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Abstract and Keywords

Emotion is viewed in both positive and negative ways in the Hindu religious and philosophical traditions. In those traditions that are more ascetic and emphasize mental control, emotions are distractions which need to be stilled. In those traditions that emphasize love of a deity, emotions are valuable—but they must be directed and transformed. However, in order to study emotion in the Hindu tradition, we must first look at the meaning of the term “Hinduism.” There are at least six major types of Hinduism: Hindu folk religion, Vedic religion, Vedantic Hinduism, yogic Hinduism, dharmic Hinduism, and bhakti or devotional Hinduism. All of these involve emotion in various ways, but two traditions—those of Bengali Vaishnavism and raja yoga—have written about emotion in greatest depth. This article examines what the term “emotion” means in India, and then describes the beliefs about emotion in Vaishnavism and Yoga in greater detail. In discussing the nature of emotion, it considers bhava and rasa. Finally, the article discusses the literature on emotion in Hindu tradition, focusing on religious poetry.

Keywords: Hinduism, India, religious poetry, Vaishnavism, Yoga, bhava, rasa, raja yoga

Types of Hinduism

Emotion is viewed in both positive and negative ways in the Hindu religious and philosophical traditions. In those traditions that are more ascetic and emphasize mental control, emotions are distractions which need to be stilled. In those traditions that emphasize love of a deity, emotions are valuable—but they must be directed and transformed.

However, in order to study emotion in the Hindu tradition, we must first look at the meaning of the term “Hinduism.” There are many different kinds of Hinduism—it is not a monolithic tradition. The word “Hindu” derives from a British description of the people living along the Indus river—it was not initially intended to refer to a specific religious tradition. Over time, the term came to be accepted as an umbrella term that covers a multitude of different belief systems.

There are at least six major types of Hinduism, and numerous minor ones—it is said that no two villages have the same deities on their altars, as there are different ancestors and regional gods and goddesses in every area. Of the major types, the oldest is Hindu folk religion—the worship of local deities and sanctified natural places, and the propitiation of spirits and ghosts. This is for the most part a nonliterate system, handed down by oral tradition, with a reverence for nature and an appreciation for song and story. It is primarily studied by anthropologists and religionists doing fieldwork, as the rituals and stories are usually not told to outsiders.

Emotion is valued in the folk tradition, with religious joy and sorrow shown frequently during possession rituals. People often live in extended families, and marry according to clan rules (or caste rules, if they are members of a group (p. 52) accepted as part of the caste system). There is no elaborate study of self or emotion in folk Hinduism, though there is often a distinction between body and soul, or between levels of soul.

Vedic religion is based on the ancient Vedic texts, written by the sages or rishis approximately 1500 b.c.e. Vedic Hinduism is the oldest form of Hinduism for which we have written texts. The four Vedas and their commentaries emphasize ritual worship of the gods. The most important is the Rig Veda, a compendium of hymns to such gods as Indra, Agni, and Surya. While there is ecstasy from such rituals as the soma sacrifice (in which Vedic priests would ingest a drug called soma in order to have visions of the gods and communicate with them), there is no general discussion of emotion per se. There is an appreciation of the physical world, full of women and cows and other good things, and people should appreciate it and become wealthy and have many children.

Analysis of emotion really begins in texts that come after the Vedas, such as the Upanishads, and this brings the third type of Hinduism: Vedantic Hinduism. Vedanta is the philosophy of the Vedic and Upanishadic texts. According to the Advaita or monistic form of Vedanta, the ultimate state is an infinite and tranquil ocean of consciousness. It is disturbed by illusion (maya)—the world of names and forms, which creates ignorance. Emotion is a part of that world of becoming, that changing universe that does not allow the person to perceive things as they really are, merged in Brahman, or infinite reality, knowledge, and bliss. The Vedantin seeks wisdom (jnana) to the exclusion of emotion, and renounces attachment to the illusory world. Emotion muddies the waters, disrupting awareness and distracting the sage. According to Advaita Vedanta, emotion is one of the bonds that attaches people to the illusory world, and both love and hatred are illusions that must be overcome.

There is another approach to Vedanta that is dualistic, Dvaita Vedanta. According to this view, the ultimate reality is understood as a personal god, the creator of the universe and the Inner Controller. In this approach, love and obedience are important qualities, and in this understanding of Vedanta we see the roots of the later devotional or bhakti traditions.

A fourth type of Hindu tradition is yogic Hinduism, following the classical raja yoga of Patanjali. In sutra 1.2 of his Yogasutra, Patanjali gives the definition of yoga: “Yogas citta-vrtti-nirodhah”: yoga is the control or dissolution of the fluctuations of the mind.1 The mind is understood as a field or ocean of consciousness (citta), which is ideally peaceful and still. However, in most human beings, it is full of activity, with waves and eddies of passion and desire. In the yoga tradition, emotion is for the most part a distraction to clear awareness.

Both the Vedanta and yogic traditions are basically dualistic and ascetic, with an emphasis on the radiant spiritual world over the dark and illusory physical world. This means that the world is not to be enjoyed but rather overcome, and emotions that bind people to the physical world are to be avoided.

This is different from the fifth type of Hindu tradition, that of dharmic Hinduism, or daily morality. This tradition gives instruction on whom to marry (p. 53) and with whom to eat, how to live and work, and how to attain good karma. Dharmic Hinduism guides people through the joys and sorrows of daily life, giving rules for what is allowed and what is forbidden. Some books stereotype this as the only form of Hindu religion, along with the belief in karma, cows, and the caste system. While dharmic Hinduism is widespread today, it basically says little about the religious side of life—except for encouraging good rebirth. We should also note that while cows are good, they are not gods, and that prejudice on the basis of the caste system has been illegal in India since Indian independence in 1949.

The aspect of Hinduism that is most important for the study of emotion is the sixth type of Hinduism, bhakti or devotional Hinduism. This form of Hinduism has some of the most elaborate analyses of emotion to be found in world religions. It emphasizes the love of a god or goddess, and describes stages, types, roles, and triggers of emotion. This is the form of religion that is most intense in modern India, and probably most widespread. The major deities of the bhakti tradition are Shiva, Vishnu, and Shakti, and they are worshiped though the ritual of puja, which usually involves offerings of flowers, fruit, and incense.

