By Swati Chopra
The nine rasas described in ancient indian aesthetic philosophy can be seen as being indicative of prime human emotions. each rasa is a repository of energy drawn from our life force. by unlocking this powerful energy and mastering it, we can effectively achieve emotional balance, and also use this energy to realise our true potential
Ancient Indian aesthetic thought codified our emotional responses to life into nine separately distinguishable categories, hence the term navarasa. Nava means nine, and rasa literally means ‘essence’, but is used here in the sense of ‘emotional state’. The nine rasas were the backbone of Indian aesthetics ever since they were codified in the Natyasastra (written between 200 BC-300 AD) and formed the premise from which traditions of dance, music, theatre, art and literature evolved. So profound was the impact of this philosophy that it came to be regarded as the ‘fifth Veda’. Evoking the rasas in the audience through their play in the art form was the prime motivation of the artist, and performances and artwork were created solely with this aim.
This article is not a commentary on the rasas or their place in aesthetic theory, but is an attempt to see how this ancient idea still runs into the streams of our lives. Perhaps the rasas could be the lens through which we can look at and understand ourselves better?
The nine rasas, or sentiments, are the earth of our emotional lives. For at all times, we are feeling one or the other of these responses—we are reacting in the emotional language of the rasas. Literally, rasa is essence, the juice of life. As we begin our journey into this world, one of the first things we do is populate our world with rasas. From a no—rasa state at birth, to a baby’s two to three rasas-distress (at hunger, discomfort), happiness, satisfaction—we grow to become a complex of emotions. As we mature, our personality becomes more varied, intricate, and begins to display an entire range of rasas.
The nine rasas of ancient Indian thought are: shringara (erotic love), karuna (compassion), adbhuta (awe, wonderment), shant (peace, equanimity), hasya (laughter, mirth), veer (valour, heroism), bhaya (fear), vibhatsa (disgust) and raudra (anger, fury). Our emotional lives are so rich that it might seem impossible to shrink everything into nine categories. It will be useful to remember that the rasa states have been used here as broad markers of emotionality, and need not be taken as absolutes.
If we examine our lives of only the past month or so, we will find how vulnerable we are to emotional imbalances. Because we are mostly unaware or at best superficially aware of our emotional lives, we tend to allow one or two rasas to dominate us. For instance, hasya if we are the light-hearted sort, or raudra if we are hotheaded and easy to take offence. We continue to affirm this imbalance through our behaviour, which becomes lopsided in favour of our rasa of choice and it gradually becomes our chosen response to life situations. Hence we become a certain ‘kind’ of person. This emotional conditioning keeps us from experiencing life in all its fullness, and we remain tied to limited views of our selves, unable to even grasp the vastness of our true potential, let alone actualise it.
To regain our rasa balance, we need to begin by becoming aware of our unique ‘rasa-states’, and accepting the existence of all rasas in us, even the not so pretty ones. As long as we accept some and deny others, we will remain in conflict. And as long as we are alive, all rasas will continue to arise. Growth is not in stopping them altogether, but in being aware of them and handling their presence with wisdom.
Negative versus positive
Bhaya, vibhatsa and raudra are the ‘negative rasas’, for they are afflictive and damaging to our goal of emotional harmony. Going by the same yardstick, karuna and shant are the purely positive rasas, though they do have a tenuous link with passivity and sloth respectively, which can become activated if one doesn’t keep an eye on them. Shringara, adbhut, hasya and veer rasas tend to occur towards the middle of our emotional spectrum. But all rasas exist together in a vibrant field—nothing is fixed forever as positive or negative. Even raudra, the most fearsome of afflictive rasas, can be brought around to a positive energy state. Our effort is to bring all into balance, and transform the negatives into positives for a stable and rich emotional life.
Indeed the key to recognising the dynamics of our rasa-emotions is cast in the same mould as the key to life itself. It entails looking at the whole playing field instead of fragments, and in doing so, discovering that movement and change form the bedrock of everything. That, just as in life, where good and evil are not fixed entities but often depend upon our free will, so in our emotions, a lot depends on our own effort, vision and wisdom. Fair can be foul if one is not aware, and foul can become fair through effort.
