The Indian theory of taste

I am an amateur at Indian aesthetic theory. I have not studied it much; I can read its Sanskrit source texts, but with some difficulty given how much they allude to literary and dramatic works I don’t know. As with Confucianism and Islamic Aristotelianism, it is a field where I cannot claim significant expertise. Yet I continue to find myself drawn to it, finding ideas that strike me as valuable and relevant – most recently reading Sheldon Pollock’s wonderful Rasa Reader, right from the first excerpt .

The earliest known extant text of Indian aesthetic theory is Bharata’s Nāṭya Śāstra. This text, circa 300 CE, sets out the concept of rasa, central to nearly all later Indian aesthetic thought. Rasa, roughly, refers to the emotion involved in a dramatic or literary work. The tradition often disagrees on where this rasa exists: the actor, the audience, the character, the author or even the work itself. But they all know that the Sanskrit word rasa literally means “taste”; it continues to refer to the sense of taste long after it has developed this more dramatic sense. And this meaning matters. Reading Pollock’s excerpt from Bharata, I am struck by the passage in Bharata’s chapter 6 where he defines rasa:

Here one might ask: What does ‘rasa’ actually mean? Our answer is that rasa is so called because it is something savored. And how can rasa be said to be ‘savored’? Just as discerning people relish tastes when eating food prepared with various condiments [vyañjana] and in doing so find pleasure, so discerning viewers relish the stable emotions when they are manifested by the acting out of various transitory emotions and reactions and accompanied by the other acting registers (the verbal, physical, and psychophysical), and they find pleasure in doing so. This explains why we call them ‘dramatic rasas,’ or tastes. On this matter there are two traditional verses:

(6.32-33) Just as connoisseurs eat and savor their fare when prepared with many condiments and substances, so the learned fully savor in their heart the stable emotions when conjoined with the factors, transitory emotions, and reactions. That is why they are called dramatic rasas, or ‘tastes.’ (Pollock 51, pp 282-3 in the Krishnamoorthy Sanskrit edition)

I am excited here by the way the enjoyment of food serves as the root explanation for aesthetics. We might first note the key role that pleasure, relishing, plays in the arts Bharata describes here – in contrast to the grim 20th-century “continental” aesthetic theorists, like Milan Kundera and Theodor Adorno, who disdain the pleasurable works that they condemn as kitsch. But more specifically, I think Bharata’s theory serves as a powerful contrast to the problematic understanding of food expressed by Leon Kass and Michael Pollan. Sanskritic thinkers always attached great significance to etymology; the derivation of dramatic rasa from gustatory rasa here is no mere metaphor. It matters to Bharata that the relishing of dramatic emotion is analogous to the pleasure of eating. We can explain the pleasures of the transitory art object that is a dramatic performance with reference to the transitory art object that is well-spiced food. Kass takes the fact that food’s pleasures are ephemeral as a reason to consider them lesser – a criticism, again, would seem to apply to drama (or music) in a way that Kass never notices. Bharata has no such compunctions: food and drama are real arts worth savouring.

We are similarly far away from Pollan and his austere, depressing advice to “avoid food products containing ingredients that are more than five in number”. Here, unlike in Pollan, the pleasure in a delicious dish does not come from the substance of the dish proper – the obsession with a small and simple set of fresh ingredients that so bedevils currently fashionable North American food. No, it comes from the vyañjanas – what Pollock translates as “condiment”, and often means “spices”. It is the spicing of food that is fundamental to its good flavour, enough to make the proper analogy to drama. And it is never just one spice, but various spices conjoined together, just as dramatic rasa conjoins various forms of emotion. Bhoja‘s Śṛṅgāra Prakāśa, a later aesthetic treatise, goes further: he compares poetic rasa‘s combination of literary elements to “the case of prepared food, where we have the combination of sweet, sour, salty, and the ‘six-spice substance’…” (ŚP 617, quoted on Pollock 127) Bhoja further adds later in the text:

There must be a “continuous presence” or multiplicity of [_rasa_s] to be savored – with rasas producing emotions, emotions rasas, and rasas rasas – so that the literary work does not become devoid of rasa, or insipid, like a meal that has only a single taste.

While it is always a dangerous game to make a leap from classical philosophy to contemporary culture, it’s hard not to notice how much better Bharata’s approach would describe the foods we know of South and Southeast Asia – so heavily spiced, their flavour coming from the likes of pepper and ginger and onions and garlic and mustard. And, of course, chile peppers – a much later innovation, imported by the Portuguese, but one which South Asians took up with far greater gusto than the Portuguese themselves ever did! We might note as well that Bhoja’s description of the combination of four tastes – sour, sweet, salt, spice – has achieved almost cliché status as a description of Thai food. (Thai culture is as Indian as northern European culture is Greek – the Thais get not only Buddhism and literature like the Rāmāyana, but aesthetic concepts like saksit, from the Indians.)

Pollock in his introduction seems somewhat puzzled by the way Indian thinkers use the sense of taste as the key concept – as English-speakers do with the significantly different concept of “good taste”. What I think he might be missing is the idea of food as art. We do have such a concept in the West, but it is peripheral to our understanding of art and beauty, as Kass demonstrates in his brief and easy dismissal of the pleasures of eating. There are Westerners who have a deeper understanding of the pleasures of food – most notably Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, who said, among other things, that “the discovery of a new dish does more for human happiness than the discovery of a new star” – but few would give him centre stage in their theory of aesthetics.

Relatedly: In Bharata’s theory in particular, rasa is something inherent in the actor – because it derives from the combination of the actor’s own emotions. This idea is familiar to me from the works of Konstantin Stanislavski, who urges actors to draw the emotions they display from personal experiences where they have felt similar emotion. I’ve already noted the way Stanislavski’s theories help us understand rasa theory in a devotional context. It appears the resemblance goes deeper than that. But Stanislavski, like Brillat-Savarin, stands far on the periphery of Western aesthetic theory as I understand it, whether “continental” or analytic. I am tempted to say we should learn from Bharata and give Brillat-Savarin and Stanislavski a more central place.

Cross-posted at Love of All Wisdom.

One Reply to “The Indian theory of taste”

  1. If the taste derived from the combined various elements presented in food serves as an analogy for rasa, couldn’t the combined various elements in any object capable of being sensed ( ex: sound, sights, touch and scents ) serve a similar purpose? An by extension life itself is somewhat a flow of rasa?

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