Monday Morning Greetings 2020 #10 – Krishna-bhakti, the Rasa Theory, and How to Attain Ultimate Happiness

March 9th, 2020

To understand what ultimate happiness is in the Krishna-bhakti tradition, you first have to understand the concept of rasa.

Rasa, in its broadest meaning, is the flavor of a specific all-consuming emotional experience that forms the subject of a drama. For example, in tragedy all we can think of is our loss; In an intense romance all we can think about is our lover. The originator of classic Indian aesthetics, Bharata Muni, propounded that such heightened emotional experiences should all fall within one of eight categories: rati (romance), hāsya (humor), śoka (tragedy), krodha (anger), utsāha (chivalry), bhaya (horror), jugupsā (disgust), and vismaya (awe).

In the Nāṭya Śāstra, Bharata Muni’s seminal scripture of dramatic theory, he outlines how to expertly compose a classical drama so that a qualified audience can experience the rasa that a particular drama is portraying. But, according to Bharata Muni, it was more than just entertainment. There was a spiritual purpose behind it, similar to the Greek concept of catharsis. A proper drama could lift one beyond the mundane to experience the essence of one’s own consciousness or soul and inspire one to reflect on the spiritual.

Several aestheticians after Bharata Muni continued to develop this relationship between drama and religious experience, most prominently Abhinavagupta, a Kashmiri Śaivite. Śrī Rūpa Gosvāmī of the Krishna-bhakti tradition brought the rasa theory even further. He found that the stories of Krishna as described in the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam were perfectly composed according to Bharata Muni’s rasa theory, the only difference being that a new rasa, bhakti-rasa, the overwhelming experience of loving devotion in relationship to the Divine, was being described. This brings up an interesting question. If the Nāṭya Śāstra is the apparent origin of the rasa theory, how could the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, which predates the Nāṭya Śāstra by at least a thousand years, be perfectly composed according to Bharata Muni’s rasa theory? What Śrī Rupa’s discovery implies is that the ultimate reality is bhakti-rasa, and thus the apparently original rasa theory of Bharata is inspired by and has its source in the eternal realm, a view that is supported by oft quoted, “truly, the Lord is rasa” (raso vai saḥ) of the Taittirīya Upaniṣad (2.7.1), a treatise that also substantially predates the Nāṭya Śāstra.

This statement, that God is the one who enjoys the ultimate rasa, also means that we can share that rapture with God, for in all loving relationships, in this case between the soul and God, the joy of loving exchange is a shared one. In other words, according to Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, and confirmed by the Taittirīya Upaniṣad, the ultimate happiness is the flavor or rasa of sharing a relationship with God. In the case of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, this is exemplified through Krishna’s pastimes.

Rasa theory, as applied to bhakti, has one other very significant point about ultimate happiness. As mentioned before, the purpose of drama is to recreate an overwhelming emotion so that the qualified audience is able to experience it. As the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam is a perfectly composed drama about the pastimes of Krishna, it thus has the dramatic power to make you experience bhakti as originally manifest in the ultimate reality. Hearing the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam from a qualified speaker can thus engender in a sincere listener bhakti-rasa, the ultimate happiness. In the third introductory text of the Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam the author thus implores the reader:

“O expert and thoughtful men, relish Śrīmad-Bhāgavatam, the mature fruit of the desire tree of Vedic literatures. It emanated from the lips of Śrī Śukadeva Gosvāmī. Therefore this fruit has become even more tasteful, although its nectarean juice [rasam] was already relishable for all, including liberated souls.”



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