Rasa Theory in Hinduism

Rasa theory explains how one can have an emotional experience while watching a drama (Sullivan 2011:166). Rasa is “an emotional response that is inspired in an audience by a performer” (Astha 2014). Rasa “literally means the quintessential essence of a work of art” (Astha 2014). To better explain rasa theory the components that create rasa, the pleasure of food as a metaphor for the feeling of rasa, how the nine rasas are evoked in an audience, and the nine rasas unique presiding deities and colors will be described. To explore the complexity of rasa theory, rasas intrinsic connection with death, the role of the creator and the audience in producing a rasa experience, an example of rasa theory in practice within the performance of Kutiyattam, and the changes rasa experiences as Indian society changes will be depicted.

Rasa is created with a combination of vibhava, anubhava, and bhava (Astha 2014). A bhava is a mood or an imitation of emotions (Astha 2014). Bhava conveys meaning through gestures and facial expressions (Astha 2014). Bhava is made up of vibhava and anubhava. Vibhava is a stimulant and anubhava is the manifestation and enactment of bhava (Astha 2014). Rasa theory is explained by Bharata in the Natya-sastra which is “an ancient Indian treaty on the performing arts” (Astha 2014). It is thought to have been written in the 2nd century BCE (Astha 2014), and it is arguably the fifth Veda (Lidke 126). In the Natya-sastra, Brahma says, “the purpose of the Natya-sastra is to reveal to human kind the technology by which one can come to understand the nature of the world through its dramatic re-presentation” (Lidke 126-127). There are nine rasas: humour (hasyam), love (srngara), anger (raudra), sorrow (karuna), fear (bhayanaka), amazement (abhuta), heroism (vir), disgust (bibhatsa), and tranquility (santa) (Gaston 84). Bharata described eight rasas but Abhinavagupta, who is the principal authority on rasa theory (Mason 76), argued for nine rasas. He argued that tranquility should be added as the ninth rasa because tranquility underlies and pushes forth the original eight rasas (Astha 2014).

Rasa is often described as a metaphor for the pleasure of food. When one eats food, one receives pleasure from the flavours. When an audience watches a performance, they receive pleasure from the “emotions conveyed to them through practical performance devices” (Mason 72). The flavour “is produced by the bhava through acting” (Astha 2014). However, the Natya-sastra makes it clear that this metaphor is not an equivalent to the rasa experience (Mason 74). While experiencing a drama, one receives an emotional response while also “having the awareness that one is witnessing an enactment rather than real life” (Sullivan 2011:166). This is called aesthetic distance. In the Natya-sastra, “the distinction between performer and spectator, the distance between them, is essential” (Mason 76). One can be so connected to the performance that one “tastes” the emotions of the performance, but one also maintains aesthetic distance. For example, while watching Rama fall in love with Sita, the pleasure one receives from watching Rama’s feelings “comes not from feeling what Ram[a] feels (or ‘tasting his emotion), but from appreciating what Ram[a] feels from the privileged position of spectators” (Mason 76-77). The audience does not have to feel exactly what the character is feeling, they just appreciate that they get to witness what the character is feeling.

