The Natya Sastra

The Natya Sastra is an ancient classical treatise on the performing arts. The word natya means and comprises both dance and drama. The dual meaning signifies also the fact that drama, as conceived by Bharata, is an integrated art of music, dance, action, and poetry (Raghavan 36). This, along with the word sastra, a work of scripture/holy text, explains the meaning of the title of this treatise. It is also sometimes known as the “fifth Veda” or Scripture on Dramatic Arts. Authorship of the Natya Sastra is attributed to one of India’s greatest heroes and sages, Bharata (Lidke 126). This old Sanskrit text is often difficult to date; many estimates range from 500 BCE to 500 CE (Dace 249), and even 200 BCE to 200 CE (Raghavan 37).

The Natya Sastra begins with a passage describing the origins of drama and the theatre. It describes how the golden age, in which all human beings enjoyed a state of enlightenment, complete health, and fulfilment, had come to an end. The silver age had begun and humans were afflicted by the first symptoms of suffering (Meyer-Dinkgrafe 2005:1). People took to uncivilized ways, were ruled with lust and greed, behaved in angry and jealous ways with each other and not only gods but demons, evil spirits, yaksas and such like others swarmed over the earth (Rangacharya 4). Upon seeing all of this, the gods, with Indra as their leader, were concerned and approached the creator God, Brahma. They asked him to come up with a way to allow humans to revert to the golden age. They requested him to give the people a toy (kridaniyaka); one which could not only be seen, but also heard. They had hoped that it would become a diversion so that people gave up their bad ways (Rangacharya 4). This did not sit well with Brahma, as he was the one who created all beings and the Vedas. If humans were being uncivilized and behaving in such bad ways, then surely it would mean that they were not following the Vedas and of all its knowledge. Indra then explained to him that although the Vedas were available to many, they were not available to all. Sudras, the lowest caste, did not have access to the Vedas – they were not allowed to learn, read, or even listen to the Vedas. Indra specified that the means should be a fifth Vedic text, an addition to the four main texts of Indian (Vedic) philosophy (Meyer-Dinkgrafe 2005:1). It was to be captivating, pleasing, instructive, and above all, accessible.

Brahma listened to Indra’s request and created a Natyaveda. He immersed himself in meditation and came up with natya, drama, which he asked Indra and the gods to implement (Meyer-Dinkgrafe 2005:1). In the Natya Sastra, the creator god, Brahma, is cited as stating that the purpose of the Natya Sastra is to reveal to humankind the technology by which one can come to understand the nature of the world through its dramatic re-presentation (Lidke 126-127). Indra carried the book with him and read it to the other gods, but believed that none of them were capable of understanding. He then proposed to Brahma that a search for the correct person be made among the many sages. Sages were often regarded as studious, hardworking, intellectual people. Indra believed that a sage would be the proper person for this task. Thus, it was that the final choice fell on Bharata, who was asked to take charge of the work (Rangacharya 5). Bharata condensed the work so that all mortals would be able to understand and use it. Bharata then went ahead and taught all of the knowledge that he obtained from Brahma to his hundred sons, who were thus the very first actors.

The Natya Sastra is a great work that describes all of the aspects of drama in detail. This Sanskrit Hindu text contains close to 6,000 verses that deal with many topics. The diverse range of topics go from the ideal size of a theatre to directions for blessing the stage. The Natya Sastra defines hand gestures and meaningful combinations of foot steps, for example, those used to mime “riding in a sky chariot” (Delmonico 520-521). It describes elaborately proper dresses for male and female characters, not only according to the part of the country and age of the character, but also according to the status (social) of the character; even different locales would mean a change in dress (Rangacharya 37). No detail is considered too small in this treatise. The Natya Sastra describes thirty-six different eye motions and matches different things, such as colors and musical instruments to distinct moods. Slight variations in vocal pitches are analyzed and discussed to determine appropriateness for stage whispers. It outlines the ideal arrangement of the numerous elements of the plot, as well as the construction of the play. It includes diverse topics like dramatic premise, characters, auditorium, poetics, acting, language, dance, song, instruments, costumes, the religious ceremony to be performed before opening of the act, different types of drama, poetics, style and abilities required of different characters like the stage manager, comedian, courtesan, lead actor and actress (Joshi 36).

