South Asia

Organized Panel Session

1 - On Rasa and Recursivity: Ethics and Aesthetics of Time in Sanskrit Poetics (alamkāraśāstra)

Saturday, July 7
10:20 AM - 11:50 AM
Location: Marigold, New Building

Western scholarship has long accused traditional Sanskrit literature of lacking a sense of time and history, and espousing changelessness. Some have explained this as an eccentric cultural indifference to transience in favour of an eternalizing discourse informed by immutability of scriptures. This paper explores Sanskrit poetics (alamkāraśāstra 1st millennium CE), to argue that what has been projected as an aberrant, civilizational ahistoricity was in fact a cultivated, purposive  transhistoricity: Not indifference to time or history but a self-reflexive reworking of both to serve functions and foreground values far removed from what  Eurocentric modernity allows. Moreover, these values and functions of time were not necessarily sacred or scriptural but firmly located in, and oriented towards, the social.


Discussing rasa (‘flavour’), the centerpiece of Sanskrit aesthetics, I argue that the concept of nine essentialised, universalized emotional experiences generated through literature (erotic, heroic, compassionate etc) -- collapsed time, lending human emotion and behavior an invariability across ages and cultures. Transtemporality was thus built into poetic praxis, arguably reflecting the universality of affect and other sentiments. Extending this, time was conceived in many compositions as a laboratory where overarching ethical principles (dharma, karma) governing social behavior played out. Time also ‘returned’ relentlessly, mirroring persistent patterns of  thought and action. Hence poetry’s  preference not for linearity or diachronicity but recursivity and synchronicity: time looping around deeply ethical moments or ruptures in history which connected with other such moments otherwise separated by centuries. Cyclical time was then actually time invested with cultural memory.

Shonaleeka Kaul

Jawaharlal Nehru University, India

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1 - On Rasa and Recursivity: Ethics and Aesthetics of Time in Sanskrit Poetics (alamkāraśāstra)



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