Rasa Theory

Rasa [the academic study is referred to as rasa theory], is an ancient concept of aesthetics discussed in the text, the Natyasastra, which dates to approximately the 4th or 5th century CE (Gnoli XIV). “Sastra” in Hindu philosophy refers to the first text or treatise written on any subject (Scheherazaad 337); the person generally credited for the Natyasastra is the legendary, Bharata Muni (Higgins 44). Many philosophers have contributed ideas to the theories in aesthetics including Dandin, Bhatta Lollata, Sanuka, and Bhatta Nayaka. The ideas of all these philosophers have been passed down through the writings of the philosopher Abhinavagupta (Gnoli XXXV).

Abhinavagupta was born in the latter half of the 10th century in Kashmir (Gnoli XXXV), and he produced two well-known texts. He wrote the Abhinavabharati (commentary on the Natyasastra), and a commentary on the Dhvanyaloka (a text written by 9th century, Anandavardhana) (Gnoli XXXV). The Dhvanyaloka is translated to “Light of Resonance,” which discusses the metaphorical powers of language (Gnoli XXVII). Anandavardhana discusses the difference between everyday language and poetic language; suggesting the worth in poetic words—they lose their meaning when interchanged with other words (Gnoli XXIX). The Sanskrit word, dhvani, synonymous with “resonance” in this context (Gnoli XXIX), is also often referred to as “suggestion” in reference to rasa (Higgins 47). In Abhinavagupta’s commentary on the Dhvanyaloka, he suggests that “admitting that a sentence can have several meanings is thus a fallacy.” However, he conveys that poetics is in a different realm where once a person has realized the words, they become an “object of aesthetic experience” and it is unnecessary to apply the regular conditions of understanding everyday language (Gnoli XXVIII).

By looking at earlier philosophers like Bhatta Lollata of the 9th century, we see some contradictions to what Bharata describes about rasa in the Natyasastra. Lollata was most likely a Saivite (worshipper of Siva) mystic, who felt rasa was something experienced by both the character and the actor playing the role (Gnoli XVIII). Using the Ramayana, he describes that the character of Rama first feels the rasa and then subsequently any actor who plays the character of Rama also feels the rasa (Arjunwadkar 83). Lollata described that rasa is a “permanent mental state” (a sthayin) that exists at its most extreme form; used with Determinants, Consequents, and Transitory Mental States (Gnoli XVIII). Following Lollata, the philosopher Sanuka had highly controversial ideas of rasa compared to Abhinavagupta. Sanuka proposed an imitation theory: within a performance, rasa involved an actor emulating a specific mental emotion. He suggested that the audience did not make a distinction amongst the character being played and the actor; therefore, they always remained naïve to this artificiality (Gnoli XIX).

Another very important theorist in the conception of rasa theory is Bhatta Nayaka, who is also Kashmiri, from the 10th century (Gnoli XX). Nayaka is recognized as forming two ideas: bhavakatva and bhojakatva. Bhavakatva is the idea of “generalization” (sadharanikarana) that essentially rids the spectator from the consciousness of their individuality and universalizes the experiences of the character in the play or in spoken poetry (Arjunwadkar 87). The bhojakatva is the experience of the audience savouring the generalized rasa in a mind frame that is entirely separate from the regular cognitive processes and one that leads to pure joy (Arjunwadkar 87). Nayaka describes how certain experiences of everyday life have a way of impacting us that brings us grief and sorrow. However, in the theatre domain the ability to see them in the generalized form allows one to take pleasure in feeling these emotions (Gnoli XXII- XXIII). When Bharata talks about this concept of generalization, he suggests that one experiences a suspension of their ego in the process (Chaudhury 149). Nayaka suggests that a rasa is a “fruition” (bhoga), where one evades their consciousness and enters the realm of pure bliss that is associated with Brahman (Gnoli XXIV). Nayaka makes the correlation between religious schools of thought and rasa, suggesting they both come from the same foundation: a person can be released from their thoughts of everyday life (Gnoli XXVI). It is noted, by Abhinavagupta, that rasa is something that exists only in the world of drama, while the permanent emotions (sthayins) occur in real life. These emotional states exist instinctually, but become the experience of rasa once the permanent emotion undergoes a transformation into the universalized form separate from oneself or their counterparts (Arjunwadkar 90).

