Tuesday, October 25, 2016


My first encounter with the Indian philosopher Abhinavagupta was in the mid-1990s, during my BA studies. I did a course on Indian literature and aesthetics in Helsinki University. That's when I found Abhinavagupta’s classic commentary of Bharata Muni's Natyashastra (5th Century). I became inspired by his theory of the ‘rasas’.

In a way rasas could be called atmospheres, but practically speaking they are dynamic experiences shared by the artist and those who receive his/her work. In Abhinavagupta's thinking this is based upon traces of experiences. Theatre leans on representational and emotional traces, the first ones being e.g. visual images and the latter being the inner emotional traces which make it possible to get back to an already experienced feeling later on (e.g. if stimulated well in the arts).

I wrote my course essay about this theory. There was a lot I did not understand at that point. There still is, of course, but this is the case with all classics. Practically getting back to the theory craved for contextual knowlegde. After close to a decade of yoga, one year of attending open lectures on Vedic literature (Taavi Kassila), readings of Ptanajali, studies on Hindu deities and yoga philosophy (Mircea Eliade), I now, suddenly, felt that it made sense to read this Kashmiri thinker (950-1020) again. Finally, I felt I got it.

Seen from a contemporary point of view Abhinavagupta is doing a mix of art (theatre) theory and religious metaphysics. Aesthetically speaking it is based on empirical remarks. The sensual base for both Bharata Muni’s and Abhinavagupta’s work is the idea that sight and hearing are so strong senses, that they can overcome the dominance of the ego. In arts their role is crucial for the resonance of the emotional state of the artist, the work of art (= theatre) and the audience, which are glued up by the rasa.

All around the world philosophy presents itself as universal, but everywhere it is ethnic – like Heidegger’s flirt with German poetry, Derrida’s writing as a mirror of French intellectual chatting and the Anglo-Saxon (analytic philosophy) aspiration for a thinking were there would be no cultural traces left (reductive technocratic approach).

I read all schools, but I understood better Italian philosophers after a year in Italy and many philosophers have been impossible to understand without a hard work on understanding their cultural context.

A key concept which I did not understand, during my first shallow romance with Abhinavagupta (and Bharata who he is commenting upon), is resonance. He discusses the rasas (the Erotic, the Comic, the Pathetic, the Furious, the Heroic, the Terrible, the Odious, the Marvelous and the (latter addition) Peaceful) as entities connecting holistically the appropriate audience, the work, and the artist with his/her inner feelings or mental states (Delight, Laughter, Sorrow, Anger, Heroism, Fear, Disgust, Wonder). The mental states and the rasas are connected to each other, as are also the people taking part in this act of aesthetic and partly cosmic sharing. Rasa here is so not just an aesthetic concept but also a sociological one. The contextual environment, involuntary reactions (e.g. sweating) and minor feelings (e.g. arrogance) are also involved in the whole, but the basic idea of resonance, something that not just is a form of stimulation from one to another, but something that really connects artists, audiences and works of art to each other both a priori (shared metaphysical base; it all connects to a broader cosmological worldview) and following the practical, technical act of doing theatre is interesting.

Without my yoga studies, which included a lot of talk about the metaphysics of resonance, I wouldn’t have got the point. I think the metaphysical and ontological approach of these older Indian philosophers seems to strive to understand a whole cosmogony, and this goes far deeper than what I think about when I discuss aesthetics. From an aesthetic point of view it is not crucial that everybody is tuned to the same rasa, but that the people who are not tuned in the right way do not disturb the audience which can resonate successfully with the work.

In some sense Abhinavagupta’s work is probably the first theory of experience which takes the atmosphere into account (a concept which is now fashionable in e.g. Gernot Böhme’s work), and which does not only discuss a singular spectator’s engagement with a singular work of art but art as a pleasing glue for a whole community.

Coming back to destroying or reinforcing atmospheres: In most cultural contexts it is not favorable to boo. I realized this myself when, after a long summer in the African / Jamaican neighborhood of Brixton (1999) I came back to Helsinki, attended a jazz concert, and booed like the audience’s had been doing in the clubs where I had been to for the last months. Everybody looked at me like I would have insulted the players, and that’s what I actually did (I still feel ashamed of it), as booing in our context is a dramatic deed, not just a form of call-and-response. But even Abhinavagupta, I am sure, would have accepted my presence if I would have just been sitting there, being kind.

I think this applied idea of resonance is actually the key for many other aesthetic issues. When we experience holistically – this is something Dewey, Heidegger and Benjamin all worked to understand in their own ways – we, I suppose, often aspire to resonate with the community around us. What would be the pleasure of being the only one who understands a play, in an audience where nobody else is getting it? Who'd attend a football match if the audience would not quite be tuned into the same rasas?

The philosophy of Abhinavagupta is a beautiful text in itself, and reading it I felt that I am sometimes enjoying (bhoga) a poetical trip advisor for theatre which sneakily at the same time is a trip advisor to Kashmir Shaivism. It is actually weird that his philosophy never became a bigger hit here in Northern Europe, if you think about the fact that Germans translated very early Indian theater classics (18th Century).

