Nov 7, 2019 in Literature

Rasa Theory In The Western Poetics

The Sanskrit literary tradition is among the oldest ones in the world. It has developed a unique aesthetic context that greatly differs from the Western literary theory and rhetoric. One of the concepts that are researched in the current paper is the rasa; it deals with the emotive side of the piece of art. It is possible to find the cases where rasa is partly used in the Western literature. For example, the catharsis is a form of the rasa; it means purification through the art. Such similarity supports the idea that, in fact, the theory of rasa, in the meaning of a theory that describes the way the piece of art communicates with the audience, is not only valid for the Indian culture but also applied to other cultures. Despite the general similarity between the notion of the rasa and corresponding concepts in the Western literary discourse, there are still numerous differences in the approach towards writing and perceiving the piece of literature.

It is necessary to start by explaining what the rasa is and how it is related to the traditional Indian aesthetics. It is translated from Sanskrit as the essence or the juice and is the main emotional theme of the piece of literature; in fact, it denotes the primary and the dominant feeling that the art provokes. 

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The doctrine was originally created by Bharata Muni approximately in the period from 200 BC to 200 AD. He introduced the notion of a rasa in the sixth and the seventh chapters of his work on the theory of a drama, the Nātyasāstra. The theory of a rasa features the following components. 

First, the ways of expressing emotions in poetry are the same as the ones in the everyday life and are a combination of circumstances depending on the situational factors. Second, there is a strictly set number of different emotions. Third, the emotions have internal differences. Therefore, some of them are dependent and fugitive while the others are permanent and stable. The latter permanent emotions can be developed into the rasas, in other words, aesthetic moods. Fourth, it is necessary to remember that a piece of poetry consists of a variety of tones, but they are not equal; that is why, only the dominant tones prevail and create the general impression. The last fifth issue mentioned in the Nātyasāstra is that the tones are combined in the piece of writing according to the inner logic of the propriety and congruity. 

Another key Indian philosopher, Anandavardhana, developed the theory of a rasa in his work Dhvanyaloka, which touched the theme of the aesthetic suggestion. Anandavardhana combines the analysis of the literary work with the help of the rasa theory with the formalist approach. As the result, the philosopher managed to understand every piece of writing as a unity that is functionally unified in order to reach a single goal of convening a specific rasa to the audience. A peculiar characteristic of the approach suggested by Anandavardhana is that the process of understanding a particular rasa, or emotional message, depends much on dhvani, or the suggestion. The innovation of this art theorist is a vivid example of the claim that the rasa theory has been the basic one for the Indian art for many centuries. It was set as an example for every writer and soon was developed by the next generations. 

As mentioned earlier, it is impossible to find a concept in the Western literary tradition that is entirely similar to the Indian notion of a rasa. It is uncharacteristic to the Western poetics even by its nature because it is the spiritual category that should be understood with the help of intuition. The traditional Western approach is more rational; thus, experiencing the rasa is quite problematic even for a person who is not acquainted with the Sanskrit poetics. 

According to the theory of a rasa, everything should be learned through emotions. The rasa can be viewed as the total emotional response of the reader to the piece of literature. It also supposes that the rasa determines the dominant emotion that makes the reader enjoy the piece of art. Even though, the writing can combine several emotions, some of them are swallowed by the more powerful and durable ones. For example, a person who just has read the book can be agitated, and his/her agitation will have a double origin. It can derive both from the ecstasy of love and anger of jealousy. The key point in understanding what the rasa means is the rule that the rasa cannot combine two or more emotions. One emotion has to dominate, and so the rasa in such example can be either love or anger, not agitation. It is considered that by dispersing the reader's attention on two or more emotions, the work of literature loses its force. 

This issue can be compared to the structural division in the classical Western poetics. The idea that there should be emotional unity in the literature originates from the Antique times. It was considered that a good tragedy had to follow the unity of time, place, and action. The described events should develop during 24 hours (unity of time), occur in the same place (the unity of place), and form the complete idea (unity of action). The Greek philosopher, Aristotle, wrote for the first time about the need for the unity of the drama in his Poetics in the 4th BC. For many centuries and until the beginning of the 20th century, it has been believed that the established stylistic principles of the normative poetics form the basis for the talented piece of writing.

The compositional integrity of the dramatic works consists of the following components: the cause (the exposition), the effect (the culmination turns for the worse or the better), and the result (the denouement leading to either the death of a hero or his or her well-being). It is possible to state that there are certain similarities in the classic Western viewpoint on the structure of the work of literature. Nevertheless, the aspects that are emphasized are different. The Western approach, which originates from the ancient Greek tradition, does not pay much attention to the emotional integrity of the play that needs to be understood individually and subconsciously. The main accent is made on the unity of action while the changes in action are the main components of the Western literature. Unlike the Western poetic tradition, the Indian theory supposes that the emotions are the key elements of every piece of art. The actions are not that important; however, if there is no unity of emotions, and if the dominant emotion does not reach the reader, the work of literature cannot be considered good. 

One of the examples of the piece of literature from the Western tradition that vividly shows the wide range of emotions is the play by Shakespeare Romeo and Juliette. The protagonists of the play go through a difficult emotional development from the ecstatic love of the deadly grief. It can be called the impure poetry according to the ideas of the rasa theory, because it is impossible to state which emotion is dominant in Romeo and Juliette. Nevertheless, it has a unity of effect that is claimed to be obligatory both by the Western tradition and the rasa poetics. The main issue is that the two approaches perceive this unity of effect very differently. 

The notion of the effect that a piece of writing has on its readers is closely connected with another peculiar issue of catharsis. It is possible to state that catharsis is the only thing that both approaches to the poetics have in common. Catharsis is the concept introduced by Aristotle in his Poetics that denotes the purification of all emotions through the piece of art. In fact, the Sanskrit theory of poetics and the Western tradition are united by the result the art has to attain. 

Nevertheless, the ways this goal can be achieved are totally different. First, the only genre of literature that was initially able to lead the audience to the catharsis was a tragedy as the Antique tradition claimed. The comedy was considered by the Greek a low genre, which did not invoke the feeling of pity in the minds of people. It was possible to understand that catharsis could be achieved only through experiencing the pity. The theory of a rasa does not impose such strict regulations on the set of emotions that allow people to experience purification through the art. It is possible to feel it by experiencing a random strong emotion such as tender or love. 

It is quite difficult to compare the two literary theories that are different even in their core like the Western poetic tradition and the Sanskrit one, to which the rasa theory belongs. Their values have developed apart from each other for centuries; thus, they have a different approach to understanding the literary art. The rasa theory can be compared to the notion of catharsis and the rhetoric device of a play structure, because it uses the same ideas, in fact. However, the details form a great difference between the discussed approaches.


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