an overview of diverse philosophical debates, though it remains, as the authors acknowledge, a beginning to such research. The introduction to the volume is a breath of fresh air, carefully designed to dispel and demystify “the modern and contemporary Western (and perhaps “Indian” as well) imaginary,” in which India, “never elaborated a clear-cut dichotomy between mind, body, and soul or Self, but rather propounded a ‘holistic’ approach” (p 10). In making such strong statements, however, they do not engage in polemics but instead repeatedly insist on complexity rather than simplicity, specificity rather than generality, and critical insight rather than a blasé set of platitudes. For those willing to engage with Bilimoria and Wenta, this introduction functions in the best possible way and its many themes find greater analysis in the subsequent chapters.

The first section of the book on “Tantrism” is the most internally coherent. For better or worse, this section most often reworks and expands themes from the introduction, that

The major contribution of Tantrism, relatively unknown to earlier philosophies and religious systems, was actually constituted by a great importance attached in this system to the human body blooming with a dazzling array of emotions and passions. (p 27)

Raffaele Torella further develops this line of inquiry, contrasting the “Action without Desire” of earlier (especially Samkhya) models with “Desire without Action” of the non-dualist Shaiva tradition (pp 61–68), which becomes a key distinction for almost all of the later essays, not limited to the section on Tantrism. Particularly enriching is the discussion of raga (attachment, passion) and its critical reception in various schools of thought, and the contrast between the earlier Brahminical and Buddhist models and the non-dualist Shaiva models (pp 65–68). These discussions become crucial for later essays in the book, and serve as solid ground for the reader unfamiliar with these materials—and Torella himself briefly identifies spaces where these moments enable the aesthetic to also become part of the philosophical system. Wenta’s own essay in this section, on fear and heroism, is also noteworthy for its clear style and consistent framing—which seems designed to reach the non-specialist reader.

Even though the coherence of “Bhakti” as a “movement” is questionable, such terms do locate many readers within a known and varied discourse, one that has a large purchase in the humanities and social sciences.3 Part II, on “The Bhakti Movement,” diverges from the more specific foci of the previous one. While one chapter here covers aspects of Shaiva Bhakti from the seventh–ninth centuries, another considers two Sahajiya Vaishnava texts from 18th–19th century Bengal. There is no justification as to why these two studies were chosen, given their temporal and geographic divergence. Aside from a brief discussion in the latter essay about the Shaiva practices embedded within this Vaishnava tradition, the coherence of these two chapters in this section remains somewhat of a puzzle, separated as they are by nearly one millennium with all the historical, philosophical, and other changes that such a long time span implies. Both essays speak broadly about love, awe, disgust, frustration and anger. T Ganesan’s essay evinces a slippage between the two kinds of emotional experience, and he begins by speaking about rasa, only to introduce the term bhava later (pp 151–52). Similarly, rasa is also germane to the discussions that Delmonico and Sarkar seek to elaborate. Unfortunately, both essays seem a little distracted as though they attempt to cover more ground than is possible and perhaps, at least for Ganesan’s essay, less could have been more. While his literary exegeses are a delight to read, as are the texts to which he refers, one often wishes for a lengthier but more focused discussion. These two essays also raise many questions—especially about the relationship between the religious experience and aesthetic one, and “real” emotions and aestheticised ones, as the slippage between bhava and rasa indicates.

Emotions in Indian Thought-Systems, thus, presents a motley crew of emotions—beginning with a discussion of “passions” and continuing on to “intensity,” fear, heroism, love, awe, disgust, despair, among others. In covering such a range, one also expects to see some discussion of the scholarship on each of the individual emotions considered in the book. For example, Ganesan’s essay could have profited from further work on disgust and smell.4 Some general questions that could have been articulated and answered include: what constitutes “premodern” in a volume whose time frame covers materials from classical to roughly contemporary India (Sharad Deshpande’s essay on “Despair”), and why is there no mention of Islam?5 There is also little mention of emotions as social phenomena throughout this volume—do emotions always “happen” within the singular (Brahman male) body? Addressing such questions would have undoubtedly been more work, but work that ultimately could have made the texts shine for a wider audience. Transforming conference proceedings into a published format is always a challenge, especially when it comes to audience and methodological coherence. While specialist conferences can (do, and perhaps should) routinely skirt issues of legibility, a book cannot always afford to do the same, especially given that as an introduction, this book’s ideal audience seems much broader than those already invested in the study of “premodern” emotions in India. These considerations ask for slightly stronger editorial oversight in this publication. At the same time, for its wonderful array of sources and careful readings, this book provides a solid overview, as the editors mention, clearing up a few misconceptions and pointing towards many gaps where further research may be pursued.

