Author – Kathleen Higgins (University of Texas at Austin)
Rasa is a central concept in Indian aesthetic theory. The term has a variety of meanings (among them “flavor,” “taste,” “juice,” and “essence”), but in aesthetics it is understood to refer to a distinctive type of emotional experience that can be experienced in connection with an artwork. The concept is presented in the Nāṭyaśāstra (200-500 C.E.), traditionally attributed to Bharata, a work that amounts to a compendium of knowledge on dramatic performance (including music and dancing). That Nāṭyaśāstra itemizes eight rasas that can be aroused in audience members through skillful performances. These include the erotic (śṛṅgāra), the comic (hāsya), the pathetic or sorrowful (karuṇa), the furious (raudra), the heroic (vīra), the terrible (bhayānaka), the odious (bībhatsa), and the marvelous (adbhuta). Later commentators often acknowledged a ninth rasa, the tranquil (śānta). Each rasa corresponds to a bhava, an ordinary emotion that is presented in the drama. Rasa, however, is a distinctively aesthetic kind experience in which one savors the essence of an emotion type. It is considered to be an achievement, both on the part of performers who are able to bring out the universal dimensions of emotion presented in a play and on that of the audience member who is sufficiently cultivated to appreciate such universalized emotion.
The Nāṭyaśāstra was lost to the scholarly world for a time, but in the nineteenth century, it was rediscovered through a tenth or eleventh century commentary on the text written by Abhinavagupta. Abhinavagupta, a philosopher and mystic from Kashmir, gave a spiritual interpretation to rasa theory, contending that the ability to savor the universal essences of emotions depends on the audience member’s transcendence of his or her own ego. Rasa can be attained only by the person who is detached from personal motives and interests and identifies with the supreme universal Self. Abhinava also emphasizes the ninth rasa, the tranquil (śāntarasa), which he sees as the goal of all the other rasas. He compares the experience of this rasa to that of spiritual liberation (mokṣa), which is the goal of every human life.
Bharata-muni (ascribed). 1967. The Nāṭyaśāstra. Manomohan Ghosh (trans. and ed.), in 2 vols. rev. 2nd ed. Calcutta: Granthalaya.
Masson and Patwardhan’s Aesthetic Rapture: the Rasādhyāya of the Nāṭyaśāstra translates a part of the Nāṭyaśāstra which would be appropriate for students. The translation is on pp. 43-57, and the text is available online at:
The following two articles offer good introductions for students:
Chari, V.K. “Rasa,” in The Oxford Encyclopedia of Aesthetics, ed. Michael Kelly, in 4 vols. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), Volume 4, 103-106.
Higgins, Kathleen M. “An Alchemy of Emotion: Rasa and Aesthetic Breakthroughs,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Special Issue: Global Theories of the Arts and the Aesthetic 65 (2007): 43-54.
Secondary Sources for Instructors
Chakrabharti, Arindam. “Introduction: Contemporary Indian Aesthetics and Philosophy of Art,” in The Bloomsbury Research Handbook of Indian Aesthetics and the Philosophy of Art (London: Bloomsbury, 2016), xiii-xxii.
Gerow, Edwin, “Indian Aesthetics: A Philosophical Survey,” in A Companion to World Philosophies, ed. Eliot Deutsch and Ron Bontekoe (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997), 304-323.
Masson, J. L. and M.V. Patwardhan, trans. and ed., Aesthetic Rapture: the Rasādhyāya of the Nāṭyaśāstra (Poona: Deccan College, 1970).