There is also a more controversial sort of Hinduism, the tantric tradition. In this practice, people deliberately disobey the rules of dharma, which emphasizes a slow and gradual growth in spirituality. Instead we have the fast path, where the passions are deliberately generated and overcome—in the death rituals (where people go out at midnight to the burning ground to meditate on a corpse, and the transitory nature of life) and in the sexual rituals (where the participants chant mantras and identify with the god and goddess, experiencing and overcoming sexual desire). Intense emotions (fear of death and lust) are part of the rituals, which are understood to lead eventually to detachment.

All of these involve emotion in various ways, but two traditions—those of Bengali Vaishnavism and raja yoga—have written about emotion in greatest depth. We shall examine what the term “emotion” means in India, and then describe the beliefs about emotion in Vaishnavism and Yoga in greater detail.

What Is Emotion?

In the Sanskrit and Bengali languages, there is no exact term for emotion. The term used most frequently for emotion is bhava or anubhava (the physical expression of the state of bhava). Sometimes the terms raga or abeg are used, which refer to intense emotions or passions. In the yogic literature, we see the term vedana, of Pali origin. It refers to a feeling, usually of a negative kind, such as pain and sorrow.

The term bhava has many referents—the Monier-Williams Sanskrit dictionary has four large columns of definitions for bhava, and the Bangala Bhasar Abhidhan dictionary has two columns. Definitions in the Samsad Bengali-English Dictionary (p. 54) include mental state, mood, emotion, condition, love, friendship, ecstasy, rapture, passion, inner significance, essence, and existence—thus covering a wide range of phenomena.

Bhava is an emotional complex, a form of experience, with connotations of associated perception, thought, movement, and expression. It is a way of being, a sense of identity that may be individual or shared. It is believed in many of the Bengali devotional traditions that religious ecstatics can create waves of bhava (bhava-taranga) that can spread through crowds of people, causing them all to share in the ecstatic's intense emotions.2 The person who is bhavavesh is possessed by bhava, that is, he or she is either intensely emotional or is taking on the bhava (the emotion and identity) of a deity or other being. The person may be bhava laga (affected by an emotion or idea), bhava praban (emotional, sentimental, maudlin), or bhava bihbul (overwhelmed with emotion or ecstasy). As a term derived from bhava, bhavana is thought, meditation, creation, and visualization; but it can also refer to worry and anxiety (the term is used in the Indian medical tradition for the repeated maceration, pulverization, and purification of herbal medicine—an interesting metaphor for analytic thought).

In the Bengali and Sanskrit languages, terms for emotion and thought, mind and heart, are not opposed. Indeed, most frequently the same terms are used for both. A term often heard, mana, means both mind and heart, as well as mood, feeling, mental state, memory, desire, attachment, interest, attention, devotion, and decision. These terms do not have a single referent in English, and must be understood through clusters of explicit and implicit meanings.3 Verbs based on mana include mana kara, to make up one's mind, to resolve or agree; mana kara, to captivate the mind or win one's heart; and mana khola, to speak one's mind or open one's heart.

A term used less frequently by informants, hridaya, means the heart as both organ and inner seat of feeling. The heart may be melted (when a play is hridayadravakara, touching or evoking pathos), may be broken (the heart is pierced, hridayabhedi), and may overflow with an outburst of emotion (hridayochvasa). A person unaffected by emotion may be called unfeeling or heartless (hridayahin). The heart is also understood as a space or locale, in which persons or deities may dwell. Thus we see the heart called a canvas for painting (hridayapata), a shrine or temple (hridayamandir), a seat for a loved one or deity (hridayasana), or a space as broad as the sky (hridayakasa). As one informant described it, his heart was an empty box that needed to be filled. In poetry, the loved one may live in the heart as in a garden, and in worship, an aspect of the god may live there enthroned, surrounded by the devotee's love like an aura of light. In a poem quoted later in this chapter, the poet Ramprasad Sen speaks of the “burning ground of the heart” and had visions of the goddess Kali dancing there.4 In kundalini yoga, the heart is a doorway to the worlds of the spirit, as the anahata chakra or heart center.5

There are several other terms often used in discussing emotion. Raga, a term better known in the West as a mode of Indian classical music, also means passion, ranging from love and attachment to anger and rage. It has the meaning of dye or color (especially red)—the soul is understood to be “dyed” by passion, which (p. 55) permeates it the way a dye permeates cloth.6 Kama is desire, lust, and pleasure, while prema is selfless or spiritual love. Abeg means tremendous force, passionate outburst, intense feeling, uneasiness, and suspense, while anubhava refers to both power and physical expression of emotional states (such as tears and sighs). Yet emotion is suksmata, subtlety, delicacy, invisible to the senses, as well as komlata, gentleness, tenderness, softness. As anubhuti, it is both perception and intuition, realization and feeling.

The terms for thought, or cognition, often imply emotion. We have the word cinta, meaning thought, idea, and cogitation, with associated meanings of anxiety, worry, and fear. Dharana means idea, conception, memory, belief, impression, as well as feeling, and is associated with the act of holding, catching, wearing, carrying (thought is “borne” in the mind). Anubhava means knowledge, perception, and realization but also feeling, and kalpana refers to thought and imagination.

We see in these terms and definitions that emotion is a powerful force that is at the same time subtle and delicate, invisible to the senses yet capable of generating physical expressions, associated with perception, intuition, and realization. There is no sharp distinction between emotion and cognition. Thought is associated with knowledge and discrimination, and the mind grasps and holds memories and ideas. Yet thought is also associated with feelings, especially anxiety,7 as well as imagination.

Bhava in itself is a complex term with a range of meanings, from a broad understanding of experience and identity (bhava as a way of being) to a specific bhava, an emotion or thought that is clearly defined. Using the same term for these events shows that the range of experience—emotion, mood, identity, mental state—is understood as a continuum rather than a collection of distinct and opposed categories. Both emotion and thought are part of the wider category of bhava.

