Journal of Dharma Studies

, Volume 2, Issue 1, pp 1–14 | Cite as

The Power of Suggestion: Rasa, Dhvani, and the Ineffable

  • Lisa WiddisonEmail author
Original Article


There is no denying the difficulty of expressing in words the meanings behind complex emotions. If they cannot be conveyed because they are personal and private, then how are they conveyed when they are neither entirely private nor personal, as in the case of generalized emotions, or the rasa experience? In Ānandavardhana’s Dhvanyāloka, we find a theory of suggestion (dhvani) which can be expanded beyond poetics to account for the evocative nature of emotion outside of all other modes of expression. The result of dhvani in art experiences is the manifestation of aestheticized emotions (rasadhvani). When language serves art, it neither negates nor dispenses with linguistic apprehension. Rather, it delivers more than language can: the ineffable essence of the subject who experiences love, compassion, grief, the comic, and more, including quietude. I argue the question of the sentient subject is conveyed all the better in aesthetic suggestion, precisely because whether or not an artistic construction makes use of linguistic devices, the arts, whether they be theater, dance, or poetry, defies the confines of language. The ineffable subject is made tangible, in ordinary as well as extraordinary ways.


Suggestion Rasa Dhvani Aestheticized emotions Wonder Self-knowledge Ānandavardhana Abhinavagupta Thomas Reid 

The poetic image places us at the origin of the speaking being.

—Gaston Bachelard is not improvisation—

I try to find what I can’t say in words, although I know it, I am looking to find what it is.

—Pina Bausch

Before they reach it, words turn back, together with the mind;

One who knows that bliss of Brahman, he is never afraid.

Taittirīya Upanisad 2.9.

Then comes Art, and we forget the claims of necessity, the thrift of usefulness,—the spires of our temples try to kiss the stars and notes of our music to fathom the depths of the ineffable.

—Rabindranath Tagore, 1917 “What is Art?” in Lectures delivered in America

It goes against long running trends in philosophy of art and theories of knowledge to say aesthetic experiences result in any real-world understanding or propositional knowledge. Can we yet say without contradiction that it leads to a non-propositional knowledge, grasping reality as it is?1 Really good aesthetic enjoyment may be beyond words and feed a sense erudition. But it is a false one as Bhaṭṭa Nāyaka (roughly, 900 CE) pointed out, the purpose of aesthetic experience is aesthetic pleasure alone.2 Bhaṭṭa Nāyaka is correct on this point, and Immanuel Kant complements his view with the clam a judgment of taste is not a determinate judgment, or a form of understanding like we have in matters of erudition. Rather, it is an open-ended, reflective judgment.3Reflective judgment, as Kant pictures it, is focused on harmoniously playing faculties, the imagination and understanding. However, from a transcendental view of aesthetic experience, aesthetic enjoyment picks up where concepts and language leave off. The rasa experience may still be an epistemically enriching way of being in the world, one consistent with savoring (āsvāda).

Bhaṭṭa Nāyaka also disagreed with the innovative Rasa theorist, Ānandavardhana (850 CE, henceforth, Ānanda) on the matter of a special poetic function of language. Dhvani is a theory of suggestion in Sanskrit poetics in which aesthetic enjoyment takes the vehicle of “resonance” over “expression” in poetic language. Bhaṭṭa Nāyaka was among the theorists criticizing Ānanda for claiming that dhvani is distinct from ordinary and figurative usages of language.4 Ānanda claims dhvani is the soul of poetry—and what it suggests is something over and above its parts, rasa.5 Ānanda actually anticipates and responds to a handful of objections, including one he understands better than his critics, that dhvani is ineffable, and available only to the sahṛdaya.6 In contemporary parlance, it could be framed as follows: “We, ordinary persons, do not comprehend the language of elitists7 who speak of subtle qualities, thus, suggestion of such subtlety is ineffable, as it does not communicate meaning universally.” Yet the metaphor of aesthetic taste is a perennial feature of philosophical thinking about art experiences, as suggestively subtle. Immanuel Kant, who also theorized a category of aesthetic experiences as a judgment of taste, also saw aesthetic judgment as a universalized judgment. If we bring in the metaphor of taste, as I do here, it is worth noting that on that count an “aesthetic judgment of taste” cannot be about the merely subjective subtle qualities of good wine, which are not universalizable. While any judgment of taste can make use of the same descriptions (e.g., bold, dense, light, earthy, tart, oak, awkward, and complex), in wine tasting, they only convey personal preferences, even though we all know the terms from other experiences. A judgment of taste is not like that. Arguably, we already know phenomenal experience has a first-person, ineffable “what it is like” about it, even though common human conditions are none the less generalized. In the arts, rare human experiences are all the more imaginable, even if they are inexpressible.8 The rasa experience gets at something other than ordinary emotion and taste experiences. It is not ordinary ineffability.

