Musings on Indian Aesthetics

This article is part 1 of 2 in the series Musings on Indian Aesthetics

नित्यौचित्यकरावलम्बरुचिरो वक्रोक्तिवर्तिस्तुतो


धन्यानां सहृदां हृदि प्रतिपदं काव्यार्थमात्मोपमं

वाणीप्राणसमीरणो विजयते विद्याप्रदीपः कवेः॥


Indian Aesthetics, mostly codified in Sanskrit, is a fine representative of original thoughts on Art Experience. Every province of India, through the brilliant brains of its soil, has contributed to this field.  It is a misrepresentation, to say the least, to proclaim that it is just ‘Sanskrit’ Aesthetics and not ‘Indian’ in the inclusive sense. Daṇḍī, Appayyadīkṣita, and Śāradātanaya from Tamil Nadu; Bhoja, Dhanañjaya, and Rājaśekhara from Madhya Pradesh; Ajitasena, Sāyaṇa, and Veṅkāmātya from Karnataka; Vidyānātha, Viśveśvara, Mallinātha and others from Andhra; the unknown author of Naṭāṅkuṣa, Uttuṅgodaya, and Rāmapāṇivāda from Kerala; Kavikarṇapūra, Rūpagosvāmī, and Madhusūdanasarasvatī from Bengal; Hemādri and Vopadeva from Maharashtra; Vidyādhara from Orissa; Hemacandra, Guṇacandra, and Rāmacandra from Gujarat; Śaṅkaramiśra from Bihar; Jagannātha, Bhānudatta, Allarāja, Nāgeśabhaṭṭa and others from Uttar Pradesh are but a few luminaries from various provinces of India, apart from a host of great writers such as Bhāmaha, Vāmana, Rudraṭa, Udbhaṭa, Lollaṭa, Ānandavardhana, Abhnivagupta, Mahimabhaṭṭa, Kuntaka, Kṣemendra, Mammaṭa, Ruyyaka, and Jayaratha from Kashmir, who disprove the clever myth that Indian Aesthetics was never a pan-Indian science. More than one thousand original works in Sanskrit authored by over five hundred writers relate to the science of art appreciation. Masters such as Bharata, Vāmana, Rudraṭa, Ānandavardhana, Kuntaka, Bhoja, Kṣemendra, Hemacandra, Mahimabhaṭṭa, Rājaśekhara, and Mammaṭa were not tied down by a bias for Sanskrit. They freely quote poems from various regional languages of India and make an objective assessment of the same. Some of these writers even go to the extent of declaring that a knowledge of regional languages is an essential prerequisite to becoming a Sanskrit poet.

Not caring to know the intrinsic cultural integrity of Indian Aesthetics, some critics have ridiculed it as a product of Brahmin hegemony. Nothing can be further from the truth, for several luminaries of this field are from various communities and religious sects, covering a wide social and political cross-section. Apart from adherents to Veda and Vedānta, there is Bhāmaha (mostly a Buddhist), Abhinavagupta, Jayaratha, and Kṣemendra (well-informed about Buddhism and quite sympathetic to it), Hemacandra, Vāgbhaṭa, Sāgaranandī, Ajitasena, Guṇacandra, Rāmacandra (Jains) and śūdras such as Bhoja, Gopendra, Siṃhabhūpāla, Vemāreḍḍi, and Nañjarāja.

Indian Aesthetics has a proud say even in terms of conceptual variety. Since Alaṅkāraśāstra is the youngest among Indian sciences, it had the privilege of absorbing the wisdom of numerous schools of Indian philosophy. Thus the materialism of Nyāya and Mīmāṃsā, unique psychic realism of Sāṅkhya and Yoga, moralistic realism of Jaina, transcendental realism of Śaiva and Vaiṣṇava, absolute idealism of Bauddha and Vedānta have enriched the resourcefulness of Indian Aesthetics. As far as artistic expression is concerned, various tenets of Vyākaraṇa, Nyāya, Mīmāṃsā, Sāṅkhya, and Vedānta have made a great contribution. Indian Aesthetics is healthier than all current trends in art appreciation. Literary criticism in India was an autonomous independent science that never depended on any extraneous authority. It unvaryingly transcended the doctrines of religion and emerged with rational findings that have experiential accountability.