The Nature of Emotion: Bhava and Rasa

The most extensive analyses of aesthetic and dramatic emotion in Indian philosophy have probably come from the writers of the Alankarashastra, the Sanskrit literary tradition that focuses on aesthetic experience. For this tradition, aesthetic emotion is rasa, which is experienced by the person of taste (rasika) during identification with a dramatic character or situation. According to the Alankara, the spectator is totally involved in the dramatic event, and feels an emotion that is powerful and extraordinary (alaukika) yet impersonal and generic. It is joyful, rather than pleasant or painful, and brings a sense of wonder. In some ways, it is similar to the religious goal of realization of Brahman. Visvanatha writes that aesthetic enjoyment requires subconscious impressions (vasanas) that support an emotional disposition.8 Aesthetic emotions have a variety of effects on consciousness.9

(p. 56) The writers of the Alankara describe both permanent and temporary emotions. They base their organization of emotions on the list of the writer Bharata in his famous book Natyashastra: love, mirth, grief, anger, energy (zeal), fear, disgust, and wonder10. These permanent emotions (sthayibhava) are dominant, and cannot be suppressed by other emotions. According to Singa Bhupala's Rasarnavasudhakar, “they are permanent emotions, which transform other emotions into themselves, even as the ocean transforms the waves into itself.”11

The temporary or transitory emotions (vyabhicharibhava) are easily influenced. According to Saradatanaya's Bhavaprakashana, they appear and disappear within the permanent emotions as waves appear and disappear in the ocean, contributing to its excellence.12 They are like bubbles in the ocean, or beads or flowers of a garland, and they help, promote, and strengthen the permanent emotions that they ornament. Some of the transitory emotions include shame, exhilaration, dejection, eagerness, apathy, ferocity, and anxiety.13 In the first chapter of his Natyashastra, Bharata compared the aesthetic experience to eating—as spices add flavor (rasa) to the main dish, which is enjoyed by the gourmet, so the permanent emotion in drama is spiced with transitory emotions and literary ornaments, to be enjoyed by the connoisseur (rasika).

The sentiment of rasa is a transformation of the basic, more “concrete” emotion of bhava. The term rasa means sap, juice, liquid essence, and taste, and is often translated as flavor, relish, mood, and sentiment. Emotional rasa can be tasted and appreciated.14 When emotions became rasas, they may be viewed as art objects, and combined in aesthetic fashion. They may blend harmoniously with each other (sandhi), arise and disappear, or conflict with and inhibit one another.

When two moods clash with each other, this conflict is called rasabhasa. It is understood to result in an inferior emotional experience. It is a damaged or incomplete sort of emotion, tainted by pride or power, or generated by some inappropriate source. The conflicts that might generate such a damaged emotion could include the clash between parental and erotic love toward the same object, or the emotions of disgust and fury combined with the attitude of loving service.

The associated emotions or bhavas may be simple or complex. They are called compound emotions when several transitory emotions arise in quick succession, especially when some are inhibited by others.

From this perspective, the bhava is a “raw” emotion, not “cooked” or transformed into an aesthetic emotion. In order to transform the emotion, an internal distancing is needed from the emotion, so that the experiencer also becomes an observer, in some ways like the “witness-self” described in Vedantic philosophy.

The eight basic bhavas and rasas relate as follows.



















(p. 57) The bhava is the basic emotion, the rasa is the mood that results from it. Rasa is characterized by impersonality or generalizing (sadharanikarana), the distancing of the person from both the object and from his or her own emotions. In bhava, the person experiences emotions directly, while in rasa, he or she empathizes and observes the emotion and situation, feeling as if he or she felt the emotion but not actually being involved enough to feel it directly. It is impersonal, generic, the experience of a type. As De states, “Generality is thus a state of self-identification with the imagined situation, devoid of any practical interest and, from this point of view, of any relation whatsoever with the limited self, and as it were impersonal.”15

The feelings of the poet or actor are also excluded from the aesthetic experience. The elements of particular consciousness are expunged to create generalized emotion, valuing universals more than particular acts. The rasika or aesthete is both observer and participant.

Bhava is a personal emotion; rasa is an impersonal or depersonalized emotion or mood, in which the participant is also an observer. In the Alankara aesthetic theory, rasa is superior to bhava, and a more desirable state. Why is a depersonalized emotion considered to be superior to a personal one? Because the aesthete can experience a wide range of emotions yet be protected from their painful aspects. Emotion is appreciated as if through a glass barrier that keeps out unpleasantness. Though the glass is clear, which allows a union of sorts with the observed object, the window is always present, which maintains the dualism. This becomes important for the religious dimensions of rasa, where the duality between the worshiper and the god (an important concept in bhakti devotion) must always be maintained.

The Alankara tradition strongly influenced the development of Bengali or Gaudiya Vaishnavism, which developed a complex theory of spiritual and emotional development based on the love of the god Krishna.

Emotion in Bengali Vaishnavism

Vaishnavism is the worship of various forms of the god Vishnu or Krishna, and in West Bengal a tradition developed that emphasized emotion as extremely important to spiritual growth. It came to be called Gaudiya Vaishnavism or Bengali (p. 58) Vaishnavism, and it emphasized the worship of the god Krishna (who is understood as the one true god, though he has emanations and manifestations) and Krishna's later form on earth, Caitanya Mahaprabhu of Navadvipa (who was believed to be a joint incarnation of both Krishna and his consort Radha).

Like the philosophers of the Alanakarashastra, the Bengali Vaishnavas also value rasa, but they emphasize its religious aspects. In the Vaishnava understanding of emotion, secular aesthetic rasa becomes bhakti rasa, or devotional sentiment. The religious goal is not liberation but rather love, and the devotee must go beyond dramatic emotion to become filled with religious emotion. The connoisseur (the rasika or sahridaya, the person with heart) who can truly appreciate the fine points of the arts becomes the devotee or bhakta, tasting the forms of joy brought by the god Krishna. He or she is both observer of divine play (lila) and participant in the divine drama (which occurs in human history and in Krishna's paradise, not merely on a stage). The aesthetic experience is universal, bhedabheda, simultaneously individual and eternal, material and spiritual.

