Aesthetic Sensibility – an Indian Perspective

Abstract: Indian rhetoricians, dramatists and poets have in the course of the last two thousand years drafted theories of aesthetics and literature. The paper briefly examines, re-considers and enumerates some of the principal ideas that highlight the understanding of emotional transformation and aesthetic pleasure. The essential considerations in the Alamkara and the Dhvani schools, and those of rhetoricians who followed Abhinavagupta in the tenth century, figure in this narrative along with the variations that the bhakti school effected in the discourse.

Keywords: artistic experience, artistic creation, vyabhicharibhavas, theories of Suggestion, aesthetic sensibility, aesthetic sensibility

Indian epics have a long history of representing intense emotions in an unparalleled mode. This representation is often carried out with a fine understanding of the consciousness that informs emotions. The Ramayana, one of India’s most celebrated epics has been subjected to diverse readings because of the complexity of emotions as well as the excellence of poetic craftsmanship. Valmiki, who authored the pioneering epic poem in Sanskrit, narrates the story of the protagonist Sita, daughter of Janaka and wife to Rama, the Prince of Ayodhya. The tale moves through tides of highs and lows in terms of circumstance, sentiment and expression. The Ramayana plays upon the emotions of its characters but dwells steadily only on two marked emotions – pity and grief – from the beginning to end, thereby opening up new ways of understanding affect in literature.

Anandavardhana, the distinguished 9th century aesthetician, wrote a verse on the composition of the Ramayana which draws our attention to the essence of the epic. He writes in Dhvanyaloka that Valmiki had been inspired into writing his magnum opus at the sight of a hunter killing a crowncha bird with his arrows. They were male and female birds and when one of them was killed by the hunter, the other bird lamented over their separation. The sorrow of that bird moved the poet and he became grief-stricken. The depth of emotion behind this incident inspired him to compose the epic narrating the story of the separation of Rama and Sita who lived in the age of the Thretha 1 Yuga. Anandavardhana is of the view that artistic creation results from deep emotion. Valmiki’s poetic outpouring born out of deep sorrow enabled Indian aestheticians to understand the nature of poetic inspiration. Anandavardhana’s doctrine of dhvani, plays down the denotative sense of the word and raises to dominance the power of suggestion. The role of dhvani contributes to the audience’s entire outlook on the dynamics of emotions in the Ramayana.

It is believed that when an artist experiences an emotion, it results in an artistic creation which suits his/her will, taste or any other affective factor. This problematizes our understanding of artistic creativity. The emotive experience” that which is viewed or witnessed by the artist”- becomes causative of artistic creation. The major emotions or rasas, classified into nine by Indian aestheticians are Sringara (Love), Vira (Valour), Hasya (Humour), Raudra (Anger), Bhayanaka (Fear), Karuna (Compassion or Sadness), Adbhutam (Delight or Wonder), Bheebhatsam (Disgust) and Santa (Peace or Calm). The word rasa means aesthetic relish or enjoyment. In the beginning, every feeling or emotion is experienced at the level of the human. When that human experience is transmuted to an artistic experience, it becomes transpersonal and moves beyond the limits of time, place and the particular individual concerned. In this transformation of an emotive experience to an artistic experience, the creative self of the artist gets erased from the picture. When it thus moves from the particular to the universal, it provides matter for aesthetic enjoyment to competent readers, spectators, audience or sahrudaya or rasika (the one who enjoys). Sahrudaya or rasika is a person who is endowed with the necessary faculties to cross over the obstacles he/she may encounter during the course of aesthetic appreciation.

In the past centuries, poets, dramatists and other artists composed thousands of works depicting the stories of epics from different perspectives, in various media. Such secondary creations inspired still others to imagine the story of Sita and Rama in multitudinous ways in poetry, drama, music, dance and so on. In Ramayana, Sita and Rama experienced a deep sorrow occasioned by separation. Valmiki narrates their story in a touching manner. The artistic experience that is universal and eternal, nullifies the distance of the original characters of Sita and Rama, to a contemporary or future audience.