Some critics are of the opinion that Indian Aesthetics, with its ‘age-old’ canons of rasa, dhvani, aucitya, and vakrokti has no significant role to play in the modern and post-modern world of literary criticism. This is an unfound objection. Every theory of art appreciation connected with expression (vakrokti), suggestion (dhvani), impression (aucitya) and experience (rasa)—developed by any school of thought at any point in time—finds its philosophical and applicational completion in the canons of Indian Aesthetics. The champions of modernity are preoccupied with socio-political and geo-cultural implications of Aesthetics and care little for pure art. However, these issues can be suitably answered by understanding the concept of aucitya. Pure art, with its unshakeable fidelity to human emotions, goes beyond the constraints of space and time. That said, the core concepts of Aesthetics have to be efficiently employed both in the production and appreciation of art. This is akin to using a medicinal herb to cure a malady in different places and time zones, only with a different packaging each time. Of course, even the anupāna (non-medicinal prescriptions) can be suitably changed as per the instructions of the doctor.

Modern academic discussions concerning Indian Aesthetics are largely confined to treatises on Poetics. Works on other art forms—such as music, dance, sculpture, theatre, and painting—are rarely studied. Consequently, a common aesthetic theory for all art forms is not conceptualised. However, the canon of rasa that is well-established in the Indian aesthetic tradition is equally applicable across all art forms! Traditional masters of Indian Aesthetics were aware of this and worked towards its realization. Traditional Indian scholars of recent times and their western academic counterparts miss this point. Scholars studying the chapters of rasa and bhāva in Nāṭyaśāstra in traditional pāṭhaśālas are never exposed to music, dance, painting, and sculpture, for these subjects are considered irrelevant to the study of Poetics. Their understanding, at best, is bookish. Western indologists hardly encourage integrated studies. They consider non-literary art forms under the labels of ethno-musicology, iconography, theatre etc. Western academia, with its centuries-old existence, has not produced a single scholar in the build of Dr. V. Raghavan, who was equally at home not just with literature, but also music, dance, and theatre. Studies on Indian Aesthetics today are connected with experimental sciences such as psychology, psychiatry, and behavioural studies. They do not command a great significance as far as Aesthetics is concerned, for it is an experiential science similar to Philosophy. A better alternative would be to sharpen the sensibility of art experience by getting acquainted with the nuances of various art forms.  Seen in this light, the dire need of the hour is to re-establish the connectivity between treatises on various art forms by studying them on par with the treatises on Poetics. A careful study of the following works will prove beneficial in this regard: Saṅgītaratnākara, Mānasollāsa, Nṛttaratnāvalī, Caturdaṇḍīprakāśikā, Saṅgītarāja, Mānasāra, Aparājitapṛchchā, Rūpamaṇḍana, and Citrasūtra. Works on dramaturgy such as Nāṭalakalakṣaṇaratnakoṣa, Nāṭyadarpaṇa, Rasārṇavasudhākara, and Bhāvaprakāśa—studied scantily of late—should be pursued with greater rigour. It is imperative that researchers working on Poetics should try their hand at versification—always adhering to rasa—in the classical Sanskrit diction. Researchers on music and dance invariably have a fair understanding of their media, for arm-chair critics are not respected in either field. So it is all the more important for people pursuing Poetics to raise their standards, at least to the level of their fellow scholars working on kindred art forms.

In this background, a few points of Indian Aesthetics may be noted.


Rasa, the bedrock of Indian Aesthetics, cannot be realized if we are carried away by non-aesthetic and therefore misplaced ideologies like those of religion, politics, and economics. However, once the significance of rasa is understood and its pulse realized, all these ideologies automatically find their level.

Aucitya is mostly a cultural connotation that makes art all-inclusive. Dhvani takes care of symbolism, imagery, and suggestion. All forms of metaphor and imagery can be covered in one of the three categories of dhvani viz., vastu, alaṅkāra, and rasādi. While the first and second categories help us to understand and analyse the structure of poetry, the third category enables us to explore the core of art – the interplay of emotions.

Vakrokti, a wonderful concept of Indian Aesthetics, is capable of performing everything that dhvani does to a great extent; along with this, it also takes care of subtleties at the structural level. The versatility of vakrokti can be realized by looking into its categories such as upacāra-vakratā, and saṃvṛti-vakratā, along with manifold śabdālaṅkāras and arthālaṅkāras (figures of sound and sense).

