Musings on Indian Aesthetics: Contributions of Masters

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


Similar to the unified theory of matter and energy, which modern science concerns itself with, we have a unified theory of rasa. The following is its mathematical representation:

R = (V×D)au     OR     R = V × an ʃ au D

(R = Rasa, V = Vakrokti, D = Dhvani, au = Aucitya, and an = Anaucitya)

[The equation is meant only as a mathematical dṛṣṭānta. It should not be interpreted literally.]

This is applicable to all visual, plastic, performing, and literary arts irrespective of their nature – folk, classical, and modern.

Unlike literary theories found elsewhere, Indian Aesthetics bridges matter and spirit through its unique way of looking at art and its experience: the reality of the world and the spiritual reality of the Self are integrated by means of aesthetic reality (i.e. āhāryasattā or ākalpasattā). In the same way, material enjoyment and spiritual enjoyment are bridged through transcendental aesthetic enjoyment (brahmāsvāda-sahodara).

People interested in these topics can go through the works of masters such as Lollaṭa, Śaṅkuka, Bhaṭṭa Nāyaka, Kuntaka, Mahima, Dhanika, Dhanañjaya, Bhoja, Guṇacandra, and Rāmacandra. Each one of them is a realist in his own right. The group of idealists includes but is not restricted to luminaries such as Ānandavardhana, Abhinavagupta, Mammaṭa, Madhusūdanasarasvatī, Rūpagosvāmi, Vopadeva, Hemādri, Kavikarṇapūra, Bhānudatta, Viśvanātha, and Jagannātha. We see the zenith of idealism in Jagannātha and Madhusūdanasarasvatī. The form and content / expression and experience / structure and substance of art are brilliantly expounded by these writers.

Apart from propounding lofty theories on expression and experience of art that give an insight into the process of cognition, Indian Aesthetics discusses a few peripheral issues at length: poetic virtues and blemishes (guṇa-doṣa-prakaraṇa), training for creative writers (kaviśikṣā-prakaraṇa), and the resourcefulness of a poet (vyutpatti-prakaraṇa). This is natural to the classical Indian approach to life, for even the most idealistic school of philosophy—Advaita as propounded Śaṅkara Bhagavatpāda—does not ignore practical considerations such as adhikāribheda (hierarchy in the mind-set and competence of seekers) and sādhanopāya-vaividhya (variety of approaches in equipping oneself in the path of self-realization). Thus we see a wonderful combination of philosophical profundity and worldly proficiency.

At no time did Indian Aesthetics ignore the so-called ‘folk’ arts. Creating a rift between the classical and folk is unwarranted. Every work on Indian art—including music, dance, theatre, painting, and sculpture—written in Sanskrit is inclusive and has taken great pains to explain and analyse the numerous varieties of folk and classical art forms. As far as literature is concerned, the works of masters such as Ānandavardhana, Abhinavagupta, Kṣemendra, Rājaśekhara, Bhoja, Hemacandra, Mammaṭa, Ruyyaka, and Śāradātanaya set a great lot of emphasis on prākṛtagāthās, uparūpakas, ṛtucaryās, and geyaprabandhas, which are 'folk' configurations. The same is also true of Prosody. Indian Aesthetics, with its singular emphasis on rasa, effectively drives home the interconnectedness of all art forms.

Vyañjanāvyāpāra is essentially non-material and hence it has a great bearing on the drive against communism, rank consumerism, capitalism, individualism, and utilitarianism. No other theory of art, apart from rasa-dhvani, has had a better objective say on these issues. The innate śamabhāva in every rasa that leads to the enjoyment of art is a befitting answer to all enquires that focus on the aforesaid issues. Rasānanda is nothing but detached action or nirlepa-karma or karma-yoga. To achieve this, śama is the only means. While the world of religion is constrained by faith and pseudo-equality, that of science takes a neutral stand with regard to values. In such a scenario of the modern world, rasa-dhvani proposes a condition of dynamic equilibrium.