Likewise, spiritual bliss is thought to be ineffable, and Bhaṭṭa Nāyaka linked the rasa experience, to “the same order as the enjoyment of the supreme brahman.”9 Abhinavagupta (c.900) agreed, but against Bhaṭṭa Nāyaka, Abhinavagupta sided with Ānanda on the matter of dhvani.10 Bharata laid the epistemological foundation that ordinary emotions are sublimated to rasas, and Ānanda claimed that language is subordinated to rasa in poetic experiences through suggestion. Though we can speak of rasa, neither direct nor indirect reference is a sufficient condition for manifesting it. This puts linguistic expression at the service of aesthetic experience but does not make it the end of that experience. Siding with Ānanda when he yet insists that dhvani is not ineffable, I argue for a philosophical interpretation of suggestion in how we approach less than ordinary ineffable aspects of life, such as Kant’s thought of reverence for nature, and humanity, outside of a particular religious context, or esoteric experience. Suggestion is powerful in an extraordinarily ordinary ways, too.

Generalized or Aestheticized Emotions and the Rasa Experience

Rasa has been theorized in different ways since Bharata incorporated it as an integral feature of theatrical production in the Nāṭyaśāstra (200 bce–200 ce), but his formulation of rasa is enduring.11 In his central chapter on Rasa, the Rasādhāya, the classic aphorism of “Rasa Sūtra” is presented as a schema for the manifestation of rasa: causes of emotion and the consequent experience of them, along with fleeting emotional responses, all coming together in the right way give rise to the rasa experience.12Rasa literally means taste, and aesthetic experience is a kind of savoring (āsvāda). As Abhinavagupta pictures it, rasa is both the taste of and the tasted emotion. The rasa experience is to be construed as a positive or blissful feeling (bhoga), even when a corresponding personal emotion would be painful, awkward, or derisive. This ability to universalize, rather than particularize an emotion, can be said to rest on the fittingness (aucitya) of the parts of a production to suggest a range of affective responses.13

If we are constructivists about emotions, the idea of an “emotion universal” is awkward—there is no getting around the fact that each person’s experiences her own personal losses and grievances. Emotions are none the less causally conditioned. Researchers such as Paul Eckman have aimed at locating emotion universals we can map on to experiences.14 In addition, Jesse Prinz’s work shows that as a capacity, basic emotions set a framework for constructing experience.15 Together, their findings tell us that we have a shared structure of emotional experience that generally follows from social and biological conditioning. Some emotions are learned over time, and even after a long time, a complex social emotion might only be fully felt on an exemplary occasion for its expression—such as with a deep and enduring loss of a leader. It is no wonder that heroism and tragedy emerge as emotion expressions in the arts—which are appreciated in communities.

Since communities transcend merely personal experiences, the concept of aestheticized emotion identifies a level of emotional response humans have outside of selfish interests. Another term, rapture,16 expresses a way of being in the world that where one is carried away by powerful emotions. In rasa aesthetics, it involves becoming personally unattached to objects of experience—the affective shift which sublimates personal emotions for the end of aesthetic enjoyment. Thus, it is being carried away from the ego, but brings the enjoyer back to the self. Historically, an “art emotion” could be any emotion involved in the process of creating and experiencing art, from the artist, to character, to spectator. Here, it is independent of any individual. The tendency has been to view rasas as experiential, but communal above all else.17


In Ānandavardhana’s Dhvanyāloka, we find a theory of meaning in aesthetic experience (dhvani) which accounts for rasa through the operation of suggestion (vyañjanā). Rasa experiences, like the effective art of subtlety, tend to leave their objects unstated in a significant way. As everyone knows, if you have to explain the meaning of a joke then it loses some of its humorous impact. Even when art is expressed through language, it seems to suggest rather than denote “aestheticized emotion,” or rasa, and not propositions. Ānanda says dhvani operates in five ways: refers to rasa in the singular as what is suggested by a poem (vyaṅgya), it means the aesthetic value or joy of the tasteful and sensitive reader. When it refers to rasas or rasādis in the plural, it means the emotion-feeling content described in the poem. When it refers to the suggestive items (vyañjaka) in a stance like syllable, word, affix, sentence, passage, whole work, etc., it invites us to shift our attention from the suggested to the suggestive element. Again, the surface meaning (vācya) of a poem may itself in its turn become suggestive of another. This possibility makes vyañjaka two-fold viz., (i) sound and (ii) sense. Thirdly, dhvani can also mean the process (vyāpāra) of suggestion evidenced in all good poetry. Finally, the poem, which is a summation of all of these can also be termed dhavni, which then signifies that it is a poem of the highest order or its final significance, dhavani involves a value judgment.18

The type of value judgment we are considering here is an aesthetic—the aesthetic judgment of beauty or a rasa. The value judgment is a subtle normative embellishment. It orients the aesthete towards the question of the reality behind the suggestion, from a detached yet engaged perspective. Suggestive language, such as Ophelia’s Soliloquy, should be felt a certain way.

