Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Some Reflections on Indian Aesthetics

The field of Indian aesthetics is vast and it is notoriously difficult for Western readers to get even a minimal grasp of what might be going on in Indian texts on art and beauty.  I have been teaching a course on World Aesthetics and have recently been lecturing on Indian aesthetics.  My main source has been the Encyclopedia of Aesthetics 2nd edition edited by Michael Kelly.  Our university has electronic access to this encyclopedia, which makes it convenient. There are several articles in there on Indian aesthetics.  

The thing that fascinates me the most about Indian aesthetics is the possible overlap and dialogue with Western aesthetics. Indeed, any area of controversy, even if it goes back to the 11th century, can intrigue a contemporary philosopher.  Abhinavagupta is of particular interest, perhaps because, unlike the earlier rasa aesthetician, Bharata, he does not limit himself to technical discussion of an individual art form, but develops a broad aesthetic theory in the context of an overall philosophical position.  

Looking at V. K. Chari's article on him in The Encyclopedia of Aesthetics I am struck by Abhinavagupta's synthesis of ideas of aesthetics with the metaphysics and epistemology of Saivism [I apologize for not using the diacritical marks in this post.]   The notions that, as Chari puts it, "rasa perception..is a form of recognition of what one already knows" and that "rasa experience is, in the final analysis, a tasting of one's own consciousness" is intriguing.  There is a way in which aesthetic experience, when powerful and apt, is a kind of rediscovery of something one already knows.   

Chari is wary of Abhinavagupta's metaphysical speculation, as I am.  But, at the same time, Abhinavagupta seems to free Western readers up a bit insofar as he posits aesthetic experience at its highest and most intense as something remarkably close to enlightenment experience.  Chari makes clear that there is still a distinction between rasa and enlightenment experience since the latter has no interest in objects, whereas there is an intense object-directedness in aesthetic experience.  The idea of certain aesthetic experiences being close to enlightenment experience suggests that there may be something of value here even for an atheist like myself.  Whereas the idea of enlightenment may require the existence of a God or a separate metaphysically transcendent realm, the idea of aesthetic experience does not. 

It also might be of value to Western aestheticians to think of ways in which rasa experience can be "supramundane...transcending the empirical modes of cognition such as sense perception, inference and recollection"  and that the experience "completely negates all distinctions of person, place, and time, which obstruct our enjoyment of emotions in real life."  Again, it is not that I would want to affirm this theory, but find that it makes a nice balance against the overemphasis we often see these days on cognitivist approaches to aesthetics.  I would prefer to say that aesthetic experience can involve a perceptual experience that goes beyond what is ordinarily associated with empiricist methodologies insofar as it is as if all of these features are negated.  In addition the idea that distinction Abhinavagupta holds between life emotions (bhavas) and the rasas recognizes that rasas take from life but do not strictly imitate life, not at least in a copying way.  This allows, as Chari observes, for the importance of disinterestedness in aesthetic experience of art in particular and explains why we can experience things that are otherwise negative in an aesthetically positive way when decontextualized and placed within an artistic context.  

Chari has a number of criticisms of Abhinavagupta.  I have already mentioned his problem with the "metaphysical scaffolding" of the theory.  He thinks that the "difference between art experience and life experience may be allowed under the conditions he specifies" without appealing to the metaphysical.  He also questions whether rasa perception is cognitively privileged since he notes that all cognitive functions including perception, inference, and association, are involved in aesthetic appreciation:  "his attempt to focus on the pure moment of the ecstasy of relish to the exclusion of all other accompanying mental processes can be of interest only to the mystic, not the aesthetician."  This may not be entirely fair in my view if the pure moment of ecstasy incorporates or draws into itself all of these other mental processes rather than excluding them.  Chari's next objection is that "the rhapsodic description of aesthetic delight that he gives can apply equally to any sensual ecstasy."  This seems unfair again since other sensual ecstasies are not directed to an artificial world, or if they are, then it might well be argued that they too are directed towards art.  

The most interesting objection is that raised against the idea that the reader's rasa experience is radically different from the emotion presented in the work.  On Chari's view, there is no qualitative difference between the fear that King Lear feels and the fear that we the reader feels.  But I think Abhnivagupta is right on this one, that there is a distinctive difference, and that the fear we feel is tinged with delight, whereas the fear felt by Lear is not.  There may be more differences as well.  Thus when Chari rejects the view that all rasas are pleasant we can agree, but we can also agree that they are all positively tinged.

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