In bhakti yoga, emotion becomes discipline—the emotions are generated and transformed consciously, especially in that form of practice known as raganuga bhakti sadhana.16 There is a sort of “ladder of emotion” one must climb to the highest emotional states, and it is described in two important texts, the Bhakti-rasamritasindhu and Ujjvala-Nilamani of Rupa Gosvamin. While the former (the Ocean of the Nectar of Devotional Love) looks at the earlier stages of religious emotion and its transformation, the latter (the Blazing Sapphire—describing the god Krishna) focuses on the more advanced states of mystical love.

The Bhakti-rasamritasindhu has the devotee begin with ritual action (vaidhi bhakti) and progress to ritual emotion (raganuga bhakti). Through physical action and imaginative visualization, the devotee builds a soul, a spiritual body composed of love, which can experience emotion more intensely than can the ordinary personality. The bhava becomes deepened, and the heart is softened. Emotion becomes intense selfless love (prema), and there is continual focus of attention on Radha and Krishna, the divine couple. In the highest state, called the greatest emotion (mahabhava), the person experiences all possible emotions simultaneously, including the opposite emotions of separation and union, in passionate delirium (madana). As O. B. L. Kapoor states,

madana has the unique capacity of directly experiencing a thousand different kinds of enjoyment of union with Krsna. … It presents these multifarious experiences of union simultaneously with multifarious experiences of separation (viyoga) involving craving (utkantha) for union.17

The “ladder of emotion” includes sneha, a thickening of spiritual love (when the emotion gains a consistency and taste like clarified butter or honey); mana, or sulking and hiding emotion; pranaya, or deep sharing and confidence; raga, or intense passion (also defined as the person being totally concentrated on the desired object); anuraga, in which the beloved appears eternally new; and mahabhava, (p. 59) the experience of emotion so intense and complex that all extremes of emotion are felt at once.

In the orthodox Bengali Vaishnava tradition, only Radha may experience the state of mahabhava, though her companions and their handmaidens may share in her emotional states. Indeed, these handmaidens or manjaris are said to feel Radha's emotions one hundred times more intensely than she does, for they are not as personally involved (selflessness is understood to increase sensitivity to the divine).18 The devotee may also share in these states by visualizing the mythical situations and characters in which they occur.19

These states of intense emotion are expressed by ecstatic bodily changes (the sattvika bhavas or sattvika vikaras). There are eight of these: trembling, shedding tears, paralysis, sweating, fainting, changing skin color, faltering voice, and hair standing on end. Like the transitory emotions, these symptoms are understood to develop and intensify the permanent emotions, and they are an extreme form of emotional expression (anubhava).20

In the Bengali Vaishnava tradition, emotion may be used to build spiritual bodies. Disciplined emotion and concentration can generate nonphysical selves, which are highly valued. The person may not be able to determine his or her secular personality, based as it is on past events, but he or she can build a soul, a spiritual body that is sculpted out of emotion. This alternative personality, or “subtle body,” is composed of selfless love (prema) and represents the person's ideal self. It is understood that this body will live forever in Krishna's paradise, after the person's physical body has died.

The idea of alternative selves has often been dismissed as “split personality” or multiple personality disorder by Western observers. However, it is interesting to note that, in the West, the focus on alternate selves has been on multiple personality disorder generated by trauma—by abuse or events too painful for the person to bear (and earlier on by demonic personalities that possess the person against his or her will).21 Nonetheless, the description given by the American Psychiatric Association's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders fits the Indian case in many ways:

A. The existence within an individual of two or more distinct personalities, each of which is dominant at a particular time. B. The personality that is dominant at any particular time determines the individual's behavior. C. Each individual personality is complex and integrated with its own unique behavior patterns and social relationships.22

Western alternate personalities are considered to be involuntarily created and pathological, a result of trauma. It is assumed that emotion cannot be deliberately used and controlled to create a new personality—such generation is an unconscious event.

From the Indian devotional perspective, developing an alternate self based on emotion is a conscious and creative act, building a spiritual body made out of (p. 60) overflowing love. This siddha deha (perfected body) or prema deha (body of love) becomes the true self of the person, and is believed to continue after the death of the physical body. The alternative self is generated by will and love rather than pain, and emotion is utilized rather than repressed or endured. In this understanding, emotion is the foundation of identity, the substance from which it is constructed. Selfless love, or prema, is also the substance of the Krishna's paradise itself—heaven is literally made of love.

The term bhava is also used for the five basic roles or emotional relationships through which the devotee may relate to the deity: through friendship, parental love, service, peace, and erotic love. Thus, the devotee and the god may be close friends who confide in each other; the devotee may be the loving mother or father of the baby god; the devotee may be the servant of his or her divine master; the devotee and god may be understood to be equally divine or ultimately the same; and the devotee and god may be passionate lover and beloved. Among these roles, the relationship of lover and beloved in considered to be the ideal one, full of sweetness and joy. The relationship of equal and equal, as one might see in the Advaita Vedanta understanding of all selves being equally Brahman, is least desirable, as there is no passion and sweetness involved.

Among the Bengali Vaishnavas, bhava is the emotional ground for subtler and more complex emotional states. Emotion is desirable, as the way to get closest to the god, and the way to best understand the universe as it really is—full of joy, happiness, and creativity.

Emotion in Raja Yoga

The yogic approach to emotion is quite different from the bhakti or devotional approach. According to yoga philosophy, the ideal state is one totally without emotional extremes, a state of perfect peace and tranquility. Emotion distracts the person from that state of pure awareness and clear insight, binding him or her to the physical world. The mind is a field of consciousness full of areas of tension and anxiety that attract the person's mind, and make perception distorted and thinking erratic.

These changes or fluctuations are the citta-vrittis, the whirlpools of consciousness that disturb the clarity of the mind. Some of these disturbances are of external origin, originating in the surrounding physical world, and some are internal, arising from memory and impression.