Ānanavardhana’s classic aesthetic theory in the Dhvanyāloka (Light on Suggestion), begins with an inquiry into philosophy of language and the established nature of language’s uses. It is widely accepted by the schools of exegesis (Mīmāṃsā) and logic (Nyāya) in Classical India that the relationship between word (śābda) and meaning (artha) can be analyzed according to conventional usage. Language has a primary function designation (literal meaning—or abidhā) and a secondary function of implication (figurative meaning—or lakṣanā). Ānandavardhana exhaustively rejects the Mīmāṃsā theory of non-literal language which would reduce dhvani to the figurative meaning it often appropriates. If dhvani is endorsed as a distinct mode of expression different from all other “deviations from conventional usage” (vakrokti), even in poetry, then it requires showing how it cannot be subordinated by any existing modes. Ānandavardhana not only rejects that dhvani is direct or indirect use of language but also rejects that it is tātparya—the speaker’s communicable intent, anumāna—inference, and arthāpatti—implicature. Suggested meaning in poetry is also plainly not literal.

Dhvani must then be something else, and it seems that whatever it is, it is inherently evasive. One factor in this elusiveness may be the fact that suggestion in language operates on different levels. When matters of fact are suggested, we call it vastu-dhvani. When figures of speech are suggestive we call it alaṃkāra-dhvani (e.g., metaphorical identification—rūpaka) because it is a kind of ornamentation. When affect or emotion is suggested, then we call it rasa-dhvani. In the Sāhityadarpana (Kavirāja and Śāstrī 2004), (Mirror of Composition), Viśvanātha rejects that dhvani is even a form of expression, given that expression of any kind would be something which brings about cognition. While vastu-dhvani seems to get at possible objects of experience, the whole of an aesthetic experience involves something beyond its parts, i.e., rasa. Ānanda is concerned specifically with rasa-dhvani. It is suggested, but not necessarily in any one gesture, word, or lyric. Rather, the unreferenced meanings, which are out of reach of language, should reach the audience. As he sees it, too much literal expression kills the experience, and figurative language can become garish, unless both the literal and figurative uses of language are entirely subordinated to a third operation—suggested meaning. Consider the following poem from Hāla:

You love her,

I love you,

She hates you,

And you hate me.

I speak plainly

Since love is full of complications.

In what superficially appears to be a very literal language, matters of love and hate are expressed but not evoked. There is only the mere appearance of rasa (rasābhasa), as a false eroticism. But clearly, human beings in the state of delusion and unrequited love are pathetic all the same; thus, there is still a touch of karuṇa-rasa and a lingering feeling that courts quietude, or śāntarasa. Pace Bharata, Ānanda, and Abhinava, from the suggested experience of disillusionment, the stable mood of ordinary world weariness and equanimity is predominate, but conspicuously absent as a referent. The rasa-dhvani experience neither negates direct linguistic expression nor necessarily uses unconventional usage (vakrokti). Rather, it delivers more than language can—and here it is, the je ne sais qoi, so to speak, of estrangement.

The power of suggestion to get around an event-object-oriented language, even when taking a direct path through it, can be understood as the special power of dhvani. The rasa experience, articulated in terms of aestheticized emotional distinctions, is the grandest aim of dhvani.19 Ānandavardhana contends it is the only means to rasa in poetics. Ultimately, the pleasure of rasa appears to emerge as: maybe a perception or manifestation (vyakti), apperception (anuvyvasāya), a faculty of the imagination (pratibhā), and it is non-cognitive insofar as cognition is concerned with objects.20 It serves as a touchstone or a transcendental contact point because while its terms are worldly, the experience is not.

The relation between propositional knowledge and aesthetic experience is then that the arts are served by language, world, reality—they need not serve truth-functional propositions to us in return, which is no surprise. However, the inarticulate, tacit “knowing” that is felt in poetic apprehension, visual, and performance art, is articulated by Ānandavardhana and Abhinavagupta, as an imaginative act. The peculiar term of art for rasa “savoring” is camatkāra, and it is foremost an onomatopoetic term of enjoying food or drink.21 It suggests an auditory quality of “resonance.” As aesthetic enjoyment, it signifies an experience of pure subjectivity, or reflective awareness “marked by self-experience devoid of objective strings” as Rastogi puts it.22 At that level, the question is about ātman. Rasa experiences have their roots in the self, and they feel out the inexpressibility of subjectivity itself, as something which is never wholly determined. The artistic fruits of the subject (e.g., poetry) are outside worldly categories, even when about bodies.23 The metaphor of ātma-śarīra “indicates the metaphysical implications of dhvani.”24 According to Anand Amaladass:

