A glimpse into Abhinavagupta’s ideas on aesthetics

by Geetika Kaw Kher

Abhinavagupta a distinguished  philosopher, aesthete and saint was one of the most outstanding Acharyas of the Monistic Shaivism. His exact date of birth is not known but we learn from references about him in his works Tantraloka and Paratrimshika Vivarana that he lived in Kashmir about the end of the tenth and beginning of the eleventh century A.D. The earliest known ancestor of Abhinavagupta was a famous Brahmin Attrigupta a great Shaiva teacher and scholar of Kanauj, who had been invited to settle in Kashmir by King Lalitaditya.

Abhinava Gupta was thus born in a family which had a long tradition of scholarship and devoutness for Lord Siva. His father Narasimhagupta (Cukhulaka) and mother Vimalakala were great influence in his life and it is believed that they both underwent austerities to be bestowed with an extra ordinary son with spiritual powers.

Traditionally believed to have been a Yoginibhu (born of a Yogini), he mastered subjects like metaphysics, poetry and  aesthetics at a very young age He  possessed all the eight Yogic powers explained in Shastras. His biographers observed six great spiritual signs as explained in ‘Malinivijayotara Shastra’, in him. Kashmir Shaivism is classified by Abhinavagupta in four systems viz. Krama system, Spanda system, Kula system and Pratyabijnya system. ‘Krama’ deals with space and time, ‘Spanda’, with the movement, ‘Kula’ with the Science of Totality and ‘Pratyabijnya’ with the school of Recognition. (Ref G.T. Deshpande’s monogram on Abhinava Gupta for detailed explanation)

His two major works on Poetics, Dhavnyalokalocana and Abhinava Bharati point towards his quest into the nature of aesthetic experience. In both these works Abhinava Gupta suggests that Aesthetic experience is something beyond worldly experience and he has used the word ‘Alaukika’ to distinguish the former feeling from the mundane latter ones. He subscribed to the theory of Rasa Dhvani and thus entered the ongoing aesthetic debate on nature of Aesthetic pleasure.

Rasa--roughly translated: "as emotive aesthetics" - is one of the most important concept in classical Indian aesthetics, having pervasive influence in theories of painting, sculpture, dance, poetry, and drama. Rasa theory argues that the presentation of emotions is the proper object and domain of poetic discourse. Bharata in  Natyashastra his pioneering work on Indian dramatics mentions eight rasas and says  Rasa is produced when  ‘Vibhaava’, Anubhava and Vyabhichari bhava come together.

Vibhavanubhava-vyabhicari-samyogat Rasa nispattih (Rasa Sutra, Natyasastra)

Vibhava: A medium through which an emotion arises in an actor e.g. A child riding a stick and enjoying it as if he were actually riding a horse

Anubhava: All the physical changes arising due to the vibhavas e.g. changes in facial expression and body language

Vyahicari bhava: Transient emotions e.g. weeping with joy

The language of feelings is not a private language; it is more a system of symbols, a language game that is understood by those who have learned its conventions and usages. Emotions treated in a poem are neither the projections of the reader's own mental states nor the private feelings of the poet; rather, they are the objective situations abiding in the poem as its cognitive content. Rasa is understood as residing in the situational factors presented in an appropriate language. A poet chooses a theme because he sees a certain promise for developing its emotional possibilities and exploits it by dramatizing its details.

The adherents of rasa theory believed rasa, to be the meaning of the poetic sentence but they had different ideas about the definition of art.

Abhinavabharati a commentary on Bharata's Natyasastra talks about these scholars and comments on their  theories. Bhatta Lollata believed art to be an imitation of reality. His views were contested by Sri Sankuka who stated that art cannot be an imitation simply because it exists in a different place and time. Further he explained his point of view by giving the analogy of a pictorial horse (chitaraturaganyaya). He says when one sees a horse painted one doesn’t mistake it for the original horse but one sees it as the representation of the original horse and thus derives the aesthetic pleasure through this identification. Since art cannot imitate all the qualities of the original subject hence it is just an inference and not an imitation. BhattaTauta, Abhinavagupta's teacher, raised a valid question regarding the imitation of the mental state. According to him there is no way an actor can feel and react in exactly the same way as the original character. The actor presents his feelings i.e. how he would react if put in the original characters position. Hence art cannot be inferred but depends on the imagination of the spectator.

