Rasa: The Semantic Approach

RASA is one of those quintessential words in Sanskrit which sum up a whole philosophy or even a civilization. An attempt is made in this article to assess the value of its various aesthetic mean­ings for a comprehensive theory of rasaswada or aesthetic experience.

The two consonantal elements in the word Rasa, R and S, have a meaning of their own in the language of the gods. In his work ‘The Candle of Vision’, AE (George William Russell) speaks of his intui­tive perception of the meanings of consonants. According to him, “R” stands for “motion” and “S” for “impregnation, in-breathing, or in-souling at the stage when the one life breaks into myriads of lives.” Thus one can imagine a jet of water springing from the heart of a rock. It is the movement that is perceptible first. The jet then bursts forth into many-coloured spray.

Speaking in terms of philology, the origin of the word Rasa has not been recorded by Monier-Williams in his great Dictionary. The verb (to taste) is mentioned by him as a derivation from the noun. He gives another verb, रस्, which means: “to roar; yell; cry; sound; reverberate.” (Meanings found in the Shatapatha Brahmana.) This is referred for its etymology to another verb Raas (रास्) which also means: “to cry aloud; to howl.” It is found in the Mahabharata. It is therefore a later form. Both are referred to another root, रा, meaning: “to grant; give; yield; surrender,” found in the Rigveda. It may be noted that “R” here conveys the suggestion of movement, for giving or surrendering is a kind of movement. But this account of the origin of रस् leaves the second consonantal element “S” unexplained.

There is another noun in the Rigveda, रसा, a feminine noun, meaning:  “moisture; humidity; a mythical stream supposed to flow round the earth.” This also has been given without any account of its origin.

There is another verb, सृ, in the Rigveda, which means: “to run; flow; speed; glide; move; go; spring up.” We do not know whether the substantives, रस and रसा, with their meanings of “water; liquid” and “humidity; and moisture” are connected in some way with this root.

Coming to रस itself we are inclined to believe that the first current meaning of the word was: “water; a liquid.” It gradually came to connote the sap of plants, the juice of fruit, and consequently the best part of anything or its essence. All these meanings are found in the Rigveda. In Rigveda II.26.5 we have धान्यं रसं. During the Upanishadic period this meaning, “essence”, is retained:  प्राणो हि वा अंगानां रसः Brah. Up. 1.3.19.

The progeny of meanings in this line is numerous. In the Ramayana, रस  comes to mean any mixture, elixir or potion. In the Mahabharata it is used for liquor, drink, melted butter, milk.

In the sense of “taste” or “flavour” as the principal quality of fluids, of which there are six original kinds (Madhura, sweet; Amla, sour; Lavana, salt; Katuka, pungent; Tikta, bitter; and Kashaya, as­tringent), the word is found in the Shatapatha Brahmana. It will be seen that this is a natural extension of meaning from the essence of an object to its essential flavour.

The word has this meaning “savour”, “taste” in Brah. Up. III. 2.4 जिह्वाया हि रसान् विजानाति.   It also develops into a verb न जिघ्रते न रसयते

From जिह्वाया हि रसान् विजानाति  Brah.Up.III. 2-4, it is possible to imagine that the word came generally to be applied to the various flavours of food, the षड्रसाः : (shadrasas) as in the Shatapatha Brahmana. It is possible that, by the time of Bharata, this meaning of rasa was widely current. The next step was a legitimate extension of mean­ing from the flavours to be tasted with the tongue to the flavours to be tasted by the mental palate:—

यथा बहुद्रव्ययुतैः व्यंजनैर्बहुभिर्युतैः।
आस्वादयन्ति भुंजानाः  भक्तं भक्तविदो जनाः॥
भावाभिनय संबद्धान् स्थयिभावांस्तथा बुधाः।
आस्वादयन्ति मनसा तस्यान्नाट्य रसाः स्मृताः॥

A development of the subjective meanings of the word along with the objective is seen in the Mahabharata where rasa means “love; desire; pleasure; delight.” In the Natya Shastra it has another aes­thetic connotation, – “the taste or character of a work of art or the sentiment prevailing in it.”

But already in the Upanishads the word had been elevated to a transcendental significance which could unite into itself the sub­jective as well as the objective meanings of the word. There is the famous utterance, रसौ वै सः रसं ह्योवायं लब्ध्वानन्दी भवती।, (Taittiriya Up.II.7j.) where the two meanings of rasa: “essence” and “taste” coexist. Rasa here means the highest essence, the Supreme Reality. It also means the most ennobled taste or experience of delight. The Sup­reme Reality manifests itself in the subject as well as the object, in the seer and the seen. It also transcends them both and lives in its own luminousness. Because it permeates both the subject and the object, it is possible for the subject to apprehend the object. The आवरणभंग or dis-environing or unveiling of the object is nothing other than the elimination of the accidental aspects or in-essentialities of the object, and the apprehension of the reality in its core.

The dis-environing process or आवरणभंग is, in a sense, primarily applicable to the subject; for the right vision can be attained only when the anti-self is replaced by the real self, the divided and limited con­sciousness by the integral and unlimited awareness. The Supreme Reality is none other than the true self of the individual and the reality in the core of the object. It permeates and transcends them both. “The Spirit (Atman),” says A. Coomarswamy, “is at once the flavour of all existence and the essence (Sat), truth (Satyam) and beatitude (Ananda) on which all life depends; itself the taster (Rasavetri), it tastes only of itself, whether as immanent or transcen­dent, and the flavour is one and the same and indeterminable no matter what the source or vessel that may have seemed to charac­terize it.” (Dictionary of World Literature, pg. 320)

It is in the same sense that Buddhist rhetoric speaks of Truth as the sweetest of fla­vours (S. N. 182). Rasa, therefore, is Sat or supreme existence, Chit or supreme awareness, and Ananda or supreme delight. The many-coloured game of subject and object, of which this universe is the theatre, is possible only because of the radiance of the Supreme Reality. An inward impulsion or inscrutable purpose makes objects melt at our gaze and yield their meaning to us, because the Reality that permeates both us and them is one and the same.



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