In reflexion on one of the most mysterious and interesting concepts of Abhinavagupta’s aesthetics, the shanta rasa, I am first reminded of one of the most ubiquitous truisms of contemporary culture: that nothing is as old as last season’s best sellers. Even things that are genuinely old can be recycled as retro or provide inspiration, while that which has most recently passed the myopic gaze of current fashion is truly transitioned to oblivion.
In our ever accelerating world where fashions seem to be outdated almost as soon as they are released as well as trends that seem to attempt to erase themselves as soon as they are adopted by the general population, in this age the most polluted by marketing in history, what effects does this have on the arts themselves? In the ever accelerating dizzying array of cultural products and the ever narrowing attention spans of the public, where is there room left for historical and cultural perspectives? In our never ending increasing rush to keep up with the latest best seller, new artists and new writers, films and music, in order to appear up to date on current pop culture, where is there time left to really savor or enjoy the works themselves, and does this seem more like the definition of cultural samsara rather than enjoyment? One concept that obliterates the need for this feverish rush is Gertrude Stein’s statement in Everybody’s Autobiography, “that no matter how much writing or art that is being produced at any one time, there always seems to be roughly the same small amount of masterpieces”.
As the reader/ spectator has become reduced to a consumer in contemporary culture, are there any other models to counter this escalating downward spiral of passive consumption? I have felt for many years since my exposure to it indirectly through studying Trika philosophy and scripture that Bharata’s rasa theory is one of Humanity’s most interesting, positive and enjoyable aesthetic models that is still easily applicable to contemporary culture while having universal application to the fullest variety of world cultures without getting overwhelmed in theoretical discourse or debate. It also has distinctly yogic implications for the reader/ spectator, especially in Abhinavagupta’s commentary and contributions. I thoroughly recommend the book Rasa in Aesthetics: An Application of Rasa Theory to Modern Western Literature by Priyadarshi Patnaik as a good introduction to the theoretic background surrounding shanta rasa, especially because of the author’s applications to contemporary material outside the confines of Indian Classical art, also the insightful work of Shuntar Visuvilingam to make the more complex technical aspects of Abhinavagupta’s aesthetics more accessible to the general public.
As we are increasingly inundated by floods of indiscriminate cultural products and artifacts, especially as the digital revolution has now affected the greatest ease of access and publication of all the arts not to mention self expression and communication, how do we stay afloat, how do we process this ever increasing amounts of cultural production? Most people tend to rely more and more on the Noah’s Ark of recommendations and short lists by “experts” , best sellers and most popular lists without sifting through and actually engaging with other items that don’t make it on those most popular lists, without also taking into consideration cultural biases or marketing decisions. Whenever I meet someone from another country, I first ask who their favorite writers and artists are from their own country since relatively few still make it into publication, translation and distribution into the U.S. because of publishing decisions based on those marketing second guesses.
Conversely and also possibly affected by the pervading information explosion that has in many ways obliterated the hierarchies of cultural products and has flattened the critical aspects of culture to the facile false dichotomy of “Like” and “Not Like” through the shunya of cyberspace. There have been many positive applications of digitization for historical cultural works and preservation that has revolutionized archives and rare documents, films and almost all cultural products. Yet there is equal concern over the long term abilities to archive this increasing “cloud” of digital data in an age that takes for granted a certain expectation for built in obsolescence. And ultimately how much has this technical/ commercial phenomenon affected our attitudes about culture itself?
I also make it a point whenever I have the opportunity to talk to younger people what they believe in about culture and I like to ask them the strange question if they believe in masterpieces or not, which I invariably have to explain the question to them, and ask if they believe in cultural products that can survive the test of time and that will remain valid, interesting and engaging for all time. I think it is especially important to ask that question and I do believe that it sets a good backdrop to discuss Abhinavagupta’s notion of the shanta rasa.
While I do not wish to use this brief space to get entangled in the intricate technical terminologies and vocabularies of the rasa theory of Bharata and Abhinavagupta, while referring to other scholars who are more competent to wade through, even if torturously so, the labyrinths of speculative thought of one of the world’s most uniquely detailed theories on the precise causes of the pleasures of the aesthetic experience, I hope to suggest some of my own insights surrounding the shanta rasa as one of the most difficult aesthetic experiences to create and sustain and of its connections to aesthetic rapture or ecstasy. To use one of Abhina’s characteristic and cavalier dismissive phrases in his commentaries, “enough of such prolixity!” Using another of his startling metaphoric phrases, I would rather use the “rule of crows and coconuts” referring to their respective randomness of appearing or falling to meditate on aspects of art and culture that are impossible to market or sell.