Dhvani language is basically “conceptual leap”, meant to show how one can reach the alaukika-realm (in the context of rasa) through laukika-categories (through ordinary words and their meanings). (11)….Whatever may be of the other consequences of Ānanda’s thesis that rasa-dhvani cannot be directly denoted by the language of sense perception, one thing is crystal clear: the experience of rasadhvani belongs to a realm of reality which is not only beyond the grasp of ‘categories’ and ‘concepts’ but can be rendered only in the language of poetry. This might sound like a tautology, but it is not. Rasa-dhvani is concerned about that dimension of reality which is not accessible to the language of sense perception but only to that of poetry.25

The real world and the art world are both suggestive. The artist manifests suggestion for us in terms of feelings. Ānanda claims it involves recognition (pratyabhijñeyau) of what words and meaning are able to accomplish. But how? Abhinava’s answer is that artists do have a meaning in mind, but it is never a cognitively finished judgment. Abhinava takes it that Ānanda—

By using the word pratyabhijñeyau he would indicate that although poetry may flash forth (parisphurati) of its own accord in the way described [by Bhāmaha 1.5], ‘Poetry comes to the man of genius, and at that only sometimes;’ still, it increases in a thousand ways if that man will keep considering his poem carefully, thinking, “this should be like this,” i.e., “I should say such and such, not such and such.” in this way always seeking the suggestive word and sense…One sees from this that pratyabhijñā (recognition, scrutiny) is a careful inspection of and continuous reflection upon an object although that object is already [in some sense] known. This is what is meant by pratyabhijñā and not the mere recognition that consists in noting that “this is the same thing I saw before.26

We can understand rasa to be non-determining in the same way a judgment of taste for Kant is not a determinate judgment about things. Rasa experiences do not grasp at something.27 And yet, like a judgment of taste, recognizing artistic genius should actually help us to see poetic evocation cannot be taken as a merely personal interpretation. And if language is not the only vehicle of suggestion, it is all the more plausible that dhvani is a route to rasa, as well as the ineffable reflections of an embodied subject.

Thomas Reid and Suggestion in Perception

If suggestion is an awkward concept, then we should recognized that we are at the ground level dealing with a familiar, common sense way we interact with the world. The Common Sense philosopher, Thomas Reid also put forward a theory of suggestion as a factor in perception. The operation of suggestion first arises in his Inquiry into the Human Mind to explain empirically derived beliefs which are not arrived at on the basis of comparison.28 Suggestiveness is an ordinary power of extraordinary perception. Reid calls it: “a power to which we owe many of our simple notions that are neither impressions nor ideas, as well as many original principles of belief”.29 Reid distinguishes sensations, and original perceptions from acquired perceptions, as “the fruit of experience.”30 Now, we sometimes take suggestions as avenues or possibilities worthy of exploring or ignoring. Seeing personal possibilities in aesthetic experience is an Aristotelian way of making sense of the arts (Aristotle 1984; Singal 1977). Reid’s suggestion gets at the formation of actual beliefs, though, especially that of the self. He claims: “Yet this sensation suggests to us both a faculty and a mind; and as well as suggesting the notion of them it creates a belief in their existence; although it is impossible to discover by reason any tie or connection between one and the other.”31 In other words, we embellish perceptions as the world affords the perceptive opportunities, and as we picture the world: “our nature is so constituted that certain sensations of touch suggest to us extension, solidity, and motion, which are in no way like sensations though they have been hitherto confused with them.”32 Ordinary suggestion in perception builds up to extraordinary suggestions about the kind of being a subject of experience is. Reid thought that suggestion is an overlooked ingredient of ordinary perception, one which implicates sentience, which he associated with the power to directly perceive an enduring sense of selfhood.

On a mundane level, suggestion functions as a relation between sensation (e.g., heat) and original perception (e.g., fire), or between original perception and acquired perception (fireplace). In a theater, something like a fireplace can be nostalgic. The power of suggestion in perception is the experience available to a concept-bearing subject. In his own day, Reid claimed: “We all know that a certain kind of sound suggests immediately to the mind a coach passing in the street; and not only produces the imagination, but the belief that a coach is passing.”33 In theater, the same sound will resonate with an audience on the basis of representations. Sensation, dimly suggests perceptions, in a sense thickens experience as the rich determinants (vibhāvas) of vastu-dhvani create the objective setting for it. Suggestion operates on various levels, the ground level of which may be rich in conceptual content.34

Suggestion in perception may seem to be different from the suggestion in rasa-dhvani. Yet, it stays true to the suggestive functions of gesture and symbolic representation in a dramatic production. In that regard, Reid’s suggestion complements the Nāṭyaśāstra’s epistemologically active subject. As a comprehensive study of performance art, rasa-dhvani in perception transcends the object of propositional knowledge to get at the atmosphere of the suggested. In the case of the theater, heat of a fire is suggested and not felt, but it is the cozy atmosphere from the fireplace is upheld as the pratīyamāna. The sahṛdaya is moved beyond the objects themselves, to a non-referential way of being in the world. But anyone who has been out in the cold before and then had a fireplace to warm up to will get it. By being confronted with the knowledge of such a refuge, opening up the question of she who takes refuge, the ordinary is rendered extraordinary. Suggestion orients us to questioning the world in different ways. Asserting propositions about the world bring an end to inquiry. This questioning becomes a way of engaging with the world itself.