Rasa as Aestheticised Emotion

A Rasa Reader: Classical Indian Aesthetics, edited and translated by Sheldon Pollock, offers something distinct from Emotions in Indian Thought-Systems—even as both volumes converge on many different points. Rasa, unlike emotions more generally (bhava), is a far more known (and often misunderstood) construct. It has even maintained itself as an analytic within colloquial discourse: a relative once casually remarked that it was commonplace to write “bibhatsa” or “odious” plays during the 1960s and 1970s. And yet such casual usage of the rasa vocabulary has not led to a clearer understanding of the term and its associated theories—at least not in a historical and theoretically sophisticated manner. Rather, while there is a proliferation of general outlines, some continuing and comparative works on rasa, few scholars have access to the range of sources presented by Pollock, thus, limiting all discussion to Bharata’s Natyashastra and perhaps one or two other authors (Dimitrova 2015).

Criticism of rasa and its explanations and adaptations often become repetitive and theoretically glib, sacrificing all the richness of a discourse for an easy sentence here or a paragraph there. If the rasa of Bharata did not remain unchallenged and unchanged over a period of 1500 years—why should we treat it as such? As with Emotions, my purpose here is to also evaluate Pollock’s volume for the lay academic reader, for use with teaching and presumably, for literary scholars who may wish to gain some sense of how literature and theatre in South Asia, prior to the modern world system, was analysed. In doing so, I wish to bring together moments when the discourse on “real” and “aesthetic” emotions converged, as well as moments where rasa, in theory, converges with works on aesthetics, emotions and various theoretical models from outside of South Asia.

Few academic books are imagined with the breadth and scope that Pollock provides in this latest reader. And now, Pollock has two such books to his name, the other being The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture, and Power in Premodern India (2006). While, admittedly, his latest is an edited volume and a translation, it is no less important, no less synthetically magnanimous. Simply put, it is the only reader that compiles texts and theories on rasa over a 1500-year period. By itself, this would be significant, but Pollock further provides us with translations, annotations, brief prefaces, and a synoptic introduction to these works. His introduction is lengthy, comprehensive, and erudite, and a slow, careful read. Pollock takes us through rasa’s many commentators, organising them around a few central issues that chart the evolution of discourse on the topic. Broadly, he situates these within “aesthetics” as a field of inquiry even though his historical actors never identified the field as such—and it is easy to see why he does so: it is, perhaps, more encompassing than contemporary disciplinary boundaries. Divided into 12 brief sections, the introduction presents us with a panoptic view of what aesthetics was in classical India, describing and locating rasa from its initial theorisation within an acting manual, as a phenomenon first of the poet and play, then of aurally-received poetry, then in the reader, and so on. Each of these represents gradual shifts in the intellectual history of rasa. This is not a pedantic exercise. The introduction repeatedly foregrounds how rasa was adapted and readapted over a millennium in order to suit contemporary needs, and how rasa is different from the “sonic features of the text and figures of sense” because the text is an “affective phenomenon” whose purpose is to offer some kind of affective experience (pp 25–26).

Reading over the authors included in the collection is a struggle, an exercise, and a pleasure: the excerpts are learned, argumentative and rich. As Pollock mentions in his introduction, transitions of meaning within the concept of rasa at several occasions demonstrate its intellectual depth. I have chosen, therefore, to highlight those aspects below and engage them in discussions related to emotions and literary theory. The early theorists, writing only a few centuries after Bharata’s Natyashastra, were well aware that the Natyashastra was a manual for actors and these early discussions were significantly coloured by this fact. It enveloped their thinking and rasa was almost always about and within the character within the text, and the text itself. Only sometimes did these issues bleed into external factors such as the actor.

