(L to R) Lal Bahadur Shastri, PV Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Narendra Modi (Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
RASA AESTHETICS, WHICH is gustatory rather than cerebral, is literally about tasting, relishing, enjoying and digesting transitory feelings and more stable emotional states. Bharata makes no bones in declaring,“just as when various condiments and sauces and herbs and other materials are mixed, a taste is experienced, or when the mixing of materials like molasses with other materials produces six kinds of taste, so also with the different bhavas [emotions] the sthayibhava [permanent emotions experienced ‘inside’] becomes a rasa” (tr Adya Rangacharya).
The well-established mind-gut connection gives us a richer understanding of rasa aesthetics based on how our enteric nervous system affects our moods and thinking. This connection is not merely psychological or mental, something that we make up in our heads, so to speak. It is actually hardwired in our nervous system in complex neural networks that ensure constant cross-talk between the brain and the gut.
No wonder experts like Emeran Mayer, author of The Mind-Gut Connection, believe that the gut is almost a second brain. Made up of tens of millions of nerve cells, our gut contains the largest repository, even more than blood and bone marrow, of immune cells.
What is more, the gut, according to Mayer, is “also the largest storage facility for serotonin in our body.” Serotonin, as we know, is a neurotransmitter which modulates mood, cognition, learning, reward, memory, sleep, appetite, pain-sensitivity and other crucial functions. No surprise that antidepressants target serotonin, which has been called the happy or feel-good hormone.
According to Mayer, the gut is a “vast sensory organ, covering the largest surface of our bodies. When spread out, the gut has the size of a basketball court, and it is packed with thousands of little sensors.” Gut-based decision-making, thus, is not merely a turn of phrase. It is something very real from the point of view of our neurobiology. Rasa aesthetics is based on a profound comprehension of what makes us experiencing, feeling and thinking beings or Homo sapiens sapiens.
A time-tested way to help us manage our vitality and wellness is a healthy and balanced diet. Similarly, rasa aesthetics may actually be a diet of emotions to ensure emotional wellbeing. Bharata’s menu, as we have already seen, was eightfold: sringara (erotic, effulgent), hasya (humorous, happy), karuna (compassionate, pitiful), raudra (angry, inflamed), vira (heroic, energetic), bhayanaka (terrifying, fearful), vibhatsa (disgusting, odious) and adbhuta (wondrous, enchanting).
In the subsequent literature on Indian poetics, there was much debate on the number of rasas, their relationship to the bhavas, how they are produced in a work of art and perceived by the audience. In tracing the development of the concept of rasa from Bharata to later times, we come across the names of several commentators, notably Bhatta Lollata and Sri Shankuka (8th century), Bhatta Tauta and Bhatta Nayaka (10th century), and, most importantly, Anandavardhana and Abhinavagupta (9th and 1oth century).
The last one established the importance of the ninth rasa, the santa, or tranquil state, which he considered to be the substratum of all the others. In Abhinavabharati, his famed commentary on Natyasastra, Abhinavagupta describes the santa rasa as “that which brings happiness and welfare to all beings and which is accompanied by the stabilisation [samsthita] in the Self” (tr Masson & Patwardhan).
If Bharata only lists eight, who proposed santa, the ninth rasa? To Bhatta Udbhata is ascribed this intellectual feat. He was a celebrated critic, rhetorician and aesthetician in the court of Kashmir king Jayapida, who reigned from 779 to 813. Udbhata is mentioned in Kalhana’s Rajatarangini and in Rajasekhara’s Kavyamimamsa. Anandavardhana, the author of Dhvanyaloka, suggested that in the great epic, the Mahabharata, it is the santa rasa that is paramount. Some argue that Rajatarangini which, though a work of history is a kavya or long poem, also illustrates santa rasa or state of tranquillity.
Abhinavagupta goes a step farther linking santa to the attainment of the highest aim of human life, spiritual liberation or moksha. He believed that all great drama is meant to take us towards a detachment from emotions after experiencing them deeply, intensely and profoundly. Santa rasa arises from a disconnection with our desires and cravings. This detachment or nirveda, when established, leads to perfect concord and unshakeable composure. Santa rasa, in other words, transcendentalises the art emotion, leading to a state of equanimity that in turn produces peace that passeth human understanding.
