In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Aesthetics

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • History
  • On Aesthetic Representation
  • Rasa as a Category for Comparative Studies
  • Studies of Abhinavagupta
  • Bhoja
  • Jaina Contributions
  • Rasa in Vaishnava Traditions
  • Late Precolonial Works on Aesthetics and Literary Criticism
  • Primary Sources (Editions and Translations of Major Texts)

Hinduism Aesthetics
Timothy Cahill
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399318-0073


The most successful attempt to frame a unified aesthetic for South Asia centers on the term rasa, used most extensively with reference to drama and poetry. Its connotations spring from several sources including a culinary sense of savoring and the botanical sense of an essence or elixir, and over time come to mean something like aesthetic delight. The Nāṭyaśāstra provides the first attempt to characterize rasa, and its sixth chapter became the source text for much speculation. Although interpreting rasa became an unending affair spanning well over a millennium, other aesthetic concepts were occasionally introduced. An early attempt focused on figuration as the sine qua non of poetic art, and this had important applications in the production of images. We are indebted to a Kashmiri author, Abhinavagupta, for providing a synopsis of ancient interpretations from before his time in his (badly preserved) commentary on the Nāṭyaśāstra and on a better preserved commentary on Ānandavardhana’s Dhvanyāloka. Competing aesthetic concepts periodically emerged, most notably vakrokti (crooked speech) and aucitya (propriety). However, once rasa was coupled with Ānandavardhana’s ingenious linguistic category called dhvani, it became enshrined as the central aesthetic concept, employed for centuries by literary theorists throughout South Asia.

General Overviews

Early work on aesthetics strove to establish histories of the works on poetics and dramaturgy. Hiriyanna 1997 provides coherent explanations of the core concepts, often relating them to more well-known philosophical ideas. Sreekantaiyya 2001 surveys the basic ideas of Indian poetics with special attention to rasa-dhvani. De 1963 brings attention to the specifically aesthetic dimensions of the poetic ideas that developed in ancient India, while noting that an analytic formalism remained ever present as these ideas were explored. For a survey of primary texts, translations, and a selection of influential (if dated) secondary literature, Seturaman 1992 is most valuable. The extraordinary collaboration Masson and Patwardhan 1970 considers the relation between aesthetic experience and mystical experience, such as yogic perception. This widely reviewed work drew the attention of many Indologists to the study of India’s rich aesthetic heritage. Dimock, et al. 1974 provides an excellent sense of how the various genres of Indian literature are tied to central aesthetic concepts and literary styles. Gitomer 1998 provides a social and cultural history of aesthetics, broadly conceived in relation to Hindu, Buddhist, Jaina, and Muslim civilizations.

  • De, S. K. Sanskrit Poetics as a Study of Aesthetic. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963.

    A very good introduction to the basic ideas on aesthetics in the Indian context. De’s major works on poetics and the history of Indian literature provide the background for this work. Technical terms from poetics and philosophy are explained in a long appendix by E. Gerow.

  • Dimock, Edward C., E. Gerow, C. M. Naim, et al. The Literatures of India: An Introduction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.

    Chapter 3, “Indian Poetics,” is especially useful for introducing the conventions of the figures of speech, the role of evocation (dhvani) and dramatic criticism. Chapter 6 contains a good introduction to rasa as presented by Abhinavagupta and how this can be applied to literature.

  • Gitomer, David L. “Indian Aesthetics.” In Encyclopedia of Aesthetics. Vol. 2. Edited by M. Kelly, 482–490. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    Provides a social and cultural history of aesthetics, broadly conceived in civilizational terms and including reference to literature (and language in general), the fine arts, and music, as articulated in the classical texts of post-Gupta times.

  • Hiriyanna, M. Art Experience. New Delhi: Indira Gandhi National Center for the Arts, 1997.

    These essays, originally published between 1919 and 1951, connect the foundational concepts of rasa and dhvani with some core philosophical ideas. Hiriyanna relates how aesthetic ideas make sense within the Indian literary context, with a judicious use of technical terms, carefully explained. Highly recommended for newcomers to the field.

  • Masson, J. L., and M. V. Patwardhan. Aesthetic Rapture: The Rasādhyāya of the Nāṭyaśāstra. Poona, India: Deccan College Postgraduate and Research Institute, 1970.

    This two-volume work explains and explores Indian ideas on literary beauty as developed from the Nāṭyaśāstra by its famous commentator Abhinavagupta. In Volume 2, the authors provide a translation of the Nāṭyaśāstra’s sixth chapter on rasa along with select translations of Abhinavagupta’s well-known and difficult commentary.

  • Seturaman, V. S. Indian Aesthetics: An Introduction. Madras: Macmillan India Limited, 1992.

    Conceived as a textbook for formal study, this compilation of materials includes primary texts and their translations, essays on central aesthetic concepts, and a section on modern Indian aesthetics. Though the essays are dated, as a whole they cover a wide range of thinking on the topic.

  • Sreekantaiyya, T. N. Bhāratīya Kāvyamīmāṁsā. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2001.

    This work (Indian poetics) was for long the standard introduction to poetics in the Kannada language. Sreekantaiyya presents material historically, then from the perspectives of poets, poems, and readers, and finally, thematically according to the tenets of the rasa-dhvani theory.

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