Ineffability and Poetic Truth

As Galvano Della Volpe points out, in one way or another, Western criticism has nurtured the assumption that the poetic “imagination” or poetic “image” is a vehicle of truth—an irrational vehicle to it. Plato’s accomplishment in the Ion was to show the poets’ ignorance. This relic of “aesthetic mysticism” has a corollary of intellectualism, one that demands art be concrete.35 Within these extremes is the brute fact that the building blocks of poetry are words, or image-concepts “in a vocabulary” (for us, vibhāvādi). Della Volpe’s assumption the image “might suggest that there may be a complex scientific and epistemological (though certainly not aestheticism or metaphysical) grounds for the venerable question ‘Beauty = Truth’?” Demonstrated by quoting Petrarch for an “emotive effect,” he is struggling to articulate rasa-dhvani:

I pine from place to place,

the day careworn, weeping in the night,

never still but as the moon is still.36

The truth about the poetic image for Della Volpe is the discourse it sustains for the sake of a sentiment alone. His claim is essentially that it is a truth about the way things “hang together,” as it were. Petrarch’s simile, given terms of the Sanskrit critic, Kṣemendra’s notion of aesthetic aucitya, has a certain fitness and appropriateness,37 demonstrated by the relation of the parts to the whole of a poetic image which can only be grasped by getting at the whole. Kṣemendra makes the point that the aesthetic whole is a non-determining experience supervening on determinate parts. In Petrarch, the indeterminate aspect of it is the relishable sorrow of unrelenting agitation—steady as imperceptible motion. Eliot Deutsch comments that as such rasas fill experience because “the art-work calls our attention to it and controls our experience.” As with śāntarasa, it serves as a pointer to reality, as well as participates in it. “In spiritual experience, there is only the Real.”38

Rasa and Epistemological Value

The attempt to describe what emotional states really express, and whether or not we come away from them with any cognitive value, is a philosophical quagmire. It all depends on what we understand emotions to be and how we construe cognitive value, though. This is especially true for the powerful emotions of some religious experiences and aesthetic experiences and the experience of sublimity. The philosophical distinction of aestheticized emotions, or rasas, pushes us in the direction of a non-cognitive theory of emotions, and at the same time, its categories are so radically different from ordinary categories of emotions that a cognitive theory of emotions stands on its own and is strengthened. The Roman philosopher, Seneca noticed this and ruled out there being genuine emotions in aesthetic experience.39 On one hand, experiencing what he saw as powerful first movements of affective response in the arts, seems quite unlike an ordinary personal emotion, which could be read as second-order judgments to a first movement. Thus, the expression “being at a loss for words” may be an apt description across a range of quasi-emotion experiences, including aesthetic ones. On the other hand, our aesthetic responses are more nuanced than we give ourselves credit for, and we do in fact look to the arts as an affective touchstone for knowing reality as it is—beyond words. Rasa has implicit cognitive value without being itself cognitive because aestheticized emotions have the power to hold us in a state which could lead to inquiry along multiple lines. As Abhinavagupa pointed out, we have opportunities there to learn otherwise painful lessons with pleasure in the arts.40 The practice of rasa experience brings with it a sense of wonder that straddles an emotionally immersed but personally distanced stance. While wonder in the real world orients us to inquire into it, the wonder of aestheticized emotion (adbhuta) captures the inquiring mind. At the heart of it is the aesthetic enjoyment, or adbhutabhoga, and this is carried over into all the rasas, in the form of aesthetic of aesthetic enjoyment which is most like ruminating (camatkāra).41

The concern here has been with the power of dhvani, but also, implicitly, it is with the epistemological value of emotions in a very limited context—the arts. Now, we should see there is a basic idea about the relationship between arts and emotions which could use some revision, namely, that if there are emotions in aesthetic experience, then, they mark a conceptual judgment of something. In the first chapter of the Nāṭyaśāstra, there is a bold statement of the artistic purposiveness that keeps pace with the questioning element in Kant’s theory of aesthetic judgment. Interestingly, for the European Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant, reflective judging is a key feature of aesthetic experience, and because it is pleasurable, we linger there. In Abhinavagupta’s terms, the lingering state we are referring to is the state of repose (viśrānti—from the verb to rest, viśrāma, discussed also in Abh. VI). In the final stage of aesthetic enjoyment, there is no objective experience we can term as cognitive, but there is a terminus of cognition in general, which is at rest in the rasa experience.42