Positive emotions need work to be maintained as such, and can degenerate if one is not fully engaged with one’s emotional life, for instance shringara into lust and obsession with sex. On the other hand, negative emotions can act as the poison that in controlled and measured doses cures fatal illnesses, for example anger that can spur us on to positive action. For this to happen though, mastery with attendant self-awareness is crucial.
Accept to transcend
The danger inherent in branding our emotions as positive or negative is that it sets the scene for inner conflict. We don’t want to be in a state where we are fighting parts of ourselves. So our journey to navarasa harmony requires a pre-acceptance of ourselves, with all our dualities and imperfections, along with a commitment to oneself to work towards emotional balance. Acceptance is an antidote to conflicts we set up within and watching oneself dispassionately, as a ‘witness’ to our emotions may provide the distance required to pinpoint conflict and its source. For instance, we might overly judge a friend’s actions, getting into vibhatsa (revulsion) mode, but regret later that we weren’t more compassionate. If we are in the habit of watching ourselves, we’ll know when the vibhatsa is arising and stymie it promptly, or if it has already happened then accept that and see what one can do in the here and the now that would be karuna.
Knowing and accepting dissolves guilt and inner conflict and sets the stage for emotional balance where all rasas are in their place, none dominates, and we are able to deal with each one as it arises.
Each rasa is a repository of emotional energy. It is raw energy drawn from our life force, which has become expressed in a certain way. It is energy that is coloured with our desires and conditioning, and has taken on a particular appearance through our reactivity to situations and people. Rasas are masks that fit over our deep true self and obscure ourselves from ourselves.
Acceptance is one way of balancing rasas, as we have seen above. But there is another dynamic way of handling our rasa power—unlocking this storehouse of energy and using it to realise our true potential; to master this energy instead of allowing it to flip us this way and that. This is the value of reinterpreting the rasas for ourselves, each one of us, and recognising their play in our lives.
To release our emotional energy, let’s begin with understanding each rasa state and seeing how we can best utilise it for inner growth. The rasas given below are accompanied with exercises, some to unlock the rasa’s hidden energy, and others to even out the imbalance caused by that rasa’s presence.
Shringara : love, passion
Erotic love is the fount of creation—it is the energy that gives birth to the world and therefore holds great power within itself. Ancient spiritual paths like Tantra have tried to tap the enormous creative energy that physical union generates to achieve transcendental experiences. Unfortunately, sexuality became shrouded in mystery over the centuries in all parts of the world until it was something to be spoken of in hushed tones, if at all. Today we find that this secrecy and its attendant shame and guilt have distorted the sacred quality of loving union, and sex has been banished from polite company.
Accepting and knowing our sexuality is a huge step in leading a balanced, guilt-free life. It certainly does not mean falling into promiscuity, as is often feared by custodians of social morality, but is a step towards a deep and true knowing of oneself. Promiscuity actually results from an ignorance of the life force that forms our sexuality, and once we know of it and have connected with it, we no longer find the need for purely physical pleasure. Indeed, as celibates too, we need to know the energy we are dealing with. For others, the energy of sexual love can be used for a fulfilling, even mystical experience.
Exercise: Finding sexual harmony
The shift from attachment desire to selfless love is facilitated through communion with the partner. Whereas personal desire generates sexual attachment—the feeling of ‘this one is mine’—loving communion extends beyond personal attachment. The partner is no longer perceived as ‘mine’, but as a beloved gift of life. This requires fostering a mindset of mutual empowerment in a setting that honours the other as divine.
Begin by sitting face-to-face with one another. Each partner places one hand over the other’s heart and looks into the other’s eyes. Feel the heat of your partner’s hand and imagine the warmth of a small sun emanating from your heart toward your partner. Visualise this as divine love and imagine it to be a beautiful colour. Close your eyes to focus on the inner sensation of warmth around your heart and to visualise its colour.
Now imagine this warmth radiating from the centre of your heart like the rays of the sun, enveloping your partner as well as yourself in a warm, liquid, colourful light. Stay with this visualisation as it changes, and breathe deeply. Continue to be aware of this energy from your heart centre. When you are ready to open your eyes, look into your partner’s eyes and share some of the loving feelings you have experienced.