India has been fortunate to have at least four prime ministers who embodied the santa rasa, each of them reaching a level of composure and level-headedness in the midst of tremendous strife: Lal Bahadur Shastri, PV Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and incumbent Narendra Modi
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The true appreciation of a work of art ought to induce in us a state of joyous satisfaction that comes from the full savour of the performance.Just as a yogi reaches such a state of detached enjoyment of the world through a proper understanding of it, a true connoisseur (sahridaya) of theatrical art arrives at a state of blissful repose after relishing an aesthetically superior performance.
Regarding the sthayibhava of the santa rasa, Abhinavagupta considers it to be tattvajñana, the knowledge of the true categories of reality. Because tattvajñana leads to moksha, it is the appropriate sthayibhava of the santa rasa. Like other Kashmir Trika Shaivites, Abhinavagupta considers the knowledge and experience of one’s true self to be the key to liberation. Tattvajñana is, ultimately, the same as atmajñana. Our true self is perfect, blissful and peaceful. Art helps us realise it.
Some have argued that nirveda or dispassion is an ‘anti-emotion’. It takes us away from life, rather than toward it as great art ought to. Marxists, certainly, meant art to be both ideological and interventionist, rather than detached and unconcerned with reality. Reducing all rasas to a single state of disinterested distancing would also foreclose the very savour of art emotions upon which the entire sastra is predicated. The counterargument, however, is that it is only through renunciation that true enjoyment is possible—“tena tyaktena bhunjita”, as the Isa Upanishad famously puts it.
When it comes to the drama that we love most, Indian politics, what part does the santa rasa play? As both participants and spectators will realise, sooner or later, dispassion, if not impassivity, is the best attitude. Like the play, the leela of life, politics is, after all, also a game. Sometimes, it descends into an ugly, pugilistic bloodsport. A no-holds barred contest, no quarter given or asked for.
FIRs can be filed against political opponents for criticising a sitting chief minister. There can be processions, morchas, dharnas, even, occasionally, a riot. Unruly scenes may be witnessed in Parliament, as in the streets. All this is par for the course. But at the end of the day, which party one belongs to, which side has won or lost, even our fortunes at the hustings or preferments at the hands of the powers that be hardly matter.
Managing one’s emotions, thoughts, wellbeing and making peace with oneself are of greater importance. Politics is a high-stakes, high-risk fixture. It is a match in which winners take all and losers are forgotten, often ending up in the dustbin of history. When so much is outside one’s scope of understanding, let alone grasp, one’s best strategy of emotional survival is reducing attachment.
Santa rasa is the reward, even if every player is not yet ready either for political sanyas or spiritual nirvana. The calm that comes from having done one’s best regardless of the outcome is nothing other than the spirit of niskama karma enjoined upon us in the Gita. It also leads, on most days, to calm repose on starry nights and clearheaded mornings. As to those who have really become masters of the game of thrones, or should we say drones, true release awaits the end of their efforts.
India has been fortunate to have at least four notable leaders at its helm, prime ministers in fact, who embodied the santa rasa in substantial degree, each of them reaching a level of composure and level-headedness in the midst of tremendous strife: Lal Bahadur Shastri, PV Narasimha Rao, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and, to speak of the living, incumbent Narendra Modi. During the freedom struggle there were many more, including Mahatma Gandhi and Sri Aurobindo.
These days, when there is so much talk of our Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav, perhaps rasa aesthetics can show us a way to sample the nectar of immortality that freedom is supposed to confer upon us. We, often mute spectators to the daily bump and grind of our political class, might do well to engage with and enjoy the contestations of public life in a manner conducive to santa rasa.
Certainly, such purposeful detachment would help safeguard of our hard-fought, dearly won Svarajya. As also our rights and duties as soon-to-be or already enlightened citizens of our righteous republic.