Sage Bharata in his masterly work Natyasastra, brought forth the theory of rasa which is the pivotal concept of aesthetic enjoyment in India. This was laid down in the famous aphorism “vibhava anubhava vyabhichari samyogad rasa nishpathih” which means that Vibhava (the cause), anubhava (expression), vyabhicharibhava (the transient or changing emotions), in combination with one another, evokes rasa. Each of the terms of this aphorism was interpreted and re-interpreted, annotated and re-annotated by various scholars in later times. Anandavardhana brought forth an extended concept of rasa-dhvani in Dhvanyaloka elaborating the idea of rasa. He explained the concept of rasa and argued that suggestive meaning (dhvani) is of the highest importance and value. Arriving at the suggestive meaning is determined by the imaginative capacity and refinement of the person involved. For a word, there can be three levels meaning: 1) Vachya (surface level meaning); 2) Lakshya (intended meaning); and 3) Vyangya (suggestive meaning). The experience of rasa effectively culminates in rasa-dhvani, where the suggestive meaning evokes several resonances. In certain contexts, the first and the second levels of meaning disappear and the suggestive meaning gains greater importance. Artistic enjoyment is derived from the comprehension and appreciation of this third level of meaning.

According to Sage Bharata and his followers, any kind of artistic creation should lead to the aesthetic experience of rasa. That leads to another question: in whom does the rasa exist or act – is it in the original writer or in an imitator or in the reader/spectator? Though it is not easy to answer, we can say that the emotion at the personal level cannot be an artistic, transpersonal experience, and hence an object of enjoyment. Only when a human experience is elevated and transformed into an artistic experience, does it become an object that is capable of inducing aesthetic experience. Another issue that props up in this context is this: which rasaanubhava or emotive experience is important and which is unimportant? Some experiences are transitory and some others are permanent. The temporary emotions will come and go according to the situation and personal temperament. Permanent emotions are more enduring and effective. The temporary emotions are called vybhichari bhavas, and the enduring ones are termed sthayi bhavas. The temporary emotions complement the permanent emotions. Permanent emotions, eight in number according to Bharata, were later enhanced to nine. Temporary emotions are thirty-three in number. The thirty-three temporary emotions will complement the nine sthayibhavas or permanent emotions. In a literary work, for example, in a drama, there will generally be one permanent emotion which is expressed throughout the play and the temporary emotions will support the expression of the main emotion. All the four types of acting (vachya or oral, angika or gestural, aharya or through dress and appearance, and sattvika, that which is related to personal expression) will be suited to the permanent emotion or sthayibhava. For generating sthayibhava two factors (vibhavas) are necessary: 1) alambana vibhava (the cause) and 2) uddipana vibhava (factors which heighten the cause).

The 33 vyabhichari bhavas are as follows:

1) Nirvedham (Calmness or state of being withdrawn)

2) Glaani (Sadness)

3) Shanka (Doubt)

4) Asuya (Jealousy)

5) Madam (Mad Urge)

6) Shramam (Tiredness due to work)

7) Alasyam (Exhaustion)

8) Dainyam (Helplessness)

9) Chintha (Thought)

10) Moham (Desire)

11) Smrthi (Remembrance)

12) Drithi (Courage)

13) Vrida (Shyness)

14) Chapalatha (Unsteadiness)

15) Harsham (Joy)

16) Avegam (Enthusiasm)

17) Jadatha (Inactivity)

18) Garvam (Ego)

19) Vishadam (Depression)

20) Outsukyam (Inquisitiveness)

21) Nidra (Sleep)

22) Apasmaram (Fitness)

23) Suptham (Sleep)

24) Vibhodham (Alertness)

25) Amarsham (Dislike)

26) Avahitham (Hiding)

27) Ugratha (Fearfulness)

28) Mati (Intelligence)

29) Vyadhi (Disease)

30) Unmadam (Madness)

31) Maranam (Death)

32) Trasam (Shivering)

33) Vitarka (Hesitation or Doubt)

Among the later theoreticians, the great author Bhoja, an emperor who lived and ruled the kingdom of Dhar around 1000 AD, brought forth a new concept beyond Natyasastra and other works on rhetoric. In his work Sringaraprakasha, he put forth the idea that love (Sringara) is the basic rasa. The Sthayibhava (permanent emotion) is not capable of producing rasa whereas, bhavas are generated from rasa. Thus various bhavas are produced. He lists 49 bhavas produced from rasa as follows.