As noted earlier, judgment about selfhood is also a reflective judgment, in the sense that the self is never fully determined in ordinary experience. In this way, an aesthetic judgment ostensively captures the cognitive faculties (in Kantian terms, the imagination and understanding reflecting) back to us. Reflective judgment is then a means to access the amazing, marvelous subject, who questions subjectivity, against the possibility of an infinite regress of otherness. It is atemporal in scope, at once fragmented and unified—like Self. The incompleteness of the self-image prompts the wondrous, adbhuta, as a quasi-emotion free of egotistical concern, being the nature of pure subjectivity. Abhinavagupta makes reference to this aestheticized emotion in his commentary on Bhagavadgītā II. 2943 where the further question arises: Why is the nature of the Self not obvious? The answer Abhinavagupta intimates is that “This” (ātman) is a wonder that can only be realized in the extraordinary sense of wonder—aesthetic wonder (adbhuta). Thus, to a metaphysically oriented philosopher, it may seem adbhuta-rasa is accessing two things: the power of the Subject to make the world anew as an unfinished experience and the unity of the experiencer. Adbhuta-rasa suggests the metaphysical problem of unity and multiplicity.

Of course, as an experience of pure subjectivity, free from a determinate object, the resting place can only be the Self. Bharata claims drama aims to touch on reality: “It sings after the essence.” (bhāvānukīrtanam).44 The essence in question is also never determined, though. The epistemic value of rasa stays true to the determining, and never fully determined state of the subject, tracked as emotion qua subjectivity itselfit is a making it be, or bhāvayati.45 The subject here can be taken as “the ineffable Self beyond the ego” we hear of in the Kaṭha Upaniṣad.46 It is spoken by Yamadeva to a rare subject, Naciketas: “āścaryo vaktā” “āścaryo jñātā,” meaning: he is a wondrous speaker, [or a word-defying being.]47 Naciketas is the questioner par excellence, because he wonders, and he himself is the wondrous Subject of pure experience. This judgment of him is itself reflective and non-determining. It comes with appreciation for his [Naciketas] aesthetic sensitivity. We hope for emotionally refined experiences because we too are sentient, and if we also believe they are a refinement of the self,48 then, we should admit kalāyoga is a sincere, if not austere, practice. Against the argument they are merely elitist, the arts are actually an equalizer, a leveler, and a mirror to the self as another, in an earthy sense. After all, they bridge wonder and redemption in questioning—

What connection can there be

between the villain’s heart, hard as the wild date,

and songs of poets, tender as opening jasmine?

Be not amazed, but note the marvel that is told

of the moon, that with its nectared light

it brings a stone to tears.

Vidyākara, Subhāṣitaratnakoṣa49

It is in the world of sense experience, including common experiences, where simple objects become suggestive. The estranged self also becomes a less strange self, or detached from a nemesis (the ego), in aesthetic rapture, through a tasting (āsvāda). As we saw, the state of estrangement in aesthetic experience is a wondrous thing because it generates self-awareness, rasa. It is what Timalsina calls a transcendentalism “when the causal conditions are met, the aesthetic bliss or the esoteric state of self-awareness is self-revealed.”50 Yet, it is also part of human experiences which are neither esoteric, nor totally mundane.

Insofar as it reveals to us the unspeakable qualities of love, compassion, the comic, quietude and selfhood—through the rasadhvani experience we can bear to look deeper. It is an aesthetic route to being in the world philosophically, the same as Eliot Deutsch turned to late in his career, when he found rasa to be “in the spirit of seeking philosophical understanding” as “a potentially universal (and probably prescriptive) concept in aesthetics—East and West.”51 I take him to mean the prescriptive value is an overlooked form of epistemic value, and the mode of rasa-dhvani to be relevant to how we understand unspoken reality. It is not a matter of adding content to propositional knowledge, it is engagement with what is known in an expansive way, where what we know becomes part of the suggestive landscape. As Abhinava pictures it: the educative effect (vyutpādana) [of poetry] is different from that which comes from Scripture through its mandates and from history through its narrations. For in addition to the analogy which it furnishes that we should behave like Rāma [and not like Rāvana], it produces an expansion of one’s own imagination which serves as the means of tasting the rasas. With this more subtle view, Abhivava thinks we ought to find no fault.52

Rasa’s resistance to theorizing in terms of ordinary emotion judgments53 follows from the fact that dhvani awakens and directs our attention through subtle cues. All of this reflected back to us in the arts, in a reflective sort wonder (camatkāra), if only for a moment, at what the “Self” is—itself never a determinate object, but always determining. And so it is, by nature—ineffable. We want to say in philosophy so often is that Self is one. But how else can we do so except by not speaking it? With words, we run into contradictions.