The Natyasastra is a detailed text that examines the workings of theatre, and discusses how different mental states translate into the artistic plane (Gnoli XIV). From the text, rasa arises, which literally means “taste” (Chaudhury 147) which develops into an idea of how an audience experiences these dramatic works.  The Natyasastra can be compared to Western concepts of aesthetics by comparing it to the work of Aristotle in his text, Poetics (Higgins 44). Both have a focus on action: Aristotle is concerned with the actions of the character in the play, whereas Bharata is concerned with the actions of the person who is playing the character. Bharata focuses on gestures and body movements that align with one of the four religious goals in Hinduism, dharma (Higgins 44). Both Aristotle and Bharata focus on the unity of the audience and actor, but Aristotle discusses the unity in connection to the plot line, while Bharata confers over a unity with establishing an emotion in the audience (Higgins 44).

The discussion of rasa is complex, in that many other terms are used to explain it. There are eight emotional states called bhavas or sthayibhavas, these states exist instinctually in every person either from experience or “inherited instincts” (Gnoli XVI).  Sthayibhavas are more fundamental emotions of a piece, as opposed to bhavas that can be viewed as a general way to describe emotions within aesthetics (Rangacharya 55 as cited in Scheherazaad 338). The eight bhavas are as follows: “Delight (rati), Laughter (hasa), Sorrow (soka), Anger (krodha), Heroism (utsaha), Fear (bhaya), Disgust (jugupsa), and Wonder (vismaya)” (Gnoli XV). Bharata acknowledges that there are many other emotional states that exist in association with these permanent ones; he suggests thirty-six impermanent states (Gnoli XVI). Paired up with these bhavas or sthayibhavas are the eight rasas, that are not experienced in real life but are exposed by an actor or a poet (Gnoli XVI). The rasas are as follows: “the Erotic (srngara), the Comic (hasya), the Pathetic (karuna), the Furious (raudra), the Heroic (vira), the Terrible (bhayanaka), the Odious (bibhatsa), and the Marvellous[sic] (adbhuta)” (Gnoli XVI). A ninth rasa, the Quietistic (santa) and paired bhava, Serenity (sama), were later added to the list, not without some controversy amongst other thinkers though (Gnoli XVI).  Once an actor has experienced an emotion, their goal is to facilitate the translation of this bhava into a rasa, through their performance.

When a dramatist portrays these rasas on the stage and not in real life they are categorized in three ways, which are essentially sub-emotions used during the performance: vibhava, anubhava, and vyabicaribhava. Vibhavas or “Determinants”, are the actual contextual causes for the emotion, these stimuli can be an object or a situation (Higgins 45). The anubhavas, meaning the “Consequents,” are any of the ways the character represents these states through gesture and action, or involuntary bodily functions, like sweating (Higgins 45). Finally, the vyabicaribhava, translated to “Transitory Mental States,” are fleeting emotional states that lead to an underlying atmosphere in the play (Higgins 45). The suitable combination of these sub-emotions within the play leads to rasa (Scheherazaad 338). When these rasas appear onstage, the audience (rasikas) (see Arjunwadkar 81) have an experience of enjoyment. Bharata uses a metaphor to compare people who can appreciate and savour the many spices and ingredients of a dish to the process of people experiencing rasa. He likens this savouring of the dish to an actor depicting the various bhavas with use of their body movements, variation in voice, spontaneous reactions, and the achievement of pleasure (Higgins 46).  In the Natyasastra, Bharata does make a point to distinguish a long list of stipulations for which type of spectators can experience rasa. Amongst the list, there is a high importance on class and status, and a well-versed knowledge of cultural and artistic practices, with an ability to analyze (Higgins 46). Along with these requirements, many who have interpreted Bharata’s work say that it is crucial for the rasika to have a high empathetic capability to experience the rasas (Higgins 47). He reiterates that rasa occurs cognitively as “a perception without obstacles and consisting in a relish” (Gnoli 62).

Within the text of the Natyasastra, Bharata gives ways an actor will go about this entire process, by listing the various phases that accompany a certain rasa. He uses the example of the ways a woman on stage, through erotic love, produces insanity: “one should sometime[sic] look with a steadfast gaze, sometimes heave a deep sigh, sometimes be absorbed with oneself and sometimes weep at the [usual] time for recreation” (N.S., XXVII.50-58 523 as cited in Higgins 47). Abhinavagupta, in concurrence with Anandavardhana, emphasizes the importance of the use of dhvani or “suggestion” for communicating rasa through emotional meaning (Higgins 47). He also describes how a spectator will have remnants in their memories of emotions that will allow them to experience the rasa, using the example (Higgins 48) of a grandparent’s ability to remember their own childhood, allowing them to be empathetic with their grandchild’s emotional experiences. This idea, touched on previously, is the idea of generalization that facilitates rasa. The ninth rasa added later in history, as Abhinavagupta and some others may agree with, is the suggested end goal for the other eight rasas. Abhinavagupta advocates that the experience of tranquility is equivalent with moksa. This religious idea can be traced back to his Saivite roots, with the concept of “seeing one’s individual consciousness as a play of the universal consciousness” (Higgins 50). This discussion around the ninth rasa led to some debate on which sthayibhava would correspond with it; Abhinavagupta said “Knowledge of the Self” would be the associated sthayibhava. However, Abhinavagupta was careful to make the distinction that moksa is a constant experience while santarasa is an aesthetic expression that ends when the performance does (Higgins 50). Other scholars, Susan L. Schwartz for example, have considered that to fully understand rasa, one must be aware of the religious context of Indian classical art forms, as the spiritual aspect exists in all of them (Scheherazaad 341).