He lists 49 bhavas produced from rasa as follows.

  1. Rati (Love or erotic Love)
  2. Harsha (Joy)
  3. Romancha (Horripilation)
  4. Dhriti (Courage)
  5. Garva (Ego)
  6. Nasa (Destruction)
  7. Mada (Mad Urge)
  8. Utkantha (Anxiety)
  9. Chintha (Thought)
  10. Smriti (Remembrance)
  11. Mati (Intelligence)
  12. Vitarka (Hesitation))
  13. Utsaha (Enthusiasm)
  14. Krodha (Anger)
  15. Amarsha (Dislike)
  16. Asuya (Jealousy)
  17. Irshya (Angry attitude)
  18. Ugrata (Fearfulness)
  19. Jugupsa (Aversion)
  20. Vismaya (Wonder)
  21. Ninda (Disrespect)
  22. Supta (Sleepy nature)
  23. Prabodha (Alertness)
  24. Chapalata (Unsteadiness)
  25. Alasya (Exhaustion)
  26. Bhaya (Fear)
  27. Sanka (Doubt)
  28. Thrasa (Wavering)
  29. Vepathu (Trembling)
  30. Vreeda (shyness)
  31. Avahittha (Hiding)
  32. Stambha (Unfettered)
  33. Glani (Sadness)
  34. Sveda (Sweating)
  35. Vyadhi (Illness)
  36. Unmada (Madness)
  37. Srama (Tiredness due to work)
  38. Soka (Sorrow)
  39. Vishada (Depression)
  40. Vaivarnya (Paleness)
  41. Dainya (Helplessness)
  42. Swarabheda (Speechlessness)
  43. Avega (Enthusiasm)
  44. Asrumoksha (Tearfulness)
  45. Moha (Desire)
  46. Pralaya (Unconsciousness)
  47. Jadya (Inactivity)
  48. Nirveda (Disinterested, calmness)
  49. Sama (Peacefulness)

Some of these bhavas originate from Rati (Bodily Love) and according to Bhoja, Sringara is the basic and fundamental bhava. It will generate rasa and the rasa will generate some of the emotive states among the 49 bhavas. It is termed the ahankara-abhimana Sringara. The word ahankara means the feeling of individuality, that is ego, and abhimana means self-esteem. According to Bhoja the aesthetic element –aesthetic sweetness – the Sringara rasa, is generated from self-esteem and the sense of ego. From this concept of rasa, many other rasas can be derived at or generated. Out of the 49 bhavas listed, any may culminate in an aesthetic experience or be cultivated as an aesthetic experience. For the feeling of Rati (Love) there should be a basic cause, Ratyalanbana vibhava. Similarly for all rasas, there should be a definite cause and any may develop as a rasa, like anuraga (Love of youth) or another corresponding rasa.

The Sringara rasa which Bhoja considered as the only basic rasa (aesthetic sweetness) is related to the four basic human purposes in life according to Indian thought, namely the Purusharthas – DharmaArthaKama, and MokshaDharma is the sense of duty, artha is the pursuit of wealth, kama is desire and lust, and moksha, liberation from human bondage. In Sringaraprakasha, he writes that the Sringara between man and woman or any human being is nourished by the Purusharthas since they are the foundation of philosophical rootedness in man.

Many Indian aestheticians are of the opinion that only a person who is a sahrudaya or rasika can enjoy rasa or have an aesthetic experience. As far as Bhoja is concerned, the mind of a sahrudaya is not the only primary seat of rasa. He proposes the principle of ahankara (sense of ego) which underlie all feelings through which characters may imbibe various moods: the poet portrays them, the actor enacts them, and the rasika (viewer) is enabled to feel and enjoy them; the seat or aesthetic pleasure is the soul of a cultured person.