Towards a Hybrid Theory of Suggestion

On its own, Reid’s concept of suggestion in perception can do some integral work in understanding how we make contact with the ordinary ineffability of another’s perceptions and feelings. After all, knowing that someone is in love is not the same as knowing what it feels like to be madly in love, and it is only through evocative suggestions that we learn others may not experience it all the same. But dhvani, as a hybrid theory, can do more. It has the power to bridge ordinary suggestion in perception, with contemplation in a rasa experience, in effect getting at a non-mundane experience. The rasa experience is non-cognitive insofar as cognition is concerned with objects, if only in virtue of its independence from specific times, places, and persons. Yet, the rasa experience is also an embodied experience. As Timalsina comments: “the power of suggestion embodies both realms: it describes the absolute while embodying the corporeal.”54 Arguably, the epistemic value of the rasa experience is that it gets at the ineffability of the subject by being emotionally embodied in the world and at the same time emotionally transcending it. Given cognitive judgments are relaxed and fluid in art experiences, it is no wonder that it serves as a means to getting at a non-cognitive state. It is more interesting that the cognitive grasp of imagery, and imagined affective responses (vibhāvādi), renders the non-cognitive states of aestheticized emotion accessible, and there, we have another way of touching on, and being in the world.


  1. 1.

    In the book Strange Tools, Alva Noë makes a case for the reverse, that art-experiences lead directly to knowledge. However, his position is critiqued by the Kant scholar, Paul Guyer, on precisely this point. Noë 2016, and Paul Guyer, “Alva Noë, Strange Tools: Art and Human Nature” Philosophy and Phenomenological Research 94 (1):230–237 (2017)

  2. 2.

    As Abhinavagupta reports in the Abhinavabhāratī. Muni and Abhinavagupta,1970, Pollock2010, and Pollock, 2018, 75

  3. 3.

    Immanuel Kant, Critique of Judgment. Kant and Pluhar2010

  4. 4.

    Lawrence McCrea makes a powerful exposition of the underlying tension between the two divergent paths of philosophy of language in Sanskrit aesthetics. See “Two Cultures of Meaning” Handbook of Indian Aesthetics, Chakrabarti, ed. Chakrabarti 2016

  5. 5.

    Ānandavardhana, Dhvanyāloka, Krishnamoorthy1955, with Abhinavagupta’s commentary, the Locanā, Ānandavardhana & Abhinavagupta, Ingalls, Masson and Patwardhan1989

  6. 6.

    The Anirvacanīyavādins, 11.2.3, 12.3

  7. 7.

    Here, sahṛdaya, taken as “elitist” is out of context. It makes clear the challenge as a philosophical one, though. For the original context of sahṛdaya (sensitive reader) see the Locana, 4.16, p 721 in Ingalls trans.

  8. 8.

    Philosopher Thomas Nagel posed the question “What it is like to be a bat” as a challenge to our ability to generalize about radically different experiences, which naturally follow from differences in modes of perception. In human experiences, the more esoteric an experience is, the greater the difficulty there is in expressing it in language. Professor Timalsina comments on a similar problem in the context of the esoteric Tantric tradition and contemporary cognitive theory. He claims: “Even when metaphoric expression of something uncommon is considered possible, the description of mystical experience will be something similar to describing ‘sweet’ love to someone who is aware of only sweet mangos.” In “Metaphor, Rasa, and Dhvani: Suggested Meaning in Tantric Esotericism” by Sthaneshwar Timalsina Method and Theory in the Study of Religion (2007) 134–162

  9. 9.

    Locana, 2.4. Ingalls trans. p. 226. See also Gnoli 1956 p. XXIV

  10. 10.

    According to Ingalls, “Abhinava chose the title Locana for his commentary on the Sahrdayāloka (Dhvanyāloka) because he intended it to serve as an “eye” by which one could see the “light for connoisseurs” which Ananda had furnished.” 33

  11. 11.

    In the Nāṭyaśāstra, the following rasas are clearly articulated with varying degrees of import in dramatic production and predominance in theatrical performance: karuṇa (compassion), śṛṅgāra (erotic), abhuta (wonder), bibhasta (odious), bhyānaka (terror), raudra (ferocious), vīrara (heroic), and hāsya (comic), and śāntarasa (tranquility or quietude), vigorously defended by Abhinavagupta in the Abhinavabhāratī VI, (c. 950–100) a commentary on Bharata’s Nāṭyaśāstra. It is where we find the specifics of and fragmentary references to the lost work of Bhaṭṭa Nāyaka, Sahṛdayadarpaṇa.

  12. 12.

    The Rasa Sūtra is an aphorism that sums up their logic as follows: Rasa arises from the combination of three necessary conditions: (1) determining factors (vibhāvas), (2) consequents (anubhāvas), and (3) transient emotions (vyabhicāribhāvas). (Vibhāvānubhāvavyabhicārīsamyogād rasạ nispattiḥ / Nātỵaśāstra, 6.32.).

  13. 13.

    Dhvanyāloka 3.10

  14. 14.

    Ekman 2005, 45–60.

  15. 15.

    Prinz 2004, 69–88.

  16. 16.