These four canons—rasa, dhvani, aucitya, and vakrokti—enable us to analyse emotional and intellectual activities that produce a work of art. Needless to say, they also bestow upon us the joy of art experience.

The existence of varied, seemingly divergent theories does not bring down the value of Indian Aesthetics, for the grand aesthetic synthesis expounded by Ānandavardhana and Abhinavagupta is its highest watermark. The greatest achievement of Indian Aesthetics lies perhaps in its teaching us the method to appreciate classics. This is an all-time need as classics are always new and are oft-sought sources of joy. Let us understand this with the help of an example: Kālidāsa, who existed many centuries before the age of surcharged activity in Aesthetics, was invariably held high by all schools of Indian literary criticism. This happened over a wide span of space and time. The champions of the alaṅkāra school held him in high esteem as they thought upamā is the most fundamental and foremost among figures of speech, and Kālidāsa is peerless in its employment. To them, simile became synonymous with Kālidāsa – upamā kālidāsasya. The proponents of the guṇa and rīti (mārga) schools opined that vaidarbha is the best among the styles; here, too, Kālidāsa reigned supreme. He was termed vaidarbhagirāṃ vāsaḥ.’ Theorists belonging to the vakrokti school argued that oblique expression is the very breath of poetry; they had to prove their point by basing their arguments on Kālidāsa’s works. (Kuntaka cites Kālidāsa’s poems profusely.) The school of aucitya went to the extent of prescribing the complete works of Kālidāsa as requisite reading material for all prospective poets! Kṣemendra famously said, paṭhet samastān kila kālidāsakṛtaprabandhān.’ The rasa-dhvani school openly acknowledged Kālidāsa's mastery. In the words of Ānandavardhana, kālidāsaprabhṛtayo dvitrāḥ pañcaṣā vā mahākavaya iti gaṇyante.’ Kālidāsa is also eulogised as raseśvaraḥ.

This is also true of poets such as Vyāsa, Vālmīki, Bāṇa, Śūdraka, and Bhavabhūti. Even a Prākṛta poet like Hāla Sātavāhana or a lyrical poet like Amaru justly enjoyed glowing tributes by aestheticians. In the light of Indian literary theory, non-Indian poets such as Homer, Shakespeare, Dante, Firdausi, Kahlil Gibran, Omar Khayyam, Dostoevsky, Keats, Shelley and many others can be effectively evaluated and declared as masters of their art. This naturally points at the universality of the fundamental concepts of Indian Aesthetics - rasa, dhvani, aucitya, and vakrokti.

Alluding to Ādi Śaṅkarācārya's exposition of absolute and temporal realities, we can say that the vastutantra aspect of Indian Aesthetics, which is intact in traditional Indian literary criticism, can be safely relied upon at all times, and the kartṛtantra aspect of it can be modelled as per the demands of space and time. The shortcomings of modern schools of literary criticism that ridicule Indian Aesthetics are too many to discuss. An ever-growing list of ‘theories’ that mostly stems from the whims and fancies of ‘professional researchers’ have little bearing on the universal, absolute, nonqualified experience, sāmānya-svaparyāpta-nirviśeṣānubhava i.e., vastutantra. These theories fall into the category of kartṛtantra, which, if need be, can be easily accommodated within the frame of vastutantra.

The material world, lokasattā, is essentially governed by the theory of causation i.e., kārya-kāraṇa-sambandha, while the emotional world, kāvyasattā, follows the pattern of the objective correlative, vibhāvānubhāva-sambandha. The former works in the realm of probability while the latter functions in the domain of possibility. Probability is predicted with the help of mathematical formulations; but possibility, which is meta-logical in nature, cannot be predicted in the same manner. This is the fundamental difference between science and art, śāstra and kalā. Indian Aesthetics was never blind to this and so it based its theories upon possibility. A strong adherence to ‘possibility’ in art ensures the development of a fine classical medium that can give expression to universal emotions and withstand the test of time. This reduces the expectation from the material world to a great extent.




Dr. Ganesh is a 'shatavadhani' and one of India’s foremost Sanskrit poets and scholars. He writes and lectures extensively on various subjects pertaining to India and Indian cultural heritage. He is a master of the ancient art of avadhana and is credited with reviving the art in Kannada. He is a recipient of the Badarayana-Vyasa Puraskar from the President of India for his contribution to the Sanskrit language.

Prekshaa Publications

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