There are two themes that overlap with some wider issues within current emotions and affect studies that I found particularly illuminating in this “early theorists” section. The first case concerns the difference between bhava as emotion, and rasa as aestheticised emotion—and regardless of where the discourse portends by the 12th century CE—here the relationship is one of degree rather than kind (pp 61, 77). That is, as aestheticised emotions, rasa is seen as an intensification or enhancement of bhava. In such formulations, the relationship between supposedly “real” emotions and aestheticised ones becomes an interesting one: not fundamentally different, but substantially heightened. Rasa cannot be something completely unknown. With the language of intensities, one wonders whether these conversations could be plugged into discourses about affect, for example, especially with the repeated references to transitory states and foundational factors that cannot stabilise or be known before they are transformed into dominant bhavas and rasas.

The second concern that theorists repeatedly discuss pertains to the desirability of using rasa words in the text itself—whether or not its use is necessary to convey the emotional tenor (and ultimate aim) of a text. In some cases, using the word was considered only a denotation of rasa, neither an expression nor enactment of it (p 81). Here too, the questions raised overlap with (now classic) language-based studies of emotions from different times and places, such as William Reddy’s The Navigation of Feeling (2001), which was criticised for being too reliant on emotion words (emotives) for its theoretical paradigms. These carefully articulated positions, along with analyses of referential and expressive language, inference and imitation, etc, make these early case studies rewarding to work through.

If we slowly find ourselves entrenched in an intense and carefully articulated discourse in the early interpretations of Bharata’s Natyashastra, it only becomes more sophisticated as time progresses. The major leap within the commentary displaces the text (and character) and instead approaches rasa from the point of view of the reader–spectator. As Pollock mentions in his introduction, this transition comes with Bhatta Nayaka’s (c 900) application of ritual theory and practice to literary practices of rasa. By shifting attention away from the production of rasa within the text itself, Bhatta Nayaka made possible an analysis of “the subjective experience of the viewer/reader” (p 145). Powerfully, he argues (in Pollock’s words) that

Rasa is not a thing but an action—a uniquely pleasurable experience—and one is prompted to action by sentences; the literary ‘sentence’ meaning functions just like a Vedic sentence meaning: it summons the reader to action. (As such), the rasa experience must be an action on the part of the viewing subject, not a formal feature of the text. (p 147)

Once again, such transformations in rasa theory have more than a minor connection to postwar theories of reception and interpretation, oscillating as they do between formalism and contextual readings centred on reception. One wonders what place these translations and commentaries could have within literary theory today—especially given their thematic overlaps with some major aspects of post-structural literary theory, from authorial deaths to reader-response criticism.

Other Iterations of Rasa

A Rasa Reader drifts into the early second millennium, with Abhinavagupta, his immediate predecessor, and later iterations. Three discussions seem special here for this hefty concomitance: the issue of imitation, as deconstructed by Bhatta Tota, Abhinava’s teacher, and then Abhinava himself (pp 182–87; 220–21; elsewhere); the issue of aesthetic “rapture”; and the processes of reading. While even Pollock acknowledges that Tota never articulates what rasa is, Tota is unconvinced that rasa can be imitative of something out there in the real world. Abhinava picks up on this theme (pp 220–22). Rejecting “imitation” outright, Abhinava curiously speaks of drama as “a rendering of something as an object of a particular kind of reflexive consciousness” (p 221) in one location, a “re-narration” (p 220), and a “‘narration’ that consists of a reflexive consciousness ‘laden’ with a conceptual sense of experience” (p 221). Some later commentators similarly reject rasa and drama as imitative of the real world—for example, Ramachandra and Gunachandra instead suggest it is a recreation of what the sages have said (pp 246–47). These moments—a rejection of the mimetic and imitative qualities of drama in favour of a recreation of what has been “said” or narrated by the sages and re-narrated—seem to uniquely privilege what the drama does, and indeed what the viewer does too while watching. Though Pollock does not provide the technical term for “re-narration” and “narration,” one recalls in these many definitions and redefinitions something of Schechner’s (1987) notion of performance as “restored” or “twice-behaved” behaviour (pp 35–116). Our relation to drama, as spectators, necessitates a kind of reflection-rapture as well, relying on our sensitivity to the situation and ability to generalise or commonise from the particular to the general.