    Aesthetic Rapture is the name of J.L. Masson and M.V. Patwardhan’s translation of the Rasādhāya of the Nāṭyaśāstra

  17. 17.

    K. C. Bhattacharyya, “The Concept of Rasa” offers a radically precise conception of first personal emotions, second personal emotions, and rasa, in contrast to more recent conceptions of aesthetic emotion. See Bhattacharyya 2011

  18. 18.

    Krishnamoorthy, 196–7

  19. 19.

    Dhvanyāloka, Uddyota III, 32.7

  20. 20.

    Rastogi: Perspectives on Abhinava

  21. 21.

    V. Raghavan 1973, Studies on Some Concepts of the Alaṃkāra Śāstra. p. 293–6

  22. 22.

    See Rastogi n.d, p. 430

  23. 23.

    Bharata claims: “just as a tree grows from a seed, and flowers and fruits from the tree, so the relationship holds between the bhāvas and rasas” (Nātỵaśāstra, 6 .38)

  24. 24.

    Amaldass, Anand. 1984Philosophical Implications of Dhvani, 26

  25. 25.

    Amaladass, Anand. 1984 (99) Philosophical Implications of Dhvani, remarks on pratyabhijñāta in Dhvanyāloka

  26. 26.

    1.8 Ingalls trans. P.125

  27. 27.

    tena jñātasyāpi viśeṣato nirūpaṇamanusandhānātmakamatra pratyabhijñaṃ, na tu tadevedamityetāvanmātram / Locana 1.8

  28. 28.

    See: P. G. Winch (1953): “The Notion of ‘Suggestion” In Thomas Reid’s Theory of Perception” pp. 327–341

  29. 29.

    Reid 2015Inquiry, II, 7

  30. 30.

    Reid, Thomas 2015Inquiry, Ch. VI, Sect. 20.

  31. 31.

    Ibid II, Sect. 7

  32. 32.

    Inquiry, II, 8

  33. 33.

    Inquiry, Ch. II, Sect.

  34. 34.

    Reid claims “sensation naturally suggests basic notions of present existence; memory suggests past existence; and our sensations and thoughts also suggest the notion of a mind, and the belief that it exists and relates in a certain way to our thoughts.” (Inquiry, II.7).

  35. 35.

    The “mystics” in question include Coleridge and Wordsworth. See Della Volpe, Critique of Taste. p. 15–16

  36. 36.

    Ibid, 18; Francesco Petrarca, Canzoniere CCXXXVII

  37. 37.


  38. 38.

    Deutsch 1975, in Studies in Comparative Aesthetics, p. 19

  39. 39.

    Seneca, (On Anger) De Ira, Book II.

  40. 40.

    Abhinavabhāratī VI.

  41. 41.

    The experience of the marvelous (adbhutabhoga) has an inherent relation to wonder through the surprise that accompanies a flash of insight (pratibhā). Thus, in seeking epistemic value, the value of “Wonder,” ought to be first in the rasas we examine. It perhaps has a relation to every rasa experience. Pandey et al. 2013

  42. 42.

    Chakrabarti, Arindam 2005, “Heart of Repose, The Repose of the Heart: A Phenomenological Analysis of the Concept of Viśrānti”

  43. 43.

    It is claimed: “This someone observes as a wonder; similarly another speaks of This as a wonder; another hears This as wonder; but even after hearing, not even one understands the true nature of This [ātman].” For an alternate translation, see Boris Marjanovic, Abhinavagupta's Commentary on the Bhagavad Gītā: Gītārtha-Saṁgraha. Rudra Press, 2006.

  44. 44.

    NS 1.108–116, Muni Ghosh 1956

  45. 45.

    Nāṭyaśāstra, 7.1. In the analysis, Bharata claims it is synonymous with bhāvitaḥ, kṛta, and vāsita.

    See also Arindam Chakrabarti, Bloomsbury, Introduction

  46. 46.

    Chakrabarti 2016, Bloomsbury Intro., p. 5

  47. 47.

    Ibid. Chakrabarti p.3

  48. 48.

    [The arts are] a refinement of the self (ātma-saṃskṛti). Aitareya Brahmana, 6:27, ca. 1000 BCE

  49. 49.

    Ingalls trans. 1278/253

  50. 50.

    S. Timalsina, p. 153

  51. 51.

    Deutsch 1975, in Studies in Comparative Esthetics

  52. 52.

    Locana 2.4

  53. 53.

    Picturing emotions as cognitive judgments has become a paradigm of neo-Stoicism. See Nussbaum, Martha C. 2008. Upheavals of thought: the intelligence of emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. and Boruah, Bijoy H. Fiction and Emotion: A study in esthetics and the philosophy of mind. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2002. See also, De Sousa 1990.

  54. 54.

    S. Timalsina Method and Theory in the Study of Religion 19 (2007) 134–162, p. 152



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© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyUniversity of Hawaii at ManoaHonoluluUSA

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