The nine rasas are experienced by the audience in association with a bhava portrayed on stage by the performers (Astha 2014). For example, the rasa of humour is “evoked through expanded lips, cheeks, wide staring and contracted eyes” (Astha 2014). The audiences’ laughter “is stimulated by disfigurement of dress, impudence, incoherent speech, deformed appearance, queer behaviour, [and] strange costumes” (Astha 2014). In order to evoke the love rasa, the performers must wear beautiful costumes and jewellery and portray longing and sensitivity to nature (Astha 2014). The anger rasa is stimulated by “boldness, insults, cruelty” (Astha 2014), and leads to fighting. In order to invoke the rasa of sorrow, the performer “expresses loneliness, longing, and yearning for the absent lover or God” (Astha 2014). The fear rasa is stimulated in the audience “by seeing or hearing words, sounds and objects or by fear of jackals and owls, empty houses, forests…weird persons or sounds of getting into fights” (Astha 2014). The amazement rasa is “stimulated by the sight of divine persons” (Astha 2014). It is also stimulated by the sudden achievement of what was desired by the hero and by magic (Astha 2014). The heroic rasa is stimulated when the performer shows courage, determination and justice (Astha 2014). Every facial expression and detail of the costumes is important in order to evoke specific rasas. Tranquility, the recently added rasa, represents freedom, salvation, stabilization and motivation (Astha 2014). Since this rasa encompasses all of the other eight rasas, it “stretches the transcendental possibilities of aesthetic experience” (Astha 2014). Each rasa is presided over by a deity and is associated with a specific color. For example, the love rasa is associated with the color greenish blue and the god Visnu, while the laughter rasa is presided over by Pramatha and the color white. The rasa of anger is presided over by Rudra and is associated with the color red (Astha 2014). The rasa of sorrow is represented by Yama and the color pigeon (Astha 2014). The fear rasa is represented by Kala and the color black (Astha 2014). The rasa of amazement is associated with the color yellow and its presiding deity is Brahma (Astha 2014).The heroic rasa is presided over by Indra and its associated color is silverish white (Astha 2014). The disgust rasa represents the color blue and is presided over by Siva (Astha 2014).

The rasas give the audience pleasure, even though most of them are connected with death. Four of the rasas “are not particularly pleasant”: sorrow, disgust, anger, and fear (Mason 75). Death is represented “either as an anubhava or vyabhicari- bhava” (Sullivan 2007) which is the manifestation and enactment of a mood (Astha 2014). In the Natya-sastra, Bharata explains that sorrow “is to be represented on the stage by an array of anubhava, including tears and falling on the ground, but also insanity and death” (Sullivan 2007). The disgust rasa is portrayed with “death, along with despair, insanity, and so on” (Sullivan 2007). Certain acts described with the anger rasa lead to death but it is not specified that the character is supposed to be killed; for example, characters are supposed to cut off the head and limbs of other characters (Sullivan 2007). In the love rasa, death is not excluded in the thirty-three transitory states therefore, “even in a drama emphasizing the erotic, death may figure as a transitory state” (Sullivan 2007). For example, death is the final stage in separation from the beloved, for female characters (Sullivan 2007). Bharata explains “how one should speak while dying on the stage, with a faltering voice or repeating oneself” (Sullivan 2007). Bharata also specifies that different kinds of death will have different appearances (Sullivan 2007). The rasas create aesthetic delight and the representation of death on stage is “important in evoking rasa experience for the audience” (Sullivan 2007).

The performers are important in order for the audience to experience rasa, but the creator of the art that the performers are enacting also plays a key role. The rasa experience is a two-way process because the artist strives for rasa while creating their art while the audience must detect it (Astha 2014). In rasa theory, “the term sahrdaya has been variously translated as critic, observer, reader, spectator, or one who savors (rasika) in the creative process” (Sundararajan and Raina 2016). The receptor of a work of art can be described in three words: spectator, auditor, and empathizer (Sundararajan and Raina 2016). The auditor is part of a social group and the empathizer is “defined as one who has the same quality of heart and mind as the creator” (Sundararajan and Raina 2016). This is the ideal critic or sahrdaya. The audience receives aesthetic delight through a performance because of the specific actions of the performers and the creator. The audiences’ appreciation emotions and the audiences’ understanding of the history of the story being presented also impacts one’s aesthetic delight. The audience members only attend Sanskrit dramas in order to “experience the Rasa that the work of art can facilitate” (Sullivan 2011:166). The creator’s skill is to “anticipate a mind that understands and appreciates” (Sundararajan and Raina 2016). The audience must be “qualified to appreciate the depiction” (Sullivan 2011:166); for example, if one does not know Sanskrit or the meaning behind a myth, one cannot effectively receive aesthetic pleasure from a drama. The appreciation emotions are awe, esteem, and respect (Sundararajan and Raina 2016). The appreciation emotions are important for aesthetic appreciation in the rasa because it is important that “the creator and the ideal critic are one in mind and soul” (Sundararajan and Raina 2016). Therefore, true criticism “implies idealized reconstruction in the reader’s soul of what is expressed in the poet’s soul” (Sundararajan and Raina 2016). There are three stages in order to receive aesthetic delight: one must become attuned to the emotional situation, become absorbed in the portrayal, and this absorption becomes aesthetic delight (Sundararajan and Raina 2016).