In the later chapters of the volume, there are two additional moments where the discourse of rasa similarly impinges upon various theoretical points of interest in the modern humanities, especially theatre and performance studies. Vishvanatha (c 1350) proffers one of the most elegant understandings of rasa, in what appears to be a double-edged embrace and rejection of linguistic concepts. He writes,

Insofar as rasa has as its object the particularised reflection on the aesthetic elements on the part of the responsive viewer/reader, and is clearly something of which we are conscious as consisting of pure bliss, it cannot be nonconceptual sense experience that grasps rasa. But neither is rasa brought to our consciousness by conceptual sense experience, because it is not something fit for connection with linguistic expression. (pp 267–68)


At the end of the day then, he defines rasa neither as conceptual nor non-conceptual, but occupying a different category altogether, capable of arising from language but not necessarily so.

What proof is there for its existence? Here is our answer: The learned hold the act of relishing to be the proof of rasa—which is in fact nothing other than the act itself. (p 268)

As Pollock points out,

rasa is something without parallel in our everyday reality. The only proof of rasa’s existence is our experience of it. (p 262)

Vishvanatha, like contemporary theatre and performance scholars, knew about the ephemeral nature of performance, and the profound sense of experience—having to be there—that generates rasa, which cannot be recuperated after the fact or reconstructed into a whole any more than ephemera can capture more than metonymy. Beyond these initial observations, Vishvanatha, and others of his ilk, importantly transform the relationship between bhava and rasa. Whereas earlier philosophers had distinguished between the two terms by degree, in which rasa is an intensified version of bhava, Vishvanatha, with his comments about the “supermundane” nature of rasa offers something else. He transforms that relationship into one of immanence and transcendence: there is something extraordinary about rasa. If it is not clear by implication—transforming rasa into something above and beyond everyday experience brings rasa into conversation with the ontology of Vedanta, and is yet another trajectory (pp 262, 311, 315) for the theory to follow in later centuries.

There are, of course, many others in Pollock’s edited volume whose works offer keen insight not just on the discourses of rasa, but its many discursive tributaries. For someone interested in perusing rasa and its development over the course of nearly 1500 years, this book offers a rare perspective—a synoptic view of an entire discourse. And one forgets—when we engage in any scholarly project ourselves within the social sciences and humanities, our discursive method is hardly different from the commentaries that Pollock has included in the reader.

More importantly, how often do we find ourselves able to peruse something so expansive as an entire discourse? On the basis of these texts Pollock also provides several “correctives” to worn clichés as well as some long overdue interventions. Particularly interesting, is his comment on the term karuna, almost always translated as “compassion” or “pity”—but more approximately “tragic” according to Pollock. According to theorists, karuna arises out of a sense of one’s own loss, whether of kin or a beloved. But grief over the suffering of misfortunes of others (compassion) is the semblance of karuna, which only gains traction from Buddhist influences (see also Bilimoria and Wenta, p 39). Importantly, Pollock chooses to translate rasa as “taste” and, thus, bring it into a more global discourse, only to overturn certain lingering Weberian notions of modernity and aesthetics. In this intervention, he remarks that there had been a fully autonomous domain of art in India well before “modernity,” one that was “fully distinguished from the religious sphere” (p 44).

Despite these many successes, this volume is a selection after all, limited for both practical as well as scholarly reasons. But one wishes to see ramifications beyond this classical Sanskrit paradigm into the Indian languages, especially given the time frame and geographic distribution of the many scholars presented here. One also wishes some attention was paid to influences from Persian and Arabic sources—the “vernacular millennium” also witnessed various kinds of Islamic culture in South Asia—what, if any, impact did these have on discourses in Sanskrit? And, of course, what of rasa after 1650? These are, I hope, projects for the future.


A discourse cannot provide incontrovertible and stable answers for questions posed. To do so would be to sound its own death knell. A discourse can only ask questions and posit, by necessity, incomplete but generative answers. In a particularly halting moment, however, Pollock comments on the decline of rasa discourse, dismissing such claims that rasa was too inflexible to account for new literature (made by Deshpande’s essay in Emotions). Instead, he mentions that perhaps the rasa discourse reached a state of “conceptual plenitude”—and thinkers “were perhaps justified in believing that they had carefully weighed every possible alternative … and that there was nothing left to say” (p 41). I linger on this moment to meditate upon the place of emotions and rasa discourse from classical and premodern South Asia in the humanistic disciplines today. Modern linguistics’ indebtedness to Sanskrit grammar is well known, evidenced in the dubious similarity of Saussure’s own linguistics to various conceptions of language in Sanskrit, or overlaps between notions of affect and core affect with rasa.6 Thus, one may also infer that the literary-aesthetic theories developed on the basis of such linguistic models in classical and premodern South Asia, may have raised at least some of the questions confronted by theory that developed in the wake of Saussure in the latter half of the 20th century.

