Rasa Theory in Western Poetics

The Sanskrit literary tradition is among the oldest ones in the world. It has developed a unique aesthetic context that differs greatly from the Western literary theory and rhetoric. One of the concepts that will be researched in the current paper is rasa, that deals with the emotive side of the piece of art.

It is possible to find the cases where rasa is partly used in the Western literature. For example, the catharsis is a form of rasa, a purification through the art. Such similarity supports the idea that in fact the theory of rasa, as the theory that describes the way the piece of art communicates with the audience, is valid not only for the Indian culture, but can be applied to another culture as well. Despite the general similarity between the notion of rasa and corresponding concepts in the Western literary discourse, they are still more differences in the approach towards writing and perceiving the piece of literature.

It is necessary to start from explaining what is rasa and how it is related to the traditional Indian aesthetics. It is translated from Sanskrit as “the essence” or “the juice”, which is the main emotional theme of the piece of literature and which in fact denotes the primary and the dominant feeling that the art provokes.

The doctrine was originally created by Bharata Muni approximately from 200 BC to 200 AD. He introduces the notion of rasa in the sixth and the seventh chapters of his work about theory of drama, the Nātyasāstra. The theory of rasa features the following components.

First, the ways of expressing emotions in poetry are the same as the ones in everyday life and are a combination of circumstances depending on situational factors. Second, there is a strictly set number of different emotions. Third, the emotions have internal differences. Thus, some of them are dependent and fugitive, while the others are permanent and stable. The latter permanent emotions can be developed into rasas or aesthetic moods in other words. Fourth, it is necessary to remember that a piece of poetry consists of a variety of tone, but they are not equal, that is why only the dominant tones prevail and create the general impression. The last fifth issue that is mentioned in the Nātyasāstra the tones are combined in the piece of writing according to the inner logic of propriety and congruity (n.d. 49).

Another key Indian philosopher Anandavardhana developed the theory of rasa in his work Dhvanyaloka, which touches the theme of aesthetic suggestion. Anandavardhana combines the analysis of the literary work with the help of the rasa theory with the formalist approach. As the result he managed to understand every piece of writing as the whole that was functionally unified in order to reach one specific goal, which is convening a specific rasa to the audience. A peculiar characteristic of the approach proposed by Anandavardhana is that the process of understanding the particular rasa, or the emotional message, depends much upon dhvani, or the suggestion. The innovation of this art theorist is a vivid example of the claim that the rasa theory is a basic one for the Indian art for many centuries. It was set as an example for every creator and soon was developed by the next generations (n.d. 100).

As it was mentioned earlier, it is impossible to find a concept in the Western literary tradition that will be entirely similar to the Indian notion of rasa. It is uncharacteristic to the Wester poetics even by its nature, because it is the spiritual category, that should be understood with the help of intuition. The traditional Western approach is more rational and thus experiencing the rasa is quite problematic even to imagine for a person who is not acquainted with the Sankrit poetics.

According to the theory of rasa, everything should be learned through emotions. Rasa can be viewed as the total emotional response of the reader to the piece of literature. It also supposes that rasa determines what is the dominant emotion that makes the reader enjoy the piece of art. Even though the writing can combine several emotions, some of them are “swallowed” by the more powerful and durable ones. For example, a person who just has read the book can be agitated and his/her agitation has a double origin. It can derive both from the ecstasy of love and anger of jealousy. The key point in understanding what is the rasa is the rule that the rasa can not combine two or more emotions. One emotion has to dominate, and so the rasa in such example can be love or anger, not agitation. It is considered that dispersing the reader’s attention on two or emotions the work of literature loses its force (n.d. 68-72).

This issue can be compared to the structural devision in the classical Western poetics. The idea that there should be emotional unity in literature originates from the Antique times. It was considered that a good tragedy had to follow the unity of time, of place and of action. The described events should develop during 24 hours (unity of time), occur in the same place (the unity of place), and form the complete idea(unity of action). The Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote for the first time about the need for unity in the drama in his Poetics in the 4th BC. For many centuries and until the beginning of the 20th century it was believed that the establishing stylistic principles of the normative poetics form the basis for the talented piece of writing.

The compositional integrity of dramatic works consists of the following components: the cause (the exposition), the effect (the culmination turn for the worse or for the better), the result (the denouement leading to the death of a hero, or to achieving his or her well-being) (Lancham 52). It is possible to state that there are certain similarities in the classic Western view upon the structure of the work of literature. Though, the aspects that are emphasizes are different. The Western approach, that originates from the ancient Greek tradition, does not pay much attention to the emotional integrity of the play, that needs to be understood individually and subconsciously. The main accent is made on the unity of action and the changes in action are the main components of the Western literature. Unlike the Western poetic tradition, the Indian theory supposes that the emotions are the key components of every piece of art. The actions are not that important, but if there is no unity of emotions and the dominant emotion does not reach the reader, than the work of literature is not considered to be good.

One of the examples of the piece of literature from the Western tradition that vividly shows the wide range of emotions is the play by Shakespeare Romeo and Juliette. The protagonists of the play go through a difficult emotional development from ecstatic love to deadly grief. It can be called impure poetry according to the ideas of the rasa theory, because it is impossible to state which emotion is dominant in Romeo and Juliette. Though, it has a unity of effect that is claimed to be obligatory both by the Western tradition and by the rasa poetics. The main issue is that the two approaches perceive this unity of effect very differently.

The notion of effect the piece of writing has on its readers is closely connected with another peculiar issue, catharsis. It is possible to state that catharsis is the only thing that both approaches to the poetics have in common. Catharsis is the concept introduced by Aristotle in his Poetics that denotes purification of all emotions through the piece of art (Lancham 23). In fact, the Sanskrit theory of poetics and the Western tradition are united by the result the art has to attain.

Though, the way this goal can be achieved are totally different. First of all, the only genre of literature that was initially able to lead the audience to the catharsis was tragedy, as the Antique tradition claimed. The comedy was considered by the Greek to be a low genre, that do not invoke the feeling of pity in the minds of people. It was possible to understand what catharsis was only through experiencing pity. The theory of rasa does not impose such strict regulations on the set of emotions that allow people to experience purification through the art. It is possible to feel it by experiencing a random strong emotion like tender or love.

It is quite difficult to compare two literary theories that are different even in their core like the Western poetic tradition and the Sanskrit one, to which the rasa theory belongs. Their values developed apart from each other for centuries and thus have a different approach to understanding the literary art. The rasa theory can be compared to the notion of catharsis and the rhetoric device of play structure, because in fact it uses the same ideas. However, the details form a great difference between the discussed approaches.


Richard A. Lancham. A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms. California: University of California Press, 2012.

n.d. “Anadavardhana’s Dhvanayaloka and the Teleology of Poetic Language”. Pdf. pp. 99-164.

n.d. “The Logic of the Emotions”. Pdf. pp. 48-74.

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