Rasa exists in many art sectors of Indian classical traditions, including dance. Those in the classical dance world, Aziz Esmail for instance, have attested that spirituality is embodied in the culture that lends itself to the production of rasa in dance and those who experience it; ritual practice is built into every step of the dance-making process (Scheherazaad 342). The training and practice involved with Indian classical dance, Odissi abhinaya dance for example, is very complex and in depth. The dancer must learn the philosophical literature of the poems, along with physical mastery over their body to be able to convey story, energy, and meaning appropriately (Scheherazaad 344). The demonstration of rasa within the performance realm in India has experienced a shift. Some scholars make an argument using modern Bollywood dance as an example to suggest that globalization throughout the years has led to a shift from a commonly displayed sringara (rasa of erotic desire) to a focus on material consumption (Chakravorty 223).  Rasa theory is about the union of the audience with the actor on stage; through this traditional interaction, a relationship between the two parties was meant to form with emotions being shared. With this occurring change, new films and dances are being cycled through media platforms for purpose of commodity, and “repeat value” (Chakravorty 218). It has been suggested that not all, but many, dance studios within urban centres in India have a detached sense of embodiment as the industry becomes more commercialized; the bodies are no longer rooted in a cultural artistic form but only represent the newly expressed commodity focused society (Chakravorty 222).



Arjunwadkar, K. S. (1984) “The Rasa Theory and The Darsanas.” Annals of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute 65 no.1: 81-100. Accessed February 5, 2017. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.uleth.ca/stable/41693108.

Chakravorty, Pallabi (2009) “Moved to Dance: Remix, Rasa, and a New India.” Visual Anthropology 22 no.2-3: 211-28. Accessed February 3, 2017. doi: 10.1080/08949460902748113.

Chaudhury, Pravas J. (1952) “The Theory of Rasa.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 11 no. 2: 147-50. Accessed February 3, 2017. doi:10.2307/426040.

Scheherazaad, Cooper (2013) “The Alchemy of Rasa in the Performer-Spectator Interaction.” NTQ – New Theatre Quarterly 29 no. 4: 336-48. Accessed February 3, 2017. https://search.proquest.com/docview/1466359549?accountid=12063.

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

Higgins, Kathleen M. (2007) “An Alchemy of Emotion: Rasa and Aesthetic Breakthroughs.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 65 no.1: 43-54. Accessed February 3, 2017. http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.uleth.ca/stable/4622209.




Dace, Wallace (1963) “The Concept of ‘Rasa’ in Sanskrit Dramatic Theory.” Educational Theatre Journal 115 no.2: 249-54. Accessed February 5, 2017. https://search.proquest.com/docview/740714367?accountid=12063.

Patankar, R. B. (1980) “Does the ‘Rasa’ Theory Have Any Modern Relevance?” Philosophy East and West 30 no.3: 293-303. Accessed February 26, 2017. doi:10.2307/1399189.

Sundararajan, Louise (2010) “Two Flavors of Aesthetic Tasting: Rasa and Savoring A Cross-Cultural Study with Implications for Psychology of Emotion.” Review of General Psychology 14 no. 1: 22-30. Accessed February 26, 2017. doi:10.1037/a0018122.

Sundaram, Dheepa (2014) “Aesthetics as Resistance: Rasa, Dhvani, and Empire in Tamil ‘Protest’ Theater.” ProQuest Dissertations Publishing. [need an Interlibrary Loan Request]

Timalsina, Sthaneshwar (2007) “Metaphor, Rasa, and Dhvani: Suggested Meaning in Tantric Esotericism.” Method & Theory in the Study of Religion 19 no. 1-2:134-62. Accessed February 23, 2017. doi:10.1163/157006807X224404.

Related Topics for Further Investigation



Bhatta Lollata


Bhatta Nayaka

Bharata Natyam (classical Indian dance)



Odissi (classical Indian dance)

Bharata Muni

Dhvani (Vyanjana)


Related Websites to Rasa Theory









This article was written by: Sydney Murdoch (Spring 2017), who is entirely responsible for its content.