Coincidentally, I was reading Abhinavagupta on my trip to Gdansk, where I took part in the meeting of the coordinators of the Nordic Summer University. Gdansk happens to be the birth city of one of the most famous Western philosophers who have been commenting on Indian philosophy, i.e. Arthur Schopenhauer (later ones include Nietzsche, Irigaray and then Langer, who made an American remake of Abhinavagupta’s work).

Nowadays we often get to hear the mantra that Western / European philosophers are not at all interested in non-Western philosophers. Although there is a truth in this critique, one has to remember that there is a long tradition of being interested in non-Western philosophy starting already from the Greeks and then, on the other hand, it is important to divide the contemporary Western world of philosophy into two parts. Anglo-Saxon philosophers, who dominate the scene, are not even interested in what we continental Europeans, and even less what we in small European countries do. We are actually out also in Germany and France. If we want to have a career we have to learn well a dominant philosophical language and publish in a dominant scene.

The critics of the West – who I really fancy, although I think they have to rethink the West/Europe – seem to (looking at the examples chosen) talk about us as one group, but all their practical examples are taken from these old colonial masters and dominant cultures. Like many here in our small Eastern European countries, it seems that the critics of the West somehow colonialize themselves. Couldn't we cosmopolitan philosophers who speak many languages and who read philosophy from all around the world discuss together, or do we all have to colonialize ourselves in the core fields of Western philosophical colonialism to become worthy of our soulmates' critical attention?

Chasing the good European – Nietzsche’s expression – you have to look at the East side: my Finnish, Polish, Slovakian, Hungarian, Romanian and Balkan colleagues seem to read books more globally, and often even with the help of good language skills. We will never, though, become big in the US, in Great Britain, Germany or France, and many of us do not even aspire that.

Of course in one sense Helsinki, Warsaw and Bratislava are also just French, German and Anglo-Saxon colonies, where people try to become a part of the ‘Western’ scene - although I'd say that we are mostly more cosmopolitan than in those big countries. As we don’t have a magnificent philosophical past like Iran or India the ones who do not make it often find themselves to be total international dropouts.

The good side of this lack of history? I just realized, while reading Abhinavagupta, that this makes it easier for us to read him (and many others). I don't think that I am in any risk of colonializing him – this reaction is understandable for a British philosopher who’s heritage is colonialist and who's language is the main language of colonialism – and I don’t think that I can fully ever even understand French or German philosophers, so why would I be too neurotic about understanding Indian ones? With my dying small language (i.e. Finnish, I am just an outsider visiting English language in my blog) I am anyway an outsider. And I too try to wake people up to see the power structures (see link).

Right now reading the witty and hilarious Can (Non-)Europeans Think (2015) by Hamid Dabashi (who gained lately a bit of fame by quarreling with Zizek), I started to think that actually Abhinavagupta’s idea of the rasas could be turned into a theory of the ethnic atmospheres of the philosophical market. The rasas are meant to be universal, but I’d say that feelings, atmospheres and aesthetic reactions, though basically universal, are also cultural, and in a decisive manner if you try to understand philosophy.

German anxiety (which craves for an understanding of German poetry), clean-cut (Freudian anal) Anglo-Saxon thinking and French philosophical (consciously obscure) arrogance – without forgetting the poetic writings of the Arab philosophers – all frame philosophy with differing potentials and boundaries. Also, through their resonance with a whole cultural reality (and audience), they all require that you get the right cultural competence and get into the right ‘ethnic’ mood to study them.

Extending Abhinavagupta’s wise thinking to this would require a lot of non-exegetical work, but I think it could be worth it. Basically, of course, even ‘philosophical’ itself could be thought of as a kind of a sub-rasa, if not an important part of the theatre (Beckett?), then at least otherwise an important part of all cultures. Rasas could provide an inspiration to get the picture straight, and to understand how philosophy functions.

Taking it back to Abhinavagupta and his work: I think I need to read the basics of Sanskrit. Being as busy as I am, I might have to wait for my retirement, though. But where’s the hurry? Whatever tradition you are from, in philosophy you can be red hot only when you are over 60 years old. That's when you have read enough to become a living library. I wish I will find as many great thinkers as possible from all around the world before I (hopefully one day) enter that stage.

Anyway, philosophy needs to be bridged in various ways to become global, so that a well-functioning fusion and/or intercultural dialogue could one day be a norm. Probably now we need aggressive critique (thank you Dabashi!) and attacks on the negative power-relations, but also these critiques need to become more subtle and less based on the Stockholm syndrome. Stop nagging to the contemporary colonial philosophers like they'd be your parents. In that way you marginalize us as much as they do. Do your thing, and find people like you (us) - and work together. We need to find the existing structures, people and traditions who/which are already working on it. As post-colonialist theory keeps reminding us about the fact that there are alternatives to 'white man's' philosophy, it is good to remember that there are alternatives for the 'West' inside the West, and everywhere you find work which strives for a global unerstanding of the possibilities of philosophy.

"In the beginning, the crossing of the river of the knowable is, I know, agitated and supportless: but as we advance doggedly along this road, we cease to be amazed by built bridges, city foundations, or anything else." Thank you Abhinavagupta. Heading there!

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