According to Patanjali's yoga, these memory impressions may become inclinations or propensities of the personality (vasanas), which are accompanied by repeated habits of thought. The associated mental fluctuations become laden with emotion and are called kleshas, impurities or afflictions. There are five kleshas: ignorance, desire, hatred, fear (especially fear of death), and pride (the sense of the (p. 61) self as an important individual entity).23 These should be avoided: the yogi should control his emotions, withdrawing his perceptions and concerns into himself as a turtle pulls his legs inside of his shell.

These kleshas or painful aspects of consciousness arise from misunderstanding, especially from thinking that the individual, egotistical self is identical to the universal, ultimate Self. They also arise from attachment to ephemeral material things and the desire to possess them, and from hatred and aversion to material things and to people. The fear of death and the desperate craving for life also crate bondage and attachment to the world.

In Western psychology, we divide the mind into conscious and unconscious aspects. In yoga psychology, there is an area of conscious awareness (mediated through manas or mind, and ahamkara or ego). There is also an unconscious area of the mind, and that is where we have the whirlpools of emotion, the citta-vrittis. These originate from traumatic or passionate memories, which fill the unconscious with anxiety and desire. In meditation, the person may perceive these traumas and be caught in them. These centers of repeating emotions, ideas, and tendencies are called vasanas. These whirlpools must be “stilled” so that they no longer have power over the person.

Whether conscious or unconscious, most of these emotional attachments are understood to have their origin in past events. Thus, current emotion has a basis in karma—not only from events in this life but also from past lives. As Eliade notes, the whirlpools of traumatic emotion may be transmitted “impersonally” over the generations (through culture and its values, thus ethnic and historical transmission) or directly (through reincarnation and the person's development in each life).24

Western psychology allows for conscious and unconscious aspects of mind, but no superconscious aspect. In yoga psychology, there is also a superconscious area of the mind, reached through the intellect or buddhi. This part of the mind determines what is ultimate reality for the person, and allows the awareness of more and more subtle aspects of the mind. In meditation, the immediate passions and desires are stilled, and then the unconscious complexes or vasanas from the past are perceived and calmed. It is only when the murky waters of awareness have been calmed and clarified that the yogi can see clearly.

The mind is often compared to a river or ocean. According to the commentary of Vyasa on Patanjali's Yogasutra, “The river called mind flows in two directions”25—toward the world of desire (samsara) and the world of peace (called kaivalya or isolation from the turbulence of daily life). The mind-stream or river of consciousness (citta-nadi) needs to be directed and “one-pointed” toward peace and freedom, and one way to direct the river is to dam it through dispassion (vairagya).26 This is a major goal of yoga practice.

It may be noted that there is a positive approach to one type of emotion in raja yoga. This is the ecstatic emotion of ananda, or bliss. In the state of samadhi, the state of perfect peace and contemplation that precedes total liberation or kaivalya, the person enters a state of great delight. It is traditionally described as having the (p. 62) qualities of ultimate truth, infinite awareness, and overwhelming bliss (or sat, chit, and ananda). To be in the state of ananda is to have great joy and love, which comes from the experience of the unity of all things.

Hinduism's Wide Variety

There is no single system or understanding of emotion in Hinduism. Ideas range from emotion as a distraction to emotion as concentration, as pain, as pleasure, as the substance of spiritual bodies and paradises, as a pathway to the god. Emotion has been explored in great detail in both philosophical and religious systems. This chapter can only give a few examples—there are many more. There are many variants of devotional love or bhakti, with different formulations of emotion and appropriate roles for god and devotee. In Shakta bhakti, for instance, the goddess is the mother, and the devotee is the child, and the most important type of emotion is the love of a child for its divine mother.27

Emotion can act as a distraction or as an aid to concentration, helping to focus the mind. Passion can direct the mind and fasten it on its object. In the stories of Krishna and the gopis or milkmaids who loved him, their fascination for him is often described as meditative, and Radha's passion for Krishna is often compared to yogic concentration. The love object is the focus of the mind, for there is no split between thought and feeling. The spiritual practice of remembrance (smarana) involves mana, which is both mind and heart, and is directed to a single end, so that even thinking of anything else becomes difficult. Depending on how it is used, the same emotion can distract from concentration or be a means of mental control, and can limit or increase knowledge.

Emotions can be controlled and combined to become something analogous to art objects. Rather than passions or disturbances, emotions may be aesthetic objects, which are arranged as dominant and transitory, central and peripheral, clashing and ornamental, as an artist might arrange different color relationships on a canvas. Emotions are in a sense colors (raga), which define and structure experience as art. During the dramatic performance, the emotions represented by the actor are experienced in the observer, who is simultaneously a participant. As the trained observer is aware of the subtlety and interplay of emotion, he or she becomes involved in what might be called performance art. It is a conscious awareness of his own shared dramatic experience, which is paradoxical because it is both close and distanced. Raw, “concrete” emotions can be transformed into aesthetic and religious ones.

Emotion is often a means to an end in the Bengali aesthetic and devotional traditions, and that end is the good life. Emotion is not a passive response but an active eros, involving meaning, beauty, and creativity, which structures both self and world.

(p. 63) The Literary Tradition

One good place for examining emotion in Hindu tradition is in literature, especially in religious poetry. Some of the clearest and most intense examples of love, for instance, are shown in the poetic interactions of the gods, and in the relationship between the gods and humankind.