The concept of the “masterpiece” is interesting to compare for me because it still is the primary surviving concept in English that preserves the sense of the spiritual or the mystical in art that goes beyond subject matter. I mention masterpieces in the way Gertrude Stein used the term in one of her last lectures, “What Are Masterpieces and Why Are There So Few of Them”. Few contemporary authors have investigated the phenomenon of authentic creativity in writing, especially as it relates to identity and memory as Stein and this lecture was written after a long period of her writing and meditating on identity and creativity after she had a several year period when she was no longer able to write which came interestingly after becoming a best-selling author.
Stein does not define the masterpiece in technical or formalist terms at all and in fact also states that subject matter is irrelevant nor is even the verisimilitude of the psychology of the characters to daily life. Abhina’s Abhinabharati takes a similar radical stance to discussing the rasa theory of Bharata’s Natya Shastra: he disengages the exclusively technical causal factors of the rasa experience in the competing theories of his contemporaries while he revises the traditional number of recognized rasa to include a special rasa, for him a sort of meta-rasa, and he places more emphasis on the psychological aspects of what happens to a sensitive and aware ideal reader/ spectator. He also reemphasizes and underscores the distinctly spiritual and mystical aims originally inherent in Bharata’s text, while taking a characteristically tantric approach of uniting pleasure with realization.
The Natya Shastra is already couched in religious myth and metaphor of the invention of drama as a sort of Hindu “Noah’s Ark” where theatre is invented to distract while instructing mankind away from their degraded ways. Abhina is quick to dismiss the didactic part of that purpose and even along with communication, as he ultimately upholds the main purpose of the arts is pleasure, although of an unworldly and special distinct sort. He points out Bharata’s original mention of Siva’s dance which is out of an overflow of pure ecstasy and needs no purpose.
Abhinavagupta shares Stein’s search for something deeper than mere technical and formal characteristics in peak aesthetic experiences, and he shares Stein’s implicit stance that the masterpiece or the work that successfully produces “rasa free of impediment” cannot rely on trickery or artificial manipulation of any kind to authentically achieve its effects on the reader/ spectator, but should rely on the clear intuitive “genius” (pratibha) of the artist. Stein’s terse and enigmatic expressions suggest a sort of mystic apprehension when the spectator recognizes a masterpiece that is not without the shudder or frisson or subtle sense of horror or awe at contact with the supernatural. While she lists characteristic clues such as “they hold themselves together” or “they may have emotion or identity as subject matter, but they are written without a sense of emotion or identity”, the moment of recognition is like one of her favorite metaphors in literature, the moment in Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, when he discovers the footprints of Friday on what he thought was a deserted island, as the spectator realizes a sense that there is something more than just the sum of the work’s constituent parts.
This is a much more comparable sense of the implications of Abhina’s shanta rasa, especially in its consonance with his use of the term camatkara in his commentary rather than having any of our current facile notions of “Zen-like” peace, Abhina goes much deeper into the supernatural sense of recognition and places what scholars have called his “tantric open secret” of the Self at the very heart of the rasa experience much like the Trika notion of the Fourth State of non-dualistic consciousness that underlies all three of the dualistic ordinary states and which is primarily viewed in heightened states or in chinks or junctures or transitions of the ordinarily perceived seamless continuity of our ordinary states of mind.
Stein’s haunting meditation on what makes up a masterpiece and why it is so difficult to create, ultimately point to the recognitions of the authentically creative artist: that while he or she is creating “there is no sense of time nor identity in that moment nor even memory”. The difficulty for Stein is that “since everything in daily life is about time, identity and memory, to create dealing with subjects that involve these contingencies yet to create in a state as if they did not exist”, since “masterpieces are not in relation”. This corresponds with what happens to the yogi, mentioned in the fifteenth verse of the first section of the Siva Sutras, who merges his mind in the contemplation of the Self in the Heart loses all notions of identity based on external contingencies and views his unobstructed original nature.
While Stein ultimately defines the “masterpiece” essentially from the perspective of the creative artist who is able to recognize the effects of the creative yogic states of other artists, Abhinavagupta shifts his focus from the artist to primarily that of the spectator/ reader. Yet it is most likely that Abhina would have upheld the notion of masterpieces because of his recognition of the artist’s intuitive genius to be able to effectively embed rasa in a work of art, and he more than likely would not have agreed with any radical post-modern dismissals of lasting aesthetic value with notions such as “the death of the author”, yet he does engage in some subtle deconstructive strategies of his own by shifting away from objectivist preservation of the accepted canon to a yogic discipline of the reader/ spectator who “re-creates” the effective work of art anew through the engagement with his own receptive yet focused awareness.