Not all persons are real sahrudayas or rasikas – they cannot enjoy the artistic experience or they may not be equipped for aesthetic enjoyment. Everybody cannot have the rasa of ahankara (the sense of ego) which helps aesthetic enjoyment or to experience Sringara or any other rasa. A person’s genius at birth, knowledge acquired from life, contact with persons like teachers and self-training help a person to become a sahrudaya or rasika.

Anandavardhana, a major aesthetician in the post-Bharata period, put forward the theory of suggestion (dhvani). According to him, the suggestive meaning of a word is the most important. There are three levels of meaning for a word: the sense gained when a word is heard – vachyartha; the intended meaning or lakshyartha; and the special meaning which is perceived by each reader, audience or spectator which is the vyangyartha (the suggested sense). We can relate the experience of rasa to the suggestive sense of a word or an artistic object. That meaning may be purely personal as well. The works of the great writer Kalidasain Sanskrit are cited by the aesthetician Anandvardhana to prove the presence and importance of suggestive meaning.

Abhinavagupta, the unique interpreter of the theory of Suggestion of Anandvardhana pointed out seven impediments which may obstruct aesthetic enjoyment. They are: ill equipment of a person to imbibe the rasa (Yogyathaviraham); the influence of a particular place and time (desakalaviseshavesam); indisposition caused by one’s own mental state – joy or sorrow (Nija Sukha Dukhaadi Vivasaibhava); lack of clarity (Asphutetva); ignorance concerning important and unimportant emotions (Apradhanata); uncertainty about the feeling (rasa or any object) conveyed (Samsaya Yogam); and the limitation of imagination related to the perception (ignorance about the story or character whether historic or newly generated) (Sambhavanaviraham). When all these obstacles are surpassed or removed, only then may the viewer have aesthetic pleasure in full measure.

According to Bhoja, the real enjoyment of an aesthetic pleasure is as premam – i.e. ultimate aesthetic enjoyment. This aesthetic pleasure is related to dharma, artha, kama, and moksha. Dharma, artha, kama, and moksha are human goals or purposes in life, as suggested by the great sages of ancient time. Aesthetic enjoyment or the concept of rasa is close to the philosophy of Samkhya or theory of causation. The one who enjoys, the sahrudaya or rasika, gains aesthetic pleasure from an artistic creation through a suitable medium such as literature, music, dance, action etc. Sage Bharata in the famous aphorism of rasa sutra, indicated that the blend of vibhava (the cause), anubhava (expression) and vyabhicharibhava (the unsteady or changing emotions) with sattvikabhavas, generates rasa as aesthetic enjoyment. For the generation of this aesthetic pleasure, all factors should mutually complement each other. Aesthetic enjoyment is related to the soul of a person though the causes are worldly objects. The poet who has an experience of an emotion (anubhavana), tries to convey his emotional enjoyment through his favourite medium – word, music, dance, painting or sculpture. The anubhava is thus transmitted to the preceptor or the sahrudaya for anukarana (to imitate). At this stage, the reader of the literary work or perceiving artist (either a dancer or musician or actor or a rasika) also have anubhava or aesthetic pleasure and as a mediator he/she transmits the feeling or emotion he/she enjoys to a third person. This is the third stage and it is anuvarthana where an artist of this century imbibes the emotions expressed by the master poet in some early period, and conveys this to the contemporary rasika or viewer.

For example, the love of Sakuntala or Dushyanta which was depicted by the poet Kalidasa thousand or more years ago, becomes an object of aesthetic enjoyment for a rasika or artist who lives in the 21st. century or future times. Any poet, musician, dancer, actor or any other artist can imbibe the emotion which was an artistic object of enjoyment. In ancient times, it was a personal object and for the poet it became an object of aesthetic experience. It is so for the viewer or rasika of any future period. The aesthetic sensibility and artistic form can be influenced by time and place. The content will be the same but the expression may differ. The value of aesthetic pleasure is at the highest level and hence it is the paramount experience (Sringara). According to Indian aesthetics a theory of rasa and rasa dhvani, aesthetic suggestion or suggestive sweetness, is the supreme level of aesthetic experience one can have from all artistic media.

