ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Emotion and Rasa in Premodern and Classical India

Emotions in Indian Thought-Systems edited by Purushottama Bilimoria and Aleksandra Wenta, New Delhi: Routledge, 2015; pp 289, ₹850.

A Rasa Reader: Classical Indian Aesthetics by Sheldon Pollock, New York: Columbia University Press, 2016; pp 442, $90.



The author would like to thank the International Research Center/Interweaving Performance Cultures and the Center for the History of Emotions at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Berlin for providing him with venues to discuss and deliberate on some of the ideas presented in this article.

The affective turn in the humanities, combined with a deeper consideration of emotions in human life, has generated a large body of scholarly research over the past two decades. A host of introductory and deeper theoretical studies in the form of edited volumes and single emotions studies (there is even a textbook in the pipeline) have marked the arrival of the study of emotions as a coherent subject even at the undergraduate level (Plamper 2015).1 Academic discourse on these issues does not seem to show signs of waning either. A recent special issue of PMLA journal, a publication of the Modern Language Association of America, was dedicated to emotions, with a chapter on “rasa,” emotion, and affect theory (Dharwadker 2015).2 Emotions in Indian Thought-Systems and A Rasa Reader: Classical Indian Aesthetics, the books under review, are both welcome additions to this scholarship, which has yet to fully engage with the ancient world and more so, with classical India. Uniquely, both volumes are perfect companions to each other. The former, a theory of “real” felt emotions, finds a good bedfellow in the latter, an anthology of source texts on rasa, a theory of aesthetic emotions; definitions and considerations in both volumes often bring the reader close to theories of affect. Together, one finds a rich discourse on a multitude of emotions and feelings that cannot be named as such—and indeed need not be named in some cases.

This review proceeds in three stages—first, a look at Emotions in Indian Thought-Systems, in which I tease out the main overlaps and points of intersection between the edited volume’s many chapters. Following this, I look more closely at A Rasa Reader, in which I draw attention to various arguments that seem relevant to literary and cultural studies, and discourses about emotions and affect. My approach to these two books is that of an inexpert but interested party, one with some engagement with discourses on emotions, affect and rasa, and as one who would like to know more for his own work. In this review, given the materials under consideration, I do not differentiate between affect, emotion, feelings and moods. Such distinctions are neither salient for these texts nor for the historical actors discussed within them, even though such distinctions often occupy an important critical space within modern humanities. One of the only distinctions often theorised in both texts is a distinction between bhava (emotion) and rasa (aestheticised emotion)—but even here, a rigid distinction does not make sense, as the sources reveal. I see myself—and many general interest academic readers like me—as ideal readers of these two books, not entrenched in the smaller nuances of Sanskrit philosophical conventions but who have often ventured into these materials for their work, for teaching, or for a general understanding. My comments and evaluations in this review article are, thus, directed with an eye towards the non-specialist reader, one who may not have the time to slowly pore over each of the primary sources discussed in both of these books nor have the requisite linguistic skills, but is nonetheless interested in both the specifics and general outlines.

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Updated On : 17th May, 2017
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