Exercise source: Linda E. Savage, www.goddesstherapy.com
Karuna : compassion
Karuna is the emotion that has been described as the quivering of the heart in the pain of others. It forms that deep part of us that communes with other beings, that is the bridge between others and us and helps us understand and empathise with them. Karuna rasa is the heart quality that makes us gentle, accepting, non-judgemental. Karuna is also the rasa that makes friendships true and keeps relationships with self and others healthy and vital.
Exercises: Awakening compassion
1. Find a small pebble without judging its appearance or material value. It might even be better if you have doubts about the pebble being the ‘right one’. Carry it with you all the time. Make sure you hold it at least a couple times a day.
At the end of six months, there will be a special feeling in you for that pebble. It will be part of you. This is the seed of compassion. This is the feeling you want to grow in you, this total acceptance of a pebble you once thought inanimate and insignificant.
2. Forgive someone who has hurt you. This does not mean you allow yourself to be abused or hurt by another, as that would demonstrate a lack of compassion for yourself. It means those of you who have broken friendships, lost loves, or destroyed relationships, may find something to salvage in your heart by forgiving those who hurt you. You might further heal wounds by giving unconditional love.
Exercise source: Church of the Open Heart
The Compassion Exercise
This exercise should be done on strangers, unobtrusively and from some distance. With your attention on the person, repeat the following to yourself:
Just like me, this person is seeking happiness.
Just like me, he/she is avoiding suffering.
Just like me, he has known sadness and despair.
Just like me, he is seeking to fulfill his needs.
Just like me, this person is learning about life.
Exercise source: Harry Palmer, ©1994, Star’s Edge, Inc.
Adbhuta : awe
Wonder at all the marvellous things we see around us, perhaps even at the awful things that happen to us, keeps our mind fresh and our experience of life vibrant. Everything becomes an adventure, as it did when we were children and were learning and doing so many things for the first time.
Actively developing this attitude will ensure a non-jaded experience of life, where we are available in our entirety to each moment. For life really is like a river—there is never the same water in one place in two different moments. Two experiences are never the same, even if they are of the same things. In being purely present in each moment, we will be awestruck by its newness, by the subtle shades that distinguish it from the next and the previous one.
Accessing the adbhuta rasa energy means what Zen calls ‘beginner’s mind’. It denotes the original attitude of a beginner, before he has become saturated with knowledge or bored with doing that same thing again and again. As Shunryu Suzuki-roshi says in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: “If your mind is empty, it is always ready for anything; it is open to everything. In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind there are few.”
Exercise: Beginner’s mind
In an ancient Zen story, a university professor visited Nan-in, a Japanese master. As they chatted, Nan-in poured tea in his visitor’s cup to full, and then kept pouring.
The professor interrupted: “Master, this cup is overflowing. It cannot hold any more.” Nan-in replied: “Like this cup, you are full of your own judgments, opinions, and expertise. How can I show you Zen until you first empty your cup?”
How do we go about emptying the cup in an environment that rewards knowledge and proficiency? How do we create space for new possibilities to show up? Consider these ideas:
Try letting go of your expertise occasionally. We’re all impressed with degrees and credentials and sophisticated knowledge. Sometimes, it comes at the cost of the true wisdom of simple hum anity—the ‘inner knowing’ of that still small inner voice that we often neglect.
Question your need to be right. There’s often an unwritten expectation, often our own, that we should have all of the answers all the time. What would it mean to say: “I have no idea!” now and then and step into a place of wonder and possibility versus feeling compelled to always have a correct response?
Risk appearing naive. Stepping aside from all you know need not equate social or professional suicide. On the contrary, it can provide for a freshness of approach that fosters innovation and creativity.
Balance telling with asking. Consider how often your language is characterised by statements that reflect a mind that is made up. Shifting from a place of informing to one of asking questions can make a huge difference in promoting space for openness and new possibilities.
Exercise source: The Balance Beam magazine, Vol. 3 No. 9
Shant : peace
Shant rasa energy is calm and tranquil. It does not require an absence of activity or emotion; rather it is the steadiness that lies at the core of the true experience of peace, which can be carried anywhere, while doing anything. It holds in itself non-violence, as well as equanimity (balanced peace).