Kavisamaya (poetic convention that doubles up as a meta-language) is a great concept that merits deep study along with alaṅkāras, especially arthālaṅkāras. It involves the study of semantics and linguistic psychology. If figures of speech are analysed in the light of insights provided by Ānandavardhana and Kuntaka, we can glean numerous oblique ways of expression that are charged with idiomatic vigour. Doubtless, this will be a great resource to the art fraternity. Modern poetry, in the name of reaching out to the masses, operates at two extremes – baldness of form (vārtāprāya) and absurdity of content (prahelikāprāya). Indian Aesthetics, understood in the light of rasādidhvani, guṇībhūtavyaṅgya, and vakrokti, is the only way out of this mess.

Indian Aesthetics concerns itself with the contemporaneity of emotions as against its western counterpart, which bases itself on the contemporaneity of events. This makes Indian Aesthetics  material-independent. It is, in this sense, eco-friendly and bio-sustainable. This can also be contemplated upon from the point of view of entropy, the measure of disorder.


The works of M Hiriyanna, Ananda K Coomaraswamy, V Raghavan, and K Krishnamoorthy—writers on Indian Aesthetics and pioneers of the Indian renaissance movement—are great sources to dispel confusions with regard to Aesthetics. A brief overview of their contribution to the field is given below.

M. Hiriyanna was the first person to draw the attention of the scholarly world to the fundamental difference between the poetry of the Vedas and that of the epics. Commenting on why Rāmāyaṇa came to be known as the ādikāvya, he said: It is here, for the first time, the focus shifted from the divine (deva) to human (jīva). When the whole world was blindly following Max Mueller’s statement that “there is nothing like the concept of beautiful in the Hindu mind,” Hiriyanna raised his voice against this in the most constructive way. He propounded the nature of beauty as a value, and continued his study on the subject for over fifty years. The need of the hour, then, was a logically sound, philosophically rooted explanation of the Indian conception of beauty, worded in the modern idiom. Hiriyanna did just that. No such work was either thought of or attempted previously. Hiriyanna, unlike his contemporaries such as Ganganath Jha, P V Kane, S K De, Kuppuswami Sastri, and S N Dasgupta, focussed only on the substance of Indian Aesthetics—by explicating the concepts of rasa and dhvani—and did not dwell at length on peripheral issues. His exposition of realistic and idealistic schools of aesthetics is superb. Regarding art and morality, he conclusively stated that art essentially has a moral view but not a moral goal. Writing on the nature of form and content in art—especially literature—he emphasised the importance of employing sublime themes that sustain and enrich the experience of art. He defined art as ‘layman’s yoga’ that bypasses logic and facilitates self-realization. This indeed is the hallmark of Indian Aesthetics. It is because of such a strong conviction about the nature of art that Hiriyanna could propose art as an alternative to religion in our age of reason and equality. All these ideas of Hiriyanna are products of an insightful understanding of the basic concepts of Indian Aesthetics.

Ananda Coomaraswamy drew parallels from the primary sources of world wisdom to support his views on Indian Aesthetics in an astounding manner. His tracing of the idea of suggestion to the Vedas—parokṣapriyā iva hi devāḥ pratyakṣadviṣaḥ—is most original. Likewise, his enumeration of basic concepts of art, with emphasis on sculpture and painting, are truly illuminating. Concepts such as sādṛśya, ābhāsa, rūpa, svarūpa, prakṛti, anukṛti, anukīrtana, and kṛti are noteworthy. Apart from painting and sculpture, Coomaraswamy synthesised music, dance, and literature using the tenets of Indian Aesthetics. This reminds us of the integrating wisdom of Abhinavagupta. Interestingly, however, Coomaraswamy has nowhere cited him. Coomaraswamy saw Hinduism and Buddhism as a single, undivided tradition. This is truly seminal, for it establishes the Vedic heritage as the fount of all Indian learning. His efforts in developing a theory of spiritual symbolism—as exhibited in his writings on skambha and vidṛti or brahmarandhra (in connection with the eye of the dome)—are laudable. He played a significant role in developing conceptual clarity in the  svadeśi movement related to art, thus underscoring the healthy social dimension of art. He accomplished this with an unshakeable focus on the four-fold values of life, the puruṣārthas. However, like Abhinavagupta, Coomaraswamy, at times, in his overwhelming passion for mysticism and urge to draw parallels between oriental and occidental schools of thought, obfuscates the subject. This can be easily corrected by all serious students of Indian Aesthetics who are well-rooted in kevalādvaita, which in turn finds its validation from nirviśeṣa-sārvatrikānubhava, non-qualified, universal experience.