In the Vaishnava bhakti tradition, there is an emphasis on madhurya-bhava, the mood of Krishna as divine lover. The major forms of love described in such poetry are love in separation (vipralambha) and love in union (sambhoga). These are considered to be situations of prema or selfless love, though there are often elements of kama or lust. Here is an example of love in separation, of Radha longing for the god Krishna, by the medieval poet Vidayapati:

  • Harder than diamonds,
  • Richer than gold,
  • Deeper than the sea
  • Was our love.
  • The sea still washes the shores
  • But our love went dry.
  • I wish my lover
  • Who is dark as the clouds,
  • Would come in torrents …
  • How I remember
  • Those hours of passion
  • when he would swear to me
  • that day was night …28

Here is another example of Radha's sadness and bitterness over Krishna's desertion, by the Bengali poet Chandidasa:

  • I brought honey and drank it mixed with milk—
  • but where was its sweetness? I tasted gall.
  • I am steeped in bitterness, as the seed
  • of a bitter fruit in its juice.
  • My heart smoulders.
  • A fire without is plain to be seen
  • but this fire flames within,
  • it sears my breast.
  • Desire burns the body—how can it be relieved?29

The other major form of selfless love is love in love in union, which is understood to be less intense—and thus less desirable, for intense passion is the ideal state. Here is an example of love in union between Radha and Krishna from the Bengali poet Jnana-dasa: (p. 64)

  • Love, I take on splendor in your splendor
  • grace and gentleness are mine because of your beauty.
  • I remember,
  • how I embraced your feet, holding them
  • tight to my breast.
  • Others have many loves, I have
  • only you,
  • dearer to me than life.
  • You are the kohl on my eyes, the ornaments
  • on my body
  • you, dark moon.30

Another example of love in union comes from Vidyapati:

  • O friend, there is no end to my joy!
  • Madhava [Krishna] is home forever.
  • The pain I suffered for the heartless moon
  • Ended in bliss.
  • My eyes live on his face.
  • Lift up my dress, fill it with gold
  • Yet never will I let him go again.
  • He is my shelter in the rains,
  • Ferry boat on the river.
  • He is my warmth when the winter is hard,
  • Cool breeze in the summer months,
  • Nothing else I need.31

Bengali Vaishnavism also includes the complex of emotions known as mahabhava, in which the person experiences all possible emotions at once, especially the intensities of both union and separation. This poem by Govinda-dasa describes this state in Radha, a state that continually amazes Krishna:

  • When they had made love
  • she lay in his arms in the kunja grove.
  • Suddenly she called his name
  • and wept—as if she burned in the fire of
  • separation.
  •  The gold was in her anchal [the end of her sari]
  •  but she looked afar for it!
  • —Where has he gone? Where has my love gone?
  • O why has he left me alone?
  • And she writhed on the ground in despair
  • only her pain kept her from fainting.
  • Krishna was astonished
  • and could not speak.32

(p. 65) For those devotees interested in the subtleties of rasa, there are poems that mix different emotions together. Sometimes Radha's love is mingled with fear, as Vidyapati states:

  • O friend, friend, take me with you
  • I am only a young girl
  • No one can stop him
  • So violent a lover is he.
  • My heart shudders to go near him.
  • How the black bee ravishes the lotus bud.
  • He crushes my frail body
  • Quivering like a drop of water
  • On a lotus leaf.33

Sometimes love is combined with anger, as in this poem by the Tamil Vaishnava poetess Antal:

  • If I see the lord of Govardhana
  • that looting thief
  • that plunderer,
  • I shall pluck
  • by their roots
  • these useless breasts.
  • I shall fling them
  • at his chest,
  • I shall cool
  • the raging fire
  • within me.34

Antal also writes from the perspective of the servant mood or dasya bhava:

  • O Govinda, we have not come
  • to ask for the ritual drum.
  • We are your slaves,
  • we serve only you.
  • Forever and a day
  • We shall be connected
  • with you.
  • Make all our desires
  • flow to you alone.35

The god Shiva also has devotees who love him in various ways, though there is less language of union and separation. But we do have the poetry of these states: as the twelfth-century female poet Mahadeviyakka writes in loneliness: (p. 66)

  • What do
  • the barren know
  • of birthpangs?
  • Stepmothers
  • what do they know
  • of loving care?
  • How can the unwounded
  • know the pain
  • of the wounded?
  • O lord white as jasmine
  • your love's blade stabbed
  • and broken in my flesh,
  • I writhe.
  • O mothers
  • how can you know me?36

In the state of longing, she also writes:

  • Like a silkworm weaving
  • her house with love
  • from her marrow,
  •  and dying
  • in her body's threads
  • winding tight, round
  • and round,
  •  I burn
  • desiring what the heart desires.
  • Cut through, O lord,
  • my heart's greed
  • and show me
  • your way out,
  • O lord white as jasmine.37

The Tamil poet Manikkavacakar describes love in mystical union:

  • Could there ever be magic as wondrous as this?
  • The lord let me serve his own loving servants,
  • he released me from fear
  • and took me for his own,
  • he entered my being
  • and so overwhelmed me with love
  • my heart dissolved and flowed like nectar.
  • Our father become man, woman
  • and one without gender,
  • sky, raging fire
  • (p. 67)
  • and the End of all things,
  • Lord Siva
  • with body red as a great ceccai blossom
  • is king of the gods,
  • our lord who stands on the other shore.38

The twelfth century poet Basvanna also writes of union:

  • When
  • like a hailstone crystal
  • like a waxwork image
  • the flesh melts in pleasure
  •  how can I tell you?
  • The waters of joy
  • broke the banks
  • and ran out of my eyes.
  • I touched and joined
  • my lord of the meeting rivers
  • How can I talk to anyone
  • of that?39

Many Shaiva writers also used the erotic bhava or mood for their poems, as does Manikavacakar here:

  • I wear a cassia garland
  • and cling to Siva's round shoulders,
  • locked in his embrace, I swoon
  • and then we quarrel like lovers.
  • His red lips make me giddy with longing
  • my heart melting, I search everywhere
  • and fix my thoughts on his feet.
  • I wither,
  • then I blossom once more.
  • Let's sing about the red feet of the lord
  • who dances
  • flame in hand.40

While both Vaishnava and Shaiva traditions of emotional bhakti emphasize passionate love, the goddess tradition of Shaktism emphasizes dependence on the mother, and the devotee is most often the child or servant of the mother. The erotic bhava is very rare in Shaktism (which may be surprising for those who equate Shaktism with tantra). Instead, we have such emotions as patriotism, parental love, and the desire for salvation. In this poem by Kazi Nazrul Islam (a poet who wrote both Muslim and Hindu religious poetry), we see the mother as patriotism and the force of revenge: (p. 68)

