Shanta Rasa and its unique feeling constellation

Shanta is a Rasa that occupies a unique place in the Rasa theory of Indian dance theatre. Firstly there are only oblique references to this Rasa (if indeed any) in the Natya Sastra text attributed to Bharata. Shanta was most notably highlighted by the Indian philosopher Abhinavagupta in his commentary on the Natya Sastra in about the 10th century AD. Commentators of that time have suggested that this Rasa cannot be portrayed dramatically and can only be captured through other modalities such as literature and poetry. Others have refuted this assertion.

Why is Shanta Rasa different to other Rasas? Of all the Rasas, Shanta is the space wherein the contemplative focus of emotional constellation is undilutedly the core of its expression. Shanta is said to arise from Nirveda, which denotes a sense of despondency and indifference towards the world and worldly experiences. In our current understanding this would appear to be a negative state of being- we are expected to maintain a permanent state of engagement, excitement and enthusiasm about the chitta world and an infinite sense of optimism about its ability to make us happy. However in Indian philosophy that is a deluded state because we are never truly made happy by the transience of our maya reality. In this thinking, Nirveda is the doorway into expansion from the prison of limited wants into the freedom of desirelessness.

The Rasa that most aligns with Shanta is Adbhuta or wonder. Wonder is a state of surrender to not knowing, where one extricates oneself from the shackles of namarupa or the mind’s addiction to definitions and forms which limit the scope of our experiences. Wonder is the doorway to Shanta because it includes many attributes in its own constellation that are pathways into Shanta including tears and shaking of the voice. Adbhuta is a response to an event that is experienced as transporting and elevating.

The beauty of Rasa dance is in embodying Shanta as a dynamic, feeling state—as different from meditative practices where this is an inward focused, still state of being.

Image: Geoffrey Dunn

Padma Menon