The performance of Kutiyattam in Kerala is a religious act done by male actors called Cakyar, “who have the right and religious duty (dharma) to perform Kutiyattam” (Sullivan 2011:159). The goal of Kutiyattam is to “enact dramas to enable an audience to experience Rasa” (Sullivan 2011:158). Before a performance, Cakyars are “consecrated by ritual actions of Brahmin temple priests” (Sullivan 2011:159) and then pray to a deity “for inspiration and protection during the performance” (Sullivan 2011:158). After each performance, the Cakyars “worship and receive blessings from the priest” (Sullivan 2011:159) while still in their costumes, then “sprinkle consecrated water on the stage, on himself or herself, and on the audience” (Sullivan 2011:160). The actor must also ask the gods for forgiveness for mistakes or errors that were made in the performance (Sullivan 2011:160). A full performance of a drama may take many nights because the actors perform “only a small portion of any drama’s text in a night of acting” (Sullivan 2011:163) and only perform at night. Small portions are performed because “only small segments of a drama’s script are portrayed each evening” (Sullivan 2011:163) and the Cakyars must develop gestures and add more detail to the scripts (Sullivan 2011:163). A performance technique of some Cakyars is to recite a verse in Sanskrit, perform their gestures and then recite the previous verse again (Sullivan 2011:162). This repetition is done to “give full expression to the emotional tone of that moment” (Sullivan 2011:162). Due to the development of modern society, changes have been proposed to perform an entire performance in one night because audience members may be unable to attend multiple performances and “their Rasa experience is dependent on viewing the entire play, including the resolution of its plot in the final scene” (Sullivan 2011:166-167). One’s rasa experience could be inhibited or one could not receive a rasa experience at all if the performance is incomplete.

Social changes in Indian cities affect temples and performers (Sullivan 2011:165). For example, in Kerala, many performers stopped performing when temples that were affected by land reforms opened to lower caste groups (Sullivan 2011:165). Although social changes have decreased the number of performers, it has increased the diversity of the remaining performers (Sullivan 2011:165). Rasa is also affected by the debate on whether the performers should remain traditional or change their performances as society changes. Some performers believe the performances should remain the same in order for the audience to experience rasa from the traditional line repetition and gestures (Sullivan 2011:166). Keeping with tradition will allow rasa techniques to maintain their originality and purpose but changing with society will keep rasa theory relevant. In the representation of death, rasa theory does change depending on the audience. Bharata explains in the Natya-sastra that “actors should learn from and accommodate to local traditions concerning the representation of death” (Sullivan 2007). Global performances also affect rasa because the audience must be qualified and prepared to witness the drama, and foreign tourists and non-Sanskrit speakers may not be prepared (Sullivan 2011:167).

Rasa is explained by Bharata in the Natya-sastra as “an emotional response that is inspired in an audience by a performer” (Astha 2014). Rasa theory explains how a rasa is created with a combination of vibhava, anubhava, and bhava to create an emotional response in an audience (Astha 2014). A bhava is a mood conveyed through gestures and facial expressions (Astha 2014). Bhava is made up of vibhava, a stimulant, and anubhava, the enactment of a mood (Astha 2014). The metaphor for the pleasure of food is used to describe rasa theory. One receives pleasure from food just like an audience receives pleasure form a performance (Mason 72). However, aesthetic distance is important because the audience does not receive pleasure from feeling what the characters are feeling; they appreciate witnessing what the characters are feeling. The nine rasas are: humour (hasyam), love (srngara), anger (raudra), sorrow (karuna), fear (bhayanaka), amazement (abhuta), heroism (vir), disgust (bibhatsa), and tranquility (santa) (Gaston 2011). Each rasa is associated with a specific deity and color. Most of the rasas are also associated with death because death on stage is important for developing the rasa experience (Sullivan 2007). One’s appreciation emotions help one to become an ideal critic or sahrdaya (Sundararajan and Raina 2016). The audience must be qualified and prepared to watch a performance. The audiences’ rasa experience is further affected by witnessing an entire performance. Social changes cause foreign and global audiences to be unprepared or not have the chance to watch an entire performance, which limits one’s rasa experience. A rasa experience, explained by the rasa theory, is caused by the creator of the art, the performer’s actions, and the audience themselves.
