I have addressed some of these pertinent moments of overlap above—about intentionality, language, linguistics and signs; whether the meaning resides within the text (and thus author and character) or in the interpreter (spectator and/or reader); issues about whether figurative language is an end in itself or whether it occludes meaning; and of course about the nature of performance and the experience of rasa and emotions. These considerations make these two books an ideal resource to use in a variety of pedagogical and other situations, especially introductory or more advanced courses on theory, and they have much to offer for diverse disciplinary audience. As the ambiguously titled Emotions in Indian Thought-Systems indicates, these “systems” do not easily conform to our contemporary disciplinary boundaries—at once aesthetic, linguistic, literary, philosophical, psychological and religious (in the case of Bhakti). These two books are certainly not a casual and easy read, but theory rarely ever is. To understand the ideas presented in these texts, seeing, like rasa, is believing.


1 See also the forthcoming Rob (2018).

2 See also Frederic Jameson (2013) who uses discourses of both emotions and affect in his recent work on realism as an aesthetic.

3 On the coherence of “bhakti” see the introduction to Hawley (2015).

4 See, for example, McHugh (2012).

5 These questions have also been raised elsewhere: see Kachru (2016).

6 See comments on Saussure and “apoha” in Tillemans (2017). See also Trautmann (2011), Baxter (2011). For Saussure’s own knowledge of Sanskrit see his De l’emploi du génitif absolu en sanscrit (1881). I thank Sonam Kachru for these references. See also Dharwadker (2015) for its specific references to the overlap between affect and rasa in Darwin, William James, and the late 20th century.


Baxter, William H (2011): “Response to Trautmann,” Fragments: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Study of Ancient and Medieval Pasts, Vol 1, 1.0001.003.

Boddice, Rob (2018): The History of Emotions, Manchester: Manchester University Press (forthcoming).

Dharwadker, Vinay (2015): “Emotion in Motion: The Nāt.yashāstra, Darwin, and Affect Theory,” PMLA, Vol 130, No 5, 1 October, pp 1381–1404.

Dimitrova, Zornitsa (2015): “Aesthetic Codification of the ‘Unsavoury’ from Nāt.yashāstra and the Poetics to Postdramatic Theatre,” New Theatre Quarterly, Vol 31, No 4 (November), pp 299–311.

Hawley, John Stratton (2015): A Storm of Songs: India and the Idea of the Bhakti Movement, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Jameson, Fredric (2013): The Antinomies of Realism, London: Verso.

Kachru, Sonam (2016): “Emotions in Indian Thought-Systems” (review), Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, Vol 79, No 3, pp 664–66.

McHugh, James (2012): Sandalwood and Carrion: Smell in Indian Religion and Culture, New York: Oxford University Press.

Plamper, Jan (2015): The History of Emotions: An Introduction, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pollock, Sheldon (2016): The Language of the Gods in the World of Men: Sanskrit, Culture and Power in Premodern India, Berkeley: University of California Press.

Reddy, William M (2001): The Navigation of Feeling: Framework for a History of Emotions, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Saussure, Ferdinand de (1881): De l’emploi du génitif absolu en sanscrit, Genève : Impr J G Fick,

Schechner, Richard (1987): Between Theater and Anthropology, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Trautmann, Thomas R (2011): “The Past in the Present,” Fragments: Interdisciplinary Approaches to the Study of Ancient and Medieval Pasts, Vol 1, 1.0001.002.

— (2017): “Dharmakīrti,” The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2017 Edition), Edward N Zalta (ed),

Updated On : 17th May, 2017


(-) Hide

EPW looks forward to your comments. Please note that comments are moderated as per our comments policy. They may take some time to appear. A comment, if suitable, may be selected for publication in the Letters pages of EPW.

Back to Top