Abhina underscores the importance of the “ideal reader/ spectator” or sahydaya in the equation of the ultimate meaning and purpose of art as much as in the artist or of the actual work of art itself which may imply a form of his own de-objectifying “death of the author” in the elevation of art appreciation to a form of contemplative Self-realization. He revises the creation myth of the arts of Bharata to subsume his original didactic ethical instruction purpose into a yogic form of refined enjoyment that leads to a potential for a gnostically ontological realization and transformation. In other words, he proposes an aesthetic praxis that allows the reader/ spectator to refine his own self-awareness and deepening refinement of appreciation and aesthetic pleasure in artistic masterpieces, but it also suggests that in the process he or she develops a foretaste of the experience of himself becoming a masterpiece herself in the practice of recognizing mystical states of the loss of space and time of camatkara which becomes permanent or ultimate in Self realization.
Just as Abhina insists that the pleasure that comes from art or drama is essentially “alaukika” or otherworldly because it involves reactions to material or subject matter that is atypical of reactions in everyday life, this is equally true of communication. While it is certainly true that it is one of the goals of the artist to communicate with the reader/ spectator, Abhina maintains that aesthetic and poetic experience is most effectively conveyed indirectly through oblique strategies of suggestion as delineated in his commentary the Locana on Anandavardhana’s work on the theory of dhvani or the suggestive power of poetic language. Thus communication in aesthetic experience for Abhinavagupta is equally “alaukika” and is not so much concerned with the conveyance of meaning, as the facilitation of a uniquely alchemical experience where ordinary or even distasteful subjects can be transformed into startling aesthetically pleasurable states that can be savored by the reader/ spectator.
The Natya Shastra and the Abhinavabharati are effectively the most thorough and penetrating speculation and analysis on aesthetic pleasure and its cause and purpose in my estimation. Yet Abhina takes the heart of the aesthetically pleasurable experience of rasa and further impenetrates it with mystical significance especially in his addition and unique emphasis on the shanta rasa and camatkara, which is sometimes translated as aesthetic rapture. Thus he shifts the focus from an exclusively technical and thematic analysis and connoisseurship of the art object to an implied connoisseurship of consequent aesthetically pleasurable states of mind of the spectator/ reader that is contemplatively engaged with the experience of the art object as a legitimate form of yogic spiritual practice. After going through thematically each of the other eight rasas as possible causes of the shanta rasa, Abhina reveals that the underlying conducive experiential state for the shanta rasa is none other than the underlying backdrop of the Self, of which he describes in another work as “omnipresently near yet as ignored as leaves in the street while passing by in a chariot”. He also recognizes that themes involving or conducive to spiritual knowledge such as detachment or the yogic yamas and niyamas can facilitate the portrayal and realization of the shanta rasa, he reveals shanta rasa as the underlying rasa and permanent background, since it is also an absence of the other emotional states, which all the other rasa unfold from and realize their own transient states through eventually enfolding back into shanta. He uses imagery of shanta as the Self as a wall on which all of the action of life are portrayed much like Javanese shadow puppet theatre that recognizes the special transcendent significance of the empty screen onto which from the puppets behind.
Patnaik in Rasa in Aesthetics deftly brings together the works of the world’s most renowned scholars on the aesthetic theories of Abhina and helps to clarify the many complex constituent factors in the rasa phenomenon. He is able to demonstrate the necessity for Abhina and Bharata of rasa to be embedded in the work of art in an unmanifest state yet Abhina insists on stringent yogic discipline for the ideal reader to be able to willfully suspend disbelief at the outset and any limiting personal projections and expectations including the desire for entertainment as well as any egoistic preconceptions or identifications with the work while being as open as possible to responding or resonating completely to the unfoldment of the work.
Rasa as metaphor has a deeply embodied and process oriented depiction in the culinary arts mentioned by Bharata, as the gourmand savors the experience of the various sub and side flavors that serve to enhance the dominant flavor. Patnaik traces the sequence of elements conducive to rasa (much like the purification of the elements of the practitioner of tantric ritual where each of the elements is dissolved upwards into its preceding element in a hierarchy of mystical descent) in the spectator from the ordinary sense of time and space of the viewer that is dissolved by the revelation of the work’s depictions of limiting factors as its own fictional time, space and identities, as the viewer becomes drawn into the drama of the unfolding display and response of the various moods, that likewise accentuate the revelation of the dominant mood that serves to facilitate the generalization of the emotion in the spectator, as the state of sadharanikarana, as they become further absorbed into the work and the unobstructed response of the viewer and the accumulations of the transient moods serve to further reveal the dominant mood, as Abhina states in a beautiful passage how the shanta rasa is the most stable rasa while all other eight rasas only serve to decorate and ultimately reveal the underlying state of shanta as the “white thread that is only adorned but not obscured by the glittering multi-hued gems that are strung together on it”. This accumulation facilitates an eventual breakthrough in the viewer of rasa which is the full essence of the dominant mood of the work fully savored by the spectator as Abhina writes that “all rasas lead to and are of the nature of Bliss”. Yet rasa is not a mechanical consequence and depends as much on the full awareness of the spectator as on the artist and involves the ability to fully resonate and identify with the experience of the imaginative aspects of the work so that almost yogically, the spectator’s ego limitations are transcended. Abhina likens rasa to a “wondrously self-created flower” as it cannot be willed just as Self realization and is beyond the sum of the mere aspects of the work of art. This bliss causes the dissolution of the limiting factors of the spectator which cancels out in turn the limiting factors of time and space of the work and the spectator becomes immersed in the “stream of consciousness without obstacles or satiation” of camatkara.