To be truly non-violent, as Mahatma Gandhi illustrated through his life, one needs to be free not only of violent action but also of violent thoughts and speech.
Both violence and peace begin in the mind. As the monkey-mind jumps around, creating havoc in our consciousness with its stream of suggestions and counter-suggestions, with its aversion for whatever goes against it and selfish love for itself, we find ourselves often in the midst of some very violent thoughts.
These thoughts occur against aspects that we dislike in ourselves as well as in others. Thoughts spill over into speech and actions and lead to stresses and strains and unskilful living. To quieten the mind of its distractions, it is valuable to actively cultivate shant rasa as part of one’s daily practice.
Exercise: Cultivating equanimity
Equanimity is the ground for wisdom and freedom and is the protector of compassion and love. While some may think of equanimity as neutrality or aloofness, mature equanimity produces a radiance and warmth of being. The Buddha described a mind filled with equanimity as “abundant, exalted, immeasurable, without hostility and without ill-will”.
Ways to develop mental qualities that support equanimity are:
Live with integrity: When we live and act with integrity, we feel confident about our actions and words. This results in the equanimity of blamelessness.
Have faith: While any kind of faith can provide equanimity, faith grounded in wisdom is especially powerful. The Pali word for faith, saddha, is translated as conviction or confidence. If we have confidence, for example, in our ability to engage in spiritual practice, then we are more likely to meet its challenges with equanimity.
Develop your mind: Strength, balance and stability of the mind can be developed through practices that cultivate calm, concentration and mindfulness. When the mind is calm, we are less likely to be blown about by worldly winds.
Enhance well-being: We do not need to leave well-being to chance. It is appropriate and helpful to cultivate and enhance our sense of well-being. We often overlook the well-being that is easily available in daily life. Even taking time to enjoy one’s tea or the sunset can be training in well-being.
Cultivate understanding: Wisdom teaches us to separate people’s actions from who they are. We can agree or disagree with their actions, but still remain balanced in our relationship with them.
We understand that our own thoughts and impulses are the result of impersonal conditions. By not taking them personally, we are more likely to stay at ease with their arising. One of the most powerful ways to use wisdom is to be mindful of when equanimity is absent.
Let go: Insight is deep seeing into the nature of things as they are. We see that things change so quickly that we can’t hold on to anything, and eventually the mind lets go of clinging. Letting go brings equanimity; the greater the letting go, the deeper the equanimity.
Be free: Freedom comes as we begin to let go of our reactive tendencies. We can get a taste of what this means by noticing areas in which we were once reactive but are no longer.
Exercise adapted from a talk by Zen and Vipassana teacher Gil Fronsdal. Source: www.insightmeditationcenter.org
Hasya : laughter
Viewing things with a sense of humour lightens some of the darkness of living in an imperfect world. The moment we see the humour in a difficult situation, we sense a weight lift off us. The tension of the moment ends, and we can move on.
Many gurus and spiritual masters have a penchant for humour that is free flowing and non-ridiculing, and sometimes they have held up a humorous mirror to show up our imperfections. An example is Osho, and his use of jokes in teachings. It is said that when we laugh, it is the easiest to slip into a no-mind state. This is so because the mind has been freed for that time from its usual workload of thoughts, and we can simply be in that moment: open, free, happy.
Hasya rasa energy is also a healthy one—laughing well often promotes a general sense of well-being that helps one get out of depressive mental states. Stress-related diseases occur less among people who meet life with a twinkle in their eye and a giggle in their throat. This has led to the establishment of several ‘laughter clubs’ all over India that meet regularly to laugh together—a therapy that has now been ‘imported’ into Israel where the common people are feeling the strain of living for years in the shadow of conflict.
Exercise: Laughter meditation
When you wake up in the morning, stretch your body—every muscle, cell and fibre—just like a cat. After a few moments, start laughing. Just start. At the beginning you may have to force it a little, saying ‘ha, ha, ha’, or ‘ho, ho, ho’ to get the laughter energy moving. Soon, a spontaneous laughter will arise at the sound of your attempts at laughing. Try it for five minutes. Just laugh for no reason at all. Laugh for the sake of laughing.