V Raghavan combined in him the values embodied by M Hiriyanna and Kuppuswami Sastri, his mentor. He was adept in the theoretical aspects of music, dance, and theatre, and was a fine rasika. He forged an alliance between theory and practice, marshalling forth his impeccable erudition in the fields of textual criticism, manuscriptology, and comparative studies. His research on important tenets of Indian Aesthetics such as aucitya, svabhāvokti, bhāvika, lakṣaṇa, guṇa, rīti, and vakratā, carried out mainly from the historical perspective, is truly path-breaking. His monographs such as The Number of Rasas, The Comic Element in Sanskrit Literature, Ṛtu in Sanskrit Literature, The Concept of the Beautiful in Sanskrit Literature are seminal. Studies on Bhoja’s Śṛṅgāraprakāśa is his magnum opus. Raghavan’s exposition of festivals, sports, and pastimes of classical India with special reference to Sanskrit sources has a great bearing on the understanding and application of Indian Aesthetics. In the research articles he wrote on various aspects of traditional Indian theatre inspired by Bharata, he analysed fundamental concepts such as vṛtti, pravṛtti, lāsyāṅga, rūpaka, and uparūpaka, exhibiting originality of thought and depth of scholarship. He had a sustained interest in classical music and wrote extensively on the subject, which amounts to more than three volumes. This is a fine contribution to the research on the aesthetics of music. Another topic that occupied his mind for a good number of years was Rāmāyaṇa, writing on which he has not only tapped literary sources but has also correlated them to music, dance, sculpture, painting, and theatre. In Ragahvan we find academic learning refined by aesthetic sensitivity and cultural awareness. His writings, though not filled with brilliant flashes of insight on every page, are a veritable source of Indic wisdom. He is a dependable proponent of Indian Aesthetics, following the footsteps of Bharata, Ānandavardhana, Abhinavagupta, and Kuntaka.

K Krishnamoorthy is the youngest among these torchbearers of tradition. He was both a thorough scholar and a great visionary. He was the first person to explain the exact nature and significance of the terms śabda and artha. According to him, they signify not just word and meaning as popularly explained, but constitute the Form and Content of any work of art. He opposed the views of his predecessors and some contemporaries such as P V Kane, S K De, K C Pande, V Raghavan, T N Srikanthayya, Nagendra, G C Pande, and R C Dvivedi who advocated the exclusivity of vakratā-alaṅkāra, guṇa-rīti, and rasa-dhvani. He traced the germs of dhvani to figures of speech such as paryāyokta, aprastutapraśaṃsā, samāsokti, and dīpaka, thus bridging the gap between Bhāmaha and Ānandavardhana. His defence of guṇībhūtavyaṅgya (suggestion that is subordinated to beautiful expression) and emphasis on the importance of pramāṇas as revealed by Nāṭyaśāstra are insightful. His study of pramāṇas makes Indian Aesthetics insuperable even in the modern age. We are at a loss for words in praising his authoritative editions of the treatises authored by Ānandavardhana and Kuntaka. His annotated Kannada translations of almost all seminal works of Alaṅkāra-śāstra, complete with the original text, insightful footnotes, detailed introductions, and metrical translations of illustrative verses, are unparalleled. They surpass kindred works in other regional languages produced by scholars such as R P Dvivedi and P Sriramachandrudu. The same is true of his Kannada translations of Sanskrit classics.

Nagendra, Kapila Vatsyayana, P Sriramachandrudu, Arjun Wadekar, R P Dvivedi, Radhavallabh Tripathi, Rajendra Mishra, C Rajendran and a host of other scholars have worked in the field of Indian Aesthetics with special reference to literature and theatre. Scholars such as Premlata Sharma, R Satyanarayana, and Ramanathan took a similar responsibility in the lore of music, while stalwarts such as Padma Subrahmanyam and Sundari Santanam undertook practical research concerning mārgakaraṇas and deśīkaranas in the field of dance.

The study of Indian Aesthetics is a journey of joy that is rewarding to all true seekers of art, irrespective of their pratibhā.

सोऽयं कल्पतरूपमानमहिमा भोग्योऽस्तु भव्यात्मनाम्



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.

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