The Natya Sastra lists the ten forms of stage-representations: dasa rupakas, as nataka, prakarana, anka, vyayoga,bhana, samavakara,vithi, prashasana, dima, and ihamrga. Traditionally, dramas are formed and shaped according to the hero and the rasa. The word rasa means “essence” and refers to the nature of aesthetic sentiment. It is the emotional theme of a work of art or the overall feeling that the viewer experiences after watching or reading such a work. A rasa depends on not only the type of story, but also on the hero. Together, the elements of hero (neta), story (vastu), and rasa (artistic enjoyment) constitute the three essential ingredients of a drama (Rangacharya 56). Each of the ten forms are able to be examined with these three characteristics in mind. For example, in a nataka, the story is quite well-known with a royal sage as the hero. The rasa is usually either srngara (love) or vrna (heroic), and it is five to seven acts in length. In a prakaranam, the story is made up by the writer with a Brahmana or minister as the hero. The main rasa is srngara (love) and it is five to ten acts in length. An anka could either be a well-known story with an ordinary man as the hero, the rasa being pathos done in only one act. These can be compared to, say, a prahasana, which is just an imaginary story.

In addition to theatre aesthetics, the Natya Sastra is also notable for its aesthetic Rasa Theory. Chapter six of this treatise contains the roots of the theory of rasa. According to Bharata, a dramatist uses all available means – words, plots, gestures, songs, dance, costumes, etc. – to enrapture sensitive viewers (Delmonico 521). A great example to help understand rasa is one of a meal that contains many different dishes, all with a variety of tastes such as sweet, hot, sour, etc. While each dish is being eaten, a different taste is being enjoyed. Just like the food, the audience ‘tastes’ different states of experience, namely, love, joy, sorrow, anger, virility, terror, disgust, and wonder. Some later writers on Sanskrit poetics add one more rasa to this number, santa (Meyer-Dinkgrafe 2001:103). This ninth rasa is one with a “peaceful” flavor. Like the taste of food, rasa is something which can be relished.  Typically, a single rasa will dominate a play or poem, however each will be slightly unique as there are many different factors that can be taken into account.

Chapter seven of the Natya Sastra examines forty-nine mental states (bhavas) out of which rasa is created. A bhava is nothing but what expresses a reaction, be it by bodily gestures or by words. (Rangacharya 77). Rasa is the result of and from the bhavas, but not vice versa. Eight of them are long lasting sthayi-bhavas, while another eight are involuntary physical responses (sattvika-bhavas) like blushing or trembling. The other thirty-three emotions are fleeting ones, vyabhicari-bhavas, powerful enough to fuel a moment or to affect the flavor of a stronger emotion, but not powerful enough to reign over a whole aesthetic experience (Delmonico 521).

The Natya Sastra is a voluminous work that many view as a masterpiece. It has been an important resource for Hindu theatre and has provided many individuals with information regarding the role of arts in both one’s social and personal lives. Many different forms of art have been heavily influenced by this major treatise. One of the most notable being the Nataraja temple in Cidamaram. Carved into this temple are the one hundred eight karanas (postures) that are denoted in the Natya Sastra (McCutchen 450). The movements of dance and expression described in the Natya Sastra can be found carved into the pillars, walls and gateways of some Hindu temples. It is evident that this treatise on dramatics is the most comprehensive study on performance arts and one of the most influential.





Dace, Wallace (1963) “The Concept of “Rasa” in Sanskrit Dramatic Theory.” Educational Theatre Journal 15, no. 3: 249-54. Accessed February 3, 2017. doi:10.2307/3204783.


Delmonico, Elizabeth Otten (2000) “Rasa in Arun Kolatkr’s “Jejuri”: An Application of Classical Indian Aesthetics.” Soundings: An Interdisciplinary Journal 83, no. 3/4: 519-42. Accessed February 3, 2017.


Joshi, Dinkar, and Yogesh Patel (2005) Glimpses of Indian Culture. New Delhi: Start Pubns Pvt Ltd.


Lidke, Jeffrey 2011. “Tabla, spirituality, and the arts” In Studying Hinduism in Practice, edited by Hillary Rodrigues, 118-130. London: Routledge, 2011.


McCutchen, Brenda Pugh (2006) Teaching Dance as Art in Education. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.


Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Daniel (2001) Approaches to Acting: Past and Present (Continuum Studies in Drama). London: Continuum.


Meyer-Dinkgräfe, Daniel (2005) Theatre and Consciousness: Explanatory Scope and Future Potential. Bristol, U.K.: Intellect Books.


Raghavan, V. (1967) “Sanskrit Drama: Theory and Performance.” Comparative Drama 1, no. 1: 36-48. Accessed February 3, 2017.


Rangacharya, Adya (1998) Introduction to Bharata’s Natyasastra. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal Publ.



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Dance in India




Rasa Theory


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Article written by: Kristine Villaluna (February 2017) who is solely responsible for its content.