Try it again for five minutes when you go to bed, just before you go to sleep. Try it in the shower or while driving your car in the traffic. Ha, Ha, Ha. Even to say those words out loud will start a transformation in your energy, in your mood.
At the beginning, it will take some effort; you might want to use a laughter CD to help you get started. After a little while, it will start to happen naturally. Your body will get used to it, will start to expect it.
Laughter is one of the easiest ways to free yourself from the mind’s constant thought process and find inner peace. It will make you more alive, healthier, more creative, and more silent. Simply relax into the enjoyment. You will discover in yourself a tremendous natural talent for rejoicing in life. You may even laugh your way to enlightenment. Yes, it’s that good. Remember to laugh—a lot—every day.
Exercise excerpted from Laugh Your Way to Enlightenment by Pragito Dove
Veer : heroism
Heroism in the modern world is no longer about achieving miraculous feats of physical strength—something we most often associate with heroes. The modern-day Arjunas and Herculeses are those who are able to live their lives as integrated beings, and who don’t allow its pressures and strains to fragment them.
They are those who, instead of running away, seek out their inner demons and dragons and face them bravely. They know we cannot control circumstances, only our responses to them, and they go ahead and do precisely that. They don’t let odds bog them down and seek out the courage, inner resources and skills to arise, again and again and again, from the ashes of their old selves.
Exercise: Building self-confidence
Stop value judgments: Most people spend lots of time thinking, “I should do this, I shouldn’t have said that.” Those are value judgments that lower your self-esteem. Try accepting yourself, others and reality. Replace your ‘shoulds’ with non-judgmental words like ‘want’, ‘choose’ or ‘prefer’.
Stop comparing: Usually you will come out less than the person you compare yourself to. If you do win in the comparison, there is a tendency to devalue the winning trait. For example: “I’m a better supervisor than X is, but so what! It takes computer skills to get ahead in my organisation.” Notice differences; don’t judge them. Remember, you are unique.
Accept yourself: You don’t criticise a seed because it isn’t a tree yet. Like a seed you have lots of growing to do. Accepting yourself as you are now makes it possible for you to grow. When you feel okay about yourself, you are able to risk change.
Make learning mistakes: A mistake does not make you a failure. It’s a sign that you’re growing. Treat a mistake as the gift it is—an opportunity to learn. Don’t fall into the low self-esteem traps of blaming others, denying your mistakes, hiding them, defending or criticising yourself for not being perfect. Practise saying: “I don’t know.” If you aren’t making mistakes, you’re playing it too safe.
Stop improving, start developing: When you try to improve yourself, you start from a belief that there is something wrong with you that needs to be fixed. Instead, start with your strengths and talents. Then develop these so that you can grow from a foundation of strength.
Affirm yourself: Each night, jot down ten things you feel good about from the day. They don’t need to be big things. They could be kindnesses you showed, feelings you expressed, and commitments you honoured. Do this for one month and watch your self-esteem grow.
Exercise source: Barbara Braham, © 1998-2004
Bhaya : fear
Fear locks itself into our vitality and weighs us down to negative notions and behaviour patterns. Of all negative emotions, fear can be the most debilitating, for it imprisons us into the smallest part of ourselves. It is the stone around our spirit that sinks it to the bottom of a state of fear-fed lethargy and inactivity. We cannot be true to our selves when we are scared—these are chains we’ve got to break out of, the cocoon we just have to rupture for the joy of breathing free.
In bhaya rasa, our energy has become tinted with helplessness, feeling lost and lonely, forsaken and forgotten. Fear cannot exist by itself, it is fed at a primal subconscious level by our notions of what will harm us, or be life-threatening. The smallest of fears stem from genetic hardwiring for self-preservation. As we rise into complexity, our fears become varied and urgent.
Some fears, like of the dark and various phobias, are rooted in a survival instinct, and others, like insecurity or fear of commitment to a person, ideal or relationship, are based in the bhaya-based rasa imbalance in our personalities. Fears can be negative self-scripts relating a certain activity, behaviour or event with suffering. Fears can also be disabling beliefs, based in our emotional conditioning, that prevent us from living a growth-enhancing life.