Abhinavagupta though agrees to many of the suggestions put forward by Rasa theory also points at its various limitations. According to him art is not just  about evoking certain feelings but a real work of art in addition to possessing emotive charge needs to have a strong sense of suggestion and capacity to produce various meanings. This is where he refers to Dhvanivada. He says that for a work of art it is not enough to be having abhida (literal meaning) and laksana (metaphorical meaning ) but it should also possess Vyanjana the suggested meaning which has absolutely nothing to do with the other two levels of meaning. Thus an aesthetic experience cannot be experienced like any ordinary mundane experience. A true aesthetic object does not simply stimulate the senses but also stimulates the imagination of the spectator. Once the imagination is stimulated the spectator aesthete gets transported to a world of his own creation. This emotion deindividualises an individual by freeing him from those elements which constitute individuality such as place, time etc. and raises him to the level of universal. Thus art is otherworldly or Alaukika in its nature.

One of the major passage in which he dwells on alaukikatva is:

“When a man hears the words: ’A son is born to you’ joy is produced (through the power of denotation - abhida). But the suggested sense (rasa and the like) is not produced the way joy is produced in the above case. Nor does it come about through the secondary usage (laksana, gunavrtti, bhakti). But it arises in a sensitive man (sahrdaya - a man who is sensitive to literature )through his knowledge of vibhavas and anubhava, because of his hrdaya-samvada (sympathetic response) and his tanmayibhava (identification). It is vilaksana (different) from ordinary awareness of happiness etc. and it is not an objective thing”    Dhvaynalokalocana, p.79

In this passage he points out clearly that the vibhavas do not correspond to any karana (reason) in case of art like they do in everyday life. They make the relish of Rasa possible and hence exist at a different plane altogether.

Abhinavagupta turned his attention away from the linguistic and related abstractions which had preoccupied even Anandavardhana, focussing his attention instead on the human mind, specifically the mind of the reader or viewer of a literary work. The first step in Abhinavagupta's project involved the recognition that the theory of rasadhvani, could not be understood as a theory of abstract linguistic structure. Rather, it only made sense as a theory of the way people respond to literature. In other words, rasadhvani had to be conceived in psychological terms. According to this system the reader becomes the central focus of literary criticism. The aim of kavya is to give pleasure , but this pleasure must not bind the soul to the body.

Thus he attributed the state of divinity to arts and considered Shanta Rasa as the ultimate Rasa. According to him the pleasure one derives out of a real work of art is no less than divine pleasure. As one has to constantly struggle and detach oneself to reach the Almighty similarly a true connoisseur of arts has to learn to detach the work from its surroundings and happenings and view it independently, e.g. the feeling that might bring pain in real life is capable of causing pleasure in an art form. The great success of Greek tragedies can be attributed to the pleasure it aroused in the spectators and brought about the emotional Catharsis (purging out).

In his Dhvanyaloka Anandavardhana observes: “In the province of poetry (creative literature) obviously standards of truth and falsity have no relevance. Any attempt to find out or discover whether a poem (or any literary composition) is true or false by employing means of valid cognition leads to ridicule alone” Abhinavagupta comments on it: “Such a person will be ridiculed as follows: He is not able or competent to appreciate aesthetic experience or his mind has become (truly) hard by indulging in dry logic.” 

Thus he asserts that the “willful suspension of disbelief” is a prerequisite for enjoying any art form. The moment one starts questioning it or doubting it and looking at it objectively it loses its charm and status and becomes equivalent to any mundane object. One enjoys a play only when one can identify the character as the character from the drama and not as ones friend or associate. For the time that the drama goes on the character should take over the actor in a spectators mind i.e. the spectator should rise above the worldly connections and try to experience the supernatural aspect of art which has nothing to do with the worldly concerns.

Acharya Abhinavagupta
Acharya Abhinavagupta