Astha (2014) “Abhinavagupta’s exposition extends Bharata’s Rasa Theory in several ways.” Language in India, Vol. 14, No. 3: 83-93. Accessed February 1, 2017.

Fuller, Jason D. (2011) “The accidental pilgrim: Vaisnava tirthas and the experience of the sacred.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice, ed. by Hillary P. Rodrigues, 62-74. New York: Routledge.

Gaston, Anne-Marie (2011) “Dance and Hinduism: a personal exploration.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice, ed. by Hillary P. Rodrigues, 75-86. New York: Routledge.

Mason, David (2006) “Rasa, ‘Rasaesthetics’ and Dramatic Theory as Performance Packaging.” Theatre Research International, Vol. 31, No. 1: 69-83. Accessed February 5, 2017. doi:10.1017/S0307883305001860

Lidke, Jeffrey (2011) “Tabla, spirituality, and the arts: a journey into the cycles of time.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice, ed. by Hillary P. Rodrigues, 118-130. New York: Routledge.

Sullivan, Bruce M. (2007). “Dying on the Stage in the Natya Sastra and Kutiyattam: Perspectives from the Sanskrit Theatre.” Action Theatre Journal, Vol. 24, No. 2: 422-439. Accessed February 3, 2017. doi:10.1353/atj.2007.0041

Sullivan, Bruce M. (2011) “Experiencing Sanskrit dramas in Kerala: epic performances and performers.” In Studying Hinduism in Practice, ed. by Hillary P. Rodrigues, 158-169. New York: Routledge.

Sundararajan, Louise and Maharaj K. Raina (2016) “Mind and creativity: Insights from rasa theory with special focus on sahrdaya (the appreciative critic).” Theory & Psychology, Vol. 26, No. 6: 788-809. Accessed February 1, 2017. doi:10.1177/0959354316676398

















Further Recommended Reading

Gnoli, Raniero (1985) The Aesthetic Experience According to Abhinavagupta. Varanasi: Chowkhamba Press.

Leslie, Julia (1991) “Dance and the Hindu Women – Bharata Natyam Re-ritualized,” in Roles and Rituals for Hindu Women. London: Printer.

Richmond, Farley (1990) “Kutiyattam” in Indian Theatre: Traditions of Performance ed. by F. Richmond, D. Swann, and P. Zarrilli, 87-117. Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press.

Robinson, Tom and Hillary Rodrigues (2014) World Religions: A Guide to the Essentials. 2nd ed. USA: Baker Academic.

Robinson, Tom, Hillary Rodrigues, James Linville, John Harding, Atif Khalil, and Kev McGeogh (2015) World Religions Reader: Selected Texts & Symbols 2015 Edition. Robin Book Press.

Rodrigues, Hillary P. (2011) Studying Hinduism in Practice. USA: Routledge.

Rodrigues, Hillary. (2017) Hinduism – the eBook. 2nd ed. JBE Online Books.

Robinson, Tom, Hillary Rodrigues, James Linville, John Harding, Atif Khalil, and Kev McGeogh (2015) World Religions Reader: Selected Texts & Symbols 2015 Edition. Robin Book Press.

Trepper, E. and J. Wood (1994) “Secularization and De-secularization of the Indian Classical Dance,” In South Asian Horizons – Enriched by South Asia, 15-34. Ottawa: Carleton University Press.

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This article written by: Kylie Thomson (Spring 2017), who is solely responsible for its content.