Ancient Indian aesthetic thought codified our emotional responses to life into nine separately distinguishable categories, hence the term navarasa. Nava means nine, and rasa literally means ‘essence’, but is used here in the sense of ‘emotional state’. The nine rasas were the backbone of Indian aesthetics ever since they were codified in the Natyasastra (written between 200 BC-300 AD) and formed the premise from which traditions of dance, music, theatre, art and literature evolved. So profound was the impact of this philosophy that it came to be regarded as the ‘fifth Veda’. Evoking the rasas in the audience through their play in the art form was the prime motivation of the artist, and performances and artwork were created solely with this aim.
This article is not a commentary on the rasas or their place in aesthetic theory, but is an attempt to see how this ancient idea still runs into the streams of our lives. Perhaps the rasas could be the lens through which we can look at and understand ourselves better? The nine rasas, or sentiments, are the earth of our emotional lives. For at all times, we are feeling one or the other of these responses—we are reacting in the emotional language of the rasas. Literally, rasa is essence, the juice of life. As we begin our journey into this world, one of the first things we do is populate our world with rasas. From a no—rasa state at birth, to a baby’s two to three rasas-distress (at hunger, discomfort), happiness, satisfaction—we grow to become a complex of emotions. As we mature, our personality becomes more varied, intricate, and begins to display an entire range of rasas.
The nine rasas of ancient Indian thought are: shringara (erotic love), karuna (compassion), adbhuta (awe, wonderment), shant (peace, equanimity), hasya (laughter, mirth), veer (valour, heroism), bhaya (fear), vibhatsa (disgust) and raudra (anger, fury). Our emotional lives are so rich that it might seem impossible to shrink everything into nine categories. It will be useful to remember that the rasa states have been used here as broad markers of emotionality, and need not be taken as absolutes.
If we examine our lives of only the past month or so, we will find how vulnerable we are to emotional imbalances. Because we are mostly unaware or at best superficially aware of our emotional lives, we tend to allow one or two rasas to dominate us. For instance, hasya if we are the light-hearted sort, or raudra if we are hotheaded and easy to take offence. We continue to affirm this imbalance through our behaviour, which becomes lopsided in favour of our rasa of choice and it gradually becomes our chosen response to life situations. Hence we become a certain ‘kind’ of person. This emotional conditioning keeps us from experiencing life in all its fullness, and we remain tied to limited views of our selves, unable to even grasp the vastness of our true potential, let alone actualise it.
To regain our rasa balance, we need to begin by becoming aware of our unique ‘rasa-states’, and accepting the existence of all rasas in us, even the not so pretty ones. As long as we accept some and deny others, we will remain in conflict. And as long as we are alive, all rasas will continue to arise. Growth is not in stopping them altogether, but in being aware of them and handling their presence with wisdom.
Negative versus positive
Bhaya, vibhatsa and raudra are the ‘negative rasas’, for they are afflictive and damaging to our goal of emotional harmony. Going by the same yardstick, karuna and shant are the purely positive rasas, though they do have a tenuous link with passivity and sloth respectively, which can become activated if one doesn’t keep an eye on them. Shringara, adbhut, hasya and veer rasas tend to occur towards the middle of our emotional spectrum. But all rasas exist together in a vibrant field—nothing is fixed forever as positive or negative. Even raudra, the most fearsome of afflictive rasas, can be brought around to a positive energy state. Our effort is to bring all into balance, and transform the negatives into positives for a stable and rich emotional life.
Indeed the key to recognising the dynamics of our rasa-emotions is cast in the same mould as the key to life itself. It entails looking at the whole playing field instead of fragments, and in doing so, discovering that movement and change form the bedrock of everything. That, just as in life, where good and evil are not fixed entities but often depend upon our free will, so in our emotions, a lot depends on our own effort, vision and wisdom. Fair can be foul if one is not aware, and foul can become fair through effort.
Positive emotions need work to be maintained as such, and can degenerate if one is not fully engaged with one’s emotional life, for instance shringara into lust and obsession with sex. On the other hand, negative emotions can act as the poison that in controlled and measured doses cures fatal illnesses, for example anger that can spur us on to positive action. For this to happen though, mastery with attendant self-awareness is crucial.
Accept to transcend
The danger inherent in branding our emotions as positive or negative is that it sets the scene for inner conflict. We don’t want to be in a state where we are fighting parts of ourselves. So our journey to navarasa harmony requires a pre-acceptance of ourselves, with all our dualities and imperfections, along with a commitment to oneself to work towards emotional balance. Acceptance is an antidote to conflicts we set up within and watching oneself dispassionately, as a ‘witness’ to our emotions may provide the distance required to pinpoint conflict and its source. For instance, we might overly judge a friend’s actions, getting into vibhatsa (revulsion) mode, but regret later that we weren’t more compassionate. If we are in the habit of watching ourselves, we’ll know when the vibhatsa is arising and stymie it promptly, or if it has already happened then accept that and see what one can do in the here and the now that would be karuna.
Knowing and accepting dissolves guilt and inner conflict and sets the stage for emotional balance where all rasas are in their place, none dominates, and we are able to deal with each one as it arises.
Each rasa is a repository of emotional energy. It is raw energy drawn from our life force, which has become expressed in a certain way. It is energy that is coloured with our desires and conditioning, and has taken on a particular appearance through our reactivity to situations and people. Rasas are masks that fit over our deep true self and obscure ourselves from ourselves. Acceptance is one way of balancing rasas, as we have seen above. But there is another dynamic way of handling our rasa power—unlocking this storehouse of energy and using it to realise our true potential; to master this energy instead of allowing it to flip us this way and that. This is the value of reinterpreting the rasas for ourselves, each one of us, and recognising their play in our lives.
Since all perceptions are influenced by our emotional state, stilling the emotions is a pre- requisite for those of us who wish to grow into greater awareness. So a movement simultaneous to achieving rasa balance could be towards the ‘no-rasa’ state—the place of transcendence where consciousness is as clear as the cloudless sky. Where there is directness of experience, for the rasas have settled as mud in water, and the hidden treasures at the bottom of the pond are suddenly visible.
The no-rasa state is not to be seen as one in which the rasa-emotions are wholly absent. This is a false understanding of the move beyond the theatre of emotionality that occurs in spiritual growth. As we begin to live everyday moments in the witness consciousness that emerges in meditation, we appear to have become increasingly ‘detached’ from the rasa-field. Detachment is certainly the core characteristic of the witness consciousness that lies within us and that we need to tease out from under the muddied waters of our being. Yet the quality of detached viewing that accompanies heightened awareness and the watching of ourselves is not to be mistaken as a vehicle in which to escape away from our emotions. Rather, the witness consciousness is deeply and passionately engaged in life, and ultimately leads us into clarity and wisdom.
The witness is aware and non-reactive, available to all equally, and by aligning ourselves with it we can possibly come to a place where all rasas exist simultaneously. This, then, is the ultimate emotional balance—a level playing field of all rasas, where no one emotion assumes primacy just because we are not getting caught up in it. Paradoxically, this is also the no-rasa state, for the rasas are not being allowed to influence our judgement and actions. We simply are.