Emotions in Indian literature
Sorrow as a source of spontaneity in the Ramayana and works of Kālidāsa
The Indian miniature painting above captures the very moment when the sage Valmiki sees a crane being slain by a hunter while the crane’s mate witnesses the scene. The Indian cranes are believed to mate for life, and the death of one would cause heartbreak for the survivor. Vālmīki’s reaction was one of grief and compassion, as well as revulsion towards the hunter himself. This exemplifies a perspective of humanity not set apart from nature but integrated into it at the level of emotion and feeling.
According to the testimony of the opening lines of the Ramayana, poetry itself started with this incident. Valmiki was so moved by what he witnessed that he spontaneously uttered a line of poetry that gave expression to his feelings -
“O hunter, may you not attain tranquility for eternal ages,
As, deluded by desire, you have slain one of this pair of cranes.”
This then was the first line of poetry (as opposed to Vedic chant) to emerge in the world.
In this pronouncement, the heart acts independently to make a judgement of the hunter’s behaviour, without recourse to the analytical decision-making processes of the mind. In this way, the emotions act as a powerful force of creativity and productivity, not only in literature but also in life. Whereas predictable and regular processes are susceptible to scientific and rational explanation, by contrast, the lived experience of human beings is in large part a series of encounters with unpredictable phenomena and a lived experience that is highly indeterminate. In such situations, rational analysis fails, and emotional expression is the only way of being responsive to events outside of our control. This is the situation that Vālmīki finds himself in on witnessing this tragic scene. Indeed, the tragedy of this opening vignette perhaps prefigures the sadness of the story of the Rāmāyana and the abduction of Sitā and her prolonged separation from Rāma.
Sorrowful situations in particular provoke us to inquire into the meaning and purpose of our lives. Indeed, in an era before modern science and technology, modern medicine and large-scale social organisation, many people had less control over the quality and length of their lives, and suffering and sorrow were a significant part of people’s lived experience. For this reason, perhaps, the contemplation of sorrow and suffering in has been a notable theme in art, in religion and in literature. However, in the Ramayana, we see that this initial sorrow of Vālmīki serves him as a source of creative inspiration, inspiring the first line of poetry to be uttered and supposedly also the first truly poetic work, the Ramayana. The creativity required to create a new work of art or literature, not to speak of innovating a wholly new form of expression, is not one that follows a pre-set methodology or plan or life-goal. Rather, it is a spontaneous and unpremeditated response to a new and unexpected life-experience. Indeed, conscious awareness itself is in a sense opposed to rational process as it is rather about receptivity to what is outside one’s prior experience.
The plot of the famous play by Kālidāsa, Abhijñānaśakuntalam, is similarly driven forward by the spontaneous arising of emotion due to the character of the lived experience of the main protagonists. Early in the play, Śakuntalā and Duśyanta happen to chance upon each other and each spontaneously falls in love with the other without calculation or artifice. Reflecting on the sudden outburst of romantic feeling towards Śakuntalā, Duśyanta spontaneously expresses himself in verse -
“Surely, she may become a warrior’s bride;
Else, why these longings in an honest mind?
The motions of a blameless heart decide
Of right and wrong, when reason leaves us blind.”
[Abhijñānaśakuntalam Act I, translation of Professor Arthur W. Ryder]
Here again we witness the capacity of the heart to make an autonomous and decisive judgement and to set in train a course of action independent of rational analysis and goal-setting.
In her confusion, however, Śakuntalā fails to properly welcome the famous sage Durvāsa when he arrives as an unexpected guest at the hermitage. This provokes a sudden flash of powerful anger in Durvāsa and he curses Śakuntalā as follows -
“Do you dare despise a guest like me?
Because your heart, by loving fancies blinded,
Has scorned a guest in pious life grown old,
Your lover shall forget you though reminded,
Or think of you as a story told.”
[Abhijñānaśakuntalam Act IV Scene I, translation of Professor Arthur W. Ryder]
The befuddling effect of love is also a theme in other works of Kālidāsa, such as in the poem Meghadūta. Here, the putative speaker of the poem, the Yakṣa, is so overwhelmed by emotion due to his separation from his beloved wife, that he starts to address a cloud as though it were an ordinary human being.
The range of things within our control increases as our knowledge and experience increase, yet some of the most emotionally powerful aspects of human experience seem destined to be forever outside our control. This predicament appears inherent to the human condition, as we wouldn’t be fully human if we lived in an entirely predictable world. Confronting the unknown and grappling with it through instinct, spontaneity, impulse and improvisation seems to be essential to the human condition. Artistic and literary expression would appear to be a medium well-suited to grappling with our lived experiences in this way.
The 10th century philosopher and polymath Abhinavagupta advocated that the expression of the emotional dimensions of our lived experience in literary form would lead us to that final repose which the hunter was doomed never to achieve, a state of perfect mental clarity and tranquillity in the face of the unknown.