  • How long will you be concealed
  • Inside that clay image, O mother?
  • Our paradise has been conquered
  • By a tyrant, an evil monster.
  • The divine children are being whipped
  • Our young heroes are hanged daily
  • All India has become a slaughter-house
  • O goddess of catastrophe, why do you delay? …
  • Who else but you can come to the battleground
  • Holding your sword of lightning? …
  • Save me, mother, save me.
  • Only you should be at the front, with your sword in your hand.41

We also see the goddess as the daughter, and the devotee as her mother, in the agamani and vijaya songs traditionally sung during the Durga Puja holiday in West Bengal. In this poem by Jayanarayana Bandyopadhyaya, the goddess Shakti has been born on earth as the child Kalika, daughter of Menaka. Kalika has been married in an arranged marriage to the god Shiva Shankara, and Menaka is unhappy at the loss of her daughter, who is off living with her husband. She mourns in sad parental love:

  • You have gone to the home of Shankara, on Kailash
  • And you seem to have forgotten us.
  • You do not miss me, your mother,
  • To whom can I speak of this?
  • I have spent my days crying
  • For my child Kalika is far away from me.
  • Look at me, I am weak, and unable to move,
  • I am without Shakti, O wife of Shiva.42

Desire for salvation runs through the poetry of one of the most famous of the Shakta poets, Ramprasad Sen. He emphasizes the role of the goddess in saving the devotee from death, and bringing him or her to her paradise, or to a good rebirth. Kali is traditionally worshiped at the burning ground, amid the cremated bodies, to show her conquest of life and death:

  • Because you love the burning ground
  • I have made a burning ground of my heart
  • So that you, dark goddess, can dance there forever.
  • I have no other desire left, O Mother
  • A funeral pyre is blazing in my heart.
  • Ashes from corpses are all around me, my Mother
  • In case you decide to come.
  • Prasad prays, O Mother, at the hour of death
  • Keep your devotee at your feet.
  • Please come dancing with rhythmic steps
  • Let me see you when my eyes are closed.43

(p. 69) These are some examples of emotion as shown in religious poetry. Emotion may also be seen in Bharat Natyam, or Indian dance, in which it is stylized in movement and facial expression, as well as in drama, where plays are structured so that specific moods are expressed in the performances.


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                                        (1.) See Yoga-Sutra 1.2, in The Yoga-Sutras of Patanjali, with the Exposition of Vyasa, translated with commentary by Pandit Usharbudh Arya (Honesdale, Pa.: Himalayan International Institute of Yoga Science and Philosophy of the USA, 1986). All references to this work hereafter are to this edition.

                                        (2.) Such waves are described in many Bengali biographies of siddhas or saints. For example, the Vaishnavite saint Vijayakrsna Gosvamin and his devotees were described as dancing in waves of bhava, which became a “sky-high typhoon.” See his biography in June McDaniel, The Madness of the Saints: Ecstatic Religion in Bengal (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).

                                        (3.) The following terms and definitions come from the Samsad Bengali-English Dictionary, ed. Sri Birendramohan Dasgupta (Calcutta: Sahitya Samsad, 1983).

                                        (4.) In India, the dead are not buried but rather are burned at the smasana or burning ground. To compare the heart to a burning ground means that all earthly concerns have been left behind, as the corpse is left behind by the spirit, and a total devotion to the goddess has taken their place.

                                        (5.) In the meditation system of kundalini yoga, the person is understood to have a body composed of energy (shakti), which exists invisibly within the physical body. This body is composed of seven centers (chakras) which are located along the spine and are foci of meditation. These centers are interpreted in different ways by different practitioners, but the heart center is usually associated with emotion, compassion and respiration.

                                        (6.) We see a similar range of meanings to the term raga in the Japanese term iro (Chinese se). Iro means color and sensual pleasure, among other meanings, and includes such derivatives as irogonomi (sensuality, lust); iroke (coloring, shade, passion, romance); irozome (dyeing, dyed); and irokoi (love, sentiment). See the term iro in Andrew N. Nelson, The Modern Reader's Japanese-English Character Dictionary (Rutland, Vt.: Tuttle, 1974).

                                        (7.) There is a special kind of madness in Bengal, colloquially known as “study-pagal,” or study-insanity. Informants told me that too much thinking was dangerous, that it upset the balance of the mind, and could result in grave mental and physical illness. I was told quite firmly that I needed more emotion and less thought in order to be healthy. This is the “folk” view, which separates thought and emotion, and finds emotion to be especially important in women.

                                        (8.) Visvanatha Kaviraja, Sahityadarpana, as cited by Jadunath Sinha. It may be noted that Visvanatha felt that philosophers were incapable of aesthetic enjoyment, as they are devoid of innate emotional dispositions. Dharmadatta echoes this opinion: persons devoid of emotional dispositions cannot appreciate art: they are “as good as a piece of wood, a wall, and a stone in the theatre hall.” See Jadunath Sinha, Indian Psychology, vol. 2, Emotion and Will (Calcutta: J. Sinha Foundation, 1961), 166.

                                        (9.) According to Dhananjaya's Kavyasahityamimamsa, erotic and comic emotions cause the blooming (vikasa) of consciousness; emotions of courage and wonder bring about the expansion (vistara) of consciousness; horror and fear cause the agitation (ksobha) of consciousness, while fury and pathos produce the obstruction (viksepa) of consciousness. Ibid., 169.

                                        (10.) The Natyashastra is usually dated not later than the sixth century c.e., but may have elements as old as the second century b.c.e. See Edwin Gerow, Indian Poetics (Wiesbaden: Otto Harassowitz, 1977), 245. Such divisions of basic emotions are also seen in Western thought, for example in Silvano Arieti's concepts of first-order emotions (protoemotions) and second- and third-order emotions. See his “Cognition and Feeling,” in Arnold (1970). He includes tension, fear, appetite, satisfaction, and rage as first-order emotions.

                                        (11.) Cited in Sinha, Indian Psychology, 2:175.

                                        (12.) Ibid., 207.