The infusion of the bhakti element into Indian rhetorical discourse inspired by Anandavardhana’s writing, effected a dynamic tangent to the understanding of rasa. Unlike all previous theoreticians, he lent supervalence to santa rasa founding the emotion behind the rasa as the parasamvit or the prime universal consciousness. He argued that the bhava behind the santa rasa was the output of pure consciousness within the Self which he referred to as atman. This critical linking of consciousness via the atman to aesthetics within literary output was integral to the later validation of the role of santa rasa. Abhinavagupta draw on this and writes in Locana that true aesthetic enjoyment or bhoga can be equated to the joy of eternal bliss- the state of Brahman (2.4) and since the santa rasa was nurtured out of the parama-purushartha or the highest goals, it ought to be considered the most significant of all rasas, for this rasa alone would lead down the path to liberation (3.26).

To sum up, given below are some salient points about Indian aesthetic sensibility, as portrayed down the centuries in all fine arts including literature.

1. Sage Bharata, the pioneering author of the science of Natya, was the one who brought out the philosophy of aesthetic sensibility and artistic enjoyment. His aphorism, the well-known ‘rasa sutra’ (“vibhava anubhava vyabhichari samyogad rasanishapathih”), was analysed by many later-day aestheticians who gave various interpretations to each of the words in the aphorism. Anandavardhana shed new light on the theory of rasa with his concept of Dhvani or suggestive meaning in relation to any literary or artistic presentation. A refined mind’s sublime state of perception is the mental condition conducive to aesthetic enjoyment. Bhoja, the author of Sringaraprakasha, defines the state of enjoyment as something that fits any human emotion; the enjoyment is sringara rasa or ahankara-abhimana-Sringara which is closely allied with not merely his external, peripheral or even worldly self but also to the soul of the man, his spiritual and mental existence.

2. Aesthetic experience or the aesthetic sweetness, be it at the level of the original poet/artist, or at the level of an artist of a later period who imitates, and the one who perceives (rasika) it in any time and place, is an experience of a higher order. The artistic or aesthetic experience that the artistic creation affords determines its aesthetic value. According to Indian theoreticians, the aesthetic experience is sublime and close to a spiritual experience (Brahmanandaaswadasama) and unworldly (alaukikaanubhava). The artist, the poet and rasikas of all time and place are expected to gain the rasanubhava, which is a transcendent experience arising from artistic creation. The essential purpose of artistic creation is fulfilled successfully when an artist and a rasika or viewer reaches the same point of aesthetic enjoyment.

3. To God Almighty the greatest of all artists, the entire universe is a theatre, in which He stages his plays from time to time. The human artist also creates for universal appreciation, so that a well-equipped rasika or viewer can have a transcendent aesthetic experience, Brahamanada sahodaranubhava. In aesthetic experience, a kind of transformation of human emotions from a worldly plane to the level of the soul happens. According to Bhoja, it happens because of the ‘I’ consciousness, and he termed it ahankaraabhimanasringaraanubhava. A true artist has such an experience and the artist conveys the experience to a qualified viewer. The aesthetic sensibility of the artist, poet, and rasika or viewer represents the apotheosis ofall artistic activity. It results from the search for the ultimate truth and a unique pleasure in human life that is beyond worldliness or alaukika.


1.  The Hindu mythology lays down that there are four ages or periods of time. They are the ‘Krita Yuga’ or ‘Satya Yuga’ ( the fourth age); ‘Treta Yuga’ (the age of three parts); ‘Dwapara Yuga’ (the age of two parts); and ‘Kali Yuga’ (the age of conflict); the four together constituting a ‘Maha Yuga’ or Great Age.


Anandavardhana, and Abhinavagupta. The Dhvanyaloka of Anandavardhanacharya: With the Locana and Balapriya Commentaries by Abhinavagupta and Ramasiaraka. Ed. PattabhiramaSastriPudukottaiNattar. Varanasi: Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office, 1940. Print.

Bharata. The Natyasastra; a Treatise on Ancient Hindu Dramaturgy and Histrionics. Trans. Manomohan Ghosh. Calcutta: Asiatic Society, 1961. Print.

Bhojaraja. Sringaraprakasa of Bhojadeva. Madras: n.p., 1926. Print.

Sharma, V. S. Rasa. Trivandrum: 2015.

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