Letting go is a great way of tearing off the fears we swathe ourselves with. Letting go means becoming unavailable to the real or imagined stimuli that raise our fears. It means dropping aversion to suffering, and ultimately, a direct embracing of our realities, past, present and future, and trusting that we will be able to handle whatever life throws at us with grace and dignity.
Exercise: Learning to let go
These steps are designed to help you in the process of letting go of your fears. They require that you spend some time with yourself each day, and record your feelings and findings in a journal.
Begin with understanding exactly what you need to let go of. What is causing your fear? Is it a phobia, insecurity, fear of loss, or resistance to change?
Identify the obstacles. Are they: irrational beliefs (list them), fear of the unknown, of conflict, of expressing your true emotions, of being disloyal, among others?
You can try any of the following:
a) Write an eulogy to the person whom you have lost to death or who you are scared of losing. Emphasise their positive contributions and capture their goodness. Acknowledge their presence in your life, and what their absence means to you.
b) If you are afraid of dying, write your own epitaph. By reviewing your life, you may recognise the need to let go once its quality is diminished. This will remind you of your mortality and help you clarify your priorities.
c) Write a ‘20 years-from-now’ autobiography of yourself, emphasising the changes in your life if you let go of your fears. This will give you a positive mental image to aspire towards, and result in the letting go of current concerns. It will also help you see how insignificant some fears are in the bigger picture.
Exercise source: www.coping.org
Vibhatsa : disgust
Vibhatsa characterises the judging mind. We look, and immediately our monkey-mind is chattering into our ear its pronouncements on the person/situation. If we just stop and watch, we will be surprised to find how inclined we are to be critical. And how the mind is never quiet, how it constantly weaves web upon web until reality is manipulated into what it wants us to see.
Feelings of revulsion might begin from outrage and indignation at the injustices of the world, but if we are not careful, these quickly descend into harsh judgement. And disgust is often a quicksilver emotion—metamorphosing in a blink into anger or self-pitying sorrow.
Vibhatsa tightly scrunches our eyes against the inherent potential of situations and people. If unchecked, it keeps redrawing our boundaries into increasingly narrower spaces. Until what is tolerable to us becomes more and more limited and we find we have barbed wire wound around us to keep us ‘off limits’ to the world.
One way of opening our hearts and transforming the fettering energy of vibhatsa is to cultivate loving-kindness—the emotion that makes us friends with everyone, yes, even with those that would otherwise arouse our deepest loathing.
Exercise: Meditation on loving-kindness
The Pali name of this practice is metta bhavana. Metta means ‘love’ (in a non-romantic sense), friendliness, or kindness. This practice has five stages, each lasting about five minutes for the beginner.
Begin by feeling metta for yourself. Become aware of yourself, and focus on feelings of peace, calm, and tranquillity. Let these grow into feelings of strength and confidence, and develop into love within your heart. You can use an image, like golden light flooding your body, or repeat a phrase like “may I be well and happy”.
Now think of a good friend as vividly as you can. Feel your connection, and your liking for him or her, and encourage these to grow by repeating, ‘may they be well and happy’. You can use an image, like shining light, from your heart into theirs. You can use these techniques—a phrase or an image—in the next two stages as well.
Think of someone you do not particularly like or dislike. This may be someone you do not know well, or a stranger. You reflect on his or her humanity, and include them in your feelings of metta.
Think of someone you dislike—an enemy. Trying not to get caught up in feelings of hatred, think of him or her positively and send your metta to them as well.
Finally, think of all four people together. Extend your feelings further: to everyone around you, your neighbourhood, your town, your country, and throughout the world. Have a sense of waves of loving-kindness spreading from your heart to all beings everywhere.
Relax out of meditation, and bring the practice to an end.
Exercise source: Friends of the Western Buddhist Order, www.fwbo.org
Raudra : anger
Anger is a basic emotion that all of us live with. Even if we don’t have an anger management problem, which a lot of people do, we find ourselves often in the throes of anger. At times, we might feel a ‘righteous anger’ over injustice or disres
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