Thus we see the correlation of Stein’s preoccupations with the timelessness in masterpieces and Abhinavagupta’s shanta rasa with his thoughts surpassing hers into a fully immersive yoga of aesthetically refined contemplative bliss and ecstasy. What are the possible applications of his aesthetics? Certainly I would recommend it for a practice of a more meditative arts appreciation practice as well as a more authentic critical discipline that counters excessive cerebrality and intellectual and personal projections as well as serving as an enjoyable means of stress reduction and means of improvement in concentration while encouraging more public promotion and participation of the arts along with adding a contemplative dimension to popular arts such as film or music that can add more critical recognition and insight into genres, not to mention an appreciation for what is not new and what makes older works of art still valid and alive in the present.
It is my belief that it is not mistaken to see similarities in Abhinavagupta’s Abhinabharati and in tantric ritual especially the more scandalous Kaula rites that utilize pleasure, especially as Abhina was to catalog the majority of tantric streams of thought and list an exhaustive possibility of rituals in his Tantraloka. Aside from this, Abhinavagupta was concerned enough with the aesthetic paradox of the strange alchemy of transmuting the pain arising from ordinary situations in life into spiritual bliss, to write about it strictly outside of the aesthetic paradigm in his Paratrishika-Vivarana, through applying the practice of the dharani and mudra of khechari samata which implies the use of a wholly non-aesthetic method of generalization of consciousness. Nonetheless, Miranda Shaw’s Passionate Enlightenment contains a valuable translation of practice instructions for the tantric sexual ritual by an 8th century yogini, Sahajayoginicinta, although Buddhist yet possibly influencing Kaula rites that is not concerned with the utilization of bodily fluids as much as using pleasure as a meditation device utilizing early tantric central channel physiology that ultimately seeks mystic return to one’s original nature of bliss that much like the Abhinabharati utilizes self conscious aesthetic virtualization of the experience to be able to dissolve the limiting identities of the participants in order to achieve unobstructed absorption in bliss that lies hidden within the heart.
I am reminded of Bernini’s Baroque statuary masterpiece, St. Teresa in Ecstacy. Echoing Guillio Camillo’s Neo-Platonic and Hermetic Renaissance work The Theatre of [Consciousness] where the mystic rises to reclaim his Divine nature from the utilization of nature through “art”, whose esoteric Cabalistic hierarchies of correspondences in the model of ultimate theatre Abhinavagupta would have been comfortable with as he utilized his own cabalism of language representing mystic return (from the scattered dualistic and limited state represented by the diversity of the Third Person, to the empowered state of glimpsing unity in diversity through the relational Second Person to the ultimate recollection of unity of one’s original nature in the First Person), and is echoed in the verses of the first Trika scripture the Siva Sutras- “The Self is the Actor”, “The stage is the inner Self” and “The spectators are the senses”, the display of St. Teresa’s transforming vision is depicted theatrically as a stage with spectators in their boxes, the emotionally charged theme of her vision that suggests the metaphor of human union with union with the Divine that is echoed in most of the world’s various mystical traditions is displayed with a strange timeless dynamic stasis and quietude, the folds of her habit billowing as she is lifted in levitation, her posture that of almost the yogic asana of camatkara, the vision from the passages in her Autobiography unfolds from her almost lurid description of being pierced repeated through the heart with a flaming arrow by an angel in an ecstasy that is delineated by one of the most vividly displayed manifestations of unobstructed camatkara.
© Paul Smith, 2014
The Ecstasy of Saint Teresa (alternatively Saint Teresa in Ecstasy; in Italian: L’Estasi di Santa Teresa or Santa Teresa in estasi) is the central sculptural group in white marble in the Cornaro Chapel, Santa Maria della Vittoria, Rome. It was designed and completed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini.
Images Courtesy of:
Books and bestsellers – Bridget Zhang
Meadow – by Genevie Fernandes