                                        (13.) Rasa theory also describes the causes and effects of emotion in great detail. Briefly, the dramatic emotions contain several aspects. The vibhava is the stimulus or cause of emotion (such as persons and events presented); the anubhava is the involuntary reaction or physical effect of emotion; and the vyabhicharibhava is the associated, temporary feeling or transitory state that may accompany the permanent emotion (sthayibhava).

                                        (14.) According to Bharata, the moment of gustatory rasa occurs when the eater rests after the meal with a smile of satisfaction, appreciating the individual tastes merging into a general mood of happiness. This is similar to the aesthete appreciating the different aspects of a drama, which merge together.

                                        (15.) See S. K. De, Sanskrit Poetics as a Study of Aesthetics, with notes by Edwin Gerow (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963), 21.

                                        (16.) This practice involves imitation of the anubhavas, or classical expressions of emotion, to generate passionate feelings within the practitioner, based on the emotions of the original Krishna devotees of Vrindavana. The goal of the practice is the generation of a new identity, that of a handmaiden of Krishna's consort Radha, composed of emotion (selfless love or prema). For a detailed analysis of this practice, see David L. Haberman, Acting as a Way of Salvation: A Study of Raganuga Bhakti Sadhana (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988)

                                        (17.) O. B. L. Kapoor, The Philosophy and Religion of Sri Caitanya (Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 1977), 210.

                                        (18.) According to the Govinda-lilamrta of Krsnadas Kaviraj, the companions (sakhis) of Radha are “like flowers and buds of the vine of love which is Radha,” and when Radha experiences the joy of Krishna's love, her companions' experience of that joy is one hundred times greater than her own. See Krsnadas Kaviraj (463 Gaurabda), Govinda-lilamrta (Navadvipa: Haribol Kutir, n.d.). Because they are detached from ego and desire, they are more open to deeper forms of love, and can experience these intensely. Thus, detachment (from ego and desire) paradoxically leads to intensity.

                                        (19.) There are special meditations that lead to experience of these intense emotional states. In the manjari sadhana, the devotee identifies himself with one of Radha's handmaidens, while in the gaur lila sadhana, he identifies himself with the servants of Caitanya Mahaprabhu, a fifteenth‐century Bengali saint believed by devotees to be a joint incarnation of Krishna and Radha. See McDaniel, The Madness of the Saints.

                                        (20.) They differ in that the sattvika bhavas are composed only of sattva guna, and as such are purely spiritual emotions. There may be one or two at a time, or more than five may manifest themselves at once (in this case, the sattvika bhavas are said to be blazing or uddipta). While some of these may be caused by other events (such as sweating caused by heat or fear), the more of these bodily changes appear, the greater is the likelihood that the person is experiencing intense emotion.

                                        (21.) In multiple personality disorder, the selves are highly segregated dissociative states, developed during childhood as a response to severe trauma, usually repeated abuse. Research indicates that for these personalities to develop, the trauma must occur relatively early, and that emotion and memory retrieval are bound to these dissociative states (thus protecting the child from a flood of painful memory and emotion). The most frequent “alter” personalities are frightened children, though the most common chief complaint is depression. See Frank Putnam, “The Switch Process in Multiple Personality Disorder and Other State-Change Disorders,” Dissociation 1, 1 (March 1988), and B. G. Braun and R. G. Sachs, “The Development of Multiple Personality Disorder: Predisposing, Precipitating and Perpetuating Factors,” in Childhood Antecedents of Multiple Personality Disorder, edited by R. P. Kluft (Washington D. C.: American Psychiatric Press, 1988).

                                        (22.) See American Psychiatric Association Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 3rd ed. (Washington D.C.: American Psychiatric Association, 1980).

                                        (23.) Yogasutra 2.3. It is debated among scholars whether the sense of individuality is more a problem of ignorance (as personality and individuality are not ultimate truth) or of pride (too much focus on the illusion of individuality).

                                        (24.) Mircea Eliade, Yoga: Immortality and Freedom (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1973), 42.

                                        (25.) Yogasutra 1.2.

                                        (26.) Yogasutra 1.12, Vyasa's commentary.

                                        (27.) See my Offering Flowers, Feeding Skulls: Popular Goddess Worship in West Bengal (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), for a discussion of the various forms of emotional worship of the goddess.

                                        (28.) Deben Bhattacharya, trans., Love Songs of Vidyapati (New York: Grove Press, 1969), 72.

                                        (29.) Edward C. Dimock, Jr., and Denise Levertov, trans., In Praise of Krishna: Songs from the Bengali (Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Books, 1967), 31.

                                        (30.) Ibid., 16. Krishna is called “dark moon” because of his dark skin.

                                        (31.) Bhattacharya, Love Songs of Vidyapat, 52.

                                        (32.) Dimock and Levertov, In Praise of Krishna, 23.

                                        (33.) Bhattacharya, Love Songs of Vidyapat, 45.

                                        (34.) Vidya Dehejia, Antal and Her Path of Love: Poems of a Woman Saint from South India (Delhi: Sri Satguru, 1990), 30.

                                        (35.) Ibid., 60.

                                        (36.) A. K. Ramanujan, trans., Speaking of Siva (Harmondsworth, England: Penguin Books, 1985), 138.

                                        (37.) Ibid., 116.

                                        (38.) Norman Cutler, Songs of Experience: The Poetics of Tamil Devotion (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), 163.

                                        (39.) Ramanujan, Speaking of Siva, 89.

                                        (40.) Cutler, Songs of Experience, 168–69.

                                        (41.) Razaul Karim Talukdar, Nazrul—The Gift of the Century (Dhaka: Manam, 1994), 46–47. Rephrased.

                                        (42.) Dasgupta, Sasibhusan. Bharater sakti-sadhana o sakta sahitya. Calcutta: Sahitya Samsad, 1393 BS (local dating, equivalent to our 1985), 88, from the Bengali. We should note that there is a pun here—the word shakti means girl or woman, but also power. To be without shakti is to be without power or ability to act.

                                        (43.) Ramprasad Sen, Ramprasadi sangit (Calcutta: Rajendra Library, n.d.), 46, from the Bengali.